Thursday, April 01, 2010

Filling Buckets Or Lighting Fires?

"Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire" -- W. B. Yeats

I was reminded of that quote today as I read a news report in the The Times of India excerpted here below:
The 86th Constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right was passed by Parliament in 2002. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, a law to enable the implementation of the fundamental right, was passed by Parliament last year. Both the Constitutional amendment and the new law came into force from today. 
Future generations of Indians will look upon this as a 'Great Leap Forward' for the Indian education system, notwithstanding the fact that it happened on All Fools' Day. It certainly would be a giant leap when successfully implemented, in terms of enabling 10 million children with access to schooling. Of course, there are several unanswered questions at the implementation level, including the dearth of qualified teachers, lack of suitable facilities, the potential for malpractices, etc., but let's assume that we will find ways and means of overcoming these challenges. But there is a larger issue here, even at the conceptual level, and that deals with  our understanding of, and approach to, education itself. And that's where the quote from Yeats comes into the picture. When it comes to Education Reforms, are we seeking to light fires or are we continuing to fill more buckets (and that too, more efficiently)?

I found myself wishing that they had more accurately called it 'Right to Literacy' because that's what it really is. Yes, it deals with primary education. And yes, it comes under the rubric of "Education Reforms" with a capital E and a capital R. But let's not confuse education with literacy. Or with skills training. While all three are important, each has a specific purpose and each plays a unique and vital role in shaping our children's lives as they grow into adults. Literacy gives them the basic tools they would need to learn more, acquire knowledge, develop skills, etc. and training empowers them with a range of capabilities -- some general, some specialized. But education builds character. Unfortunately, nowhere in our education system do we really focus on the last part. A few exceptional schools make an earnest attempt, but that stems more out of their own independent vision than from a systemic requirement.

IIT Bombay, where I spent my late teens and early 20s, has as its motto "Gyanam Paramam Dhyeyam" -- Sanskrit for "Knowledge is the Supreme Goal." The IITs excel in selecting the brightest (read: most analytical) young Indian minds (of those that have opted for the science stream in high school and chosen to pursue engineering as a career, as opposed to medicine) and then honing their pre-existing analytical skills to near perfection, through years of rigorous training in a highly competitive environment. What the IITs do not do, or even attempt to do, is to provide a well-rounded education to their students -- an education that would help them understand, for example, that the supreme goal is the development of the sensibility to apply knowledge judiciously, and not just the mere acquisition of it, as a literal reading of the IIT Bombay motto might suggest. Only the well-educated mind would be able to interpret this motto wisely, and understand the difference between letter and spirit, between acquisition and application. So this is the feedback loop in which this issue is stuck: the minds that run the IITs are the minds that believe that (acquisition of) knowledge is the supreme goal. And that too when what they mostly do is develop analytical skills and impart technical knowhow.

Our children have a right to a decent education too, not just a right to literacy and a right to training. Now that we've taken the first step today, I wonder when we will take the next one. And what, exactly, that would be.

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