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Education: Shifting the Goalposts towards New Living

Bikash Sarmah

(bksarmah07@rediffmail.com)
 
This column has harped on education many a time. All because the subject is so crucial to the advancement of human civilization. At the same time, the rapidity of technological changes has brought to the fore the need for a debate as to whether the education system we are forced to live with, accept, and believe that there cannot be anything else in education than the things we are accumulating as knowledge, is outfashioned and cannot serve the purposes of the 21st-century world. We are living in different times, but a vast bulk of our education system lies embedded in ideas that could have been relevant or meaningful, say, about 30 years back but that hold absolutely no promise as far as the needs of the present times are concerned. There is need for a serious course correction.
What do we do to our little kids? Load them with a very heavy bag, a bag that contains books that have no relevance to their needs, books that stymie creative thinking or ingenuity, that make them mere knowledge-garnering machines at a very tender age when the first seeds of imagination and creative thinking must be sown but that are never sown, that make them dry, uninterested learners incapable of thinking anything original; what the teacher says is gospel truth, and they are never encouraged to ask questions. The questioning mind is nipped in the bud, the accepting mind finds flourish. 
Our educational system, right from the kindergarten to the university level, including research, encourages accepting minds. The doctrine of acceptance is so deeply entrenched in the education system that any questioning of it even out of curiosity is proscribed. This is a dulling process deep within. The system does not promote thinking and questioning minds. Intellectual rebellion is banned just as terrorist organizations are.
At the psychological level, there is terrorism when the questioning mind is throttled.  There is violence against the potentially questioning mind as it finds no means to ventilate its urges to explore the world differently, creatively, beautifully. Our education system, in that sense, is a violence on intellectual beauty. This is a psychological terrorism unleashed by our educational system.
My formative years were shaped by some of the best institutions of Northeast India – RK Mission (Along), St Edmund’s (Shillong), Cotton College (Guwahati) etc – before I landed up, by a twist of destiny, in Gauhati University (1998) that had already begun its course of decay by the time I joined it to pursue Master’s in Mathematics. Those institutions had an intellectual aura about them in the general sense – frequent tests and assessments, apart from Cotton and GU of course, question-answer sessions, both classwork and homework of utter rigour, and punishment for failure blended with general discipline of the highest standard possible at that time. Seemingly, a culture of education that could be the best, promoting intellectualism in students. 
But my dissatisfaction right from school to university, and later my PhD in plasma physics that remained incomplete due to choice (as I had lost faith in the system), stemmed from the emptiness of the rituals that went in the name of ‘radical’ or ‘modern’ education. The exams were stereotypical, merely looking for what students had learned, not how they have learned. The what part of education is mere knowledge accumulation and presentation, the how part of it is creative knowledge accumulation, creative thinking, imagination beyond what is apparent, critical judgement, and promotion of the questioning, sceptical, dissatisfied mind always looking for solutions to problems beyond the set pattern of solutions that have outlived their purposes. This culture continues up to the PhD level. No wonder, most of our PhDs are not reckoned as original in the international market; no wonder, our universities stand nowhere in world rankings such as the one done by the British QS (the most reliable one); no wonder, our patents are so few; no wonder, we continue to fail to produce Nobels. Our only emphasis is on exams – neither valid nor reliable, which on most occasions are based merely on rote learning, not on original thinking.
In Education: Forward to Real Basics, Osho Rajneesh, one of the most controversial spiritual gurus of the last century but also one of the most radical ones who had dwelt on every subject on earth (he was a philosophy professor prior to his avatar as a spiritual guru), says, “Education up to now has been goal-oriented: what you are learning is not important; what is important is the examination that will come a year or two years later… there should not be any examination as part of education, but every day, every hour observation by the teachers; their remarks throughout the year will decide whether you move forward or you remain a little longer in the same class. Nobody fails, nobody passes – it is just that a few people are speedy and a few people are a little bit lazy – because the idea of failure creates a deep wound of inferiority, and the idea of being successful also creates a different kind of disease, that of superiority… So, examinations will not have any place. That will change the whole perspective from the future to the present.”
Then Osho comes to the tricky subject of the teacher – presumed to know all, who can never fail in his teaching, and whose teaching must be accepted, not questioned. He says, “The teacher was educated thirty years earlier. In thirty years, everything has changed, and he goes on repeating what he was taught. He is out of date, and he making his students out of date. So in my vision the teacher has no place. Instead of teachers there will be guides, and the difference has to be understood: the guide will tell you where, in the library, to find the latest information on the subject.”
So in the Osho scheme of things, there is no place for examinations in an education system, nor is there any for teachers. The former is replaced by continuous evaluation of students, while the latter is replaced by guides who would act as facilitators in the knowledge generation system. It is a radical idea. We must understand that the exam system in vogue, especially in India, has done no good to students when it comes to testing their originality or creativity or innovative aptitude. As for teachers, they are mostly ill-trained or not trained at all in even the existing system of education while at the same time they lack innovative ideas to make the learning process interesting. The student is a disinterested soul in the class. He wants to leave it as soon as possible. This is not a sweeping generalization of teachers. Yes, there do exist exceptional teachers who inspire their students on creative lines. I myself have had the opportunity of being taught by some of the finest such minds at Cotton College and Gauhati University. But their percentage is minuscule.
In the light of the above, it is time some course correction of a very radical kind was effected in the education system of this country. The first pertains to classroom teaching. Do you need teachers taking a 45-minute class in which even the most intelligent student is attentive for hardly about 20 minutes? Even the teacher in general cannot remain focussed for the whole duration of 45 minutes. This may be replaced by a system in which students may be divided into small groups of, say, about five students who can discuss among themselves one particular subject for 45 minutes. The teachers, who would be guides, would be available to them in a separate room to clarify their doubts. Different time schedules can be prepared for different groups, subjects and teachers concerned. This can be implemented right from the primary school level up to the university level. In this scheme, guides can help their students not only in getting their doubts cleared but also in suggesting them the best books and the best internet sites from where they can get additional information.
But more importantly, grades should be awarded to students, and not marks in every test at every level, on the basis of their interaction with their guides and the quality of questions they come up with. Additional grades can be made available to those who come up with alternative and better solutions to the existing exercises/problems in their texts. This will engender original thinking – so abysmally lacking in the Indian system of education.
All of this will definitely go a long way in redefining education towards a new intellectual living. 

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Ankur Kalita