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The Disappearing Pillars of Learning

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November 29, 2016

The Disappearing Pillars of Learning

It is true that from childhood to adulthood we have been part of a very structured form of education. And it drives us to become ‘capable’ and ‘successful’. It also generates fear and anxiety.

How frightening it is to be regarded as a ‘failure’! That’s why, we all want to be part of this rat race. The person who dares to move beyond this order of things looks ‘ridiculous’; he/she does not fit into the contemporary notion of ‘success’. But frankly speaking, we need it; we need to look beyond this structure because it is destroying all human possibilities.

Yes, I am talking about the pathology of a culture of learning which is based on fear. It would not be an exaggeration to say that because of this fear we are getting transformed into machines or manufactured goods. It is the death of one’s innate curiosity, uniqueness and creativity. Take a simple but immensely meaningful illustration: the hierarchization of minds implicit in the duality of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ answer. If you are ‘right’ you are destined to be a front- bencher; and if you are ‘wrong’ you are condemned to be a back- bencher, and bear its stigma. But any creative pedagogue would tell you that this obsession with ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ answers destroys the child’s creativity: the possibility of plurality of interpretations and answers. Imagine a situation. ‘What is the name of India’s national animal?’ You ask a child. And she surprises you. ‘It is not tiger, it is cat’, she answers. In a way her answer is not the ‘right’ answer but it is not a ‘wrong’ answer. Schools become an alienating experience because in the name of ‘right’ answer they negate the child’s imagination. The heavy load of bookish knowledge becomes tiring. In this context it would be appropriate to refer to an experiential illustration given by Steven Harrison:

A little boy came from school with a note from the teacher saying he doesn’t have an inquiring mind. The mother, of course, was quite upset by the note.

‘You need to have an inquiring mind. I am going to make you have an inquiring mind. If I have to keep you studying around the clock, you will have an inquiring mind,’ said the mother.

The boy asked, ‘What’s an inquiring mind?’

‘Oh, don’t ask so many questions!’

I am not devaluing textual/theoretical knowledge; but it alone, as Harrison’s penetrating reflection suggests, is not sufficient to make a child truly alert and conscious; it is very important to create an experiential domain that allows the child to learn, to interrogate, to feel and to internalize. Possibly Martin Buber—an existentialist philosopher— elaborated it in the context of prayer: a dialogue that brings our outer and inner selves together. Imagine how this prayer is becoming increasingly difficult. We seem to be concerned with the outer glamour. A child— particularly, in an urban/middle class context— is occupied with techno-material gadgets; his/her ways of looking at the world become utterly materialistic; one grows up with greed and pride. Why is it so?

It is in this context that we can refer to the prevalent state of the three pillars—home, community and school— an educationist like T Makiguchi emphasized for the growth of the holistic personality of the child.

An ideal home, we love to believe, is about love and care. But where are the parents? In this age of ‘efficiency’ and ‘success’ their workplaces occupy them, demand their complete attention; the child experiences their absence: absence of a playful engagement, absence of abundance of time. Possibly costly birthday gifts, attractive gadgets and toys emerge as a substitute. Its consequences are disastrous. Amidst instant consumption the child misses out on the ethics of care. Likewise, where is the community—its warmth, its intensity of intimate relationships? Even a civilization like ours known for its community living, because of a strange form of modernity that generates only anonymity and loneliness, is losing its beauty. And not much needs to be said about the contemporary practice of schooling—its drilling and standardization. To quote Tagore: ‘School forcibly snatches away children from a world full of the mystery of nature’s own handiwork, full of suggestiveness of personality. It is a mere method of discipline that refuses to take into account the individual. It is a factory specially designed for grinding out uniform results.’

Yet, hope doesn’t die. Look at the eyes of children. They inspire us to imagine a new possibility. And I dare. As I work with a group of children, I invoke Harrison, Buber and Tagore. We listen to the rhythm of Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi and English music; some of us begin to speak three or four languages simultaneously; we visit a garden, look at the distinctiveness of each leaf in a tree; we discuss, reflect, crack jokes, laugh together; and at the end of the day we realize this splendid interplay of differences and symmetry. No bookish knowledge from a standardized ‘civics’ textbook. No official/’secular’ mantra: ‘unity in diversity’. Yet, the child learns. And I too begin to pray: Let these children grow up with curiosity, with innocence, with an intimate bond with nature and their inner selves.

Vikash Sharma is editor The New Leam – a magazine on education and culture and lives in New Delhi. He finds his vocation in the art of pedagogy, photography and philosophic writing. His keen interest in innovative pedagogy led him to explore contemporary processes of learning and crisis of education in modern times. He can be reached at

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