‘Modern’ (Mis-) Education: Ethical Concerns
By Yoginder Sikand *
The more I think of ‘modern’ education the more problematic it reveals itself to be. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s definitely one of the major malaises affecting contemporary humanity. It fails miserably as far as the ethical or moral development of students. And that is something that even folks who aren’t interested in the extra-worldly realm or life after death ought to be worried about.
‘Modern’ school education is geared essentially to imparting a body of knowledge to students. The ultimate purpose of this process is to prepare them for their future careers, through which they will assume certain roles in the modern economy. That is why schools are conventionally judged in terms of their ability to produce graduates who get ‘good’ jobs—by which is meant jobs that come with hefty salaries and fancy perks.
It is thus hardly surprising that schools pay only lip-service to the moral or ethical growth of their students. Helping their students to become good, loving, kind and caring human beings, as opposed to ‘good’ (by which is essentially meant rich) scientists or economists or whatever, is definitely not their major purpose. They might make some cosmetic concessions to ethical concerns by introducing moral science or civics classes, but these are hardly taken seriously by both teachers and students. The latter often think of them as a burden that they have to suffer in silence in order to be promoted to the next grade. Other than this, schools generally have no other arrangement for students’ moral or ethical growth.
In fact, contemporary ‘mainstream’ schooling is geared to inculcating a whole set of negative attitudes and attributes, which so damage their students that only some fortunate few manage to overcome them in later life. One of these is fear. Most teachers maintain and reinforce their authority over students by instilling abject fear in them. Students sometimes cringe before their teachers and generally dare not question them or ‘misbehave’ (and this may be just something as harmless as sharing a whisper with another student during class-hours) for fear of being punished—scolded or even beaten—by their teachers. I lived in mortal dread of my teachers while at school. Some of them took sadistic delight in beating us for even the most petty ‘misdemeanour’, such as for having not polished our shoes or coming to class a minute late.
Then, of course, there is the ever-present fear of ‘failure’. Learning, for most students and in most schools, is far from being a pleasurable activity. It is the fear of failing that drives most students to study, as well as the fear of having to face the wrath of their parents and the taunts of their class-mates. And if children are so carefully schooled in fear right from infancy, they carry on being fearful for the rest of their lives. In turn, this plays havoc with almost all their relationships.
‘Cut-throat competition’ is also what schools actively work to instill in students from a tender age onwards. Learning in ‘mainstream’ schools is not a group process, something that students and teachers together participate in and grow together doing. Rather, ‘learning’ in modern schools is geared to train students to become aggressive competitors once they leave school and enter the job market. The conventional examination system reflects that purpose. Being structured in such a way as to produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, ‘toppers’ and ‘failures’, each student is made to believe that his ‘success’ is dependent on the ‘failure’ of others, whom he comes to see as his competitors, or even as ‘enemies’. He can ‘succeed’, he comes to think, only if others ‘fail’ or, at least, fall behind him. It’s almost like a war, with each student being set against the rest. This, of course, can only produce aggressive selfishness in students and an absolute indifference, or even hostility, to the welfare of others.
This tendency is further reinforced by the way school students are carefully and deliberately insulated from the harsh realities of the real world around them. This is particularly the case with the so-called ‘best’ schools, which, of course, cater to the rich. When I was at school we weren’t given even a clue about abject poverty or, for instance, caste discrimination or other such bitter facts of contemporary India. None of our books ever mentioned such ‘unpleasant’ things. Presumably, these were too embarrassing to recognize or perhaps too politically volatile to tell children about. If you read the Civics and History texts which I studied when I was at school, which is where one would have expected to find some mention of such issues, you’d imagine that every citizen of what they hailed as ‘the Independent, Democratic, Socialist Republic of India’ was hale and hearty, perfectly contented and bursting with prosperity! I suppose this continues to be the case today as well. How, I wonder, can one expect students to have any social concern if they are left—and probably deliberately so—entirely ignorant of such matters?
Of course, it isn’t just by reading about such social realities in textbooks that students can be sensitized to the bitter social realities of poverty and oppression that continue to plague India. Ideally, students should be exposed to such realities through short field visits, including to organizations and groups working on these issues, so that they can witness them for themselves. But that, of course, doesn’t happen at all. At least none of the high-brow schools I know about does anything remotely like this. On the contrary, they do everything to make their students completely blind and wholly insensitive to such realities, and, instead, to programme them to accept Western-style culture and consumerist hedonism as normative and ‘natural’ and, as it is now called, the ‘in-thing’. They might have special Spanish dance classes, for instance, or arrange an additional course for French cooking or even take their students for a football course to Russia, but would they ever take their students to the slum just next-door to learn what life is like for their poor neighbours?
If you really care to think, you might find that many of the ‘un-educated’ folks you know are definitely better human beings than those who’ve earned fancy degrees and are therefore considered ‘highly-educated’. In fact, it seems to be the case that the more ‘educated’ you are the less chances you have of being a kind, considerate and socially-conscious person. At least that’s been my experience so often that I am tempted to make almost a generalization in this regard. And I don’t see why this shouldn’t be the case, given the fundamentally flowed ethos, structure and purpose of ‘mainstream’ (mis)-education.