Swami Vivekananda & Education

There was an article that was doing the round in the Worldwide Web recently. Its headline was “How to destroy a nation without firing a single bullet!” The main idea of the article was that education can either make or break a nation. Of course, we all know this truth. Education is vital for a nation’s health. What is however a matter of great concern for everyone in the country is – no one seems to have a clear conception of what exactly is education. No one seems to have a clear idea of what sort of education will take our nation forward, and what sort will ruin our nation. This is not just the case with India. Even so-called advanced nations like USA and the UK are at their wit’s end to formulate a viable process of education that will sustain their countries. In fact, quite recently, the President of USA gave a public statement declaring that the system of evaluation-based education being followed in their country was a failure of effort!

So what is education? And what is the kind of education needed in India? Fortunately for us, Swami Vivekananda has spelt out quite clearly and dealt with elaborately on what we should do and what direction we ought to take. Some of his more popular sayings pertain to education. We shall deal with some of them here. In one place, Swamiji says:

The very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. If I had to do my education over again, and had any voice in the matter, I would not study facts at all. I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will. – CW: 6.38

Elsewhere, he says clearly:

What is education? Is it book-learning? No. is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education. – CW: 4.490

Let us try to understand these statements of Swami Vivekananda. We know what education is. Education is what we get in our schools, colleges & universities. What do we get there? Let us make a list of what we generally get from our Schools:

  • We are taught to read and write. We are taught to express ourselves using the skills of language.
  • We are taught history. The history we learn is the western concept of history, the linear history. We learn the important events that happened in the past, the important people who were involved in those events, the various social and political and economic forces that led to those events. More importantly, we study how events are bound in a cause-effect relationship, each event itself being the effect of many previous events, are in turn the cause of many more important events later on.
  • We are taught mathematics. We are taught numbers and the relationship they have between themselves. Those of us who study science in college get to use mathematics in greater detail.
  • We are taught about our environment. We are taught geography where we study about land, water and air. We learn about the minerals and crops and food. We learn about people and society and cultures.
  • We are taught the sciences where we learn about the stuff that constitute the world we live in. we are taught about the forces that work on these things. We learn about living beings and about our own bodies.
  • In most schools, we are taught moral sciences or value education too, where we get to hear some interesting stories that usually end up teaching us some important virtue.
  • We also get sufficient exposure to games & sports, singing & acting, group work [as in NCC/NSS] & hobbies [as in philately/gardening, etc.].

This is the general fare that is given to us in the average and above-average schools of the present day.

Then we have the colleges. Let us make a list of what we get from them:

  • Today’s colleges offer us courses in Science, Commerce and Humanities.
  • There are some institutes that offer some skill development programmes such as Computer skills, workshop skills, communication skills, etc.
  • Apart from Basic sciences, we also have Medical and Engineering colleges.

Then again, we have the universities in India that offer a slew of Masters and Doctorate programmes.

This is a rough estimate of the education that is present in India today. Is it not sufficient to lift our country to great heights? Is something else required? Did Swamiji mean these programmes when he used the term education? Why does he say that concentration of the mind is the essence of education? This is disturbing to us because nowhere in our present system of education do we impart any sort of training for concentrating the mind of the students! Does that mean then that we are nowhere near the conception of education that Swamiji envisaged?

It is essential that we clearly understand the meaning of this term ‘Education’ before we attempt to understand Swamiji’s thoughts on education. This is essential because, unless we are on the same page, we will end up misinterpreting the Great Saint’s thoughts. Many educational institutions today carry his name. Do they all impart the education in the way he had envisaged? In fact, is there even one educational institution anywhere in the country that is imparting the kind of education he envisaged? We contend that the kind of education he envisaged is not yet being imparted anywhere, at least not on a systematic basis.

There is a very strong reason for this. He himself specified very clearly, “We must have a hold on the spiritual and secular education of the nation.” All the educational institutions that bear his name today, or even the Ramakrishna Mission’s name, are all bound by the norms dictated to them by various Governmental bodies such as the State Education Boards, the CBSE, the NIOS, the various Universities, the UGC, the IMC, the AICTE, etc. to which each of our Institutions is affiliated. It is but natural that none of these statutory bodies are framed on the lines of Swami Vivekananda’s conception of education. And why would they be?

In order to understand the ocean & earth difference between the points-of-view of Swami Vivekananda and the present national education policy makers, we may need to grasp a historical perspective of education.

Education is never the end in view of any Government or society. Education is always a means to an end. The present education system has evolved as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution of the 17th century. Since then, there has been absolutely no systemic change in education. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, there was a need of large numbers of people who knew how to read and write. Those people also needed a lot of general knowledge for working at various levels of the complex society that resulted from the industrial growth. To constantly further the frontiers of knowledge, again large numbers of people were required who would specialize in certain fields of human endeavor like the Arts, Commerce and Sciences. And that is what the entire education system is today geared for achieving.

This is the history of how the present system of education evolved in the world. Its genesis was basically in Europe and from there it spread to all the parts of the world that they colonized. Within a century their system of education had spread all over the world because every part of the world was somehow or the other connected to Europe; some parts were their colonies, and the remaining parts were in commerce with them.

We in India got exposed to their education system from the 1850s when India came under the British Crown. And it is essentially that system that is going on even now.

What about the education system before that? Every society had its own system of education and so had our country. The society in India before the country came under the British Crown was organized in such a fashion that India had a multi-tier education system. Society consisted of the four castes. Each caste specialized in a particular field of human endeavor. The Brahmins specialized in religion & culture. The Kshatriyas specialized in governance and warfare. The Vaishyas specialized in Commerce and Industry. The Shudras specialized in all sorts of menial labor. There was a very well defined education system in place that ensured the transference of knowledge and skills from one generation to another within each caste. Apart from the fact that there was a well-defined education system in India since time-immemorial, what is really important for us is the method of imparting education that prevailed in India in the past. Swamiji mentions in one of his lectures: “The old system of education in India is very different from the modern system. The students had not to pay. It was thought that knowledge is so sacred that no man ought to sell it. Knowledge must be given freely and without any price. The teachers used to take students without charge, and not only so, most of them gave their students food and clothes. To support these teachers, the wealthy families made gifts to them, and they in turn had to maintain their students.

What is noteworthy in the old Indian system, apart from its economical novelty, is that the students had to stay with the teacher. Education was synonymous with living with the teacher. Secondly, education was highly decentralized. While there were guilds in each caste that ensured that there was uniformity of knowledge distribution among the learned and skilled members of a particular caste, the curricula and evaluation system were completely at the discretion of each individual teacher.

Of course, we do not expect, like some do, that we ought to revert to the old system. Neither is such a reversion desirable in the present age.

We must nevertheless recognize that the world is changing rapidly. We are no longer in the age of the Industrial Revolution. Ever since the advent of the Worldwide Web, a new age has dawned. The advent of the internet is a watershed event in human history. The advent of the interconnection brought about by Internet, the revolution in the telecommunication sphere has changed our world in a way that is nothing short of incredible! We all continue to live in our different nations, but there seem to be no borders anymore. Knowledge and information are becoming free, day by day. Sharing is the watchword now. Men are more interdependent now than ever before. Wars and battles are reducing at an incredible rate. Problems are no longer local. When Greece faces an economic crisis, every nation in the world felt the aftershocks. This was never the case before in human history.

This new world needs a different kind of education which will equip the children to deal with the world meaningfully. The society that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution was a structured, hierarchical society. Roles of each member of the society were more or less well defined. Hence the education that is at present being given in the schools and colleges around the world was quite efficient in equipping the students to learn skills that enabled them to engage meaningfully with the world. Now, the society that is resulting as a consequence of the present changes in the world is a flatter society. Anyone from anywhere can access any information he/she wants. Similarly, anyone from anywhere can contribute to the fund of human knowledge whenever he/she wishes to do so. This means that today’s children will be unable to face the world when they grow up, for they are being trained to fit into a hierarchical society, while the world they will be entering into will be effectively a flat world!

Does this mean that schools and curricula and colleges and degrees will no longer be relevant? Well, it is difficult to predict right now. But, this much we can safely say; even if the external forms of these social tools remain, their content would have become entirely transformed. While up to now, we had to gather information and store it well in our mind and recall them at will, in the future, we may not need to do that. Just as it has already started becoming clear now, information will be more and more accessible to everyone, with no one claiming monopoly over information of any sort. The skill that will therefore become vital is the ability to ask the right questions! By asking the right questions, we will be able to sift through the endless information that stares us in the face, and get meaningful answers to the problems at hand. So, what students need to be taught for the future, then, is how to think with a purpose, to be able to discern the essentials from the non-essentials in any given situation. In other words, the students need to be taught how to concentrate their minds. They need to be taught how to think. While the requirement till now has been to teach students what to think, from now onwards, the requirement will be to teach them how to think.

Concomitant with such a development will be the pervasive spreading of political democracy. Of this too, we have already started getting more than just inklings and intimations in the form of the social uprising in the Middle-East and Africa. This kind of unfolding of human history is unprecedented and is already a subject of serious study, as for instance, documented to some extent in the recent thesis ‘The Great Convergence’ by South East Asian Diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. You could also refer to ‘The Great Experiment: The story of Ancient Empires, Modern States & the Quest for a Global Nation’ by Strobe Talbott, or ‘Global Challenges’ a public address at the Yale University by Bill Clinton, available on YouTube.  The tendency in the world will be towards greater and greater convergence or integration. Sovereign nations of the world will start considering themselves more as states of one consolidated World-Nation. This is the tendency that is being predicted by political and sociological pundits.

In such an integrated world, the requirements of education will be to produce men and women who will be able to play their part in the grand global harmony. It will be the man and woman of high moral fiber than can survive in that environment. While regional & national considerations mattered up to now, from now onwards, every deliberation will have a global component. Our national education policy will have to incorporate this global component into itself. Only then will meaningful education happen in the coming days.

These are big words – global component in the national education policy, and stuff like that! But, what does this actually mean, in simple terms? Proponents of the One-Nation theory have articulated it well enough. It means that the aim of education will be produce better men and women. We do not need to produce good engineers and doctors alone. What we need is a better person. For in the future, we will need persons who are an amalgamation of many trades. Fields of human interest are integrating at a rapid pace. The natural outcome of this is necessity of people who can be many things at the same time, as the situation demands. This again means we will have to impart skills to our younger generation on how they can attach their minds to any subject and detach themselves from it, and move right along to the next subject. We will certainly continue to need specialists in all the fields of human interest. What we are trying to highlight is that a new breed of people will be required in the near future that will be many things at the same time. Although at present this seems to be a fantasy, those who can discern the ways in which the world is moving will agree that this state of affairs we have described here is quite real.

It is against this background that we will have to understand Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts on Education. I have had many discussions with deep thinkers on Swamiji and Education. Many lament that although all of us feel that his thoughts on education are very deep and make sense at a very subliminal level, somehow it seems impossible to frame a viable system of education based on his thoughts! Indeed, that is true. Why? Because, the type of society that will require the kind of education that Swamiji envisaged has not yet taken a concrete shape! It is still in a nebulous state. But, we have already got an inkling of it and are eagerly awaiting its formation. Very soon, the society in which we live will have undergone such drastic changes that the present system of education will become completely out of sync with the society. It is then that Swamiji’s education thoughts will gain currency in the world! This is our decided opinion.

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Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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