The insistence on learning by rote, cramming of facts and passing an examination often numb the thinking faculties of our children as they are all made to run the rat race of landing a gainful employment. As one can gather, often the syllabi of the formal education and requirements of the employment market have no practical relation to each other.

Most of the jobs including civil services, running a business or a profession, require certain basic skills including linguistic, numerical and common sense along with ‘good character’. If one has a good command over the language, with a knowledge of basic mathematics and common sense, one can perform most of the tasks that are required in day-to-day life. If specialised jobs such as engineering, medicine etc had more of the practical and empirical components than the formal, theoretical components, we would not have encountered such accidents as the collapse of highrise buildings and flyovers.

In his celebrated work,  Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations in fluid informal arrangements. He believed that the pedagogical alienation in society is worse than the alienation of labour as suggested by Karl Marx. He further said that the schools condition people to be consumers of packages produced by other people and to accept ideas of endless progress, thereby bringing us to a precipice of an environmental catastrophe. Illich thinks that deschooling is central to the adjustment to bring society to a more humane level.

Illich’s practical vision for learning in a deschooled society is built around what he calls ‘learning webs’. He envisages three types of interactions in terms of learning ~ between a skill teacher and a student, between people themselves engaging in critical discourse, and between a master (a practitioner like Dronacharya) and a student. This kind of relationship, which can happen in intellectual disciplines or the arts, can also materialise in crafts or skills such as mountain-climbing, but is stifled in a schooled society where non-accredited (read non-formal) learning is looked at askance.

Therefore, our education system should be suitably transformed to regain our leadership position in the world. Instead of aspiring to be an economic or military superpower, India should aspire to be a knowledge superpower, a position now occupied by the United States of America and the rest would automatically follow. But for that, we need to get away from the sundry inflexibilities in our institutionalised school system, which neglects the task of helping the child evolve into a complete person. For this, we need to adopt a holistic approach through child-centric pedagogy, indeed by connecting knowledge to life beyond schools. Such an education system should have a sufficiently reduced curriculum load which ought to nurture creative thinking and originality among our children.

The inclusive, friendly, peaceful and democratic school environment should be made accessible to learners from all sections of our society. Our schools, both Government and private, should also have adequate room for encouraging a child’s imagination and thinking, for inciting his/her inquisitiveness and questioning faculties during instructions. Children should not be made to simply accept things as in books or as told by the teachers. They should be made to learn through active questioning about the rationale or correctness of a concept or an idea.

We should also ensure provisioning the same quality of education in Government schools as in the private schools. The quality of education imparted in state schools of Europe and America is much better than in ours. Unless we realise the shortcomnings, we will miss out in terms of demographic dividend.

The learners should actively construct their own knowledge with the help of teachers as facilitators and coordinators by relating new ideas to existing ones and the same should happen through collaboration, negotiations and exchange of views.

The participation of the community for experience and sharing of knowledge should be encouraged. The teachers and instructors should engage learners through experience, experimenting, reading, discussing, asking, listening, active thinking and by encouraging them to express themselves. Teaching should be contextualised with the local knowledge, with real life socially relevant examples. Respect for differing viewpoints in open discussions should be encouraged, something which has been at a discount in our country. The curriculum and textbooks should be carefully crafted and ought to be in sync with the universal human values of a civilised society rather than confining children to a parochial nationalistic discourse, away from our philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is a family).

Love and respect for fellow human beings should be uppermost in the order of priorities rather than narrow, primordial identities. The examination system should be accordingly customised to be more flexible and integrated with classroom life without creating situations of stress or pressure for the students.

Our education should also be linked to spirituality. After all, if we all have to die one day, why do we need to chase the good things of life and the attendant comforts. A highly religious society believes in rebirth, the Karma theory (Doctrine of Just Deserts), peaceful coexistence, the principle of Nar Narayana (where every human being is perceived divine) and where divinity is supposed to pervade every dimension of our life. India is bursting at the seams, moving away from its historical and philosophical moorings. We are getting more used to perceive things in duality of ‘we’ versus ‘they’, something which repudiates our civilisational heritage and eclectic wisdom.

Demonising others, hating fellow human beings, lawlessness, violence and other negative developments cannot be the outcomes of a healthy education system. Hence, our education system should also help the learners understand and appreciate the purpose of human life which is nothing but continuous spiritual development of every human being by going through the countless cycles of birth and death. Emphasis on formal education and degrees should seek to link education to the requirements of life and to make it socially more relevant.

The present juncture could not be more opportune for extending the boundaries of our education system when rightist forces are on the rise across the world and when Quantum Physics and spirituality are converging.

The Indian leadership needs to synergize its efforts with leaders of the world in order to build a consensus on protecting universal human values through a humane education system which envisages a more fulfilling life for every person.

The writer is Commissioner of School Education, Govt of West Bengal. The views  are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government.