Education: Unbalanced and Brain damaging

A few days back a participant in a group discussion on TV (Doordharshan Podhigai) narrated a case of an exam oriented upbringing of a youth and its consequence. The youth’s father always ensured that he studied hard to score consistently high marks at school examinations and after school he won admission into a reputed Engg. college. But once he moved into hostel and became free from his father’s control his academic performance started declining and he ended up, startlingly, as a rogue element in the college. The narrator warned that exclusively exam oriented parental control may produce white collared criminals – a term for the academically qualified but corrupt.

“Exclusive importance to success, career and money”1 is not only the obsession of  parents but also educational institutions and governments. Schools excepting the few that try to follow alternative education essentially adopt the spirit of the strict Head Master of the industrial era. Though he can’t wack his wards with a cane any more as it is illegal he employs other means to carry on his mission.  The educational departments of governments through boards of examination and universities have the singular goal of churning out manpower for service and manufacturing sectors for the economic growth of the country and have no vision beyond that. They put in place a huge centralised system of examinations and provide the legal sanction and respectability to a fundamentally skewed education. The best schools are supposed to be the ones that get 100% pass results and all schools, (excepting those run by governments because they lack ambition), vie to attain that distinction. They try to achieve this through confinement of students to school premises from nine to five and superficial disciplines such as uniform, personal identification cards, overdose of  tests and special classes. Some schools have gone to the extent of surveillance by cameras to catch students who cheat their examinations. Schools that act like juvenile day prisons than enlightening centres of education are the ones preferred by parents who are ready to pay higher fees for the so called  “strict education”.  These schools dismiss a student or disallow him from appearing for the examination if he may spoil the school’s quest for 100% pass result. Last month there was a newspaper report that a youth studying ITI course in Chennai committed suicide because he was not allowed to appear in the exam due to poor attendance. That is an example of cold hearted bureaucracy for young hearts. I remember an instance when a teacher wanted to expel a student because he was not regular and had absented himself for a month. I reminded the teacher that in his own life he would have seen many students who could pass the exams in spite of being irregular. He reluctantly consented and the boy sailed through his exam.

Managements of the 100% result hunting institutions let loose a tyranny of the academic kind for success in examinations. Some months back a friend of mine met a private school teacher from Coimbatore on a train journey. He was curious to see him sitting up at 5 am on the train and writing notes and correcting test papers. The teachers said his job in private schools was highly stressful and they were forced to wake up students in their hostels early in the morning to make them study and hold special classes late into evenings and holidays.

It is well known that most schools neglect the physical development or sports activities of the students and the sport facilities are either non-existent and if they do exist are non functional. It‘s importance is totally lost on schools. I know personally of a school that got nearly Rs. 10 lakhs as donation but spent just 1% of it for sports goods. All the rest went for purchasing branded computers which usually become obsolete in three years. That money could have been used to make infrastructure and benefited all students in stead of a few classes for a few  years.  Also, whatever sports that happen in most schools becomes the first casualty when an exam schedule approaches.

Apart from the lack of overall progress resulting in psychologically and physically ill developed youth what is largely not known or looked into is that this societal madness for success masquerading as education can be detrimental to the cerebral health of youth. Sri Aurobindo who worked as a teacher and Principal in colleges in Vadodara and Kolkata a century ago wrote in his essay National Education that the type of education in our universities – which is similarly oriented towards success as in schools though there is comparatively more freedom in terms of choice of subjects of study and less teacher tyranny in universities– damages the faculties and mental instruments of learning of man2. If that is possible in colleges it is more so in schools. What he observed stands true today as it was then.  Any student of conventional education would have experienced that memorising text that one has not understood, or finds irrelevant or simply not interested in learning but  do it for the sake of passing the exams strains the brain. When drilled to do so consistently the over loaded neural circuits in the brains are bound to get impaired. It is a recipe for cerebra-neural short circuits within human heads that maybe irreparable.

Vocational Education that originated in the US was perhaps the most refreshing element in professional education. It aimed at skill developments by direct observation and hands on learning for trainees. There was to be minimal brain numbing classroom cantered learning. However when the concept spread, at least in India, it became anything but vocational in form or spirit. Classroom based theoretical studies became the main stay and practical learning was given the short shrift. Students who join vocational courses are usually the kind who don’t score high in theory heavy education and they are disappointed and frustrated while undergoing these courses. In India’s NCVT Course syllabus for craftsmen trade, the final exam has ten hours for theory and eight hours for practicals examination. Substantial part of even this practical exam is spent in writing work. One can see how the original spirit has been turned upside down and got all but buried.

At professional colleges such as in Engineering streams the cramming raises to Himalayan proportions. At a lot of these colleges students attend only a few months of theory and practical classes every semester and spend the rest of the time cramming. A lot of topics they study are never useful in their career. They face situations frequently where there is a wide gulf between their memorised and outdated knowledge and reality. Sri Aurobindo who studied in King’s College under Cambridge University had observed that if a university graduate could actually become a moderate professional with the knowledge gained from his university education he must be a genius3.

To conclude, one of the remarkable features of the modern civilisation is universal education but for humanity to evolve  in the right direction the aims and methods of education have to be evaluated with farsightedness and alternatives that can ensure growth of  integrated human  beings needs to be explored and implemented without delay.

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Referred quotes in full:

1. What illusions and delusions is our education today beset with? How could we possibly keep clear of them?

The Mother:

a) The almost exclusive importance given to success, career and money.

b) Insist on the paramount importance of the contact with the Spirit and manifestation of the Truth of the being.

[This is just one of a series of questions submitted to the Mother by a group of teachers of Centre of Education in August, 1965, when an Education Committee of Govt. of India came to Puducherry to evaluate the ideals and educational methods of the Centre.]

2. Sri Aurobindo:

a)  The system prevailing in our universities is one which ignores the psychology of man, loads the mind laboriously with numerous little packets of information carefully tied with red tape, and, by the methods used in this loading process, damages or atrophies the faculties and instruments by which man assimilates, creates and grows in intellect, manhood and energy. (CWSA – 368)

b)  To give the student knowledge is necessary, but it is still more necessary to build up in him the power of using his knowledge. It would hardly be a good technical education for a carpenter to be taught how to fell trees so as to provide himself with wood & never to learn how to prepare tables, chairs & cabinets or even what tools were necessary for his craft. Yet this is precisely what our system of education does. It trains the memory and provides the student with a store of facts & secondhand ideas. The memory is the woodcutter’s axe and the store he acquires is the wood he has cut down in his course of tree felling. When he has done this, the University says to him “We now declare you a Bachelor of Carpentry; we have given you a good & sharp axe and a fair nucleus of wood to begin with. Go on, my son, the world is full of forests and provided the Forest Officer does not object you can cut down trees & provide yourself with wood to your heart’s content.” Now the student who goes forth thus equipped, may become a great timber-merchant but unless he is an exceptional genius he will never be even a moderate carpenter. (CWSA – 359)

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