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What is Burning in our Education System and How can we put out the Fire?

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By Fr. Mervyn Fernando

The recent furore over the validity of Z-scores in the A-level examination is very symptomatic of the current malaise of Education in the country – the tip of the iceberg.

So it is not surprising that the past few weeks have seen many articles in the newspapers expressing serious concerns about a number of issues in both school and university education. If there is no smoke without fire, what is burning in our education system? And how can we put out the fire?

First and foremost we must clarify the goal of education. What is the final raison d’etre of education – of schooling at primary, secondary and tertiary levels? The final goal of education is nothing less than the humanisation of the child/student; his/her development in body, mind, heart and spirit into the fullness of life.

A human being born into this world is helpless; helpless to develop into what it could and should be, namely, to become a functioning human being. Unlike in the animal world where this process happens practically automatically, in the human world it is entirely dependent on the human environment, mostly the environment of parents, teachers and other adults. The chrysalis of the baby has to grow into the butterfly of mature personhood. As Plato rightly observed, education is a second birth without which the first one is meaningless.

The renowned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated: “In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom; in modern colleges our aim is to teach subjects. The drop from divine wisdom to textbook knowledge of subjects which is achieved by the moderns, marks an educational failure”.

(The Aims of Education) But what passes for education now is a system of rote learning “cribbed, cabined and confined” to the classroom in a rigid framework of compartmentalised subjects of very little relevance to life, taught by poorly motivated/qualified teachers to be tested at examinations of problematic validity – a far cry from the goals of humanization. Knowledge is only one slice of the cake of education and that to only as a gateway to wisdom. Very tellingly T. S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge; where is the knowledge we have lost information?”

Neil Postman, a major voice in Education, in his very perceptive book, The End of Education, subtitled, redefining the value of school, says, “for schools to make sense, the young, their parents and their teachers must have a god to serve … if they have none the school is pointless; then he goes on to say, “to put it simply, there is no surer way to bring an end to schooling than for it to have no end or no goal”.

We can also re-state this reflection of Postman in a more familiar saying: “Where there is no vision the people perish”. The God that postman refers to need not be identified with the Christian God, though that would be definitely so for Christians. In a more general sense, god (with simple ‘g’) refers to what we might call a comprehensive narrative (or meta-narrative, or to use a Buddhist equivalent, dhamma) about the whole of life—of self, the world and the Transcendent.

Only such a god can give meaning to our lives and every aspect of it; and man cannot live without meaning as Viktor Frankl discovered so poignantly in his experience of life in the death camps of Hilter (see, Man’s Search for Meaning).

Every religion is almost by definition, a meta-narrative of the human condition, responding at the deepest level to questions about self and world, the one and many, origins and ends, providing the big picture within which the small pieces find their place. The pieces of a jigsaw puzzle cannot be put together without a look at the whole picture. In this sense, education can be meaningful only in the context of a dhamma.

It is not a question of teaching a particular religion as a subject (in fact that could be counter-productive), but the whole of the curriculum, the syllabi, and everything that falls under the rubic of ‘schooling’ be determined, consciously and explicitly, in the light of a definite Weltanschauung (world view) or vision of the Whole, which Aldous Huxley called the ‘perennial philosophy’ or in the Buddhist/Hindu idiom, the sanatana dhamma.

Only that kind of comprehensive, goal-oriented education can mobilize the dormant aspirations of children and youth to become fully-developed or enlightened, realized persons; in Gandhian language to become Mahatmas or great souls, people of high human stature. Only such citizens will be an asset to self, community and country.

The fundamental malaise of education in our country today is that it has no clear end except the routine passing of examinations. Nietzsche’s famous saying “he who has a “why” to live , can bear with almost any “how””, applies as much to learning as to living. School education today has a surfeit of “how” without a “why”; in a way this itself could be considered an implicit vision of life or a “religion” though it’s advocates claim ideological neutrality.

As Michael Lerner observes, “the alleged neutrality of contemporary education is a sham that covers up the systematic indoctrination of students into the dominant religion of the contemporary world: the slavish subordination of every one to the market place” (Spirit Matters). A good part of the evils we lament in our society—social irresponsibility, corruption, blatant political opportunism, dishonesty, individualism, exploitation, naked consumerism, (shop till you drop!), self–aggrandisement , violence etc. etc. even in high levels of public and political life are direct or indirect outcomes of the debasement of education as accumulation of knowledge/information, in that kind of self-centred pragmatism, devoid of any vision, god or dhamma.

In politics, for example, we have hordes of petty-minded politicians but hardly any statesmen, namely, those who put the good of the country above personal gain and party interests.

The key role in a holistic/humanistic education is played by the teacher. Child psychology or even common sense makes clear that the life of a child is shaped firstly by parents (or parent substitutes) and subsequently by teachers. These are the two sets of gurus, the de-guru, recognized by the ancient educational wisdom of the East. The experiences of the child from these gurus and their example shape the child’s life–his/her mind, heart and spirit—especially in the early impressionable years.

A vision or dhamma is concretized in a vision of life and a set of values which a child has to absorb in graded steps to grow in wisdom and virtue as he/she grows in age. But, unfortunately, in the current system of education the teacher is “compelled” to be a mere dispenser of knowledge in a rigid framework of curriculum and syllabus.

He/she is a caricature of what he/she should be– a guru–the enlightened, guide and life model–in that fine guru-shishya relationship which was the hallmark of classical Education in both East and West. It was his/her noble role to draw into actuality the potentialities latent in the child.

As in many other areas, there is a woeful poverty of serious thinking on education in the country. What is called for is not just an academic exercise in the technicalities and methodologies of education—how many subjects for the GCE A/L examination, how to calculate the Z-score etc. but a deeply thought-out holistic/integral philosophy of Education relevant to our country and our times, identifying the god or dhamma it has to serve, embodied in a structure which will remain untouched by changes of governments, vagaries of politics and idiocyncracies of education ministers.

The first UNESCO Report on Education, Learning to Be put it very clearly: “Today it is no longer desirable to undertake educational reforms in piecemeal fashion; without a concept of the totality of goals and modes of the educational process. To find out how to reshape its component parts, one must have a vision of the whole”. Instead, we are still lurching blindly from one piecemeal reform to another?

At what cost to the nation?

(The writer is the Founder–President of the Institute of Integral Education, SUBODHI, Piliyandala)

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