Liberate education, create thinkers

Liberate education, create thinkers

Since 2001, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of higher education institutions and enrolment has increased four-fold

Representative image. Credit: iStockPhoto

This year we are celebrating the centenary of Viswa Bharathi University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Established as Santiniketan in 1863 with the aim of helping education go beyond the confines of the classroom, this initiative grew into the Viswa Bharathi University in 1921, attracting some of the most creative minds in the country. 

In many ways this university is quite different compared to others in the country. It still has the rural trappings that Tagore dreamt of. Classes are held in the open under the shade of huge mango trees and students and tutors alike still travel by cycles to keep pollution at bay. 

The old buildings made up of mud walls and thatched roofs remain. The guiding principle of this little school is best described in Tagore’s own words: “the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”

Ever since the inception of Viswa Bharathi, thanks to the efforts of several commissions appointed to revamp higher education, we have attained considerable improvement in the field with expedited privatisation and liberalised autonomy. 

Gradually, higher education has witnessed many-fold increase in its institutional capacity. 

Since 2001, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of higher education institutions and enrolment has increased four-fold. The higher education system is now one of the largest in the world, with close to 52,000 institutions. The sector has grown enviably across all levels and disciplines. Since the last few years, the education sector has been recognised as a “Sunrise Sector” for investment. 

In the past few months, I used to explore the outskirts of Bengaluru city on a bicycle. In the neighbourhood of Sarjapur road, Mysore road, Begur, Bannerghatta road, Kanakapura road and various other suburbs, a great chunk of the green spaces are all occupied by private universities and international public Schools. 

Almost all of them have their main campuses in the city too. Many of those institutions develop huge residential layouts besides them. The business that education fetches is enormous. The curriculum is designed to serve the particular type of labour the corporate giants from India and outside need. The faculty and students are mostly constrained to work in restricted atmosphere without freedom to raise an issue that affects them.

The metamorphosis of our traditional system of education to a highly organised cleidoic framework is hailed by many. Concurrently, this system ignores a different genus of learners who prefer aptitude-based learning over specialised job fetching technical learning. 

Unfortunately, our much-praised modern teaching methodologies within the confines of high-tech classrooms do not cater to the needs of the latter group. For them, in the absence of an acceptable level of quality, higher education becomes a mere formalism devoid of any purpose or substance. 

I have come across a Chennai-based student who had to leave a prestigious institution in Bengaluru she joined with great expectations after her first year of graduation. She had to waste one year due to the rigid rules of attendance. But still she was not ready to give up her passion for field studies and wildlife biology. 

She later joined a private university in Mysuru with more flexible framework of coaching. Investing her time and heart in the subject she loved within a liberal campus with teachers who could understand and allow her to be herself made her one of the finest young naturalists in south India.

Great leap

We are proud of the infrastructural excellence our educational field has earned and the great leap our pedagogy has taken. But aptitude-based learning is still a far-flung dream. We live in a land where great educational visionaries like Gandhiji, Tagore, Vivekananda, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain etc, who considered education as acquiring of knowledge beyond what is academic and professional. 

Miserably, our progress in the field today is largely stuffing the mind with information unrelated to life within the well-protected corridors of gated communities. The feeling of security, comfort and contentment which the students enjoy within such fortified campuses make them over-achieving but risk-averse and least passionate about ideas. Very few of them see college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. 

‘The true purpose of education is to make minds not careers’, says a popular proverb. Until we are able to take our children to the realms of mystery beyond prescribed syllabus, the entire teaching exercise remains hollow and all its professional, scientific and technological triumphs would remain meaningless. 

Being a good student in the class has nothing to do with success or happiness in life. The Chinese proverb puts it aptly - “Students are accomplished education consumers. Do not confine them to your own learning, for they are born in another time”. 

(The writer is a professor of Zoology and Director of ‘Forest Watch,  a collective focussing on conservation and outreach at Wayanad, Kerala)

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