Do we want no education?  A reaction to Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan’s article*

                *See ‘We don’t want no education …’ by Pulapre Balakrishnan, The Hindu, June 27, 2015.

A quick perusal of the thesaurus turns up the following synonyms for ‘education’ – teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring, instruction, edification, culture.  Except the last two, the others are quantifiable [as is cognitive ability] and their presence or absence can be established – but only at a superficial level [once again, as in the case of cognitive ability].  Teaching, for instance, is not merely about passing on a bunch of facts and opinions but also about connecting with the student, sharing information about the subject in a manner that enhances and elevates audience understanding, and so on.  Tomes have been written about teaching but it is still being written about and researched.  Schooling and learning, similarly, are not merely about institutionalised education and imbibing instruction in a palette of subjects; a school must prepare those who enter its portals to leave as intellectually and morally well-developed citizens and learning is to exhibit such qualities of intelligence and moral standards as the commonsensical rhetoric ‘… and you call yourself educated!’ would illustrate. But what is intelligence? What is morality?  These are, once again concepts that are constantly being re-visited and revised. However, as universal measures of education, teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring and instruction have found acceptance. The presence or absence of edification and culture, however, are rather difficult to establish to universal approbation.  Edification, for one, is intangible as it goes beyond raw understanding and means a deeper, and one might say esoteric, enlightenment.  As for ‘culture’, I am only reminded of T S Eliot’s telling observation that some of the people we associate closely with culture are among the most uncultured.  Whether or not we agree with Eliot, the fact is that culture is too nebulous a notion to be tied down by definition or computed.

Education, etymologically, stops with just saying ‘lead out of[1]’ and does not specify out of what. Perhaps, it is time for a paradigm shift in our conception of education itself – even before we set out to rescue it from the social forces that are out to ‘snuff out a vibrant and free-spirited learning environment’, political forces that are in cahoots with them and market forces that straddle both. What do I mean by that well worn term ‘paradigm shift’?  For a start, I think it is worth asking if ‘education’ happens in institutions such as schools and universities or whether it happens in the wider world of which these institutions are a part.  Once this happens, the constructs such as primary, tertiary and higher education will become seamless levels of accomplishment rather than definitive standards. Think sports or music or Sanskrit.  ‘Education’ in these streams of skill or knowledge or both is not constrained by constructs such as we have in formal, institutionalised academia.   Exclusion is not the norm in these arenas – rather, they are open to all, and the levels of learning are self-determined.  Evaluation is not normative, and achievement is tested and graded in a variety of ways. There is a curriculum-like framework in place, but as a light that you carry in your hand to guide you on the path you choose and not a light that is there in the distance towards which you work your way on a pre-determined path.

Thinking of education in terms of aspiration that is open to all will also make redundant questions about the levels and kinds of institutions we should invest in.  Which, in any case, appear curious: One commonly asked question is shouldn’t expansion of school education be privileged over higher education?  I ask: if there is not an equivalence in their expansion, what happens to all those who complete school and wish to enter the best of the higher education institutions we have (in the system as it exists today)?  Should their justified ambition be sacrificed as there is no means to entertain it? But then, as Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan argues, if ‘expansion becomes the raison d’être of the public presence in higher education’, quality becomes a casuality and it is ‘disingenuous’ not to raise concerns about it. I ask: is the question of quality not equally relevant when school education’s expansion is emphasised and encouraged? Is this too not a case of inviting hungry people only to feed them leftovers?  And is this not the case today?

On a different note, I would say the thirst for knowledge is as universal a human want as the thirst for water.  And the quest is for ways to quench this thirst in a more satisfying, a more nourishing way, education as practiced today being just one way of doing it.

Notes:

[1] Ex was a common preposition used in the Latin language that simply meant “from, out of, from within”.  Ducere is the infinitve form of the Latin verb duco, which means “to lead, conduct, guide, etc.” The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of,  etc. (http://www.babeled.com/2008/11/27/word-power-education/)   Rousseau, however, traces education to ‘educatio,’ which means ‘nurture.’ ((Emile, Book I, 39 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

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