Redefining purpose

The ends of education

Amartya Sen, in a speech delivered in New Delhi in 2004, bemoaned the inadequate attention paid to the classics of ancient India. If one takes a generous view, the recent edict issued by the Government of Karnatka to teach the Bhagavad Gita in schools can be termed an effort to fill this gap. There are, however, several significant dimensions to the issue as evident from the controversy it has triggered. It would be shortsighted to adopt a simplistic ‘for’ or ‘against’ approach in dealing with the issue, which presents an opportunity to revisit our understanding of the purpose of education.

To be clear, the curriculum in most schools is based on the model developed in colonial India and is confined to the so-called ‘core’ subjects – namely, languages, mathematics, science and social sciences. The curriculum is essentially designed to equip students for employment in the contemporary industrial-technological-consumer society. With its focus on the employment market and its western origin, education today is almost completely about the ‘outer’ dimension of life, and does not treat the inner spiritual element seriously. Indeed, with its emphasis on scientific methods and sensory perception the system hardly acknowledges the possibility of a spiritual side and its educational value.

The educational methods developed in colonial India were a matter of concern, among others, to Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. It was an incentive for Tagore to establish Santiniketan as an institution offering alternative education that was more rounded. To be fair, it is more or less a necessity to prepare students for gainful employment in the prevailing socioeconomic model with its principles of profit motive and competition, but it can’t be the only purpose of education.

 If we accept that the content of present education is incomplete, the next issue is about the need for spiritual education. A well-designed and inclusive spiritual curriculum can have an ennobling impact on the character and personality of students and help them balance the different elements of human life – material and spiritual. It can help them realize the purusharthas – namely, artha, dharma, and kama.

If we achieve a reasonable consensus about the benefits of spiritual education, the next task is to institutionalise it in the educational system – rather than leaving it to chance, as is the present case. As things stand, some individuals might, at some stage in their, life develop an interest in spirituality, while others will not. Even those who develop an interest might not receive guidance in understanding the complex ancient texts, often written in inaccessible style. Considering the stresses of modern life and the competitive pressures most people face – in student life and later – providing them a spiritual compass can help them handle the challenges better. This is too serious an issue to be left to chance.

Ancient classics

This is not to deny the challenges in developing a spiritual curriculum. There can be little doubt that ancient classics such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads are valuable resources. From personal experience, I am aware of the positive impact they can make on the personality and behaviour. Their teachings can sensitise us to the spiritual dimension and strengthen our unity with the cosmos and other beings – the universal spirit. This can, in turn, tame our ego and our acquistive and possessive tendencies, leading on to greater harmony and better quality of life. Specifically, the Bhagavad Gita with its emphasis on disinterested action can inspire us to work without being overly concerned with the result which can reduce stress levels.

In a pluralisitc, multicultural country like India, how do we develop a spiritual curriculum that is broadly acceptable to large sections of the society? Considering the historical issues including the partition on religious lines that occurred in 1947, how do we prevent the exercise from becoming politicised or turning into an instrument for building or strengthening vote banks? These would be unfortunate results of a noble effort.
A workable option is to develop an inclusive spiritual curriculum through a consultative process – rather than issuing government edicts. The curriculum can be inter-faith and include material from all major religions, which would be truly representative of all sections of the society and enrich the exercise. Hopefully, the consultative process will result in a harmonious output and check temptations for one-upmanship among the groups with each trying to prove that its particular creed is ‘superior.’ Indeed, a proper study of the classics should undermine parochial and provincial attitudes, and engender a broader and more universal spirit.

A few years ago, Karnataka took the initiative in responding to the evolving needs by including the Indian constitution, environmental science, and computer studies in the school curriculum. This ensures that students get to know about the country’s political system and are sensitized to the environmental concerns which have become serious lately.

Similarly, all students become familiar with computers which have emerged as an integral part of human life. The inclusion of these subjects in the curriculum reflects sensitivity to the changing demands of education, and is commendable.

Continuing in the same spirit, the current round of debate on the Bhagavad Gita can be productive and lead to enrichment of the curriculum with a spritiual component.
An inclusive approach in developing the curriculum will provide the students with an introduction to the origin and tenets of different faiths and enable them to appreciate the points of view of each of them.

(The writer teaches at the University of Ottawa, Canada)

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