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Education for the sake of education

Photo by Ben White 

Do you remember when you last walked for the first time on your own? 

Maybe you don't - probably a memory far too away for you to keep. I remember the first time I was able to sit cross-legged - had been trying for so long and my plump thighs won't allow me to. I remember I was around 4 and returning home with my mom after taking one of those vaccination shots, and as we reached the front door, my mom must have let me sit by the door, and lo, I sat cross-legged. That's my earliest memory of pure joy on having 'achieved' something I tried for.

I also recollect the first few days of my daughter learning to walk - she was all joy, simply walking around. The joy of mobility on your own, the joy of being able to 'discover' the whole house on your own without needing anyone to carry you. Oh the joy!

That joy defines for me what education should be like for all of us - joy! As I read this article, I realised that in today's world where we commercialise everything, education has become very utilitarian - probably why Abhijit Banerjee said: 

"... two of India's great filmmakers - Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal - were economics graduates but chose to walk a different path. Yet, they did fine in life. So, instead of specific training, what is really important is that you are a lively, thoughtful and open human being. That's the most important part."

Steve Jobs, in his celebrated commencement address on Joining the Dots also explained how dropping out was the best decision of his life because he was no longer bound by the curriculum of the university - but could rather drop in any class which he found interesting. If you go through the lives of most innovators and scholars of 15th to 17th centuries, most of them were polymaths not trained in any particular discipline but wanderers who learnt across 'streams' of education - Michaelangelo or Leonardo-da-Vinci or Newton in the West or Ramanujam in India.

How did we get here

Industrialization gave way to mass employment and the need for large masses of people to be trained in performing the same repeatable jobs in large numbers. People, in the early days of industrial civilization, were cogs in a large wheel and thus began today's formal schooling system - designed exactly like a factory. 

Think of a foundry where metal comes in only one form - a bar of metal; and then its molten, then moulded using 'pre-defined' moulds and out come a variety of components in hordes. You will end up with a million gears, ten million screws, twenty million bolts, thousands of rods, pipes and joint pieces. Modern schooling is just like this - we get a million accountants, a million salespeople, a few thousand engineers and doctors, a few hundred MBAs and so on. But, the only problem here is that unlike the bar of metal which the metal components started out as - we humans are all, NOT exactly alike. We're all ourselves already something else, we have poets, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, nature lovers, logicians, argument makers, deep thinkers, glib talkers etc etc.

And this means that when the school is trying to make a million accountants or a hundred engineers - unfortunately, it is trying to mould something which already is; in the process, it first needs to break our current form. But humans, the tenacious species we are, are not broken so easily - which is why you find a Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal come out from an economic education. People learn by discipline but they also learn for the joy of learning and when that happens we get their greats. 

What's happening now?

The core point is that education needs to transform and with the current Covid-19 pandemic disruptions it has already transformed - we will see the effect in as a generation comes through this system. While students still attend (online) schools with a fixed syllabus but now that they're also now used online schooling, they're also more open to exploring so much else - and so much else has also become accessible. Just like Steve Jobs dropped into classes he liked on the Campus, students can find the subjects they like to study and find the an educator for those, online.

Another change that has happened is the blurring of lines between the end of education and the beginning of work life. On one hand, students are taking up internships, social work and other "work like" vocations earlier and earlier in their lives, on the other hand, more and more professionals are walking out of their regular jobs into mid-career re-skilling. Many are also moving into part-time work and part-time education. Remote Work (Work from Home) is also contributing to the growth of this trend among working professionals to pursue other things - education being one of the options - while working.

So finally, we're getting to a point where we will fix the broken system of learning that was created during the 19th and 20th centuries. The reason why we can't see it now is that, unlike the 19th-20th century where the change was instituted from top-down when governments and industrialists funded large universities or school systems, this change is happening ground up - it is more emergent rather than planned, it is a gradual groundswell than a big bang policy shift.

Having said that, the Government of India, with its New Education policy has at least partially helped push these changes in the right direction albeit it is not still 'full steam ahead but it's half-way there. For example, while the NEP does not recognise remote or online education and still makes it mandatory to operate courses through a UGC recognized university system, it does provide ways to unbundle education in a variety of ways. For example the NEP:

  • provides for grant of a certificate / diploma after each year of education - thus making it non-compulsory to mandatorily 'complete' a course for the entire 3 or 4 year period;
  • allows students to take a break in their education and return back after a hiatus to complete it;
  • allows institutions to offer and blend online courses with traditional teaching in undergraduate and vocational programmes;
  • allows flexible curricular structures so that credits from one discipline can be combined with another, along with multiple entry and exit points, thus, removing currently prevalent rigid boundaries and creating new possibilities for life-long learning.

This is a good beginning, even the 'attitude' of the policy as reflected from its language is much more open and thus creates possibilities for the groundswell to leverage. At the least, this policy would not work in a direction opposite to the changes happening in the ecosystem.

The third trend, at least in the developing world, is the mobility of students across continents for education. What started as 'brain drain' with IIT graduates seeking a masters in US universities has blown into a complete industry. No longer is it just the elite students going abroad for education but many - and with so many foreign universities offering so many courses, the cost is not necessarily a big hindrance to getting educated abroad. Some Russian and East European universities offer courses even cheaper than some elite Indian institutions. And to leverage the reverse - i.e. foreign students seeking education in India - the NEP also has provisions for 'Internationalisation' of India education systems.  

Bringing the joy back

Ultimately, all these events - Online Education, Pandemic driven changes, New Education Policy and mobility across continents - will unravel many changes in the way we learn. And while my post is focused on India, many of these changes are global and for others, similar changes are happening across the globe. In future we would have more opportunities to learn for joy of learning itself than for vocational, employment or economic reasons.


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