Why back to the basics in education, when we are preparing to blast off to the moon? Well, here is why. I remember this small-time builder whom I met in Kerala nearly two decades ago. His customers were mostly the NRIs. “It is curious,” he told me, “how little people care, and how infrequently they come, when the foundations of their houses are being laid. They pester me only in the finishing stages.”
The foundation does not matter. Only the super-edifice does! That is so, till cracks begin to appear on the walls! The words of the builder still haunt me. They alert me to the extent to which we neglect all that pertain to the foundation of education in our country. In the two decades since then, the problem has only got worse.
Remember, Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher who believed that virtues are to be practised rather than preached? We are told that he wandered, a lantern in hand, on the streets of Athens in search of an honest man. Reportedly, he found none. Sadly, we have neither Diogenes’ lantern nor his sense or sensibility. In the contemporary pursuit of ‘enlightenment’ through education Diogenes’ lantern looks quaintly obsolescent. We chase, instead, a market-driven paradigm of empowerment (read, employability) through education. If Diogenes were to undertake his anguished search on our streets he would, in all likelihood, perish in a road rage.
Now, consider this. In a moment of inspiration we decided to re-christen the Ministry of Education as the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Education is, arguably, the foremost means for ‘human resource development’. But an approach to ‘human resource development’ to the near-total neglect of the ‘human’ in human resource development is an exercise in dishonesty. Sure, skills and resources are developing. But the human person is shrinking. This imbalance has, at the present time, reached epidemic proportions. The articles that comprise this series will address, mostly, the causes and cure of this disabling disaster.
A nation is built in her classrooms, goes the adage. And we are into nation-building.
Or, are we? We do say, if only by force of habit, that character-building is basic to education. “Education,” said Swami Vivekananda, “is man-making.” Ask his ardent devotees active in the sanctuary of education if, and to what extent, they honour this core insight?
For an answer it suffices to reckon just two issues that stare us in the face. First, how many beneficiaries of higher education do you see leading happy, dignified lives? Why are we burdened by a nagging sense of inner emptiness? Why do we fail to express the best in us through our actions and relationships? Why is there this imprecatory slip between the intent and the effect? Why do we fail to celebrate life: the Mother of all festivals? Why do we live in resentment, regrets and remorse? Why does happiness, the very oxygen of life, seem an ever-receding mirage?
Second, why can’t the educated be responsible, if not enlightened, law-abiding citizens? To glimpse the enormity of this issue, all we have to do is to look at the scale and spread of corruption in our country and elsewhere. It does not take extraordinary discernment to see that the scale of corruption correlates, in some way, to the level of education. Here is the rationale for it. Work is the foremost, indeed the only, medium of corruption. The key to work, except in the unorganized sector, is education. The scale of corruption increases exponentially to the cadre of employment. It takes people of very high educational qualifications — if not education — to bleed a nation to death through mega corruption. “Nation-building” degenerates into “nation-bleeding” through our sins of omission and commission in education. It needs to be realised that personal dignity is the foundation for nation-building. Corruption is cancer, primarily, to personal dignity and, only collaterally, to national vitality.
These familiar symptoms point to a core issue in education. The current practice of education fights shy of the essential goal of education, which is to lead all who resort to it into their full potential as human beings. Surely, there is, or must be, a difference between educating human beings and training animals.
It is self-defeating, even dangerous, to delink education from an adequate idea of being human. We need clothes, but surely it is an insult to assert, as an advertisement does, “You are what you wear.” We must eat; but we are more than stomachs. Our needs exceed loaves of bread and fleets of BMWs. We are natural creatures with a supernatural destiny. Even as we shuffle our feet in the sand of time, our sentience is illumined, albeit sporadically, by the intimations of eternity. Why else would we pray, mrityu ma amritam gamaya? That being the case, what does it mean to educate the members of such a glorious species? Or, how do we pursue the goals of education in the practice of it? How do we build a sane, humane society through the education we practise?
These are questions that clamour for answers and they shall brook no further delay.
The author is the principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and Member, of the National Integration Council.