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:
- English has corrupted Indian minds and has hurt Indian culture
- English is not the only means of progress
- The purpose of education is to develop a feeling and dedication for the country
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.
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.
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.