Posts tagged universal education


What is the purpose of education? A discussion in the context of India

Coming a day before Guru Purnima - an important Hindu and Buddhist occasion to acknowledge the importance of your teacher in your life – this post is quite apt in its timing. Recently, some public figures in India made statements that made me quite uneasy. These comments were to the following effect:

IndianSchoolSome of these statements were taken out of context (see below). However, these statements got me thinking. What IS the purpose of education anyways? and is English really a culprit?

A brief Google search leads me to the following “goals”:

  • To prepare children for citizenship
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce
  • To teach cultural literacy
  • To help students become critical thinkers
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace

Yes, education is supposed to attain these goals. However, I believe the primary function of education is to achieve two objectives:

  • Make a man capable of asking questions
  • Impart him the ability to seek answers

Everything else is secondary and arises from the satisfaction of these two objectives. Is nation-building the most important task of education? It is, in terms of policy. But from the point of view of the student, it definitely is not. The purpose of education is simply to make the student aware of the world around him and give him the ability to go beyond what is already known through his own synthesis. This may include asking questions about how the country is being run and what crop to plant in a given season to finding cures for cancer. In terms of policy, education is supposed to create responsible, patriotic citizens with a love for the country and awareness of its civil structure. Sadly, it is true that the Indian education system has failed even from a policy perspective.

In addition, I believe that India, today and over the past, has also failed miserably in satisfying the primary  objectives of education. Hence, we have hundreds of thousands of students graduating our colleges, but hardly a fifth of them being actually employable. Our failed education system is the reason why only 1 or 2 Indian universities (out of 11,000!!)  end up being recognized among the top 200 in the world, and why Indian high-school students fail to make a mark in any international test of learning performance.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be distilled wisdom of the ages.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be the distilled wisdom of the ages.

Why has it failed? In my opinion, one of the culprits, relevant in the context of this post and Guru Purnima, is the belief that Gurus and elders should be respected, never questioned and obeyed faithfully – because they know best! One of the popular shlokas recited by every school student goes like this:

Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah



— (Skanda Purana, Guru Gita by Sage Vyasa)

which equates the teacher to the all powerful trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The Guru is the supreme God. The student should worship and pray to him with all his heart.

Even today, rote learning and marks and grades are given more value than imparting “real education”. The priorities and the purpose of education, sadly, is not clear.

A system based on adherence to Guru’s teachings, on faith in elders and scriptures or that based on rote learning can never foster critical thinking, unless the Guru himself encourages such behavior. Even the first objective of education has not been satisfied by the Indian education system!

But lets assume that that objective is indeed satisfied. You don’t need English to gain the ability to ask questions. Traditionally, we have had great thinkers who have tackled serious questions on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, physics etc., without the knowledge of English. So, yes, for the first objective, English is not needed.

But what about the second objective? The thinkers and scientists of yore – Patanjali, Kanad, Aryabhatta, Susruta – did remarkable things. But they could only succeed because they knew the prevalent language of their day – Sanskrit. Just like that, if you don’t know English today, you can ask all the questions you want but you will be extremely limited in your ability to seek answers.

That too depends on the field. If you want answers related to philosophical questions, sure, India has more literature on that than any nation on the planet. However, you will never know what Plato said or what Popperian science is or how philosophy is being reinterpreted in the light of neurological discoveries. If you want to get into political science, you might learn the teachings of Chanakya and views of our eminent freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak on how the government should be run, but you will not know how Magna Carta came into existence, why democracy is the prevalent political system of today and how United Nations operates. If you want to know about science, forget about it if you don’t know English.

Percentage of people who speak English in each country of the earth (2013)

Thus, I argue that in today’s world English is the most important, if not the ONLY means to achieve progress. Now someone might say, “Hey, China manages to progress without English! South Korea and Japan do it! Why should WE bow before the Western world?” Well, that’s a fallacious argument in the first place. China educates its people in Mandarin, but the people who hack into computers of the NSA or those who build turbines and design massive buildings cannot do it without learning more from books or from the Internet which are English-based systems. They may translate those books into Chinese, but that cannot argue against the fact that English is the absolute medium for information transfer today.

History is witness to the fact that civilizations have progressed only with the influx and exchange of new ideas. Civilizations that failed to encourage new thoughts and failed to encourage sharing of ideas ended up as closed and insulated, and finally perished. If we end up keeping our children from English, espousing regional languages over English for the sake of nationalism and place a priority on the study of our ancient scriptures over modern scientific knowledge, then we risk cultural stagnation.

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting regional languages should be thrown in the back…it is absolutely important to know your roots and your culture to be a responsible citizen of the country. This is just an argument for why English should not be thrown in the back.

Finally, about the statement that English ends up corrupting our minds…well, as usual, it was twisted by the media. The context of that statement was different (see video below, starting at 6:10), but I still have issues with some statements in that speech, which I will leave for discussion on another day.






Donate a school kit to a needy child!

The School Kit Donation Drive is an interesting and innovative initiative by the people at Seva Sahayog, an NGO based in Mumbai and Pune. Many NGOs are small in size and do not have sufficient manpower or experience in fundraising. However, they do really important work, which, if it becomes more well-known, can surely attract funding from big donors. Seva Sahayog works towards connecting such smaller NGOs to corporate institutions of similar interests. Beneficiaries of Seva Sahayog’s activities include NGOs like Bhatke Vimukta Vikas Pratishthan, which is working for development of nomadic tribes in interior Maharashtra and Chaitanya Mahila Mandal, which is working for bettering the lives of sex workers in Pune.

One of Seva Sahayog’s biggest initiative is the School Kit Donation Drive. In India, almost 300 million people live on <$1/day. The density of the poor is higher in bigger cities due to the massive amount of poor, migrant labor, much of which lives in slums and poorly managed neighborhoods. Children who live in such neighborhoods rarely get access to education. One of the frequent complaints is that, despite all the government subsidies, education is too expensive. Buying uniforms, buying school books, investing time towards studies, lack of a quiet place for studying are all barriers that children from slums face. It is not surprising then, that the drop out rate in primary schools in India is 20%. 1 in 5 children just cannot afford even primary level education!

There are several NGOs working towards tacking these problems. For example, Swaroop Wardinee is an NGO based in Pune working towards identifying talent in slums. There are NGOs based in Mumbai working towards educating children who live on railway platforms and bus stations. Astitva Pratishthan, for example, runs educational programs for children of laborers who work in Sugarcane plantations in Marathwada district of Maharashtra.

Since 2008, Seva Sahayog started this initiative of distribution of school kits to children targeted by such institutions. Each school kit includes a school bag, some notebooks, a geometry compass and a drawing book. Volunteers of Seva Sahayog approach various corporate bodies as well as collect donations from individuals. Only 250 rupees can give one needy child a school kit and ensure his education for one more year. In 2011, more than 25,000 school kits were donated to children in Mumbai and Pune.

All of you reading this post have been fortunate enough to be educated. We understand the value of education and its importance not only in our own personal development but also in the development of our country. I hope you will click the link below and donate as much as you can towards making this initiative successful and helping it reach out to more children.

Please click here for donation details.



Educating the adult population

Education for the masses

According the 2011 Census, India’s population is 1.2 billion – one sixth of the world’s humanity. By 2050, India’s population will be 1.6 billion, surpassing that of China. Keeping these 1.6 billion people happy is a monumental challenge. If the unemployment rate in 2050 remains the same as today – at 10% – there will be 160 million unemployed people in India. That is more than the current population of Russia! To satisfy this ocean of humanity, India will have to not only create jobs in current sectors of the economy but also create new sectors, allow for development and propagation of new ideas and create social change that trickles down to the bottom of the pyramid. Now, people can throw in all sort of indices, talk about the rising GDP of India and increasing market capitalization to suggest that India is progressing. But all of this is unsustainable if the society becomes chaotic. The big question before the country is – how do we maintain peace and stability in the country 50 years from now?

Educating the adult population

The most fundamental solution to this conundrum is education for the masses. Successive governments in India have recognized this problem and that is why we have a National Literacy Mission and Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan in place since 1988 and 2001 respectively. The Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan is targeted towards primary education (6-14 age group) and intends to get the ~200 million children in India to go to some sort of a school. The aim of the NLM program is to impart functional literacy to all non-literate persons in 15-35 age group, where “functional literacy” is a key word. Functional literacy means being able to read, write and calculate and being aware of the civic society around. With this definition and through these initiatives, functional literacy in India has reached up to 74% – 65% for females and 82% for males – from 12% in 1947. NLM claims that 120 million people have been made literate since the program started. Innovative concepts like Ekal Vidyalayhave also contributed to children going to schools, especially in rural parts of India.

However, the question is, are these efforts sufficient? Despite spectacular progresses, India still has the largest population of illiterates in the world. Estimates suggest that the rate of growth of literacy is sluggish and that if the same rate continues, India will take another half a century to be fully functionally literate. Again, remember that all these statistics talk only about functional literacy. In a survey of 16,000 villages, an NGO found that 60% of the school going children were unable to perform simple division. The dropout rates even in primary school are high – around 20%. were Despite obtaining school-level education, studies indicate that more than 80% of the children do not go on to attend college. Of those that attend college, over 70% are unemployable. It is no surprise that Indian students perform poorly in nearly all international indicators of education quality.

In a few decades, the competition for resources in India will start getting more acute. There will arise individuals who will begin to take advantage of peoples’ pains and use them for electoral/monetary gains. Not that such individuals dont exist now, but the conflict will only grow in the coming decades. What we’d need is enlightened leaders – not just one or two but in hundreds of thousands. We’ll need leaders with vision and zeal. Creating such leaders is rarely possible without good education. So while the goals of the Sarvya Shiksha Abhiyan and NLM are noble and should be continued, it is absolutely important to create systems where the leaders of tomorrow will thrive and grow. We need an education system that not only educates the masses but also elevates the masses.

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