Four Ideas on Education

A friend with young school-going children was recently talking to me about education. Some ideas came up in the conversation that I thought were worth sharing here as this week’s blog post.

  1. Imagine a classroom with many children working on some set task and an adult sitting in the classroom busy with some work of his own. He will be available to answer queries, if required, while the children are learning on their own in small groups. The work the teacher could be doing may be something that actually earns him his livelihood. For example, we can imagine that the teacher is part of a distributed software team and he is doing his work finishing a project while the children in his class go through their maths or science syllabus. If you think that this idea is Utopian you should take a look at the work of Dr Sugato Mitra who has experimented with giving unsupervised computer access to illiterate children and seen them teach themselves English and complicated subjects like biochemistry (
  2. School can be a place where the teacher grows in knowledge and wisdom. Transacting the school text books with passive students leads to neither knowledge nor wisdom. If we have a good artist, a good craftsman, a good poet, a good actor, a good boxer, all hanging out together in the same school staff room with an agenda to learn from each other, it is possible that all of them will grow in knowledge and wisdom. It is grown-up, wise men and women we need if we want our students also to aspire to be grown up and wise. This seems to be obvious but in every school the teachers are so stretched finishing their syllabus that there is no time for self-development.
  3. One often hears people saying that they enjoy the company of children so they chose to work as school teachers. We see that the company of grown-ups is helpful in making us grown-up. This is the idea of the Sangha where people at different stages of maturity come together and help each other to grow up. So what my friend was wondering was whether spending all your time with children, getting involved in all their activities, was not a way to infantilize ourselves? You may not agree and this is a slightly controversial idea but I think it is worth thinking about.
  4. A large percentage of school teachers are women. This has happened probably because the work of a school teacher is perceived to be easy with its long breaks and fixed timetables. A woman who has to make food and take care of children and take care of the house will probably find being a teacher easier than being a software engineer working to tight deadlines. All this is very commendable but is it not true that when we bring up our children, both the mother and father play different roles and both are equally important? I know that in the polarised world of today’s feminist ideologies there may be people who think that the father plays no role or plays a negative role. Keeping such foolish ideas to the side, does it not seem that children spending huge amounts of time in our current school system are like children who are being brought up in a fatherless house?

The lost tools of learning

(I recently came across an interesting paper on British education written in 1947 by Dorothy Sayers. I thought that the paper had many insights that are relevant to our current Indian education system. Take a look at the excerpt below and download the full article here if you get interested.)

Is not the great defect of our education to-day that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play The Harmonious Blacksmith [a music piece from Handel’s Suite No. 5] upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorised The Harmonious Blacksmith, he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle The Last Rose of Summer [a traditional Irish song].

. . . Let us now look at the medieval scheme of education—the syllabus of the Schools. The syllabus was divided into two parts; the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part—the Quadrivium—consisted of “subjects,” and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order. Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language—at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of language—a language, and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language; how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.

…modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.

Child-centred education

You may be surprised that child-centred education is what the national policy documents on education advocate. Take a look at the following inspirational quotes from the National Curricular Framework (NCF), 2005, document. The fact that the government recommendations do not get implemented is probably because of the inertia of the system.

“Education is not a physical thing that can be delivered through the post or through a teacher… There is a mutuality to the genuine construction of knowledge. In this transaction the teacher also learns if the child is not forced to remain passive… From personal experience I can say with assurance that a lot of my limited understanding is due to my interaction with children.”
– From the Preface to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, recommends that children’s life at school must be linked to their life outside school. This principle marks a departure from the legacy of bookish learning which continues to shape our system and causes a gap between the school, home and community. This syllabi and textbooks developed on the basis of NCF signify an attempt to implement this basic idea. They also attempt to discourage rote-learning and the maintenance of sharp boundaries between different subject areas. We hope these measures will take us significantly further in the direction of a child-centred system of education outlined in the National Policy on Education (1986). The success of this effort depends on what steps the school principals and teachers will take to encourage children to reflect on their own learning and to pursue imaginative activities and questions.
– From the Preface to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005

This document frequently revolves around the question of curriculum load on children. In this regard we seem to have fallen into a pit. We have bartered away understanding for memory based short term information accumulation. This must be reversed particularly now that the mass of what could be memorized has begun to explode. We need to give our children some taste of understanding following which they would be able to learn and create their own versions of knowledge as they go out to meet the world of bits, images and transactions of life. Such a taste would make the present of our children wholesome, creative and enjoyable; they would not be traumatized by the excessive burden of information that is required merely for a short time before the hurdle race we call examination.
– From the Preface to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005

Further, there is a deep disquiet about several aspects of our educational practice: (a) The school system is characterized by an inflexibility that makes it resistant to change; (b) Learning has become an isolated activity, which does not encourage children to link knowledge to their lives in any organic or vital way; (c) Schools promote a regime of thought that discourages creative thinking and insights; (d) What is presented and transmitted in the name of learning in schools bypasses vital dimensions of the human capacity to create new knowledge; (e) The ‘future’ of the child has taken center stage to the near exclusion of the child’s ‘present’.
– From chapter 1 of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005

Joyless education

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me… I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.”

– From ‘The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne

Tristram shandy was published in 1759 and the quote above is from the beginning of the book. Somewhere in the initial chapters, Tristram Shandy speaking as the narrator talks about the rules of writing set by a famous Roman poet and makes it clear that this book is not going to follow any rules. He makes good on his promise and the book has:
– Chapters that go missing and reappear somewhere later
– A blank page where the narrator asks us the readers to draw the woman of our dreams
– A black page to mourn the passing of a friend
– A marbled page from which the readers are supposed to derive some complicated meaning
– Many squiggles and ‘*’ that represent parts of the story
– Fake and real Latin pages and their fake and real translations

The blurb on the back cover says:
“No one description will fit this strange, eccentric, endlessly complex masterpiece. It is a novel about writing a novel in which the invented world is as much infused with wit and genius as the theme of inventing it. It is a joyful celebration of the infinite possibilities of the art of fiction, and a wry demonstration of its limitations.”

It is the funniest book that I have ever read!

I wanted to talk about this book on the blog to make a point about our education system. Many years ago I was talking about ‘Tristram Shandy’ among a group of friends and acquaintances and a girl who had a masters degree in English said that the book seemed familiar. We talked some more about it and it turned out that she had studied the book and passed an exam on it during her BA or MA. She did not remember any of the details and till she heard me talking about it she had not realized, and nobody had told her, that it was a funny book.

I am just wondering how many other joyous and fun things we make drab and lifeless as we go through the grind of school and college education…

Livelihoods Vs Vyakti-Nirmaan

If we look at our modern educational journey all the way from nursery to a PhD, it looks like what is not outright wasteful is all focused on preparing us to earn a livelihood. I was talking to a Sanskrit scholar who was telling me that in our tradition the focus has always been on knowledge. It is not that we have neglected the aspect of livelihoods, but it was understood that the larger project we are on is about knowledge because that is what helps bring us out of Avidya or ignorance. Also, in our tradition we thought that Shiksha was a continuous, life-long process and not one that started when we went to school and finished when we finished school. We had a much broader perspective on Shiksha that spanned lifetimes. Another way of looking at it is that our traditional Shiksha was about Vyakti-Nirmaan or person-making.

When we look at it closely, it looks like there is very little Vyakti-Nirmaan happening in modern education. Of course, too much Vyakti-Nirmaan, creating people who can tell the difference between Truth and falsehood, will only disrupt modern systems like the State and Marketplace. What are required are automatons who question nothing and blindly believe everything they are told. The modern education system does a good job of creating these mindless consumers.

In the middle of this mess, if we thought it important and wanted to focus on Vyakti-Nirmaan, how would we go about it? Perhaps we can start with the following tentative list:

— Look carefully and realise that most of the modern educational journey has zero contribution in making a good, wise, knowledgeable human being. It is basically a transaction of huge heaps of useless information. (Tell me why Integral calculus is of use to all but 0.0001% people who will use it for some esoteric research work)
– Understand that the focus of the modern educational journey is to create mindless workers and consumers. People who can efficiently do a mind-numbing job to earn money that they can then spend on useless, body-and-mind-destroying products.
– Act according to the above realisations and pay minimum attention to the bloated academic syllabus. Don’t be under the misunderstanding that this is about education and needs to be understood. Find creative and efficient ways to pass the necessary exams that are the hurdles along the modern educational path.
– Focus on Vyakti-Nirmaan through immersion in self, culture and nature. Immersion in real life!

What do you think?

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 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:

(Wealth, status, income,
degree, clothes etc.)
(Honesty, integrity, courage,
pride etc.)
WORD (Hearing)
IN language/ symbol
MEANING (Listening)
Beyond language/ existential
ASSUMED to be knowledge
No need to memorise
Leads to imitation
Cannot be copied

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