The purpose of education

In the pool of GRE issue topics there is one which says “Education should be equally devoted to enriching the personal lives of students and to training students to be productive workers”

I feel that this statement is a bit absurd. To say this is to imply that the two outcomes are mutually disjoint. The truth is that being productive at work is just one of the many things that enrich a person’s life. As such, a holistic approach to education would never give it more or even an equal priority as it would give to the broader aim of making life more meaningful.

In fact, if we consider the workplace of today, we would find that for the majority of professions, the training required is minuscule. Take the IT and ITES sector for example, a junk of the booming India’s engine. The skills needed to make good software engineer do not require even a fraction of the time that a person spends in school. This is true for other non-engineering jobs as well. Most of what we learn in school does not influence our productivity directly.

But it does contribute to this process indirectly. A passion for arts, literature; an interest in sports; an ear for music; a sense of empathy – these are the things that enrich our personal lives and bring a sense of meaning to our lives. They help us put things in perspective and in varying degrees, through myriad modes; they make us better at work. Consequently they require a much greater share of a school’s curriculum than vocational or technical training.

There are other reasons why this is the need of the hour. A reflection over the attributes required in today’s workplace would reveal that social skills and networking ability count much more than vocational talents to succeed and move up the corporate ladder. This is simply the outcome of how human beings are wired. All of us would prefer to work with an agreeable and pleasant friend than with an introvert and socially inept grouch. A person who is more fulfilled within can co-operate better and help others around him produce more. This sense of team-work is something that the technically oriented institutes dangerously lack.

It is important to understand that developing these soft skills and other essential qualities come under the realm of education and are a responsibility not of the students but of the school itself. A minor does not know what is good for him. His experience of life is too limited. He cannot form a framework upon which to build future ideas. So leaving him free to explore at this age would be dangerous. Instead, a balanced curriculum from the school can introduce him to different areas and this can act as a catalyst which helps him discover his interest to proceed further. This would prevent him from becoming a tool of the workplace’s whim and give him a sense of individuality.

Every year more than 2 million graduates are churned out in India [1]. And yet, the spirit of entrepreneurship which drives forward a developed country is miserably lacking in them. One of the most important reasons for this is the highly ‘impersonal’ education system that we have. An overdose of focus on work related education, leads them to rote learning. Ironically this does not make them more productive at work in the sense that it stifles any out-of-the-box thinking they might have and does irreparable damage to their creativity. This mechanical system of education is like an assembly line production which throws out workers, most of them fed on public money, who have no more resourcefulness than a dead vegetable.

Contrast this with the education system of the United States and we would understand why they produce better human-capital than us. The heavy-focus on personality development there instills in them, essential leadership skills and a sense of confidence that Indian students can only dream to achieve. It also improves their sense of humor, another important quality to succeed professionally which Indians lack. It makes them ambitious and pushes them to ask life for more. Contrast this with the laid back attitude the ‘technically educated’ Indians have about themselves. It would be difficult to find an Indian who is not proud of the “world-class” education India has and how India is becoming the IT hub of this world and how we would rule the next world order.

The truth is that “for all our vaunted world-class scientists, doctors and engineers, India ranks miserably in the number of scientists and technicians it has: 0.3 such per 1,000 populations. Compare that to: China 0.6, Islamic Rep of Iran 0.7, South Africa 1.7, Korea 2.9.”

Or take the IT myth. “We account for less than 1% of the global $600 billion IT business. Remember we represent 17% of the world’s population. Even if we were to increase our share 10 times (and this is unreasonable by any account) we’d still be below the world average” [2]

But the ‘technically educated” Indian whose back-breaking education system has left him with no time to understand and ponder over the reality of this world would be too ignorant to notice it.

This is the reason why Indians generally work for others (India has the highest remittance inflows in the world- 35262 million USD [3]). This is also the reason why we rank so low on the education index (Rank 142 with a shameful EI of 0.648 [4]). In fact if we think about the mentality such an education breeds, we would also understand why the ratio of the richest 10 % to the poorest 10 % in India is a dismal 8.6 [3].

The truth is that the most ‘productive’ work of this world has come out of scientists/entrepreneurs/artists that have not been ‘educated’ for it. I do not need to think hard for giving examples. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Dhirubhai Ambani; most of the personalities who have driven mankind forward serve as a testimony to this fact.

Even amongst the mere mortals like us, a good number of us change the course of our career over time rendering our ‘technically specific’ education less useful than other social skills.

Giving more stress to enriching lives by education is necessary on a still more important note. ‘Impersonal’ education is a major reason behind 41% of Indian students not reaching even grade 5 [5]. “Even if the solution to India’s education problems were as little as a week’s worth of clean drinking water, India would still be in less trouble. Around 60% of Indians don’t have access to clean drinking water”[2]. Talk about education not enriching personal lives! This is simply too criminal to ignore or understate.

“The most devastating impact of this our dismal educational system is that we are condemning ourselves to a future of exceedingly low economic development. If there is one thing that developmental economists have learnt, it is this: education is the most important factor in economic growth. Education has more impact on economic growth than natural resources, foreign investment, exports, imports, whatever. Neglect education and you may as well hang yourself and save yourself the pain of a slow miserable death” [2].

And by education we do not mean a myopic vocational training. By education we mean a more inclusive approach to a student’s self development, a more ‘personalized’ approach to his learning that would make him a more responsible citizen and not just a clog in the machine of this world.

(Written on Oct 24, 2008)

 

References:

[1] BBC report, Jan 2007

[2] Atanu Dev, ‘Who Actually paid for my Education?’, originally published in soc.culture.Indian in 2000, http://www.deeshaa.org/who-actually-paid-for-my-education

[3] Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program, 2009

[4] Human development Report, United Nations Development Program, Dec 18 2008

[5] United Nations Development Report, 1999

 

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