Educational Planners design content for various courses - but do we take into account the power of what children learn unconsciously?
While we human beings think, plan and act, we end up facing a host of unintended consequences. The rise and fall of civilizations is largely the story of the human propensity to get carried away by short-term success and suffer long term failure; the consequences of some aspects of the world-view and living processes of these civilizations were not foreseen. As Toynbee famously said, as far as civilizations go, "nothing fails like success”.
There are dangers in reinforcing what seems to be success but is actually a recipe for collapse; in systems theory this process is called a positive feedback loop; positive feedback, when a system is away from equilibrium, can lead to a spiraling and ultimately destructive effect – for example, the increasing destructive need for alcohol in an alcoholic. Natural systems rely on negative or 'corrective' feedback to bring systems back to equilibrium when the deviations are small. The signs of ‘success’ of our civilization, such as literacy rates, military power, GDP growth and rates of consumption seem to be on a spiral of positive feedback, needing correction.
To most of us, Education has been some kind of holy cow. But we now need to question how it is contributing to a civilization showing signs of decline. The positive side is that perhaps ours is the only civilization capable of a remarkable understanding and wide communication of these emergent realities. Therefore, hopefully, we can also search for ways in which Education can stem the tide. Many educational thinkers believe this is needed and possible, since it is not education itself which is the problem, but the ends it is used for.
As the industrial age unfolded, the education system began to be increasingly focused on ‘shaping’ students to meet industrial needs; by and large everyone began to cooperate – not just for the needs of the industry and the economic system but because the prevalent notions of success and a good life required such education in places where the long and multiple arms of development reached. Among the consequences is our ecological crisis.
In this scenario, what are children learning? What signifiers of success are being reinforced and rewarded and what meanings do children make of the world they live in?
Our world-view and self-concept are rarely deliberated on, if ever, in school or college. Yet an entire foundation of the way we live is laid through the kind of attitudes we develop towards the world and the way we hold our own role in it. This foundation of our world-view is mostly unintended, unconscious learning. Many educators teach with the best of intentions, but the underlying paradigms of living and learning have a more powerful impact on individuals and our civilization, and a flawed paradigm is thus perpetuated.
Most students – and most of us - hold some or all these notions and beliefs subconsciously as a kind of template for the way we live life:
These are a few of the meta frameworks for our living today - there must be more - and they have their "inner" and "outer" ecological consequences. Taken together they can keep us deadlocked in illusions and conditioning that makes it easy for us to go into denial or withdraw into ‘business as usual’ when confronted with huge and complex crises like climate change. Perhaps understanding them will help us awaken to the importance of adding new dimensions to education – especially of fostering the ecological self within and engaging in ecologically wise ways without.
A narrow definition of success
For ten to fifteen years in school and college, life revolves around tests, exams and marks. Marks determine success in school and money determines success in later life. This narrow definition of success is an essential part of the prevalent development paradigm – but it has led to an impoverishment in many other spheres: those of artistic sensibility, holistic thinking and spiritual search. It has effectively blinded us to the potential long-term failure of our civilization.
Most importantly, following the Western model determined by Macaulay, Descartes, Newton and Bacon, this narrow definition of success has made us completely undervalue the ecological wisdom of our culture, which could have provided a model not only for education but also for sustainability.
Selfishness is legitimate
Throughout the years of formal education, a student is used to bothering mostly about his books, his assignments, his tests, etc. Never before in any age have children and youth been so thoroughly groomed to be consumeristic and immersed in self-interest. Without opportunities to ‘learn’ co-operation, since it is not required for school tasks – children get the implicit message that selfishness is fine as a way of life. As Einstein said, “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism - our whole educational system suffers from this evil: an exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”
Means are not as important as ends
Parents and teachers encourage rote-learning and tuitions as the means to score high marks in exams without understanding of, or interest in, what is learnt: a student may opt for a medical seat if she can’t get into engineering without worrying about whether she is interested in healing or caring for other’s health; the lucrative career – the end – is all that matters.
An extension of valuing ends above means is that ethical means can be sacrificed for ‘progress’. Thousands can die of cancer while Thorium is mined for Nuclear energy -- it does not matter as long as I get my electricity; two lakh farmers may commit suicide because of a draconian agricultural system – it does not matter as long as I get my food. Innumerable examples exist of unethical behaviour; they may have co-evolved with our factories, governments and malls, but aren’t they fostered by education?
A good life is a life of high consumption and minimum physical work
At school, children spend almost all their time on book-related learning. In mainstream schools, doing physical work as a part of learning is unheard of. Very little time is allocated for experiential learning or even for games and sports. Children in many homes in cities today are rarely required to do any physical work in the house – either because domestic help is available or because parents want the child to focus on studies and ‘spare’ the child such distractions. The hangover of our caste system perhaps plays a part as well in looking down on physical work.
The TV and movies show celebrities promoting a high-consumption life style, subtly encouraging everyone of us to consume as much as we can. Children pick up dreams of ‘a good life’ which makes it difficult for them to comprehend the need to think in fresh and natural ways, to critique the system and create new visions for sustainability.
Think within a boundary – not of the whole
Wear blinkers. Follow instructions. Do not question. Be a good soldier – don’t think for yourself. See connections only selectively – do not see long-term connections or connections that are many links away. These are the messages that children pick up unconsciously in school when they have to focus without a choice on the given syllabus and lessons for the day, day after day, for anywhere between 10 and 18 years of their life.
Schools and colleges have designed syllabi, which are content heavy. The unintended consequence is that there is no focus on critical thinking and taking initiative for a larger cause even if a few try to see the larger picture; most of us have forgotten to respond to real lifeissues all around us. Wearing blinkers also means that we do not think for the whole school, the whole community or the whole earth – often not even for the whole family.
Put up with a split inner world
The school system and parents want all children to learn the same subjects in the same way without considering the child’s interests and innate talents. From years of tolerating work which we do not value or like, we learn to live with an unresolved lack of alignment in our thought, feeling and action. This split spills over into many things in life. I may have no interest or enthusiasm for my work, but will persist in it without looking for alternatives. I may understand my child's love for music, but may push her into more science tuition instead and deny her music classes. This ‘ability’ to live with a split inner world – the pathology within - is reflected in the world outside that we have created.
Unquestioning acceptance of authority
The class seating system seems designed to hand over power to the authority figure and to make children submit to the system. When the school system is almost universally accepted, its fundamentals are not questioned. Why should rural schools and city schools have the same syllabus? Why should agriculture not be included as a subject for farmers’ children? Why not more practical classes on basics like food, water and health or simple skills?
Our centralized authoritarian system may possibly wish good education for all, but it simply kills initiative and the ability to question – and hence we look for top-down solutions to all problems.
It is widely understood today that all things are connected. The climate crisis, poverty, pollution, the aspirations, wants and needs of people, the economic, education, and political systems are all connected – just as all things are connected in Nature.
Fritjof Capra talks of the importance of eco-literacy, which includes a deep understanding of the principles of ecology – such as inter-dependence, cooperation, partnership, diversity, cyclical flow of energy/resources and flexibility. All these are patterns of organization, which help the eco-system maximize sustainability, survive disturbances and adapt to changing conditions.
To move away from the grip of unintended consequences and nurture a sustainable way of life, education too, needs to move closer to nature, in structure and process. Here are some lessons from nature that need to be applied to schools:
To move beyond a self-seeking outlook, can we have more school work that requires more cooperation than competition, as is the norm in nature?
Can schools emphasize Nature’s principle that resources / energy flow in a cyclical way rather than in the linear flow of a consumeristic ‘good life’? Not just as a piece of knowledge but experientially, by working on a zero-waste school, by connecting with the surrounding communities, with sources of food and other resources used by the school and by fostering the ability to share and empathise?
Can we foster ecological consciousness that we are a strand in the web of life, that success for the whole is necessary for individual success in the long run?
Schools today are excessively focused on book-based learning suited for careers in a flawed development-paradigm. Can we move to more experiential, holistic learning, which would include more physical, artistic, ecological and other activities that foster many connections?
The education system, most importantly, needs to recognize diversity among children, various geographical regions, communities and livelihood options. This would require more decentralized management, more humanscale systems which would help in building a more ethical outlook, and the freedom to design for the whole school or whole community and reduce the inner splits that are a result of choicelessness.
The 86 million tonnes of carbon released everyday are almost entirely the work of educated people. Hence, along with the politicians, economists and industrialists, isn’t the world of education also contributing to endangering the survival of our civilization? The world of education needs to engage in soul-searching to answer this question.
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 1, ISSUE - 4, OCT - DEC, 2010
We cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling - a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to learn from experience.
I took a year off after my graduation because I could not find a suitable postgraduate course. I happened to find work as the manager of a small printing press, which gave me enough free time to read, and discover new friends and places to visit. I also travelled periodically to the nearest big city, Chennai, to buy a bunch of second hand books at Moore Market. My parents did not worry. No one made a big fuss, nor did anyone wonder if this one year was useful or a waste of time. I simply needed time to decide what I wanted to do next, and that’s what I got. No one called it a gap year or anything else.
That was more than 40 years ago.
Times have changed, and today, professional education and landing a great career are big. So most youngsters do not dare to think of a gap year. But there are a few students and parents who are seeing the gap year as valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling or at least find the most appropriate path to take.
In the US, students taking a gap year has become so common that many universities offer short gap-year courses. Many professors find that after a gap year, students are more serious about their coursework because they have taken time to choose what was right for them. Quite often, students take time off to travel and there are many websites that advise students on how to plan for everything — their travel, learning goals, money etc.
In India, it seems that we are at an early stage of the gap year culture setting in. Here, most of the youngsters taking a gap year seem to be the ones whose parents are actively encouraging them to look beyond mainstream careers. Also, many perceive it as expensive, as it cuts short one year of earning. And students at this age become sensitive to living off their parents, so they often combine some part time jobs with the various experiences and explorations they seek in a gap year.
Learn from experience
So much of education seems to be about sitting in a classroom studying books and preparing for the exams. Tunnel vision is accepted as normal and legitimate. A major issue we need to realise is that mainstream education distances you from real life. But if we cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to learn from experience.
Meeting interesting people, some travel and ‘wasting time’ can be a good dose of real life! Our youngsters need to throw away blinkers, and follow their hearts, or noses, to taste a bit of the wider world they are often protected from. The big achievement is to decide to take a gap year and get the support you need to take off. Then there are many focus areas that can help you decide what you want to do.
Check out a career idea
A gap year can be a good time to check out a vague dream or career idea. If you are wondering if you should go into, say, event management, before you plunge headlong into a course you can try getting an internship or even volunteer with an event management firm. Even if you are sure of a particular field, sometimes it may help explore other possibilities by informally meeting people or doing short courses.
Deal with confusions
Before a child reaches Class 10 and even much earlier, she is expected to know exactly what she wants to do in life. While many children meekly accept such straight-jacketing, there are many who are confused as to what to do next. Actually if you are confused in this way, because the world wants to push you in some direction and your inner voices have doubts about it, then call it a very positive confusion! It means you wish to think for yourself, rather than be programmed by others.
A gap year may be just the right thing to deal with your confusions in your own way. If you let your intuition guide you, you may find people who can be formal or informal mentors, who can be friend-philosopher-guides. Also an interest in reading, or in today’s times, meaningful internet searching or video watching can open up new directions.
There are also many who travel around alone, get into rock climbing or water sports or just exploring the Himalayas, remote villages or forests — but this surely needs some savings or funding support. While such adventures do add an undefinable something to the person, such travel as education is not so common in India as it is in the West. But more safe and secure possibilities exist through trekking and travel organisers who are mushrooming everywhere.
If you cannot get excited about a standard corporate job and are the kind who needs to have a deep belief in what you do, you can check out the world of alternative careers. Be it sustainable living or organic farming, wildlife photography or alternative education, there are many institutions that offer short and long term courses and internships. Most of these offer hands on and experiential learning and can connect you with a network of people and organisations that can help you figure out what you want to do and what life with an alternative career would be like.
Instead of alternative courses, you can attempt to volunteer or look for an internship in a civil society organisation. If you have a strong interest in a particular area, you can search for the kind of organisation that you find inspiring and you never know how much it might fire your passion.
See the hidden world
Most of us have an innate tendency to look for familiar places to visit or learn from. But trying to look for experiences you have never had might be a great way of making a gap year meaningful. I have heard of youngsters going to remote desert villages to help with solar electrification, joining in wildlife surveys, helping make eco-friendly buildings in the Himalayas, volunteering with tribal projects and so on. Moving away from one’s comfort zone, roughing it out and making friends with strangers can be an education in itself.
If you need more intellectual stimulation of an academic kind, you can try to track down people to meet and interview. You can combine this with reading up, looking for or creating your own writing or videographing assignments.
A range of organisations exist to support you in your search. These institutions offer short and long courses which can open up new avenues. There is so much that can add vibrancy and meaningfulness to your life if you have the faith that the world is there for you to discover. We need to rename the Gap year as ‘Search Year’.