The value of higher education

I am just back from a trip to IIT Kharagpur, the institute where I got my engineering degree 34 years ago. With its 2100 acre tree-filled campus, 40+ departments, 15000 students and 800 faculty members, IIT Kharagpur is the largest IIT in India. Like everyone who passes through residential colleges, the time I spent on campus getting my degree was one of the best times of my life. I gathered many unforgettable memories and some close friends. Given this background, I would like to talk about why I felt a little unsettled by my trip.

The institute’s 72nd foundation day celebations were going on and there were many special guests and alumni on campus. We were all taken care of really well and the institute’s hospitality was regal. I felt deeply grateful for this and for the chance to walk around in the beautiful campus. The unsettling feeling came on when I saw the flood of boys and girls cycling to and from their classes, and I suddenly felt that most of them were just barely tolerating being there, were looking at the institute as an uncomfortable but necessary interlude on their way to the larger world outside. A professor told me that the situation was unique because of the Covid lockdown, even the fourth year students were like freshers, and whatever campus culture existed before Covid was probably irrecoverably lost.

I also sat through the foundation day function and heard the dignitaries talk about the great work done at IIT Kharagpur and about its aspiration to be among the top 10 colleges of the world. I found all this a little difficult to process. Consider the following:

a. The path to become a top institute. (spending lots of money, diversification, famous alumni etc.)
b. Students wanting a high paying job to live the ‘good’ life.
c. The main institute building in a large lighted sign saying ‘Dedicated to the service of the nation’. And the institute website saying the ‘Vision’ is ‘To improve the life of every citizen of the country’.

I felt that it is time to ask some basic questions about the value that the IITs bring to the people of our nation and the investment that these people have to make to get that value. Like I said, I felt a little unsettled by my trip.

School reforms: The way forward

In these series of posts (part 1 and part 2 here), we have talked about problems with the modern schooling system and have tried to look at the paradigm of modernity inside which the system functions. In this final post in the series, we will try to talk about a tentative way forward with school education.

First we need to talk a little bit more about modernity. If we look at nations, what we understand by the word ‘development’ is material progress. In this talk of development there is no talk of human well-being. For example, Finland, a developed nation with the world’s best education system also has 50% of its families having no children and 12% of its families being a single parent household. In other words, a major breakdown of its family structure. This seems to be where the materialistic paradigm takes us when applied efficiently. People need food, clothing, shelter but beyond a certain minimum, materialistic possessions do not seem to increase or ensure well-being. Living within the materialistic paradigm, this does not seem to be obvious to most people. In modernity, at the level of individual, family or society, well-being is falsely equated with material possessions and success/ failure are decided on measurable materialistic parameters.

The paradigm of modernity is western in origin and in India we seem to have only half-heartedly adopted it (65% of our children fail the education system). Our traditional paradigm can be called the paradigm of the sanaatan, the eternal paradigm based on the way the universe IS. If we use the word Truth to mean something that is unchanging across time and space, we can also call the sanaatan the paradigm of Truth. Well-being (happiness, health, harmony etc.) is at the very heart of this paradigm.

Whatever we try at an individual level, at the societal level it is not possible to shift paradigms in any planned manner. Paradigm changes happen slowly and over several human lifetimes. So, what can we do about the education system beyond the literacy and numeracy that all schools seem to manage without too much trouble? Since this is a short post, let me list out the kinds of things that can be involved in a new kind of education. These could be:
– Understanding the paradigm of modernity and the paradigm of the sanaatan.
– Teaching based on the sanaatan or on the way things ARE.
– Understanding how perception works and the transitory nature of what contaminates it.
– Using the dhyaaanakarshan vidhi to draw the attention of the students towards the Truth so that it can be revealed to them.
– Focusing on developing the student’s power of discrimination (Viveka) through logic.
– Focusing on effective communication.
– Understanding basic distinctions like
—– Truth and opinion/ idea/ fact/ ideology etc.
—– Meaning and word
—– Being and doing
—– Quality and quantity etc.

The list above is only indicative. It needs to be expanded and fine-tuned in the environment of a school willing to experiment with this philosophy. If you are interested, you can get in touch with me at arun@sidhsri.org to take the conversation forward. Namaste!

School reforms: Systems and Paradigm

In last week’s blog post (linked here), we looked at some problems with the current education system and why it seems so difficult to effect any school reform. This week let us zoom out a little and look at the broader perspective, at the paradigm inside which the modern education system is situated. We can start by defining the term ‘paradigm’ in the way we are using it here.

Gandhiji in ‘Hind Swaraj’ (download from here) deconstructs five systems of modernity. These are the governance, technological, judicial, medical and education systems. (If you haven’t read this short document, you should. You may not agree with everything it says, but if you read it with an open mind, you will be forced to question many of your assumptions about how the modern world works) Gandhiji tries to show how the systems that he discusses in the book are all working to enslave and control us and, contrary to what is claimed, all these systems reduce human well-being.

In the paragraph above, ‘modernity’ is what we are calling a ‘paradigm’. ‘Modernity’ is not being used as a term for what is ‘modern’ or ‘new’ as opposed to ‘ancient’. The paradigm of ‘Modernity’ is something like a social operating system. Just like all the programs running on a computer have to work within the limits and rules set by the computer’s operating system, the systems running in society are limited by the values that are inherent in the paradigm. It is possible to have multiple paradigms running across the world simultaneously but today there is only one dominant paradigm—of ‘Modernity’—that is behind all the systems that we are part of. We can also understand it as primarily a materialistic paradigm. Important examples of the values inherent in the paradigm of modernity are:

Freedom – Living according to individual wishes and desires.

Rights – The right of everyone to have individual freedom.

Equality – Every individual has the right to freedom. This is equality in the external, tangible, gati domain and not equality in the sthiti domain.

It is easy to see that the values listed above are not rooted in reality. For example, ‘all human beings have the capacity to swim (barring those who are physically disabled)’ is a statement of reality. ‘All human beings have the capacity to fly’ is a figment of the imagination. Freedom, rights and equality as defined under the paradigm of modernity fall under the second category. An example – If my desire is to play with and feed street dogs and my neighbour’s desire is to banish their nuisance from the neighbourhood, both desires cannot be met simultaneously. Freedom to do what I want at all times is an imaginary value. We find difficulty in questioning these imaginary values because the paradigm is continuously brainwashing us using its systems of governance, media, education etc.

Which brings us to the system of education set inside the paradigm of modernity all across the world. The education system today, based around comparison and competition, is aligned with the imaginary values of modernity. Once we see this, it becomes possible to talk about school reforms that are not cosmetic and actually work to help the learners and society at large. We will talk more about it next week.

School reforms: The problem statement

When well-meaning people start questioning the way current school education works, they run into a fundamental problem. You see, our entire experience of education is from within this deeply flawed system. So when we try to think of making things better, we are unconsciously trapped within the limits of the existing system. A little bit like a person in a jail cell trying to move towards freedom by painting the bars of his prison sky-blue. Sounds like an exaggeration? Let us go a little deeper and see.

We can start by listing out some of the features of modern mass schooling:

– It covers 12+ years of childhood, mostly sitting quietly inside classrooms with 40 other children (all wearing school uniforms).
– Teachers who have very little interest in education or in children and are there because they couldn’t get another job, spend most of their time in classroom management (which means ensuring silence and discipline in the classroom).
– The 12-year academic curriculum starts with learning the alphabet and basic maths and ends in ridiculous things like organic chemistry and integral calculus.
– Academic achievement and conformity are rewarded and the children who do not see the point of the nonsense that passes for academics or are spirited enough to rebel against the system are labelled ‘failures’ and thrown out.
– With its uniforms, discipline and pointless hard work, it is like a jail which lets its inmates out on parole every evening on condition that they come back the next morning.

When sensitive people feel the problem and think of doing a better job, these are the kinds of things they typically try (and the flip-sides to their solutions):

Well-meaning attemptFlip-side
Having teachers who actually care for children and could have actually got other jobs but chose to become teachers for some misguided reason.Having confused well-meaning teachers is not better than having confused apathetic teachers. Sometimes healthy neglect is the only way for children to navigate through a toxic system without permanent damage.
Having fewer children in the jail-cell-classrooms so that the teacher can pay individual attention.This leads to the immediate discovery of the spirited children and their ‘normalisation’. It is easy to hide in a 40 child classroom and difficult in a 10 child one. Also as mentioned above, individual attention from a confused teacher may not be a very good thing.
Letting the children have a lot of ‘freedom’ in a ‘non-stress’ environment.Since life does not give us simple ‘freedom’/’discipline’ type of choices and because the people who are trying to make things better are reacting to ‘discipline’, which they think of as a problem of mainstream education, they tend to lean towards too much ‘freedom’. This invariably has bad effects on the children on whom it is inflicted. Too much ‘freedom’ is probably worse than too much ‘discipline’.

We can make this list longer, but I hope you see what I trying to say. There is no way to improve or repair a faulty system by thinking within its boundaries and tweaking things inside it. So, what can we do? The first obvious step is to break free from our conditioning that assumes that the current type of education is the only option possible. If we are able to do that, some avenues may open up, we may be able to ask questions about what a good education, one that is appropriate for our country and its people, can look like. I plan to explore some of these ideas in the posts next week and the week after that.

(Disclaimer: There may be readers who do not find organic chemistry or integral calculus ridiculous as part of a mass schooling curriculum. I was one of them! But instead of making fun of my weirdness, the system actually rewarded me by making me think that I am better than others. It has taken me a very long time to break out of that.)

Sthiti and Gati

(The following is the script of the audio-visual component of chapter 8 of the SIDH online course – ‘Understanding Modern Education -An Indic Perspective’)

Our experience of reality has two aspects: The stable, unchanging, intrinsic, unseen, intangible, BEING part. We are calling it the STHITI. And the changing, sensorial, tangible, manifested, DOING or behaving part. We are calling it the GATI. STHITI and GATI are like two sides of the same coin.

We have already talked about some sthiti/ gati pairs in previous chapters. Let us first look at the ‘I’ and ‘We’ identities. The ‘I’ identity is gati-centric. It is mostly about quantitative aspects like wealth, status, income, degree, clothes, material possessions etc. All these can be compared. In contrast, the ‘We’ identity is sthiti-centric. It is mostly about qualitative aspects like honesty, integrity, courage, and pride in one’s culture and traditions etc. For example, it is possible to hear someone say that ‘No one steals in our samaaj’ or that ‘we are brave people’.

We have also earlier looked at word and meaning. You can now easily see that word is the gati aspect and the meaning is the sthiti aspect. Words are external symbols that are IN a language, whereas meaning is always an inner process that is BEYOND language. Knowing the word and not the meaning is no good but knowing the meaning and not the exact word may still serve our purpose. The word is a symbol which is different in different languages whereas meaning is existential.

Let us look at some other Gati/ Sthiti pairs to make the distinction clear.

We can start with hearing/ listening that is directly connected to word and meaning. We hear a word but we listen to the meaning. So hearing is the gati aspect and listening, that is to do with understanding the meaning, is the inner, sthiti aspect.

Another important distinction between Information and knowledge is being ignored in present day education. Information is something that keeps changing both with time and space. It doesn’t remain the same. Information needs to be remembered or stored to be retrieved later. Knowledge on the other hand is something which once gained becomes ones own and does not need to be memorised. Strangely, any book of general knowledge today is only full of information. This adds to the confusion and information is unknowingly ASSUMED to be knowledge.

Finally let us look at the distinction between getting influenced and getting inspired. Influencing or impressing is always with the outer veneer, the gati, whereas inspiration is always an inner process, to do with sthiti. Getting influenced leads to imitation and comparison. On the other hand we get inspired by the intrinsic, qualitative aspects which cannot be copied. The quality gets manifested in different individuals naturally and in their unique manner.

Modern education and modern systems are almost entirely gati-focused. If you are only focused on gati, you are prone to be manipulated. Because gati, like fashion, keeps changing and the people in control of setting these trends are faceless. Once these parameters are accepted almost unconsciously by us, we end up constantly comparing ourselves with the other, leading to irresolvable tensions. Education needs to be sthiti focused and gati needs to be treated the way it is, subordinate to sthiti. The decision-making if it is sthiti-centric, then the doing, the manifested, gati part would naturally follow taking into account the circumstances. In the process of education, the shift of focus from gati to sthiti will help create grounded children with Nirapekshsa Atma-Vishwas and authentic, sahaj behavior.

The above can be summarised in a table as shown below:

GatiSthiti
‘I’ IDENTITY
(Wealth, status, income,
degree, clothes etc.)
‘WE’ IDENTITY
(Honesty, integrity, courage,
pride etc.)
WORD (Hearing)
IN language/ symbol
MEANING (Listening)
Beyond language/ existential
INFORMATION
ASSUMED to be knowledge
KNOWLEDGE
No need to memorise
INFLUENCING/ IMPRESSING
Leads to imitation
INSPIRATION
Cannot be copied

(Notes:
– The other posts on this blog about the SIDH online course are here, here and here.
– The course is available here.)

Drawing the attention or dhyaanakarshan vidhi

Last week I shared an extract from our soon-to-be-launched online course on understanding modern education. Today I thought of sharing some more information on how it works. The course is meant for parents, teachers and other interested adults. It will take some 6-9 hours to go through (depending on whether you follow or don’t follow the links for extra study) and is divided into 9 chapters:

  1. The problem with modern education
  2. Historical background
  3. Introduction to Asli Shiksha
  4. Drawing the attention or dhyaanakarshan vidhi
  5. Principles of Asli Shiksha
  6. Modernity and tradition
  7. What modernity does to us
  8. Sthiti and Gati
  9. Stepping-out

Each chapter has 6 segments:

  1. Introspect (Self-reflective questions to set the context)
  2. Listen (3-5 minute audio-visual presentation)
  3. Contemplate on ‘Listen’ (Writing down takeaways)
  4. Read (Reading material to deepen understanding)
  5. Contemplate on ‘Read’ (Writing down takeaways)
  6. Know (Some points to read and ponder)

Here is a sample, work-in-progress audio-visual to give you a glimpse of what the course looks and feels like…

I hope you liked the presentation. Namaste!

The problem with modern education

This week’s blog post is extracted from an online course that we will be launching soon. The course is designed to make a participant contemplate on his/ her educational experience and connect the dots to better understand modern Indian education. The course is made up of short audio-visual presentations, reading material and self-reflective writing exercises. A relevant screen-grab from the audio-visual part of the course is shown below.

And, here is an extract from the online course…

Pawan Gupta, the co-founder of SIDH, has a favourite story about the fundamental problem with our education system. When they moved to Mussoorie, some village women seeing that Pawanji and his wife Anuradhaji seemed to have a lot of free time and seemed to be educated, asked them to start a village school. When some time had passed and the village women got comfortable with him, they told Pawanji that this system of education was destroying their children. “What is your education system doing to our children?” they asked. They felt the education seemed to be alienating the children from their families, villages, culture and their ways of doing things. The children started developing a sense of shame towards whatever was their own. An old woman seeing the effect of education on young boys, who now preferred to move around with their hands in their pockets, told Pawanji that he should teach children to ‘Be’ rather than focus only on the appearance. “Hona sikhao,” she said, “dikhna dikhaana nahin.” Pawanji considers this his mantra in education and he says that this was the turning point where he became aware of his hidden assumptions and his real education started. Pawanji says that another lady had asked him about the objective of the modern education system. “Was it,” she asked, “designed to take the village boys to Delhi and the Delhi boys to America?”

Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great philosopher and scholar, criticizing the British education system in an essay written in 1909, titled ‘Education in India’, gives us indications about this problem when he says:

“The system of education set up by the British creates anti-national tendencies by ignoring or despising almost every ideal of the Indian national culture. Most students lose all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture and become strangers in their own land. The education is really based on the general assumption- nearly universal in England- that India is a savage country, which it is England’s divine mission to civilize.”

The problem started much earlier. This can be seen in what William Bentinck the governer general of India wrote in a letter to the secretary of state in 1827. This was 3 years after the rebellion by the Indian soldiers at the Barrackpore cantonment rattled the British empire. In the letter he said:

“There is nothing to worry now as the educated Indian has started leaving his ways and stopped giving alms to mendicants and sadhus and, with the money thus saved, is busy entertaining the British and imitating their ways.”

Mahatma Gandhi has spoken eloquently about the alienation that this type of education brings to us. In an article titled ‘The present system of education’, written in 1916, he says:

“An impartial English writer has said that as long as there is no continuity between schools and homes in India, the pupils will not have the benefit of either. Our youths learn one thing from parents at home and from the general environment, and another at school. The pattern at school is often found incompatible with that in the home. The lessons in our textbooks are regarded as of little relevance to conduct. We cannot put the knowledge so acquired to any practical use in our daily life. The parents are indifferent to what is taught at school. The labour spent on studies is considered useless drudgery which has to be gone through that one might take the final examination, and once this is over we manage to forget as quickly as possible what we had studied. The charge levelled against us by some Englishmen that we are mere imitators is not entirely baseless.”

The problems in modern Indian education, which began 200 years ago under the British rule, have not been addressed till date, as fundamentally nothing much has changed from those times. And the problems seem to afflict all types of people whatever be their linguistic, social or economic background. So, the first generation learners begin to look down upon their illiterate parents and their local culture. And the children of affluent educated parents despise the very idea of India without knowing anything very much about it.

We go through an elaborate, time-and-life-consuming, expensive process of national education that finally results in us becoming mindless imitators, self-conscious about who we are, losing our real confidence and becoming asahaj. Do you not think that it is time that we did something about it?