A few days ago, I witnessed a verbal clash between two middle-aged men at a Metro railway station in Chennai. One said, “Behave like an educated person.” The other replied, “First, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Your words and behaviour reveal how uneducated you are.” Seeing this, an onlooker commented, “These guys look decent and speak good English, but behave like uneducated persons.”
This incident made me recall a recent news report. Commenting on the DMK government’s stance on the NEET and the NEP, the BJP national president, Dr. J.P. Nadda, said, “When uneducated leaders are at the helm of affairs and they talk about education, this is what happens”. Tamil Nadu’s Finance Minister P. Thiagarajan tweeted in response: “Four degrees in four different majors from three universities in two countries, after clearing multiple international standardised tests — still can’t clear JPN cut-off for ‘educated’…”
By decoding what the people in both incidents said, it is clear that each person’s concept of education is different. What really constitutes education? Who is well-educated? Is it someone who looks decent or speaks impeccable English, or someone who possesses highest degrees?
Educated Vs literate
The term ‘education’ has been defined by variously in different contexts. In a narrow sense, it is limited to formal instruction received in schools, colleges and universities. So, anyone who goes to educational institutions to get degrees or to acquire academic qualifications is considered an educated person. In that sense, those who do well academically and score high marks in various scholastic activities and competitive exams (like the JEE, NEET or Civil Services exams) are labelled ‘intelligent’ or ‘brilliant’ and considered educated. Not only in India but in other countries too, people with better academic qualifications are called well educated as implied in the title of the report: “Life expectancy gap between better and less educated in U.S. widens” (Health Affairs 2008:27;350-60). Here, the term “better-educated people” refers to people with higher educational qualifications.
In a broad sense, education is not limited to the instruction received in educational institutions. For example, a person who is highly qualified can be highly uneducated too whereas one who does not have any academic qualifications or credentials can be considered to be highly educated. Then, what make a person educated? When a person uses his/her knowledge, skills and talents to benefit the community or society, then, he/she is said to be educated.
As an informal experiment, I posed the question “What do you mean by education?” to some graduates working in different IT companies. Almost everyone equated college degrees (qualifications) with education. This is not surprising because the present education system does not allow students to think critically or go beyond career-oriented education. Misguidedly, but not erroneously, many people often equate literacy with education.
Literacy refers to the state of being able to read and write, whereas, education is the process of becoming enlightened. Literacy is static whereas education is dynamic. Education is a journey from being to becoming. True education enables us to become better human beings. It is not the mere acquisition of knowledge and skills, but about thinking creatively and critically and responding positively to the challenges in society.
Who is a truly educated person? One who can look at issues that affect society objectively and critically and respond to challenges courageously. Critically analysing unfair public policies, questioning unjust systems, speaking truth to power and demonstrating intellectual courage are characteristics of a truly educated person.
Educators, parents and students should think beyond career-oriented education and start fostering and practising humane and critical education. Humane education is based on core values such as kindness, justice, and human rights, and critical education is based on critical thinking and problem-solving. True educators are products of humane and critical education.
Public intellectual Noam Chomsky says, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.” Only true educators can do this. How many such true educators do we have in India?
Views expressed are personal
The writer is an education columnist and media critic. firstname.lastname@example.org