The Boxes We Keep Forcing Students Into In The Name Of Education

Posted on November 4, 2016 in Education, Society

By Jophin Mathai:

When I was in school, I thought I knew what I wanted to be in life. I had a few options, with the little I had seen growing up:

1. A Catholic priest
2. A rockstar
3. A doctor

I pursued the first early on, got bored of the second and gave up option three in junior college when I couldn’t prick my own finger for a blood sample. I had chosen science after high school, and later on graduated as a math major. I really liked math, I wasn’t bad at it, but wasn’t really good either.

I need little of my math degree for the work I do now but what I do need are chunks from the experiences I have had in life. Math was probably not the best choice for me, but my love for learning had me acquiring knowledge from various sources and opened me to a lot of other experiences. These are experiences I am grateful for and constantly draw from, in ways I can’t explain.

Many students prepare themselves year after year so they can choose either Science, Commerce or Arts after high school. Many parents plan for their children. Looking back, I wonder if choices could have been simpler and easier after high school. I wonder If I could have had a trial of the choices that I had before me.

I now wonder if it is time to break the walls between these choices. In a world as complex as ours, what kind of lenses are being provided to young students to engage with the world?

These walls need to be challenged.

Going Greek: The Roots

A little unlike the MPs we have today who represent (or misrepresent) people in the Parliament, ancient Greece had direct representation i.e. free people took an active part in civic life, from vociferously debating issues to presenting a defence in court. The risk of not being reasonably good at this was understood – one wouldn’t have their needs met or have their rights upheld.

At the most basic level, the Greeks learnt the trium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) while the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) was important secondary education. Together, these came to be known as the liberal arts. Today, the scope of a liberal arts education has widened to include fields of contemporary relevance. The goal is to develop skills with a comprehensive view of the world and where it is heading.

I am not suggesting a simple replication. But I am inquiring into ways of dealing with a trium that exists in India.

The Indian Trium

Most students choose one of these pathways after high school: Arts, Science or Commerce.

I could expend a few words or drive home a traditional view with simple illustrations:

Scores are assumed to be the perfect indicators for a stream choice.

So the underlying assumption is that your high school score qualifies (or disqualifies) your aptitude and intelligence for a particular kind of study.

These are situations Science students might relate to.
What students of Arts and Commerce have to often hear.

Generalisations, though unfair, have been used only to highlight a dominant mentality.

The ones who are mildly insulated from such pressures are generally the ones who score well. There are also those who have a genuine proclivity for the subjects they have chosen and others who are just determined to score well. These we call the ‘Toppers’.

There are those who perform neither too badly nor too well. These students are a part of the ‘Ok Gang’. Their scores are generally satisfactory from the teacher’s point of view.

The students who don’t score well are a cause for worry for everyone – they are the ‘Problem Kids’.

So now we have three groups:

1. The ‘Toppers’
2. The ‘Ok Gang’
3. The ‘Problem Kids’

Growing up, most students subconsciously know where they belong.

This subconscious is a result of cultural biases, the attitude the family has towards education, teachers’ perceptions, etc. Not only do many students fail to discover the joy of learning, but they also breed stereotypical mindsets that cause harm in the long run. People forget how much they scored, life happens, but these mindsets and attitudes stick with them.

The problem doesn’t merely lie in the right or wrong choice of a subject stream but how much that choice can define us and others.

Why go beyond these ‘set’ options? Because students must get to test all waters before, they make a choice.

Can we afford to not consider a better, integrative education?

Education And The Market

Market forces are everywhere, and education is no stranger to it. The dominant mindset seems to be of the opinion that the purpose of a ‘good’ education is to get you a job better than the one you would get with a ‘lesser’ education. This means a rush for courses that are currently in vogue and could lead to lucrative opportunities in the future.

For a lot of people, the relation between education and the market is as simple as:

Very educated = Top Job
Well educated = Good Job
Not so educated = Bad Job

The problem with the associations mentioned above is the fact that things are never that simple. We fail to consider a host of other factors beginning from the personal to the social.

In India, the market mindset is rarely challenged in education, which is why traditionally, a well-paid job has been the only goal of education. Things are changing slowly, but market forces tend to heavily dictate what kind of an education would offer good returns on investment (Indian students joining STEM being a case in point), but they are not ‘future-proof’.

While students build competencies for the market, they must also train themselves to question and challenge market dynamics. A quick look at innovators in all fields over the centuries tells us that good ideas go beyond the confines of existing structures, forces and expectations. This happens best in an ambience where there is deep engagement and connected learning.

It’s Not Personal Vs. Professional

For too many of us, getting educated for its intrinsic values is pitted against getting educated for a well-paying job (something Lisa Dolling calls a false dichotomy in this wonderful piece). Growing up, this has been an issue that hasn’t got as much attention as it should.

Education’s role as a ticket to a well-paying job is in conflict with our pursuit of education for its inherent, intrinsic values. Many of us (including me), were conditioned to perceive education as a means to achieve professional ends but were rarely actively encouraged to enjoy the process of learning.

I think we are missing out on a lot if we look at educational goals, in practice, as mutually exclusive.

The Potential

Ambitious projects launched under the Skill India initiative aim to train over 400 million people in India in different skills by 2022. Financial rewards are in store for candidates who complete the approved skill training programmes.

Skill India may be a great short term fix for a country where education hasn’t had the transforming effect it should have had, wherein budgetary allocation for the education sector is also low. We are talking about a country that is predicted to have the highest student population by 2025.

Providing monetary incentives for skill training still reflects a strong market-driven approach. The bigger question we need to ask is, what are we accomplishing or ‘buying’ with long term monetary incentives? Who is being truly served? I am just scratching the surface here.

This is how Steven Pinker defines education, and it puts a lot of things into perspective:

“It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.”

“On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumour, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.”

Along with provisions to hone technical skills and space to explore interests, we need to look at our myriad cultures, appreciate the goodness and immense human spirit they embody. We also need to be critical and mindful of what our cultures represent and its implications on people who do not share the same beliefs.

In the face of growing intolerance, education must help us celebrate our cultures while also developing empathy to find common grounds.


Image source: Trinity Care Foundation, Intel Free Press/Flickr