By Surya Vishwa/Harmony page/DailyFT
Reacting to an earlier article of mine entitled: ‘A case for integrated knowledge to be introduced in school curricula’, a friend said I was making knowledge sound so romantic. I told her she got it exactly right and explained to her that students should be taught to be enthusiastic about knowledge so that they fall in love with it.
I also told her that teachers should be continuous students; always in the quest of knowledge – seeing it as a continuing entity and not as something having an end, if they are to inspire students. An uninspired teacher cannot inspire students.
Knowledge should not be made to be a tinsel bargaining chip gained for surface value of belonging in a world that has lost its humaneness and meaning; which is what the modern education sector, founded as a pillar of the era of industrialization has done.
Anyone who has made something meaningful of a branch of knowledge and uses it to serve the world to truly make a change (as Amartya Sen did with economics) knows that knowledge cannot be perfected unless one truly cares for it. One cannot truly care for knowledge when all one wants is to pass an exam and get a job. One cannot truly care for knowledge unless we question and make each child question as to the purpose of obtaining knowledge. The purpose has to rise above the pettiness of being ‘given a job’ after passing an exam. Instead, we should motivate children to be creators; job creators by being idea creators – children who will be adults who create new things by looking at knowledge in deep introspective ways and putting these thoughts into practice.
If we honestly seek educational reforms, we should seek solutions for the problems the world faces – mostly created by modern education itself. Sir Ken Robinson a highly respected British education reformer who showed consistently how the industrial age education system unleashed on the world is dying of uselessness was Director of the Arts in Schools Project and Professor of Arts Education at the University of Warwick. Those who attempt to remove the mechanization from education should definitely study the work of Ken Robinson.
What should be reiterated is that knowledge which is gained for petty trade off; for a social position, for a job, for survival cannot create a meaningful world. At best it can create apathy and frustration and at worst greed or vice. This is why we have technology created by modern knowledge used more for the destruction of the planet and humans than for safeguarding it. We have failed to incorporate into the modern education system empathy that should be formulated as a solid foundation before technicalities of knowledge are passed on.
Societies such as Sri Lanka which had a rich pre-colonial education structure in the form of the Gurukula tradition should take a cue, if it is seriously pursuing education reforms, as to how the idea of knowledge was conceptualized in ancient times in this country. There is scope to introduce our ancient apprentice system innovatively into the current education reforms to create children who can do things as opposed to merely write exam answers.
If we include our heritage values and knowledge into the current changes we want to see within education reforms it will create an empathy-based knowledge structure which will constantly make the student question as to how she or he could perfect that particular discipline analytically while never forgetting the importance of simplicity, traditional knowledge, country’s history and overall humane purpose and duty of knowledge accumulation. A country cannot progress if it cuts itself off from its heritage – and this is one of the things that is wrong with the modern knowledge systems in much of the world. The very rich ancient cultures, values, thoughts and indigenous knowledge systems are suppressed in the name of modern Western science-based knowledge. Should this be so?
Knowledge is a vast sea. In this sea we are all fishermen. We catch the fish. We think we have caught the ocean; that we have mastered the sea. But in fact, we have caught just one fish – or two or three or ten. The sea awaits us. That far horizon tells us that we have a whole range of knowledge in its entirety to explore.
Modern knowledge that is clueless
We today have modern knowledge that is clueless to explain past expertise. Try asking a Lankan engineer just how exactly water engineering was carried out by the ancient Sinhalese who created Sigiriya. I tried many times and was told that this is not taught to Sri Lankan engineers. It is not taught because it is not included in Western engineering concepts and we are blindly following the Western model of education with no mental or emotional connection to our past expertise in this realm of knowledge.
This heritage based and contextual disconnectedness accompanied by a lack of thinking of anything seemingly beyond comprehension begins in the school system as we know it today. A school system we have made so excruciatingly formal and dismal and dreary but where at the end of it we hardly know what we should know.
Have we ever thought about the meaninglessness of our Grade 5 scholarship system and that it prevents rural schools from developing, while making young children robots of memorization? Speaking to children about what they ‘love’ about school very rarely will I get an answer that they ‘love’ a particular subject. And when a student says he or she ‘love’ a subject, you can see the difference in the manner in which it is said. The entire face lights up as they explain what they love about a subject.
But does our education system encourage such enthusiasm? Does it encourage curiosity? Are our tired, overworked, underpaid school teachers connected with any emotion or remotely connected with enthusiasm, curiosity and joy about the subject they are teaching? Are teachers themselves curious to learn something new every day about the subject they teach? On the contrary one hears horrific stories.
A university student of mine; an extremely gifted thinker whose thought processes are unique and whose reading choices are vast, told me how she loved maths as a teen. She emphasized the word love. She loved mathematics. She absolutely loved maths and she was scoring very high for this subject at term tests. In the mathematics class she would be constantly thinking how a particular mathematical problem could be solved in a shorter, different, more innovative, more radical manner than how it is taught formally. She had a fan club of others students – she could teach them maths in an interesting way. The class mathematics teacher/s could not do this. It must have been apparent to the teachers that she was above them in both techniques of handling mathematics.
This student was a clear Ramanujan in the making. Srinivasa Ramanujan was an Indian mathematician who made significant contributions to the world of mathematics although he had almost no formal training. As for this student of mine – how did the teachers react? They get her parents down to school and told them that their daughter has a mental problem and forced them to take her to a psychiatrist! Thankfully the parents took her to a sensible child psychiatrist who after talking in detail with the child and being so impressed with her knowledge of mathematics had three solutions; 1. For the teachers to be taught maths by this child. 2. For the teachers to be brought to her (the psychiatrist). 3. If neither the 1st or 2nd option worked, for the said teachers to promptly be sacked from their teaching positions.
In my long conversations with this student, I constantly tell her to keep up her original yearning to change the face of mathematics in how it surfaces in schools. A mind like this could make a major contribution to the current education system to prevent teachers from ruining children’s connection with this subject perceived as difficult by many and creating failures through the Ordinary Level examination (because teachers do not know how to teach maths).
In an earlier article on integrated knowledge this writer showed how mathematics is a vital component of both music and art. If only teachers know such information which they could use to give life to the subject.
Anyone who knows the basics about love will know that love cannot be forced. It is not as if one can write on a blackboard with white chalk and command; from this moment you will love Science or Maths or Geography or Art or Dance, or Poetry or Medicine or Cookery or Engineering or Forestry. What specific branch of knowledge chooses you will be decided by a sublime connection between the brain and the heart and probably genetics and many other factors.
A school education system should be geared to allow children to develop a deep connection of love with a branch of knowledge that is most suited to their inborn mental and emotional make up. This is not what happens today. After some 15 or so years of school education we often have jaded minds, because the education system has killed all of the love that should be there in a child’s heart and mind for knowledge.
In a recent conversation Vimukthi Jayasundara, one of Sri Lanka’s internationally acclaimed film makers, described Sri Lanka’s education system as one dedicated to ‘creating failures.’ He had written an article for this page on these lines. The link is as follows:
Jayasundara was fortunate to have a wise father who was also a teacher who allowed his son to totally break free from the current warped institutionalized knowledge system before it ruined his mind. The result is Sri Lanka having a world-renowned film maker who is now also conducting trainings on how creativity could be boosted within the mind.
Meanwhile speaking informally last week with one of the members of the education reforms committee members I suggested to her to get the assistance of Sri Lanka’s artistes in creating meaningful education reforms. Sri Lanka has some of the world’s best artistes in various spheres. It might also be a great boon to their overall task, if all members of the education reforms committee and other officials connected with this exercise watch two films created on the concept of knowledge and the education system – one is the Sri Lankan Sinhala language film Vishama Baga directed by Lalith Rathnayake and produced by Ven. Aludeniye Subodhi Thero for Shraddha Film Productions. The other is the Indian comic-drama film Three Idiots directed by Rajkumar Hirani and produced by Vindhu Vinod Chopra. Both the films, set in different frameworks of storytelling, focus on the same theme; the need to re-examine the modern robotics of education.
A truly educated person should not have to live life as a mere drudgery, an exchange for survival, a trade off that saps your time on this earth with neither meaning nor passion.
A truly educated mind
A truly educated mind actually puts the brain to do the task that it should do – think – create – question – read – create – act – implement. Rote learning would not encourage this. When I finally ended up getting a university degree, I was told repeatedly by my professors not to ‘over read’ and ‘over think’ and that it will affect me getting a ‘First Class.’ I told them that I am not in the least bothered and that I am not pursuing university education for getting either a piece of paper or rank but rather as a stepping stone to broaden my thinking and exposure to knowledge – because I love it – and because I want to be able to try and create new ideas and practical initiatives that will be meaningful.
Sri Lanka’s internationally acclaimed innovator Dr. Nandadasa Narayana, a major critic of this country’s rote learning menace, laments that Sri Lanka’s percentage of those who are categorized as entrepreneurs is somewhere around 3% when Vietnam, a country which surmounted so much of serious post-war challenges, is about six times higher.
How on earth can we create children who will invent and innovate and become entrepreneurs when their brains are clogged with textbooks and are hijacked by the tuition mafia? How can we create entrepreneurs/inventors when there is nothing remotely connected to encouraging invention/creation of new ideas in schools?
In my earlier article promoting integrated knowledge, I looked at how education should be a way to solve society’s problems.
Problems are solved when children and adults are made to think about them and create solutions. Right now, the biggest problem is the education system! The fact that a youth of 22 who had entered university can become a vicious ragger of other youth to the point of bringing death shows that what we have masquerading as education is definitely something damningly warped. Probably one reason is that we have moved very far away from nature. An Indian educator once told me that if education is to truly represent that word, it should be re-introduced under trees and not brick-made prisons.
There are many scientific studies that show the power of nature to heal and motivate our minds – reading a book under a tree is certainly different from reading it in a brick-made library. Since education reforms involve many aspects that could be considered, one is for children to be freed from these brick-made confinements and taken to nature where like in the age old Gurukula system we had, they will learn diverse disciplines being aware that we are part of nature and that whatever that we create out of knowledge should not destroy nature.
There we will have the learning of values and ethics incorporated into the knowledge structure – which will be the ultimate game changer. This will be a vital component of equating knowledge with the most noble of emotions; unconditional and selfless love that great philosophies such as Buddhism teaches us.