The absence of meaning and purpose from whatever one does makes it a burden.
Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) was heralded as a shift from evaluation based on rote learning to one indexed to personal growth. A blow was struck on behalf of the burdened child. But the child isn’t exactly smiling for all that. It is simplistic to think that all it takes to unburden the child is to trash an examination or eradicate the wasps that sting children with ‘marks’.
What are we to make of this burden that makes the children droop? Why does a child feel burdened? Does an athlete who, as P. T. Usha once said, ‘dies and comes back to life every day on the tracks,’ feel burdened? A concert pianist, practising seven hours a day, month after month, year after year? A prospective author, keen to improve his skill and style, churning out thousands of pages of material, year after year? Do you really think they feel ‘burdened’? Now, suppose you were to hire three people — one to keep knocking the keys of the piano mechanically, another to run some forty miles per day, and a third to doodle for 7 hours every day, day after day: and all of them on very attractive salaries. You will assuredly create some very burdened souls.
We think of burden only as a presence. The school kind is burdened, because she is saddled with a jumbo bag weighing some 5 kg of study material. But is that the only, indeed the most significant, burden the child labours under? Absence, not less than presence, is a burden. If ever you had to push a two-wheeler with a flat tire to the nearest garage, you would readily agree. The absence of meaning and purpose from whatever one does makes it a burden. The hardest thing for Dostoevsky about the ‘hard labour’ he had to do in his Siberian exile was not the quantity of the work, but its utter meaninglessness. He and his fellow prisoners were made to fill huge barrels with sand and empty them. They filled and emptied the barrels from morning till night, each day. Its ponderous futility broke their spirit. The burden that most people carry, the foremost cause of depression and mental ill-health in the world, says Viktor Frankl, the survivor from Hitler’s concentration camp, is meaninglessness. Every meaningless activity becomes mechanical; and nothing mechanical contributes to human growth. Stagnation is the god-particle of academic burdened-ness.
The school-going child is burdened because she does not understand what her efforts and struggles add up to. Because she does not experience the connect between the classroom and her personal growth. Despite CCE, education is still what we do to the children, devoid, for the most part, of the delight of discovery. To those who do not grow to their full potential, everything, life itself, is a burden forever.
What is the scope and purpose of education? Our ancestors used to have some clarity on this issue. A child is born to his biological parents, who take care of his growth till he attains a certain age, when he is entrusted to a teacher (guru), who accepts him in trust. The guru facilitates his total growth, as a result of which he is born a second time as one empowered to engage his context responsibly and to use his skills and knowledge to meet the needs of his fellow human beings. Being ‘twice born’ was neither casteist nor cultic. It denoted character, commitment and competence. The purpose of education was to midwife this new being by awakening and empowering the higher self in every human being. Whatever it took to reach this stage never was a burden. Processes and practices unmindful of this goal were a burden. They will always be.
The truth is that for the student to be ‘twice-born’ through true education, the teacher needs to be a guru and not merely a servant of the syllabus. Not uncharacteristically, the paradigm-shift envisaged under CCE was pushed without re-orienting teachers. Farmers are wiser than policy pundits. They prepare the soil before sowing the seeds. They are interested in the produce, whereas we refuse to look beyond the process. Innovations, then, become ends in themselves. The net result is that while the school kid is not exactly smiling, the teachers, by and large, are looking more and more burdened!
The mark of the ‘twice-born’ is neither pride nor greed. Human growth is growth in responsibility. Responsibility is response-ability. Education must empower us to respond to the needs in the given context, lest its beneficiaries become parasites or paralytics. A parasite has no responsibility. A parasite has, also, no dignity. An educational paradigm that fails to empower young people to be responsible persons and by default lets them be parasites — smart, successful and sophisticated, but parasites, nonetheless — is a mendacious project. It burdens pupils and undermines societies.
Knowledge without character, said Gandhiji, is an evil. It is a snare to individuals and societies alike. Growth is the bridge between knowledge and character. Having to cross the chasm on a bridge that exists only on paper is burdensome indeed.
The writer is principal, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and Member, of the National Integration Council.