This essay is a contribution to the anthology Regenerative Learning edited by Satish Kumar & Lorna Howarth. It was submitted as an entry to an essay competition held by Dartington Trust & Schumacher College in 2021 and selected for publication. The original title of the essay was “Education as if People and Planet Matter.”
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all” – Aristotle
In early 2018, I had the good fortune of attending a summer camp organized for tribal children near Hyderabad, India, sponsored by an arm of the local government. Although the notion of education, for most people conjures up images of a blind paper chase, a swirl of class rooms, text books, tutorials and high-stress examinations, what I saw instead was children engaged in improvisation, visualizations, nature walks and more. I realised during this visit that education can equally be a process of observation, discovery, self-learning, a connection with nature and fun-filled.
Just a few weeks prior, as a part of a leadership development program at India Leaders for the Social Sector for those aspiring to work in the social sector, the views of a fellow participant stirred something in me. He stated:
‘There are many non-governmental organizations
in the education sector. Most or all of them are focused on getting basic language and math skills fixed. Are there any initiatives in India where education is also encouraging children to think critically, question social practices and help them grow with a more humanistic mindset? Otherwise aren’t all these efforts feeding into the same social and economic systems by providing more foot soldiers? The very same systems which the development sector is questioning?’
My visit to Hyderabad a few weeks later answered the questions
that my colleague raised.
What is Education?
Before transforming education, it is imperative that we understand what it is. Education means different things to different people. In a conventional sense, and the way the United Nations addresses it, education refers to the process of learning from early childhood to primary, secondary, tertiary and even adult learning. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #4 dwells on the goals of education which extend to technical, vocational training and skills for work.
As laudatory as UN SDG #4 might be, it does not fully address the case for values in education. Late Anthony de Mello S.J., a Jesuit priest from India said it eloquently “There are two educations: the one that teaches how to make a living and the one that teaches how to live.” In his essay “The Greatest Resource- Education”, E. F. Schumacher answers the question “what is education?” by saying “it is the transmission of ideas which enable Man to choose between one thing and another or to live a life which is something above meaningless tragedy or inward disgrace.” Schumacher goes on to speak about how essential it is to have a metaphysical core in education and ensuring the light of consciousness falls on it.
Understanding the Malady
Observe the contrast between the conventional and unconventional descriptions of what education is. I would say there is also a third, which brings both in balance. Literacy and numeracy are valuable skills and stepping stones to poverty alleviation. A patient undergoing surgery would be at risk if operated on by a good-hearted but unskilled surgeon. Yet, it is hard to reconcile the anomalies we find in the educated person. Educated people are largely responsible for the abysmal state of our planet. For instance, they contribute more to pollution than uneducated people. The way history is taught in schools is often a basis for perpetuating racial inequalities. If you study financial crises that have rocked the globe over the last three decades you will find most of them having been precipitated by highly educated people, some of them from leading universities in the world.
Conventional education is only a starting point. Educated people as the source of our problems raises the issue of the role of ethics in education or more so, the lack of it. Morality or ethics, in its raw form is unpalatable unless one is a student of Divinity or Philosophy. Unfortunately, most of our education systems are long on convergent thinking, which focuses on a single path to a single answer, and short on divergent thinking which presents itself as multiple paths to multiple answers. How do we then weave ethics into our education system without people raising their defences?
A New Paradigm for Education
To move forward, it is essential that education brings convergent and divergent dimensions together to create a binding synthesis. It is crucial to have universal values and ethics embodied in education. Values-based education and the natural sciences, engineering or management are not mutually exclusive. The more woven and integrated these are the more people will be receptive to them. Education systems that are oriented towards divergent thinking are naturally capable of imparting ethics. The pill of ethics, which needs a right-brain disposition, can be swallowed easily with liberal and experiential forms of education.
There are several innovative ways in which education can be designed and transformed as if people and planet matter. In many parts of the world curricula are structured rigidly. It is essential that students be given a choice or a range of electives to pursue their natural preferences as witnessed with the new National Education Policy in India. Education should promote natural learning and not be lopsidedly focused on academics and examinations. Academic study should be at best half of the learning experience and the rest of learning should be experiential.
Introducing divergent approaches, in class room study can bring convergent aspects into balance. For instance, high school curricula should have mandatory courses in preventive health or environmental regeneration. Management students should be encouraged to enrol in a case-study oriented course on ethics and every degree in economics should have embedded courses in ecology.
Humanistic education calls for a significant enhancement of the experiential dimension that is currently missing. Experiential education triggers a shift from studying to learning; from examinations to discovery and supplements academics with astounding results.
Rabindranath Tagore set up Santiniketan where students would be taught outdoors in the lap of nature. In the new education paradigm, learning from field visits and being in the outdoors needs to be stepped-up. Students should be imparted with story-telling and story-boarding skills; outdoor survival and nature appreciation; first aid classes, drama, Model UN and more. Student exchanges like the reconciliation camps organised by Seeds of Peace need to be encouraged. Students, be they from medical, engineering or management backgrounds, need to be motivated and incentivised to support social sector entities, in addition to the private sector, as part of summer internships.
Schumacher stresses that education needs to be a form of awakening and ought to lead to a higher level of Being and also be the vehicle for the transmission of values and ideas that lead to the inner development of Man. The emphasis on churning out an army of foot soldiers just because it meets the demands of governments and donors is adding to ecological and social challenges rather than lessening them . My visit to the summer camp near Hyderabad, taught me that more than academic fluency, we need our children to acquire crucial 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and critical thinking. When we think in terms of experiential education, we are not limited by classroom nor age. Because education is essentially a life-long experience.
Shakti Saran is a former management consultant and corporate sector executive who crossed over to the social sector in 2017. He is the founder of Shaktify and works as a Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. On joining the social sector he quickly realised that aspiring for a thriving humanity and planet calls for nothing less than a systemic view of life and has since been championing the case for addressing complex global challenges through a systems lens. He is an alumnus of India Leaders for Social Sector. Radical Transformation Leadership and Capra Course and has a certification in systems thinking from Cornell University.