Wednesday, December 08, 2021


The true purpose of education

Disciplinarian culture is best suited for the functioning of a consumer society where short-term profits are the corporate goal , writes Jaykhosh Chidambaran

By Jaykhosh Chidambaran

Monday, November 15, 2021

Education is “not preparation for life, but education is life itself”, to quote John Dewey, progressive educator, activist and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. There are two competing schools of thought on the true purpose of education, one of “Enlightenment”, where the ultimate goal of life is to inquire and create, freely and independently without any external controls that leads to self-discovery and self-learning. Another worldview is espoused by the “Liberal Internationalists”, and corroborated by the Trilateral Commission according to academic and social critic Noam Chomsky, that education should serve to indoctrinate the young and select people to become obedient, passive, conforming to established frameworks, seldom questioning the status quo, never challenging existing systems and structures and thus creating a deferential society. Educational debt traps augment this crude reality of a submissive workforce who doesn’t have the time to think of changing societal ills. A classic case is Japanese workforce, an extraordinarily obedient society. Disciplinarian culture is best suited for the functioning of a consumer society where short-term profits are the corporate goal. 

Walter Lippmann, one of the most distinguished public intellectuals of the last century, coined the phrase, ‘manufacturing consent’ to make the meddlesome outsiders, defined as the general public to be subservient to an intelligent minority’s opinions. Edward Bernays, widely regarded as the “father of modern public relations” went a step ahead to introduce the phrase ‘engineering consent’ to achieve this desired result of keeping the masses off the ‘throat of the government’. While manufacturing consent aims at populist support of public policies and programs through propagandist media communication, engineering consent goes one step further to apply principles of science and psychographic research of social scientists, methodically and meticulously executed to influence the masses. 

Marketing communications of name branded products and services are engineered to influence where consumer psychologists have already made choices for people before their purchase decision. James Madison, one the pre-eminent framers of the US Constitution, incorporated the philosophy of “minimizing democracy” into it, by making higher education limited to an elite, intellectual minority. They are proclaimed as responsible men, who could manipulate the voting behavior of the majority and prevent usurping of the privileged property, opulence and assets of minority elites! Interestingly, Aristotle, in ancient Greece had a solution to this by advocating mass investment in education to make the lower strata of the workforce middle class, thereby eliminating inequality through measures of ‘welfare state’ policies.

Education is inextricably linked to experience and memory, and has been categorically proven that, what one learns from actual experience is best understood and longest retained. Therefore, is it inevitable and indispensable to memorize the periodic table and types of enzymes, wrack brains on trigonometry and algebraic equations which most never apply in their lives? Rather, a syllabus on personal finance, basic economics, public hygiene and civic sense, healthy eating and drinking habits, voting for political candidates, gender roles and relationships, adolescent sexual education incorporated into the secondary school curriculum is highly desirable and most pragmatic. Is informal, experimental education undervalued over tests, assignments and memorizing system of traditional education?

Education, conceived as an act of pouring water into an empty vessel (often leaky) is less productive and beneficial than being understood, as with the theory of Wilhelm Von Humboldt, considered as the father of modern university system, as “laying down a string”, by the instructor, where the student progresses in his learning through creative and constructive inquiry, exploration, experimentation and experience, with the string acting as a formal structure for advancement. Humboldt’s pathbreaking thesis on academic education hinges on holistic learning through a combination of research and studies. The Humboldtian model integrates arts and science with research to achieve comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge along with vocational training.

 Humboldt’s academic ideals were based on two illuminating ideas of the Enlightenment, the autonomous individual and world citizenship. Any formal educational structure and program should reinforce these two concepts that should exist symbiotically within an individual. An individual must attain independent, unbiased worldview with free thought and inquiry that translates into effective contribution towards transformation of global societies by dealing with big questions of humanity-justice, peace, universal brotherhood, cultural appreciation of diversities, understanding of gender roles and diversities and pledging for environmental protection through an enlightened view of man’s irreversible relationship with nature. It’s not what you “cover” in class that’s important, but it only matters what you “discover”!

Bertrand Russel, the mercurial mathematician and philosopher of the 20th century gave a messianic commandment, “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything”. This maxim is the bedrock for developing one’s critical faculties, questioning authority, deconditioning our “mental bad habits”, demolishing false belief systems and correcting mythical, irrational and illusory ideas bequeathed to us by society still clinging on to ancient and mediaeval precepts and pseudoscience as truth before the advent of science and rational epistemology. Inborn human tendencies, communitarian beliefs and social mores can be the causes of “mental bad habits” that leads most individuals and societies to make hasty, prejudiced and arbitrary conclusions without any supporting evidences and rational scientific inquiry.

Developing scientific temper, fact-based reporting and hypothesis, testing pre-existing beliefs in the light of reason and open-mindedness are never a gift of nature. Any individual who wishes to tread this illustrious path should cultivate deep-seated habits rooted in unbiased analysis, free inquiry, acceptance of scientific facts, discarding blind assertions, guesses and opinions to solve any issues and problems they encounter. If a man, however informed and erudite, hasn’t internalized this approach to learning, is not intellectually educated and lacks mental discipline. Therefore, as Dewey summarizes, “the office of education in forming skilled powers of thinking” assumes paramount importance in any educational system. Education should be a playground where a rigorous training of the mind happens continuously which essentially blossoms into formation of habits of rational and empirical thought process. Habits become lifestyle that shapes destiny.        

The revolutionary movements of the 1960’s, “The Prague Spring”, the “Red October” and the burning of libraries, predominantly seeking independence from Victorian morality, delinking the state and the church, were in fact the masses asking relevant questions, exercising their critical faculties through free inquiry. The liberal intellectuals and most of the educated spectrum, regarded these events as jeopardizing the very fabric of civil societies and destruction of the foundations of civilization caused by “too much democracy “! Industrialization of education has created a quest for certainty and robotic creation of workforces just to cater to the labor market. It thwarts creativity and innovation and people often lead lives of conformance to authorities, immune to social issues and injustices. 

Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist advocated the growth-value of remaining uncertain in science and by extension in life, so that one may demolish the cocoon of self-imposed darkness of ignorance and hatch oneself into the light of truth. James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest physicists coined the phrase, “thoroughly conscious ignorance” as the “prelude to every real advance in science”. This ignorance doesn’t have negative connotations and stems from a communal gap in knowledge that requires further empirical experiments, observations, refinement and axiomatic conclusions. Such ignorance is the foundation for true advancement and layering of information and knowledge. Socrates, the ancient sage quipped, “All in know is that I know nothing” is an exhortation to continuously seek, learn, question and advance and never resting on laurels of contentment of limited knowledge. Madam Curie, the Polish-French chemist and physicist said famously, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done”.    

An ancient proverb says “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat”. This description holds true both for science and personal acquisition of knowledge, acknowledging the role of constructive ignorance in true progress of science and civilization. The greatest advances in science and technology, causing civilizational progress have been achieved by people who have, had the audacity and will to challenge the existing doctrines, brought revolutionary changes on established systems and frameworks, however sacrosanct, culturally entrenched and inviolable those were. They are our heroes, true iconoclasts who refused to believe that some self-proclaimed smart people shall choose great thoughts and ideas for others to merely memorize. They were always skeptical, ever dissonant voices with dissident ideas, pursued their dreams and followed their hearts, who always took the roads less traveled.