A crisis of learning

Sometimes disconnected events highlight a certain intellectual continuum and help us see things that are otherwise clouded in rhetoric. This time the issue is education and its true purpose, which has been brought into focus by two disjointed sources — a swami in India and a Republican candidate who was in the running in the current presidential race in the US. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, as he is known, denounced state-run schools at a public function recently in Rajasthan. He sees government schools as breeding grounds for violence and the cradle of radicalisation and Naxalite thinking. The government, he said, is unfit in this role and added that for the good of society the government should move away from education and hand over the responsibility to non-governmental actors.
Whether the swami is familiar with the directive principles which, along with the fundamental rights, embody the noblest values cherished in our Constitution is not clear. For, the compassionate founding fathers of our Constitution had envisioned a very compassionate state that would nurture a humane and egalitarian society. Central to that vision was the right to education and the directive principle on education that saw the state endeavouring to provide education for all, particularly for the poor and the underprivileged.
It is also not clear if Sri Sri was contributing to the ongoing national debate on privatisation of education. At the heart of the current contentious debate are five bills, collectively called the Higher Education Bills, pending before Parliament. It also includes the anguished discussion over the historic Unnikrishnan judgment that reinforced the right to education for all children up to 14 years of age and the subsequent watering down of that right with the 86th Amendment of our Constitution which excluded children up to the age of six. By limiting the right to the 6-14 age group, several poor children lost the right to education and even the right to nutrition. Surely the re-allocation of resources had begun to go in favour of the elite. The recent Supreme Court judgment, which, upholding the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education act, 2009, ruled that all government and unaided private schools should reserve 25 per cent of their seats for poor children in the 6-14 age group, tries to right that wrong, but it seems only to be a marginal mitigation.
For whatever reason Sri Sri wants the government to quit education, the fact is that the current government has been citing lack of government resources to provide education for all. That, perhaps, explains why the task is increasingly being delegated to private players — vide the Supreme Court’s recent judgment, and the Higher Education Bills seek an overarching role for the private sector. While listing the many sides of this keen debate is beyond the purview of our current discussion, they all merit serious consideration if long-term guarantees on education for all, including the poor, are to be secured within our constitutional ambit. Not securing that guarantee will seriously undermine our social peace. The government abdicating one of its core responsibilities and hoping that the profit motive will deliver a key social goal, such as education, is moonshine talk.
If Sri Sri sees the government’s involvement in education as deeply flawed, the Republican Rick Santorum holds that the idea of college education itself is completely flawed. He has likened colleges to “indoctrination mills” that destroy religious faith. Perhaps, for him, a secular outlook is anathema. He went on to say at a campaign stop in Michigan that “there are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.” It is from this remark of Mr Santorum and Sri Sri’s disapproval of the state’s role that we get a positional fix on the crux of the debate.
What is the true purpose of education? Is it to help us become economically useful humans with, as Mr Santorum says, skills that are put to use in everyday life, or is the purpose of education, through knowledge, to liberate us to a higher living for which we all have the potential, and desire? Should education make us conform or should it encourage us to question? But Mr Santorum does not subscribe to the liberating value of education.
The dominant neo-liberal discourse of our times tends to pin every aspect of our life on an economic scale, reducing man to homo economicus. This indeed is a sad commentary on our times. The state’s support has been shrinking for universities even in the richer parts of the globe, more so in the wake of the financial crisis. As funds dry up at many universities worldwide, especially for courses that do not have an immediate applied value, the nature and character of universities have begun to change. Universities have to look for funding sources from corporate and private sectors to sustain themselves, and from being centres of learning and knowledge, they are turning into R&D centres of some sectors of the economy. Skills have come to be valued more than learning. If education were to follow a business or an economic agenda we would then face the greatest impoverishment of our times. Education needs to remain in the public domain. Learning has to be freed from the fetters of dogmas, both religious and economic.
This crisis of learning that is unfolding in the present day is not entirely new to mankind. It is an age-old debate and conflict. Ancient Greece, had fostered Hellenic free thought for centuries, having laid the foundation of modern philosophy and theories of knowledge, had to face its crisis of learning, too. Plato’s famous Academy, founded in 387 BC, saw its end when the overzealous Christian Roman Emperor Justinian I closed it down, as was subversive in the emperor’s view. That great centre of learning went into oblivion after 900 years of glorious existence. And there have been other similar instances throughout history. Learning and inquiry, however, did not stop. Mankind’s resilience has defied imagination and we have corrected our course and regained our wise ways before. We need to do that once again, now more than ever.

The author is an IT consultant and freelance writer based in The Hague, Netherlands. He can be
contacted at wildranga@yahoo.co.uk

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