When Education Destroys Us…

It was a moment of pleasant surprise. The other day a young bright girl asked me a pertinent question: ‘Sir, what, according to you, are the three problems of our education system?” Yes, this question from a young mind made me immensely happy. Generally, in the age of mass culture, consumerism, gross politics and job-oriented education, this sort of question is hardly asked. It is almost taken for granted that education is the way it operates through our formal centres of learning – schools, colleges and universities; it is nothing but graded learning: a process of acquisition of academic and technical skills through prescribed texts, ritualization of examinations, and resultant hierarchization of human minds. And it is believed that the ‘successful’ ones deserve to get good jobs, and the rest are destined to carry the stigma of ‘failure’.

Possibly, this young girl, I felt, thinks differently; possibly, she is striving for a new mode of education. And hence, with intense zeal and positive life-energy, I began to converse with her.  And in this brief article, let me share with the readers the way I reflected on her question, and tried to make sense of the three problems confronting our education system.

Confusing knowledge with information, and wisdom with knowledge

To begin with, as I see, we have confused knowledge with information, and wisdom with knowledge. With the widespread practice of rote learning, and memorization of hard facts presented in prescribed textbooks, a young learner’s mind is filled with bundles of information. And quite often, one’s level of learning is evaluated on the basis of the stock of information one has possessed. Well, information as such is not unimportant; it is nice to know when, say, Akbar was born, or the name of the President of Tanzania, or a trigonometric formula. But then, information is just a fact; it is dead. What is required is the aliveness of the knowledge that enables one to make sense of these facts. For instance, to take a simple illustration, it is not a bad idea to know the date of the historic Poona Pact. However, when one moves further, and acquires the knowledge of social history, one begins to make sense of this information. One understands the minds of Gandhi and Ambedkar, the kind of social stratification that characterizes Indian society, and the different readings of the dynamics of caste and nation, and the meaning of the freedom struggle. In other words, because of the exercise of the mind or intellect, there is a jump – from information to explanation, or from the power of memory to the skill of understanding.

The sad part of our education is that for most of the learners, this jump does not take place. One acquires only information, and is forced to carry its heavy load. Moreover, these days the popularity of ‘objective’ tests (or what is regarded as the MCQ pattern of examination) has further devalued the significance of the explanatory/interpretative knowledge. But then, as I wish to argue, even the knowledge one acquires is not the real substance of liberating education. Well, the acquisition of knowledge–say, in history or literature, geography or mathematics, and physics or philosophy– needs the cultivation of the mind and intellect; and we have indeed produced great intellectuals and scholars–scientists, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists. Yet, there is something called wisdom. Wisdom is not just about the power of the intellect; it is the highest stage of human consciousness. It is awakening. It is intuition. It is love. Again, to take a simple illustration, Gautam Buddha, to use the prevalent vocabulary, was not a quiz master filled with all sorts of information or hard facts, he was not an encyclopedia; nor was he like a ‘knowledgeable’ professor of philosophy in a modern university. However, he saw and realized something beyond the realm of bookish knowledge. With his wisdom, he saw the roots of human suffering; and he sought to enlighten us. Likewise, Kabir, unlike a traditional scholar of religious texts, was full of wisdom. He could do what you and I could not, even if we read all the scriptures of the world.

I am speaking of a journey–from memory to intellect to intuitive awakening or wisdom. Our education puts excessive importance to information and knowledge, or the power of memory and reasoning. However, it is not so concerned about wisdom; our ‘scientism’ devalues it as it is beyond measurement and categories. Is it the reason why the modern times–although characterized by the proliferation of research centres, universities, scholars, scientists and intellectuals– are so violent, restless and neurotic?

Producing a fragmented and and fractured consciousness

The other problem confronting our education system is that its highest goal is the cultivation of the intellect or the mind. It is one-dimensional because it undermines many other faculties of seeing, feeling, experiencing, knowing and doing. For instance, it is through love that we understand human pain and suffering; and with heightened compassion, we transcend the otherness of the ‘other’. It is through poetic sensitivity that we find a meaning in the world–a tree whispers, a sunset sings the song of the melancholy of death, and a tiny blue flower enchants a disenchanted world. Or, it is through the kinetic energy of the body that we use our hands and legs, produce life-affirming things, and learn through doing. However, these faculties are devalued in the name of the intellect or the power of abstract reason. We exercise our minds, we apply the faculty of reason, we read books, we write scholarly papers, and we produce knowledge. But then, in the entire exercise we miss the spirit of life. We erect the walls of separation: brain from heart, reason from intuition, fact from value, science from poetry, mental from manual, and theory from practice. In other words, with the prevalent practice of education, we become more and more fagmented, divided and hence, soulless. Is it also the reason why we are becoming more and more instrumental and cunning? Is it the reason why universities–even the ‘top ranking’ universities–generate inflated egos,and make us cleverer, not necessarily wiser?

Destroying uniqueness – the possibility of inner flowering

And finally, the prevalent practice of education destroys the possibility of inner flowering. With a reckless process of comparison and standardization, it negates the uniqueness of a learner. As a result, it breeds the psychology of envy, jealousy, inferiority and superiority Imagine that I am a young student. Far from respecting and nurturing my own possibility, I would be driven to become like someone else–say, the IIT topper, or someone with a record-making performance in the board examination. I would forget my own likes and dislikes; I would live only to ‘prove’ something before a society that only judges, but never understands; I would live with fear, anxiety, terrible insecurity and neurotic performance anxiety. Yes, this process is inherently life-killing and violent. And nobody is a winner in this game. At a deeper level, everyone is a loser. One who is ‘successful’ is terribly anxiety-ridden because there is acute fear that somebody else can become more ‘successful’. In other words, in the name of ‘ambition’, we often lose ourselves. Life becomes inauthentic. It is a futile and ceaseless exercise for achieving and retaining an image, a status or a position.

Well, meaningful education must enable us to know our possibilities, and encourage us to work on ourselves. To take a simple illustration, I may not be good in physics or history or even music and painting; but I am just an ‘ordinary’ being with human sensitivity. If there is truly life-affirming education, it would not stigmatize me, or generate a sense of inferiority within me. Instead, it would encourage me to trust my own treasure, and help me for inner flowering. It would tell me that a rose is a rose, a lotus is a lotus, and let a thousand flowers bloom without comparison, and with uniqueness. Well, it may help me to learn something about physics and history; but it would never insist that I am useless if my interest does not lie in these subjects.

It is really sad that with the standardization of ambitions and a culture of comparison, we are destroying human possibilities. Yes, this sort of education has failed us.

What is the solution? I have no instant answer to this question. However, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the problem; and only then can we move towards a paradigm shift.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.


  1. A very insightful reflection from an experienced teacher and educationist. Sometimes I feel we as young students are becoming literate but not educated. The tragedy of our education system is that it has produced machines rather than human beings; photocopies and not originals. It is too mechanistic to be enchanting and too monolithic to be enlightening and liberating.


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