One of the biggest challenges of modern life seems to be just finding the time to think.
We live in an instant age, not only of noodles but also of all types of gratification. If instant food has made it possible to dish up a fare in a matter of minutes, there are gadgets that create music and films in a jiffy. Skills, culinary skills or music making, are the first casualty of such instant gratification, since one does not have the time to pick up, develop and nurture them. Here, the fundamental skill of thinking is also drastically challenged.
We do so much in so less time that even leisure makes us tired. Yet, a common refrain today is that there is ‘No time to…’. There is no time to think, no time to act, no time to relax, no time to watch the sky. The age seems to be built on the constant anxiety of ‘No Time’, which affects our lives in different ways.
What then does education mean in this instant age? First of all, there is a fundamental tension between the dynamics of the present time and the ideal of education. Many educationists believe that the primary task of education is to cultivate the skill and art of thinking. Thinking needs time and a larger explorative space, where you can let your thoughts go where they will. Although degrees (at least in India) can be acquired instantly, learning and thinking are not that temporally efficient! While education needs a surplus of time we equate education with content, and cram as much content as possible into the time available. Here, education turns utilitarian, as those subjects that are not of ‘instant use’ are discarded. Literature is being replaced with spoken English, poetry with the ‘art’ of writing emails to prospective employers, and philosophy has become just another word in the dictionary. These humanistic subjects in this age are lost souls, especially with technology exacerbating the need for gratification in the instant.
A research study on Canadian academics pointed out how the majority of the faculty in these universities found that despite so much access in today's world, they — paradoxically — felt more and more isolated. With the world at their fingertip, they have become more ‘alone’. A significant number of them pointed out that they have developed short-term memory loss due to this constant networking, emailing, communicating and producing.
While educationists have prioritised certain modes of thinking as essential markers of education, there is another domain where thinking is the prime subject matter — philosophy. Philosophers often describe philosophy as ‘thinking about thinking’. As the act of thinking is a shared concern of education and philosophy, we must urgently consider introducing philosophy in our schools.
Learning, reading and thinking need time, both quantitatively and qualitatively. So, one of the most important challenges to education, as well as to our daily life today, is to find the time required for thinking. And for that to happen, we need to understand what the nature of time is and how our ideas about time can actually help us find or lose time.
For a long time, Philosophy has engaged deeply with the nature of time and philosophers over the years have understood it in many different ways. These range from the claim that time is real, to the argument that it is entirely illusory. Ideas of time are often presupposed in basic features of the world such as change and motion. To make sense of these phenomena, philosophers have variously described time as a container, as a river with a constant flow, a sutradhar of the universe, as being made up of the past, present and future, and so on.
One deeply influential view of time started spreading from the invention of mathematical (measurable) time and clocks. Modern industrial society is based on the capacity to control time; clock changes the world and the human self. In modern times, time becomes money, leading to the belief that time, like money, can be spent, wasted or even saved. Wasting time is seen as a sin and that gives time a moral value. Many of these views stem from the notion of mathematical time, which is about the measurement and quantity of time. It is this mathematical or clock time, which seems to be in short supply now.
Mathematical time is just one of the ways of describing and experiencing time. We have a more primordial sense of time wherein we do not reduce time to instants but experience it as duration. The experience of time is that of unification, of a synthesis, as in listening to music. Meditative experiences offer other ways of experiencing time.
Therefore, responding to the refrain of our age — ‘No Time to Think’ — we need to reorient ourselves to the different possible meanings and experiences of time. The primary questions for education should be: What model of time is necessary for thinking in this instant age? What kind of time characterises learning? Answers to these questions can only come from a deeper engagement with philosophy. The urgent need today is to think of creative ways of bringing the philosophical spirit back into social practices.
(The New Delhi-based LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives organised the PRISM Lecture Series 2013 on ‘Development and Contemporary India’ over the last few months in which 15 seminal thinkers participated. This is the second of a cross-selection of talks we will feature here. For more information, please visit www.lilafoundation.in)
Sundar Sarukkai teaches philosophy at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University. His two latest books are What is Science? (National Book Trust) and The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory (Oxford University Press, co-authored with Gopal Guru).