A mirror to education in our times

Jayapadma RV

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S.Eliot in “The Rock”

Two men who held a mirror to the education system were born in May. This year, May 7 marked the 160th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (b.1841) and May 12, the 126th birth anniversary of Jiddu Krishnamurti (b. 1895). Both Tagore and Krishnamurti have spoken with angst about the school education they were subject to, referring to them as unremarkable and stressful periods of their lives. The impact was strong enough for both of them to engage deeply with the purpose and meaning of education. Both went on to establish schools, where children could study and learn in an unfettered environment, in proximity with nature. They also espoused learning to be a process without any superficial barriers between teachers and students, where teachers themselves are learners and facilitators.

Tagore and Krishnamurti’s paths crossed, but I have not come across any writing of conversations between them. Reading through their work, however, one is able to imagine what they must have spoken about, and where their thoughts, vision and aspirations aligned towards a common purpose. Surendranath Kar, an architect who worked closely with Tagore, built the grand assembly hall at the Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi, one of the early schools set up by Krishnamurti. Tagore, who had started Patha Bhavan as an institution of learning in 1901 at Santiniketan, was present at the start of Rajghat Besant School on Basant Panchami day in 1934. Both Tagore and Krishnamurti went on to set up as well as inspire several schools across the country.

The Banyan Tree is central to the learning space. On the left, the Banyan Tree at Kalabhavan, Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan and on the right, the Banyan Tree which is part of the senior school at Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi

At the same time, both grappled with keeping the schools true to the intent, struggling with bringing together the right kind of teacher-educators, keeping the schools financially sustainable, aligning with existing certification processes, which would leave pathways for higher learning and work open for the students. At different points, both expressed their discontent with the ways in which the schools had evolved and struggled to keep to the vision.

Teaching in the aftermath of COVID-19

The current crisis precipitated by COVID-19 has seen schools abruptly being closed, and catapulted teaching learning processes into the online world. The screen has become the primary interface between the teacher and learner, leaving swathes of children without technology access out of the process.

As we gear ourselves to the current challenges, it would be good to remind ourselves of some of the concerns Tagore and Krishnamurti had about education. For in them we may find ideas for the way forward and ensure that we do not allow the child’s growth and learning processes to become a mechanical exercise, subservient to diktats of the technology interface, or demands of an increasingly self-centred, consumerist world.

On the problem with the education system

The education system as it was and as it continues to be for most part, is restricted to imparting information on various subjects, taught in silos. Rarely does it translate to a process of exploration or discovery, both of which are contingent upon meandering and making mistakes. Such education is didactic and premised upon ‘acceptance’ of theories and constructs, without room to question.

Krishnamurti said “Education is not only learning from books, memorizing some facts, but also learning how to look, how to listen to what the books are saying, whether they are saying something true or false. All that is part of education. Education is not just to pass examinations, take a degree and a job, get married and settle down, but also to be able to listen to the birds, to see the sky, to see the extraordinary beauty of a tree, and the shape of the hills, and to feel with them, to be really, directly in touch with them. As you grow older, that sense of listening, seeing, unfortunately disappears because you have worries, you want more money, a better car, more children or less children. You become jealous, ambitious, greedy, envious; so you lose the sense of the beauty of the earth.”

Tagore echoed the sentiment when he said, “Mind, when long deprived of its natural food of truth and freedom of growth, developed an unnatural craving for success; and our students have fallen victims to the mania for success in examinations. Success consists of obtaining the largest number of marks with the strictest economy of knowledge,” adding, “We pass examinations and shrivel up into clerks, lawyers and police inspectors, and we die young.”

Krishnamurti shares in the bleak view of what such education leads to, where humans are trained to fit in with established norms and institutions and their lives instrumentalized. “You know what is happening in the world. You must be studying current events. There are wars, revolts, nation divided against nation. In this country too there is division, separation, more and more people being born, poverty, squalor and complete callousness. Man does not care what happens to another so long as he is perfectly safe. And you are being educated to fit into all this. Do you know the world is mad, that all this is madness – this fighting, quarrelling, bullying, tearing at each other? And you will grow up to fit into this. Is this right, is this what education is meant for, that you should willingly or unwillingly fit into this mad structure called society?”

What is the point of being educated: concerns in the time of a pandemic?

Even in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, and currently, the biggest preoccupation in the education system seems to be focused on questions around how to prepare children for examinations, how and when to conduct examinations safely, how and when to conduct large scale admission tests, etc., etc. Education and learning have strictly stuck to the confines of the prescribed curriculum, rather than pause and think about new ways of thinking and learning that may be needed to help children and adults make sense of what is going on around them, as well as emotional and psychological support that may be needed at this time both for teachers and students. 

The globalization of the pandemic is unprecedented, affecting people across most countries, bringing them to a grinding halt. All sectors of the economy have been hit, and the recovery path is uncertain. Fractures in the socio-economic order and public health systems lie exposed. The origins of the pandemic also calls into question the dominant economic choices that countries have made, especially with regard to the indiscriminate and unsustainable extraction of natural resources. The issues around resource utilization across the world needs more thought, deeper understanding and deliberation, and discussions around these need to happen in schools and universities.

Krishamurti addresses both students and teachers when he says “You cannot think clearly if you are not sensitive; sensitive to nature, sensitive to all the things that are happening around you, sensitive not only to what is happening outside you but also inside you. If you are not sensitive, if you are not aware, you cannot think clearly. Intelligence implies that you see the beauty of the earth, the beauty of the trees, the beauty of the skies, the lovely sunset, the stars, the beauty of subtlety. Now, is this intelligence being gathered by you here in this school? Are you gathering it or only gathering knowledge through books? If you have no intelligence, no sensitivity, then knowledge can become very dangerous. It can be used for destructive purposes. This is what the whole world is doing. Have you the intelligence that questions, tries to find out? What are the teachers and you doing to bring about this quality of intelligence, which sees the beauty of the land, the dirt, the squalor, and is also aware of the inner happenings, how one thinks, how one observes the subtlety of thought? Are you doing all this? If not, what is the point of your being educated?”

Tagore too believed that “Economic life covers the whole width of the fundamental basis of society, because its necessities are the simplest and the most universal. Educational institutions, in order to obtain their fullness of truth must have close association with this economic life. The highest mission of education is to help us to realize the inner principle of the unity of all knowledge and all the activities of our spiritual and social being. Society in its early stage was held together by its economic cooperation, when all its members felt in unison a natural interest in their right to live. Civilization could never have started at all if such was not the case. And civilization will fail to help if it never again realizes the spirit of mutual help and the common sharing of benefits in the elemental necessaries of life. The idea of this cooperation should be made the basis of our university. It must not only instruct but live; not only think, but produce.”

Charting the way forward

It is useful here to be reminded of what Krishnamurti said, “…the function of a teacher, of an educator, not just to give you a lot of data, knowledge, but to show you the whole expanse of life, the beauty of it, the ugliness of it, the delight, the joy, the fear, the agony. So that when you leave this place, you are a tremendous human being who can use your intelligence in life, not just a thoughtless, destructive, callous human being.”

As we prepare ourselves for many more months of teaching online, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future, meet students face to face, educators would show great fortitude in dwelling upon these thoughts, and creating spaces where children’s minds can be nurtured and guided in the right direction, for only in that lies the possibility of healing the earth, and creating better futures for us.

The past months have changed the way we teach and learn in dramatic ways. I teach at one of the oldest KFI schools, located in Varanasi, where there is a judicious distance from technology based learning. No mobile phones, limited and regulated access to computers, weekly movie shows projected onto a large screen. Though there are classrooms, much learning often happens outside, sitting, walking or talking in the open, in farms and in tinker-sheds, in the practise of art, music and dance, and sports.

References:

  1. https://jkrishnamurti.org/
  2. On Education: J Krishnamurti (http://arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/oneducation.pdf)
  3. Selected essays: Rabindranath Tagore (published in 2004); Rupa&Co

The author has a keen interest and engagement in sustainable development practise. Over twenty-five years she has journeyed through, learnt from, and contributed to, the work of community-based organisations, bilateral aid, and corporate social responsibility organisations. She has taught in the areas of rural management and sustainable development at IRMA Anand, TERI University, Shiv Nadar University, IIM Udaipur and Rajghat Besant School KFI, Varanasi. She serves on the board of Voice4Girls and Timbaktu Collective. She can be reached at  [email protected]

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