The importance of education
Education is not a tradeable commodity; it ought not to be understood as merely a set of skills that has value in a market. Education is not a mundane matter of economic transaction, but on the contrary it must seek to nurture citizenship built around constitutional values.
Education is the bedrock of a just society, the fulcrum of any prosperous community; it is the very foundation upon which nations rise and endure. This truth is as old as the hills—Plato, the greatest of Greek philosophers, knew this acutely. In his classic work, “The Republic”, he exhorts the rulers of Greece to maintain the quality of the education system at all costs lest the state falls into decay and decline. While many of Plato’s ideas have withered away in the long march of time, his insights about the importance of education, its central role in heralding a harmonious socio-political order have fascinated many throughout history; he has found a prominent place in modern theories on education. Rousseau, who was a great admirer of Plato and arguably the father of the French Revolution, believed that Plato’s Republic was the “greatest treatise ever written on Education”.
I invoke Plato not to sing peans to his philosophy—lost in the mists of antiquity as it is, and perhaps not always relevant to our contemporary concerns—but to suggest that even he knew something about the nature of education that we have begun to forget. “Education moulds the soul”, Plato had thought. Education is not a tradeable commodity; it ought not to be understood as merely a set of skills that has value in a market. Education is not a mundane matter of economic transaction, but on the contrary, it must seek to nurture citizenship built around constitutional values. A purely instrumental view of education is dangerous for the well-being of our society, as it produces not citizens, not human beings, but merely producers and consumers. Plato had the foresight to propose the most extensive public-funded system of education which would serve as the steel-frame of the ideal state he had in mind.
We don’t have to agree with Plato’s views on the form and content of such an organised system of education. After all, he was as a much a prisoner of his times as we are. He wrote to offer solutions to problems bound up with his situatedness in a certain bygone age. But what we might profitably take away from his endeavours of the mind, what really is the fruit of his labours, is the alacrity with which he understood the necessity of cultivating “knowledge” through education. He did not mean by knowledge merely technology or knowhow, but a “love of wisdom”, a passion for truth. A society that is ignited with an unbending love for reason is the foundation of an everlasting state, a state of justice. The true purpose of education, therefore, is to ensure the rule of reason over appetites, caprices or wanton ambition—both in the individual and the community. Now, this is an idea fit for all ages transcending the barriers of time and location. A truly universal idea; an idea that we can embrace from the intellectual meanderings of an unfamiliar thinker from an unfamiliar time.
This is my point of departure, as we now witness in India the dismantling of our system of education—brick by brick—by the incumbent government. I do not wish to excoriate unnecessarily. The malaise is not limited to the present government alone, truth be told, but is the result of a new regime of thought that has been in the ascendancy for more than a decade. The Modi government merely manifests the worst of such tendencies—the urge to corporatize and privatize the delivery of even the most basic human needs. The education and health of citizens are now imagined as a “market”. Only recently, in an interview, India’s richest industrialist is reported to have said that education has the potential of being “the most profitable business”. The State—which now is ever so obedient to the demands of Capital—is reluctant to be anything more than a mere regulator, withdrawing slowly even from the social sectors which have a bearing on the fulfilment of the Constitutional promise of a just and equal society.
The consequences of this perennial neglect by the government are known to all; the condition of government schools tells us a tale of horror. What is the point of making education a fundamental right and then destroying the public-funded schooling system? A good education for their children remains a dream for a vast majority of Indians who cannot afford the extortionist fees charged by private schools. The Right to education will be a misnomer if quality education is not affordable. For a long time, the public universities in India had shouldered the burden of providing quality education at subsidized rates. It was a ray of hope for many who could not afford private schools, yet hoped to make a future for themselves by catching up with the more fortunate who could. Cheap boarding and lodging in hostels, low tuition fees in the publicly funded universities of India had allowed many to rise from the dregs of poverty and shine luminously on the national horizon—such examples abound.
That hope is now fading as the vultures of capital have set their profiteering gaze on the last bastions of institutions that best embody the hope and promise of the national movement enshrined in the constitution, a promise of equal opportunity. The draft New Education Policy is a draconian document which aims to give shape to the ulterior design of what can only be described as the auctioning of India’s universities to the highest bidder. When put into motion, it would result in skyrocketing fees, erasing the possibility of social equity in institutions of higher learning; Syllabi would become hostage to the vicissitudes of the market; a mechanized system of learning skill-sets would replace the teaching-learning method of the pursuit of reason. We would not nurture enlightened citizens—who are capable of being “eternally vigilant for securing liberty”, as Machiavelli would say—but robots with dulled minds and imaginations, only too eager to acquire the necessary know-how which fetches a price in the market.