“Education should be the process of helping everyone discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.”
– Leo Buscaglia
Ask people who have had the opportunity to go to college and get a degree what that means to them. Their answer would range from “It’s just a piece of paper” to “It changed my life.” That’s because with the current education system, who we are seems to matter less and less.
When I was starting high school in India, the school I studied in had four “packages” (it certainly seemed like that) and I needed to choose one to decide my career: 1) science, where you studied subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Maths and languages; 2) science, that added Biology to the rest of the Science subjects; 3) arts, where you learnt History, Literature and languages. Few other schools also offered a fourth package, commerce, where you learnt accounting, economics, business management and languages. I decided on studying commerce (seemed the best of the lot at that time). But my school didn’t have that option and my family was going to move soon. That, plus various other reasons, and I ended up taking science. I might have been rather good at it, but the problem was, I hated it. I had some horrible teachers and that didn’t help either. So when we moved, I went to a new school that offered commerce. I told the Principal at this new school that I would like to join the commerce classes and since it was just the beginning of the school year, I wouldn’t have missed much and I was very confident that I can make up for the missed lessons. The Principal looked at my grades from previous years and said, ‘You’ve done very well in science. That’s what you should do. I can’t let you change your subject. You’ll have to stay with science.” And that would have been the end of my dreams and my future life. She labelled me as a science student because, according to her, “I was intelligent enough to study science. So why would I think of studying any lesser subjects?” What I wanted to study did not matter. What I wanted to do with my life was not for me to decide. So for the first time in my life, I did terribly in school. I failed in every class, except for Maths and English, and that made me miserable. I saw my entire life crumbling before my eyes. Luckily for me, I had an amazing English teacher who pulled me out of the ground and encouraged me not to give up. With her help, I moved to another school. I studied commerce and did extremely well in it. I learnt a lot about myself from that experience. I know for a fact that who I am today would have been completely different if I had followed the path forced upon me and I would have lived the rest of my life regretting that path and hating the person I would have become.
“Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.”
― Heath L. Buckmaster, Box of Hair: A Fairy Tale
Instead of identifying and nurturing a person’s natural abilities, education has become all about putting people in an existing box and neatly labelling them. It is wiping all traces of individuality from people and conformity is considered the norm. Our innate ability to be good at certain things is ignored for the sake of education that teaches everyone the same things and expects everyone to excel at all of those things. We go through life earning a degree, pursuing a career that earns us money, fame and success, because that’s what we are expected to do, and we never find time to understand who we are or what we really want from life. Our thoughts are myopic and never go past what we think we need, to be “successful in life”. When life is going smoothly, that’s not so bad. But when we face difficult choices, when we have to make life changing decisions, how we think, what choices we make and what lessons we choose to learn from our life experiences are the true measures of how educated we are.
“To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Education has come to rely solely on intellectual analysis and arguments. We are so focused on creating our “perfect world” outside that we don’t take time to think about what’s inside. Instead of directing our thoughts and our mind, we end up being directed by it. The difference is the same as living life consciously and deriving meaning from it, as opposed to going through life in a trance, without any sense of purpose, being tossed between highs and lows, feeling lost and alone.
Education is not just about morals. It’s about the ability to create a sustainable belief system. By sustainable, I don’t mean throwaway beliefs, ideas that you can easily replace in order to maintain. I’m talking about strong beliefs that can stand the tests of all that life flings at us. Why is it important? Imagine you have to make a difficult decision about doing something unethical, or illegal even. Other than the fear of the law, what will give you the courage to do the right thing and be really happy in life? Your top-notch college degree that feeds your ambition to succeed by whatever means necessary, or the strength of your own beliefs that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong at every turn of your life consistently and the self-confidence that comes with it?
A word of warning though, it’s easy to confuse educated confidence with arrogance. Dogmatic religious ideologies are a living proof of it. Keeping an open mind is just as important a part of education as the spirit of conviction. Blind beliefs are dangerous. They make us so arrogant that we lock ourselves away from anything that could make us see the chinks in our belief-armour. Faith in the broadest sense is not meant to keep the world out and make us prisoners of our own beliefs. It’s meant to keep us free and unaffected amongst the chaos in the world. Yes, it might be simpler to remove ourselves from the world. But how will we ever learn anything by doing that? How will that possibly ever allow us to really LIVE?
Writer David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, talked about the real value of education and how it teaches us to think. He started his speech with this simple, yet profound story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
That’s the purpose of education, to be acutely aware of realities that are hidden in plain sight. That’s why true education is a lifelong pursuit. It teaches us the ability to stay awake everyday of our lives and to choose the things that are really worth pursuing, to choose the thoughts that go beyond the knowledge that the obvious world presents before us, and as Wallace said at the end of his speech, to remind ourselves to be like the older fish in the story and constantly tell ourselves that “This is water”.