Educating a billion minds: is the right approach missing?

We need to reflect on transforming the attitude in India toward education. Photo: Biswarup Ganguly

NEW DELHI, February 28, 2012 — Indian culture is a rare manifestation of intense pride in knowledge. India’s historical fabric flaunts great works of knowledge that are not only an important part of India’s heritage, but the world’s heritage. Education has been the greatest leveler for the Indian society rife with divides between caste, regions and religions.

It not only enables social mobility but is also a crucial factor for financial success and status in India.

A report by Ernst & Young says that in a typical Indian household, families spend a high amount of money on education. Only food and transportation account for a higher amount of spending.   

The National Sample Survey Organization shows average household expenditure on education in India has risen from 2.55% in 2008 to 7.5% in 201 0. Between 1999 and 2009, Indian household spending on education jumped up by as much as 378% in rural areas and 345% in urban areas.

Additionally, the Central government has announced 24% hike in the budget allocation for education in 2012.

As household and government expenditure on educations zooms, it is interesting that the overall quality of basic education remains poor. This is the result of the flawed attitudes towards education. On one hand, the government thinks that allocating more money to its education budget would reform the poor public education system. On the other hand, the people consider education a means of employment. The parents and kids alike are happy as long as they are able to bag a job with fat package and perks as soon as they graduate. However, this is an alarming trend for a country whose growth prospects largely depend on how it tackles its demographic dividend today.

There appear to be serious fault lines in India’s current education system, which focuses on rote rather than experiential learning. Exams and marks rather than creativity and critical inquiry are the important parts of India’s education. In most schools, memorization is mistaken for learning. Most of what is remembered is quickly forgotten. (How many remember how to take a square root or the formula for sodium nitrate?)

In a society richly steeped in culture, traditions, heritage and multilingualism widespread over the ages, where every major world religion co-exists, we need to reflect on transforming the attitude towards education. Looking at the current state of education in the country, one could not agree more with William J Crocket who asks “ if school is not ‘a people place’, where tears are understood, spirits can take wing, feelings can be heard, where one is accepted as one is, then where else can one be, just oneself?” Our educational system misplaces its focus on ‘knowing’ rather than the ‘different ways of knowing and learning styles’.

A major problem is that our approach to education is wrong, our focus is to get the children “employed” not “educated” – in a curious historical inversion, our educational history interestingly has followed an inverted pyramid from being a nation that was home to the world’s oldest and finest universities in recorded history (Nalanda and Takshila), we have now an education system that cannot even boast of one institute of higher learning amongst the top 100 in the world. The nation at large is complacent, with some isolated islands of excellence like the IIT’s and IIM’s (Indian Institutes of Technology and Management). While the majority of institutions of learning, whether schools or universities, have failed to transform their outlook towards education.

The existing models of learning are reasonably good for developing a disciplined mind, crammed with information. Howard Gardner, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and author of the theory of Multiple Intelligences(MI) recently was asked if there were too many engineers in India, Gardner said: “I’m skeptical about any profession being valorized over others. Who knows what is going to be needed in the next 25 years? In the U.S. and in India, schools should not be preparing people for professions; professions should do that themselves. Instead, schools should prepare them to understand arts and science better. The point of developing intelligence is to become a competent human being.”

While the country’s economy is growing at the rate of 7%, we are not sure at what rate our children’s minds and intellect are expanding.

There is an urgent need to understand education in its deepest and widest sense. In Sri Aurobindo’s words, amongst one of India’s greatest philosopher and thinkers:

“That alone will be a true and living education which helps to bring out to full advantage, makes ready for the full purpose and scope of human life all that is in the individual man, and which at the same time helps him to enter into his right relation with the life, mind and soul of the people to which he belongs and with that great total life, mind and soul of humanity of which he himself is a unit and his people or nation a living, a separate yet inseparable member.”

If this is the true meaning of education, then what passes in its name today in our educational institutions is obviously very far from the mark. The purpose of education cannot be, even at its best, to merely create a literate individual, a skilled technician or a law abiding citizen, these are only the byproducts of a truly great education system. These are essential however they are not adequate in themselves. Nor do they create a well rounded individual or a great nation.

There are change makers working round the clock to make a difference in the educational landscape of the country. If India succeeds in changing its approach towards education, we have the opportunity of transforming the minds of one sixth of humanity!

 


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Sonal Jaitly

Sonal is a young professional, aspiring writer and an astute observer of life. Born and brought up in India, reciving a mix of both Indian and western education, Sonal earned a Masters in Business Administration, but gave up business to work for Education, her passion.

An explorer at heart, Sonal loves to travel and interact with people, meeting new people, reading about different customs and cultures is something that fascinates her. Juggling between pursuing her passions and her career, Sonal believes it is important to be a perpetual student of life, learn, unlearn and relearn while navigating through the hills and valleys of this beautiful journey called “life”.

 

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