Introduction: What is Education?
We are born with the instinct to survive. Birth, consuming food, reproduction, sleep and death are the cycles which we all live through just as all other creatures do. All the knowledge that we require to survive is available as part of our DNA which we call as instincts. This is primeval knowledge without which we would cease to be sentient beings capable of sensory knowledge. As long as this instinctive knowledge is dominant, there is a lower tendency to dwell on thoughts and emotions for long. The more conscious a being is of one’s understanding, thoughts and emotions, the more is the tendency to dwell on them. There is a delicate balance which can be attained when one realises the nature and direction of instinctive knowledge and, along with this, uses the knowledge gained through the senses to move it towards evolutionary purposes rather than otherwise.
As far as we know, it is only man that has an insatiable quest for knowledge that outdoes his need for survival. The ability to interpolate experiences into patterns and convert them into something meaningful creates the excitement of new awareness which we call as knowledge. The recognition of the existence of a pattern or a ‘clue’ is what we call as knowledge. These patterns are not necessarily objective in totality and cannot be equated to models or paradigms. These patterns include objective, subjective and experiential knowledge that are obtained through study, life as well as interpolation of one’s study and life experiences.
Through times in Bhārata and in many ancient societies extant and extinct, several patterns were recognised by man – social, ecological, economic and so on which make life seem sensible to the pattern-seeking human mind. These patterns seem quite instinctive to those who have been introduced to them, and more so if done at birth or at an early age, but these patterns were defined, clarified and redefined through many iterations through the ages to make them what they are today. Thus, we have the system of marriages, families, societies, communities and nations which are tied together by the commonly perceived – and taught – pattern of kinship. Similarly, we have a bond with the various life-sources such as the earth, water, air and fire and the resources that are provided by these in the form of food and enjoyment. These bonds were also perceived and recognised through actual experience and taught down the millennia from parents to children to grandchildren. In the case of economy too, there was the perception of exchange and sharing, the valuation of goods and services.
The thread stitching these patterns together was harmony – the more harmonious the thread, the greater the stability in the pattern. This stability arose from the pattern being in harmony with creation itself. Thus, a harmonious thread that helped in safeguarding the society from disintegrating and thereby safeguarding the future generations from becoming bereft of meaningful patterns was required. The institution of marriage is the thread that fulfils these needs. Similarly, the institution of recognising and worship of nature and of beings, sentient and otherwise, was created. In order to fulfil the economic need, professional communities were identified, and value of their professions were recognised by making it a necessary part of the names of the individuals.
The education that is impart to students must essentially be a study of these patterns and ways to enhance them. Therefore, the education system must be closely integrated with the various patterns that it studies. A student must be able to see the pattern and the self as an integral part of the pattern.
New knowledge is the ability to identify patterns based on pre-existing knowledge. Education must seek to provide avenues to have experiences that help to create new patterns as well as the training to be able to see the patterns thus created.
This is the core of the ultimate objective of the education system. From here, all ways to practically bring them forth can be worked on.
Ways to Identify Patterns
Sustainable patterns are a pre-requisite for stable individuals and, thereby, a stable society. The way to create sustainable patterns is to ensure harmony between creation and the patterns that we create. These patterns must be based on the realities of nature, the psychological needs of individuals and the society and the economic and security needs of the society. Over the past centuries, in the tide of our ambitions, we have taken a detour and journeyed far away from creating such patterns. Now, we shall examine a few primary patterns regarding education in the present-day scenario.
At the individual level, we have patterns of behaviour which is based on psychology. To design an education system, this knowledge is of primary importance and would mean the understanding of the natural state of a child and its development. However, what we are largely witnessing today is an uncomfortable scenario that seems to be divorced from this foundational requirement. We know that knowledge gaining is always a happy experience throughout the life of man. Even more happy is the child whose knowledge gathering tends to be rapid and voluminous in its formative stages. Considering this, it is rather strange that children should feel unhappy to go to schools that are meant to be fountainheads of knowledge. In recognising this, we realise that the thread of harmony in the education system is absent which we must now work to make available for students.
Individuals together form societies which are held by bonds of personal relationships as well as by economic activity. We ought to understand the working of kinship by way of individual as well as social psychology, and how economic activities take place.
Kinship is essential since human beings are majorly incapable of living as isolated beings. Kinship fulfils physical, psychological, economic as well as social needs of individuals. Hence, to recognise and to reinforce kinship as family, friends and as other community members is important and essential. The education system ought to help enhance this kinship. We ought to recognise that the enjoyable component of our school life is primarily the time spent with friends and the fun we had, some of which are not entertained in the classroom. Schools are rarely seen as institutions that intend to deliver kinship skills to students. Whatever the students gain are due to the physical proximity with their peers and by their own judgement. In recognising this, we realise that there is a lack of thread of harmony that runs between the education imparted and the building of kinship qualities in the students.
The economic system is meant to fulfil the survival needs of the society including food, shelter and living essentials and security in a more organised manner. There is also the innate need in human beings for activities of aesthetics, collectively called as kalās, which provide for pleasure and entertainment, which fall over a wide spectrum of the material–spiritual range. These activities also must be necessarily included within the economic system. The education must cater to moulding an individual to be a contributing member in the society. For this, the individual may avail of sources such as one’s own family, the community as well as teachers to be able to have well-rounded enhancement of abilities. Some individuals may have the privilege of being able to avail of all of them while it might not be so for others. In any case, each student has the need to have a guide to a suitable profession at which he can utilise his abilities to the maximum. Rarely, if at all, is this need met by schools. Students meander in uncertainty, studying several things that they would rather not, while not being allowed to study some things that they rather would, until they reach their late teens. Now, they are made to decide on figuring ways to take forward their lives in the hope of a good income in the future. As students, and later as professionals – sometimes even after decades of work – there is often a feeling of something amiss. The thread of harmony that ties the individual’s psychology to a suitable profession that could be a lucrative economic activity is missing in our education system. In recognising this, we ought to rethink on whether the institutionalised form of education which we all are products of, and which continues to be the predominant model, is the ideal one for students.
The omnipresent creation must be the necessary substratum upon which these patterns are to be constructed in order to come up with a harmonious education system. However, the current education system has produced generations of individuals who have not merely disrespected creation, but have caused untold suffering, damage and destruction to nature and life. There is a vital thread of harmony missing between our education system and creation, of which we are an integral part. In recognising this, we have to rethink our definition of man’s position and role in creation while we remodel our education system.
How Bhārata had Patterned the Education System in the Past
Much of what I am about to write remain sadly unknown to most Bhāratiyas. These facts are extracted from a wonderful book titled The Beautiful Tree1 written by Gandhian Sri Dharampal which was published in 1983. M. K. Gandhi, while addressing the House of Commons, London in 1931 had expressed deep disappointment and concern that the literacy of Bhāratiyas had fallen drastically over the 50-100 years prior to it. He reiterated this several years later. As expected, the British power-wielders were vehement in their defence. It was Gandhi’s statement that the British had “scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished” that gave Dharampal the spark to work on this as a project and, subsequently, the name for this book. It is a book containing facts that have been gleaned meticulously from files and manuscripts of over a hundred years starting from the early 19th century when attempts were first made to understand the education patterns followed in our country. Until then, the colonisers had not bothered to understand the cultural and literary aspects of Bhārata. The survey data, notes, letters, files and records compiled by British officers all over the country showed a consistent pattern:
There was at least one school in each village, the bigger villages having more than one. Practically all boys underwent education at these schools. There was apparently no caste discrimination at school which is reflected from the fact that those categorised under ‘lower castes’ were often seen in higher numbers than the others. School was mostly the village teacher’s house. The teacher was supported by the community. Some schools had a small number of girls while the other girls underwent schooling at home.
Education started by the age of 5-8 and lasted for 2-15 years depending on the location of the school – with smaller villages having lesser schooling years on average – and the nature of the students undergoing the education. Writing the alphabet, arithmetic, study of the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and the various Purāṇas depending on the communities that they belonged to were followed by every school across the country.
After completion of these (which was not rigidly fixed on age but was more ability-oriented), the student proceeded to study the subject of his choice at one of the institutes of higher learning run by a guru. Often, the student did not have money to pay for his food while staying with the guru and subsisted off alms collected every day from the households in the guru’s neighbourhood. Medicine, Metaphysics, Theology, Law, Astronomy, Architecture, Vedas, Mathematics, Physical Sciences and many other subjects were learnt in this manner. Except for the Vedas, Theology and Metaphysics which were taught exclusively to Brahmins, all the other subjects were open to students of all communities. Some subjects like Medicine and Astronomy had very few Brahmin students. A few students went to study at the universities which were run by the patronage of the kings.
Arts, crafts as well as technical and specialised vocational training took place predominantly at the homes of the students belonging to specific jātīs (wrongly called ‘castes’ by the British). This training often started early in life and was parallel to the learning at school for a few years. Jātī professions, especially technical secrets, were fiercely protected and failure by a member to do so invoked severe punishments. Thus, the exclusivity of the Brahmins to the Vedas can be equated to the exclusivity claimed by the other jātīs to these professions. Hence, most highly specialised and scientific techniques which existed in Bhārata were never learnt by the British. A fairly long list of specialised jātīs is available in Dharampal’s book.
Here are the patterns that we see in the education system that was prevalent in Bhārata before the Macaulayan system was introduced:
The age flexibility that was provided did not lead to the matching of age with level of learning; rather, the level was matched with the individual’s current abilities. This gave a lot of freedom to learn at one’s own pace and to the extent of one’s abilities.
The common classroom was designed for learning skills that were common to all students: basic reading, writing and communication skills, math and social transaction skills, study of the Itihāsas, Purāṇas and practical philosophy through sources such as Jāṭaka tales and Pancatantra. These helped helped in understanding the philosophy of life: one’s relationship and place within creation, society and kinship; the perception of life experiences, expecting the unexpected in life and ways to manage such situations.
The younger students were at liberty to go to school and without fear of disclosing their jātī identity or being ostracised for it. On the contrary, disclosing one’s jātī gave the pride of social identity and value to the individual.
The learning at home and from professional teachers took place as per the needs and aptitude of the individual. Career definition was largely unambiguous and so was the individual’s role in the society.
Religion was defined by the communities each of which had its own deities, temples, rites and rituals, priests, traditions and festivals but the philosophies of all of them never contradicting the philosophies learnt at the common schools. This ensured that there was abundant recognition of man’s position in the created universe which was held always in awe and respect.
Flipped-Classrooms of the 19th Century
A constructive and well-participated discussion on the education system is vital as it impactfully touches every individual’s life. The impact might be directed towards a more evolved individual – and, thereby, society – or otherwise. Creating an individual who is more oriented towards the society and its well-being and at the same time allowed to explore and grow his core competency is ideal for a harmonious, integrated individual and his society. A child, in its course of development until the early teens, has the innate need for social acceptance and this is the ideal stage to learn skills to develop and strengthen kinship, social behaviour, understanding and respect of others – and possibly of the self – the philosophy of life and its various facets, staying in tune with and respecting nature, witnessing the magnificence of creation with awe and amazement and so on. These, learnt in an atmosphere of peers, help to reinforce social bonding and to hold these as the most essential requisites for an individual to live and function in a society and within nature. The education system that existed in Bhārata prior to the introduction of the Macaulayan method, catered to these needs in the right sequence. The objective was to facilitate for the individual to be strengthened, to feel this strength through strengthening of kinship and for the individual to live a wholesome and meaningfully contributing life.
Thus, the trunk of the tree was the society bonded by kinship which, fed and strengthened by the roots of the philosophy of life, branched out into different communities employed in different professions, each of which yielded leaves, flowers and fruits that were the individuals contributing in their different ways to the beauty and benefit of the tree.
The Macaulayan pattern of education with its inherent objective of churning out individuals to be low-paid cogs in the economic machinery of England, that was being taken over at a frenzied pace by factory production, literally turned this topsy-turvy.
These days, we come across Flipped Classroom as a method of learning in schools. By this, schools explore ways to facilitate independent learning of concepts by students through audio-visual media supported by the internet while the classroom work focuses on what was hitherto homework such as projects and activities that would help to reinforce these concepts. It struck as very strange to realise that the classroom was flipped nearly two hundred years ago in a manner that was much bigger and tremendously significant. Prior to that, the classroom served as the place to equip the individual and the society with strengthening philosophy and life-teachings while gurus at home and at academies took care of professional advancements of the individual.
These schools were de-recognised systematically by the British who sought to establish their own schools for which fees had to be borne by the students. By throwing away teachings of philosophy, by breaking down professional communities by demonising jātīs and by creating classrooms that aimed to create moulded students who studied the same material-oriented subjects, Macaulay had flipped the entire education system in one sweep. Now, all of a sudden, homes had to take the ownership of teaching and inculcating kinship values and philosophies in the children. A significant percentage of homes that have been able to provide this knowledge in the background have managed to survive the civilizational onslaught and our cultural loss has not been as rapid as it had been in other parts of the world that had nurtured traditional cultures before the advent of colonial rule. Through the stripping of the education of any form of shared philosophy – which is basic for living in any society – and by the introduction of a competitive scoring-based system, which had no relevance whatsoever with real life, Macaulay drove a deep wedge between real life and student life. This contrived, flipped model is, very unfortunately, toted around by people with vested interests as being the education system that alleviated mankind of misery! The fact remains that within a century and half of its introduction, at the time of independence from British rule, the literacy rate had fallen in the country to an abysmal level. On the contrary, England’s economy was booming which was another flip that the introduction of this system ensured. Gandhi had, along with other Bharatiyas, observed this fall in its course and, as their representative, had strongly condemned the system only to be vehemently denied by the British.
Is it any wonder that today, many philosophers talk of ‘unlearning’ as the way to grow as individuals!
Work Waiting to be Done
The earlier sections spoke of the realities of history and the present and now we shall discuss the things that need to be done to re-align education to create a more meaningful, stable and sustainable pattern. Of course, to romanticise about a nostalgic past and wish for us to retrace our steps towards it would be ill-advised due to its impracticality. Post-independence from British rule, as a nation, we have invested much into education by way of infrastructure, teacher training, content creation and all the allied activities of education. These still follow the Macaulayan pattern – albeit edited out several times from time to time in the intent of making it better – which we are seeking to transform. We must consider the money, effort and resources that have been invested; they must be respected and utilised to their fullest. At the same time, we ought to introduce alternates that we know would help to create more harmonious individuals and strong stable societies with thriving economies.
For this, we shall identify the areas of disharmony and then explore to find out and suggest alternates.
Regimented tying of age with abilities makes children appear like insentient machines. This causes stress not merely to the students but also to the teachers and the parents as they are forced to place their expectations on these lines. The system must facilitate matching of individual abilities with the level at which they are learning, rather than focus on age. This difficulty is hardly present in very small schools with one or two teachers. In bigger schools, it is quite practical to introduce this pattern.
Lack of learning of life-philosophies at school make for poor development of individuals and weakens society. Man is a social animal, it is known, and yet, we are scarcely being trained for becoming successful social beings. Societies survive primarily by kinship and social bonds. Breaking away from these give rise to more disconnected individuals who, weakened further without the fundamental knowledge required to comprehend life, meander as lost souls through a greater part of their lives. We can see this in the way individuals over-romanticise the concept of marriage, sometimes undervaluing it tremendously to the extent of equating it to a mere exercise for sexual gratification, increase in divorces and neglected children. We can also see this in individuals equating their life-ideal to money-churning with no further thinking to what the purpose of the money was. We are also witnessing a rise in lack of care for the elderly, disregard for nature and so on. This grounding must be provided at the earliest possible stages of development. This goes in tune with child development as intensive social exploration and understanding take place before adulthood is attained. Children are not designed to sit down silently for long hours in rows to entertain the teachers. However, they are more than willing to sit down for long when the teacher is willing to entertain them to wonderful and deeply meaningful stories.
There is a strong likelihood of there being objection from those who seek to have the so-called ‘secular’ education bereft of religion. It doesn’t work to tell these people that Rāmāyaṇa and Mahabhārata are not religious texts and that these – or any other texts of Bhārata – have never been used to convert even a single soul. There is a crucial need for debate and awakening in this arena.
We have heavily centralised Economic Models that revolve around GDP or tangible monetary outcomes. This is a primary dictating factor for why our education system is designed the way it is. The British imposed an education system to provide workforce to support their industrialisation. The objective was to run the industries and not for the sake of the individuals or the society. This was the reason why jātīs were demonised and the pride associated with belonging to a jātī was destroyed by calling one higher and the another lower and by politically creating a discriminatory scenario to reinforce this new method of social destruction. Social disparity tends to grow more rapidly and shows itself more starkly unless there is constant government intervention when such an economic model is functioning. This is not mean to downplay the benefits accrued to the society through material gains but rather to indicate that that was the only gain which was obtained at the cost of everything else.
Economy must be beyond mere GDP and must have a way to include all forms of creativity and aesthetics that are generated by the people of our nation. I am sure that, with the participation of economists, artists and creative individuals, educators as well as policy makers, there can be a system which captures all kinds of contributions that include those that can be monetised. This will be an impetus for the growth of aesthetic traditions which are languishing very much due to lack of recognition and patronage in today’s world. These are vital to make the world feel real, less machine-like and help people to be able to connect with the rest of creation with a lot more depth. Most of what Artificial Intelligence (AI) threatens to take over are activities related to the left-brain while most of the creative activities are dominated by the right-brain. This makes it even more imperative for us to reconsider and redefine the value of these activities.
The role of the Government as the facilitator of education, the regulatory body as well as the certifying agent must be re-evaluated. In a country as vast as ours, with numerous education boards and multiple requirements necessary across regions, the Central Education Board must restrict its role to issuing directives on what needs to be taught at the Primary level and as a regulatory authority of training professionals.
Primary education (to empower the child with good survival and social abilities) with a duration of about 7 to 9 years of schooling can be the responsibility of the Government(s). The rest of education can be decentralised with the resultant system having minimal government role except as a regulatory authority. Students with the inclination to a specific field must be allowed to gain expertise through apprenticeship with professionals right from the time that they graduate from primary school. These professionals can be authorised by a regulatory body. These can be for any of the arts, sports, knowledge of nature, agriculture, technical vocations and for any other similar need. Immersive learning is a must for all these rather than classroom and laboratory style learning. Those wanting to pursue highly academic and theory centred learning or highly specialised fields or wanting to conduct innovative research can seek admission and learn from experts at academia and at professional institutions.
This article is a culmination of several years of desire to bring about a meaningful change to the education system. In the initial stages, I was concerned about reducing student pressure, then it was about curriculum that was being taught and then it was about teaching pedagogy and further it went on to the education ladder which we have set up in our country. I knew that the suggestions made for each of these had more questions popping up rather than bring about a solution that was comprehensive.
The book, The Beautiful Tree, which I came across three years ago was an eye-opener and through knowing our past systems, it dawned that it was perhaps the most comprehensive model, not merely for education but also as a binding agent of society and a stabilising agent for the economy during times of peace and natural blessing. This model had generated a culture which helped the civilisation withstand the sustained physical and cultural onslaughts it had to suffer over many centuries.
The Macaulayan model was imposed upon us per force by destroying the pre-existing education system. A similar approach to turn our education pattern would cause not just monetary losses but also would make it hard on the society to come to terms with such an abrupt change. Therefore, I have made suggestions which are vital to move towards the more meaningful education that we all desire to have. I genuinely hope that these suggestions are taken up for discussion and debate, find-tuned, accepted by the society and implemented by policy makers.
1Dharampal (1983), The Beautiful Tree, Biblia Impex
More posts by this author:
- Education Revamp in Bharata: 1. INTRODUCTION
- A Shortcut to Meaningful Education – Introduction
- A Shortcut to Meaningful Education: Discussion – 1
- Education Revamp in Bharata: 2. EVOLUTION OF BHARATĪYA EDUCATION
- HINDUISM THROUGH HISTORY – III