Education – What can it do ?

Finally done with Karl Popper’sOpen Society and its Enemies – I : The Spell of Plato“. It easily qualifies as the most readable book on philosophy of any kind that I have come across. There are many strands of thought which seemed attractive and worth reflecting about, and this is one of them. A person must have great courage to take Plato to the sword in the way Popper does, knowing that legions of Platonists will come to his rescue and call Popper a witch-hunter. Nevertheless, this book seems to have had quite an influence in the way Plato is interpreted. Popper analyses social institutions like the State or School, which Plato gave lot of importance to in his program to create an ideal city, and analyses the functions that Plato made them perform.

First of all, we can say that all our activities are broadly of two kinds, activities for present day needs and those which fulfill future ones. Talking to friends over the phone, going out for a cup of coffee are hardly planned or thought out. Saving for retirement or tax exemption, impressing the boss are things which are thought out and performed in anticipation of future benefit or comfort. While day-to-day activities require few references or pointers or guides, future planning usually takes the form of researching, enquiring, weighing options. ‘Reliable’ people, ‘Knowledgeable’ guides, are usually in demand for this kind of work. Similarly, on a larger scale, the way a society ought to grow is decided by us, with the help of institutions, like the Central Bank, the Supreme Court, Parliament, Elections. Institutions can be called a body with a set of guidelines for determining its behavior, the guidelines being formed to determine the future growth of a society. The guidelines are governed by the values we would like our future society to have, for example, the sovereign, secular, democratic values enshrined in our Constitution. (Indira Gandhi wanted us to be socialist as well, so she added ‘socialist’ during the emergency).

Similarly schools: we expect them to perform certain functions, which are in line with a future vision of our country. What would they be ? Making ‘good citizens’, ‘future leaders of our country’ would definitely be up there among with the others. But are such expectations justified ? Can institutions actually make people with strong moral fibre, leadership qualities, and the courage to make a difference ? To put it in another way, can moral science classes make you moral, leadership courses make you a leader, and scouting make you brave ? Can music classes make you a good musician ? The answer to all of these is no, obviously.

One might ask: ‘Don’t certain schools have a tradition of excellence, producing leaders in every field ?’. One way to answer this is: ‘They might produce a few leaders, say 20% of the students go on to become someone important. 80% will be just the same anonymous faces like the rest of us. Therefore, these schools have an even stronger tradition of mediocrity’. Another way would be: ‘They attract people from classes of society which have always been dominant, converting such people to leaders is not as difficult as say, students from a tribal society, and they would have shone with or without schooling in certain schools’. ( Here important means well-known, respected. A good tribal school may get students into a degree program, which is important for them.)

The issue with having such expectations from an institution is two-fold: one, it is simply not possible for them to perform such a task. Two, failure to meet such expectations will make people lose confidence in these institutions, which may not be such a good thing. Then what should one expect from a school ?

Schools are excellent places to develop skills and provide children with a safe and secure environment to stumble and fall, without consequences. As important classroom teaching is, equally important will be mingling with friends, learning to face conflict, understand consequences of their actions and mould their personalities by experience rather than indoctrination. One can provide leadership skills, ethical teaching, but inculcating these and applying it in real life is not something that a school can assure. Confidence is a wonderful stimulus for a child to explore, unfortunately this is reduced to performance in sports or academics, mainly the latter. Creativity is something that cannot be (as yet) indoctrinated, and one needs freedom to excercise it.

So, what can schools do ? not make model citizens (sounds like a dialogue straight out of Brave New World!), but to provide the freedom and space so that model citizens make themselves. How we get our values is unclear, but it certainly is not by brainwashing children to be ‘competitive’ and ‘run the race’. The callous behavior of some of the ‘elite’ IT/BPO crowd goes quite a distance in stressing this point (exemplified by that poor excuse for a rag, Bangalore Times). Parents have such faith in the school system to make good individuals, that any failure on the part of the child is blamed on the child, but never on the school. Personal responsibility in bringing up children is assumed to be fulfilled by getting their children into ‘good schools’, rather than teaching by example, for which our elites have no time. This is how a Kumaraswamy is born to a Devegowda.

Popper says that institutions are to be evaluated on their performance, and schools have to evaluated on whether they give the proper skill and space which makes confident, creative individuals, not on whether they actually produce such people.

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