Dialogue  April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4

Re-thinking Education

Pawan Kumar Gupta*

Thinking in a holistic manner has been a hallmark in the Indic tradition. The seers saw existence - what it is all about, how everything is related to everything else in an orderly and harmonious manner – as a whole. They saw co-existence, they saw perfection in existence. They saw what life was all about, the purpose of human life, the human frailties and tendencies in their entirety. They saw the human body, its relationship with the consciousness and its functioning and then understood the functioning of its individual parts. The seers observed patterns in existence, in nature, and also developed and used categories but only to understand reality – principles that are eternal and also those governing the transient world. Care was taken to be aware of the power of categorization and avoid getting caught in the frameworks; instead these frameworks or categorizations were used for a specific purpose and then one moved on by freeing oneself of their stranglehold. After analysis synthesis was considered even more important.

    The seers saw (experienced) the whole - anubhav moolak vidhi - first and then dissected it to be able to communicate it to others, to indicate and inspire them to experience the whole. They did not start by reducing and dissecting first and then making an attempt to understand the whole, by putting the pieces together. Their process of arriving at the truth was different. They were aware of the other way of understanding reality and problems in trying to understand through a process of reduction or fragmentation. Hence while communicating the experience of the whole, by reducing it to its parts, they developed a tradition of reaching the understanding through a process of ‘denial’ – not this, not that, (neti, neti….) - for those, they were trying to communicate the experiential understanding through the other end. This process was called anubhavgami vidhi

In the West, modern science and other spheres of knowledge, which developed around 1500, the reality was attempted to be understood by reducing and fragmenting it into parts and understanding the various components of the whole. But this cannot be called anubhavgami vidhi as there was no understanding of the fact that the whole is more than its parts and that this understanding of whole has to go beyond logical understanding, go beyond mere logic. By now it is well recognized even in the West, that the ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’, yet the mentality and tendency to understand by reducing the whole into components continues, specially in our country, a legacy from the recent past. Of course this way has its merits but the danger lies in assuming this as the only manner to understand, and that everything can be understood this way. There are domains of reality which cannot be understood through this method. But often this is not even acknowledged. The West may have moved on but we are still stuck in the same paradigm. We have also learnt to ignore our traditions as we are almost convinced that there can hardly be anything worth learning in our traditions.

This reductionistic manner of thinking trains or conditions the mind to think linearly. This also suits the tendency of our minds which is more comfortable thinking in sequential and logical manner. This mode of thinking has been eulogized so much in modern times that it has further reinforced the natural tendency of the modern mind. So much so that the modern mind thinks (actually assumes) that logic or sequential manner is the only way to understand. This manner of thinking is also easy to teach and train others in, because of the inherent tendency of the mind.

But the other important manner in which one experiences or reaches understanding through experiencing truth directly - through observation, listening, contemplation - wherein one takes in the whole, where awareness plays an important part, is mostly ignored in present day education. Logic and rationality certainly have their place in understanding but they have their limitations too, which needs to be recognized. Also it needs to be acknowledged that there are other ways of understanding, which may be equally or even more important.

For instance, the knowledge systems residing with our ordinary people (lok vidya or knowledge of our ordinary people) are yet another manner of dealing with/ understanding reality. In these systems, relationships between different phenomena and events (seemingly unrelated and sometimes with a vast span of time between them) have been observed over generations, giving a certain understanding about how things work in nature and also regarding human behaviour. These knowledge systems (lok vidyas) are not bothered about explanations (the whys); their concern is whether it (the knowledge) works or not (the functional aspect) - empirically. In these traditions relationship between the behaviour of animals, plants and weather conditions has been keenly observed. To give a few examples: The relationship between the part of the tree (lower or higher) where the crow makes the nest (in the months of spring) and the amount of rainfall in the monsoons (after a gap of 3-4 months) has been keenly observed; the colour of the sky at the time of sunset and rainfall (or no rains after a duration of 9 months according to the lunar calendar) has been accurately observed. Some of this accumulated knowledge has found expression in the poetic works of Ghagh, who makes these connections between weather and wind direction, the formation of clouds, the behaviour of birds etc. Similarly relationship has been observed between body language, the stance of a person, the shape of the body, face and the manner of speaking etc. and the tendencies, strength, weakness, wisdom, trustworthiness and integrity of a person. But if at all, these time-tested knowledge systems at best give rise to awe rather than respect and acknowledgement in our formal system of education.

There are three aspects of understanding: ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’. The focus on rationality has trained the mind to give attention only to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of events, phenomena and objects.   The student who asks such questions is considered bright. While these are important questions but not if the most important question pertaining to the ‘what’ is ignored. There are other aspects of reality other than what logic can explain. Paying attention to only the ‘why’ and being oblivious to the ‘what’ and seeking an answer from the other (teacher or the book), limits the response to merely logical explanations. In fact communication in words has this in-built limitation. Therefore, the seers often cautioned: to treat what they were saying as only indicative of the truth and not the truth itself. Their words can at best indicate but the reader or listener will have to make an effort to understand. Knowledge has to be grappled with, understood and experienced, not learnt like a skill or memorized like any information. But modern education ignores this warning. In tradition, memory was used as a tool to help contemplate upon the teaching. Words cannot explain the truth, only point towards the truth (dhyanakarshan vidhi). We need to consciously employ this manner of teaching in our schools and Universities.  

The ‘what’ question opens up the object for examinations in its entirety, in all its dimensions and its relationships with different entities. Each entity has a meaning – the purpose and its relationship with other entities. Without this awareness the ‘why’ question is very limiting as there can be many answers to the ‘why’ question, to explain a phenomena. And all the various answers (to the why) can contain partial truths. The mind focused only on the ‘why’ can easily be satisfied with a partial explanation of the ‘why’ (by taking one or more explanations of ‘why’ as a complete explanation) and assume that one has understood the whole.  Why one is writing an article can have several answers, each containing a grain of truth.

To understand the whole one needs to understand the ‘what’ (with all its relationships with everything else). As we are trained into ignoring this, we assume knowing the ‘why’ and ‘how’ will explain the whole. A logical explanation is not necessarily a guarantee that the explanation is true and complete, yet if we are seeking the help of the other in knowing by communication through words, then we are forced to take recourse to logic. This is where listening, observing and contemplation become important – they have the capacity to push beyond the boundaries of the mind to directly experience truth in its entirety. This is the reason that the responsibility to understand rests with the student. The words can help provided we have implicit faith, then words which do not make logical sense (in the beginning) can lead one to understanding through an act of contemplation. If one has faith in the teacher one takes the teaching seriously even if it does not make sense when one hears (or reads) it first. We do not reject the teaching just because it does not make sense in the beginning. We do not accept it either without understanding. But if we have faith in the teaching then it is possible that slowly the words unfold revealing their meaning. Faith is an important aspect of knowledge. This is a huge challenge today; we lack faith not only in the teacher (with justification) but in the teaching as well. 

The seers have cautioned: ‘not to rely on the teachers but on the teaching; not to rely on the word but the meaning and not to rely on the provisional but the definitive truth’. These warnings say it all. We need to unravel this. The onus of understanding rests with the one who wants to understand – the student. The teachers or the books are at best a medium just like words are only indicative of the truth and not the truth. Knowledge and meaning exist, whether we know it or not; whether we understand the way it is or otherwise. Any education system must acknowledge these important distinctions otherwise means (words, books, teacher etc.) are prone to be taken as objective or the end (meaning, knowledge).

If this genre of discussion comes under the domain of philosophy, according to our modern system of categorization or classification, then we need to base all subjects on the foundations of philosophy. Philosophy needs to be treated as the basis of all subjects teaching.

Subjects are after all categories, created by us, human beings, for our convenience, with the sole objective of understanding the truth. The categories or subjects are not truth in themselves, they are only frameworks to reach the truth. They are, therefore, also a means to an end – to understand reality. Without this recognition we can end up getting caught in the categories, which are only to be used for transitory purpose. Without this understanding, different subjects get divorced from each other and from everyday life, we end up making specialists (in different disciplines), who have no connection with others and with no understanding of the whole.  We also create hierarchies between different disciplines (e.g. science, higher technology even higher, humanities low down) if the subjects do not have a common foundation, that of philosophy or rather darshan.

Darshan (to see or understand the whole) is a better word than philosophy. Darshan is to see - to see the whole, to understand reality as it is, and then deal with it or lead life, according to this knowledge - the ultimate aim of education. All subjects have the same objective - to understand, to know. Reality has infinite dimensions; one can see it from various angles. Subjects help us understand a few of these aspects. But subjects do not have the capacity to make us see (understand) the whole, only a part of the whole. To know the whole we need to see it from even those dimensions which are beyond the scope of the individual subjects.

In all non-Semitic religions of the world there is mention that all reality is ONE. Perhaps what is being indicated is that all that we see and experience is inter-connected. Nothing is in isolation. The Buddha is supposed to have said: ‘when the universe trembles each leaf shakes and (even more important) when a leaf shakes the whole universe trembles’. Everything is connected to everything else. By fragmenting reality and staying with it, we miss out on the understanding of the whole; we miss out observing and understanding the relationship between different components of existence. This is not to say that we should not have subjects or that we should refrain from reducing the reality but to recognize the limitations of such an effort. This recognition opens up possibilities of furthering our understanding otherwise we shut out those possibilities in our ignorance.  

All seers whether of the past or present times, be it J. Krishnamurthy, Sri Aurobindo, Gurudev Rabindranath, Mahatma Gandhi or Sant Vinoba have stressed on developing awareness, power of observation, the art of listening and remaining quiet (contemplation). It is not an accident that despite differences in their respective views on education, the stress they give to developing these traits and practices is common. If these faculties are sufficiently developed, then the receptivity of the student increases to understand the reality. The effort to understand will have to be made by the student but education process can endeavour to enhance these faculties in the student. Our education has become too focused on information and finding the solutions from the outside. It needs to be balanced by directing the attention of the students inwards as well. It is directing the attention on ‘appearance’ rather than ‘being’; on only ‘doing’ while ignoring the ‘being’ completely. So one is not bothered about who I am but only about how I appear. Sri Aurobindo says somewhere in the preface of “National Education” published in the last two issues of  “Arya”, a journal that there is no parallel to the social hypocrisy of Europe (West). Perhaps this is where the problem has its roots. We are too focused on the external, on appearances, on information. We are too focused on making things work, for our immediate conveniences only without bothering about their value or place in the order in existence. We have started living in a world of words, of appearances, of imitation and vulgar display. Knowledge, wisdom, substance, subtlety and aesthetics are missing. We try to influence and impress rather than inspire.  And we do not make a distinction between getting influenced/ influencing the other and getting inspired/ inspiring the other. Influence results in imitating the other while inspiration is focused on the qualities not on its external manifestations. 

The relationship of cause and effect is important when grappling with the ‘why’ question. Normally we understand cause as the reason for the effect. But there could be more than one cause for an effect. And we mostly recognize only the most prominent (cause) among so many and that only those which appeal to our reasoning mind. Also because our reason for understanding has got reduced to the desire to manipulate the other (nature or the other human being) for our immediate convenience, we want to understand ‘why’ only to manipulate it for that purpose. Therefore we are only focused on certain aspects of ‘why’ which serves our larger purpose (how to manipulate it).

Moreover the modern mind looks at Time as a reality. The impact of such thinking is that cause and effect are assumed to be separated in time – the cause coming before and the effect afterwards (in time).  But time is a man made creation. In reality there is only the present – the now. In nature there are either cyclical events (e.g. planetary movements) or sequential events (e.g. events between birth and death, between growth and decay). 

In nature both cause and effect can be seen simultaneously (we can plant a seed and at the same time see a flowering tree from a similar seed). The cause already has seeds of the result (the effect). The two are enmeshed. The seed (cause) has the potentialities (of the effect, the manifestation).  In the physical materialistic world (the material order – minerals, soil, water etc and the pranic order – vegetation, animal and human body) we can see the sequence of events and therefore are able to separate cause from the effect. But let us look at the example of a dead leaf (cause) falling on the soil and making the soil enriched (effect); but the enriched soil now becomes the cause for enriching the tree and nourishing the leaf (effect). There is co-dependence between cause and effect. In nature cause and effect can be seen in a cyclical manner rather than the relationship being linear.

When we are dealing with realities which are not in the physical materialistic domain, both these – cause and effect – are enmeshed together, both belonging to the present and both having a reversible property (the cause becomes the effect and vice versa).  For instance if we trust (cause) we feel good (effect). And the reverse - when we feel good we (tend to) trust. Here there is no before and after, in time, even though there may be a cause and effect phenomena. The cause and effect is inter-changeable in these cases.  These aspects at present fall under the category of philosophy but they need to be introduced in the basic teachings in our education system by freeing them from all categories.

We make a major mistake when we teach adjectives and opposites in our schools during language (grammar) teaching. Adjectives are often value loaded (good/ bad; right/ wrong; good looking/ bad looking etc.). What is worse is that often the user of adjectives is not even aware of the assumptions (or imposed values behind these words), which makes him prone to manipulations. The entire world of advertisement, marketing, fashion industry, socio-political rhetoric manipulates people in this hidden manner. We think (actually assume) we are exercising freedom by making a choice but we are being manipulated by the market, which takes advantage of the hidden assumptions (values) we carry about ‘good’, ‘modern’, ‘development’ etc. and exploit us. Similarly teaching of opposites (in schools) is completely false. We teach the opposite of mother is father, man as opposite of woman or the opposite of young is old. This creates false assumptions in the mind which leads to seeing things in polarities, in opposite camps as it were. We should be pointing out the differences and similarities between these so called opposites. Without similarities there can be no comparison but we often compare without pointing out the similarities (which are perhaps much more than the differences) thus promoting competition and rat race.

Our education is not giving enough attention to the art of communication or even to language teaching. Bright young people hardly read any literature, and even if they do, hardly in their mother tongue. The situation is such that they are neither here nor there. They have no deep knowledge of their mother tongue, or any Indian language and they only know enough English just to get by in daily life. They lack expressions, they do not understand and are incapable of subtle nuances of language. This is making them alienated and rootless. We can go to any Engineering, science or commerce college in the country and verify this pitiable state. Students studying social sciences would be only marginally better.   

Words have power and often two different meanings get overlapped through inappropriate use of words. For instance, the distinction between meaning of the words knowledge and information is getting increasingly blurred. But the two have very different meanings. Unless this is understood they can give rise to assumptions which distort all future understanding. Information needs to be remembered because it is transitory, impacted by both time and space, while knowledge is beyond time and space, it is eternal. Information changes over a period of time (e.g. Bangla Desh, as a separate country, was not in existence before 1971.) But we teach all this (information) under General Knowledge! So discussing various distinctions to unravel the exact meanings behind different words needs to be introduced in our education system. We also need to understand what symbols are, what representations of reality, as distinct from reality are. Words (both written and spoken) are representations; currency is a symbol; all names are depictions of reality not reality itself. We have given names to different directions – North, South, East and West. The reality is only of the Sun rising in a certain direction or the magnet pointing in a certain direction – always. We have given names to these directions. When we teach that the Sun rises from the East, we give a wrong impression to the child giving rise to false assumptions in the child’s mind where he takes (assumes) East as a reality. We should rather be teaching the direction from which the Sun rises (a reality) is called East (by us). This is only an example of the problems which have seeped into our education over the years. These need to be addressed irrespective of the specialization of the student. 

Without knowledge of the fundamentals we have started using words loosely. We are not even aware of the assumptions we carry based on which we reach false conclusions. Hence words need to be unraveled to indicate the true meaning. A few distinctions are listed below. If distinctions can be made part of our basic teaching process, irrespective of the specialization the student opts for, it may go a long way in enhancing the receptivity (patrata) of the student.

            ·   Meaning (in existence) vs. Word (in language)

            ·   Listening (the meaning) vs. hearing (the word and interpreting)

            ·   Dialoging vs. Arguing/ Debating

            ·   Understanding the other vs. agreeing/ disagreeing with the other

            ·   Definitive meaning  vs. provisional meaning

            ·   Knowledge (becomes part of ones being) vs. Information (changes with time and has to be remembered)

            ·   Knowledge (needs to be fathomed) vs. skill (needs to be practiced)

            ·   Objective  vs. Means

            ·   Inspiration vs. influence

            ·   Being (hona) vs. appearing (dikhana, lagna)

            ·   Being (hona) vs. doing (karna)

            ·   Knowing vs. Assuming

            ·   Experiencing, Knowing vs. Believing, Assuming

            ·   Experiencing, Knowing vs. Logical understanding

            ·   Confidence based on knowing (nirapeksha atma-vishwas) vs.  comparison (sapeksha atma-vishwas)

            ·   Patriotism vs. Nationalism

            ·   Discussions on ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’.

The problems need to be addressed even if there are no easy answers. Recognition of problems, their fundamental reasons and clarity about the objective is sufficient, the way will emerge. Bold re-thinking and experimentations are the need of the hour. We need to have clarity on the ‘what’; the ‘how’ should never be fixed, that is where creativity comes, experiments are in this area (of discovering how to reach our goal) only. The how will keep on varying depending on the circumstances. We need to use words carefully and use them as indicators of the meaning as it exists in existence. And leave the responsibility of understanding with the students. We must develop this faith in them. We need to work on developing listening and observation skills of students and help them recognize the usefulness of keeping quiet and contemplation.

The attempt in this article is only to point out a few fundamental flaws in our present day education and also a few pointers about what can be done. Most of the issues raised here fall under the domain of philosophy nowadays. But these are foundations on which all teaching must be based.


*Pawan Kumar Gupta, Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas (SIDH), Hazelwood, Landour Cantt., Mussoorie-248179. Email: pawansidh@gmail.com


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati