The art of questioning - 1
The first of a series on Indian education.
Pondicherry: I recently heard of an elite school in Mumbai charging an annual fee of Rs 500,000 for its playschool. I was shocked enough to not want to know its fees for kindergarten, primary and beyond. Nearby you may find a state-run school providing almost-free education (and mid-day meals) for the children of the servants working for families whose children attend the elite school. Such is the spectrum of school education in India.
We generally and rightly assume that government schools hardly match the most average private schools (known as “public” schools) in academic standards and overall learning experience. But does the school education system as a whole intellectually equip children for today’s challenges?
Colleges and universities might be similarly interrogated, especially those teaching humanities, social sciences and other liberal arts. The recent controversy over the University of Delhi’s four-year under-graduate programme (FYUP) misses the point altogether. Is the curriculum of either the 3-or 4-year courses rigorous enough? My experience working with graduate and post-graduate students from Indian universities has left me with sufficient doubts about the quality of academic preparation in our institutions.
Academic laxity is a serious matter. There is another. Our education system does not encourage free intellectual activity and independent thinking. A civilization is founded on them. There is an over-the-top emphasis on retention, memorization and recall to get good grades. Students are pressured by parents and teachers to excel in exams. This has spawned an industry of coaching centres, private tuition and preparatory institutions which almost promise admissions to reputed professional colleges and institutes. Education has become business, and the actual business of helping learners develop into rational and thinking individuals has taken a hit.
The purpose of education is not to impart information or to tell learners what to think. It is to help prepare the instrument of learning, namely the mind. Mental education must facilitate the powers of concentration, the capacities for attention and expansion, and the comprehension of complexities and richness. These are not the focus of our mainstream education. To refine the mind as an instrument, an educator should successfully arouse in learners an interest in the subject at hand, a real liking for hard and careful work, and a will to progress. Imagination must be encouraged. A study of a variety of topics increases the suppleness and comprehensiveness of mind. Simultaneously, any single subject matter approached in a variety of ways helps remove the rigidity of the brain, makes thinking richer and suppler, and prepares the mind for a more complex and comprehensive synthesis. Sufficient opportunities to practice the important art and skill of independent thinking and questioning must be provided.
Like pop-culture, higher education in India too suffers from the widespread cultural disease of mindless imitation of the West. Indian academicians are adept at applying the frameworks of post-modernism, post-colonialism, post-feminism, post-Freudianism or another intellectual theory presently popular in Western academe to the Indian experience without independently thinking if they explain the socio-cultural or historical experiences of Indians. The European Enlightenment notions of History, Time, Progress, Individual, Civilization and more have become unquestioningly the basic groundwork for Indian academicians to make sense of the Indian experience even if it requires distorting the lived realities. As contended by some, Indian scholars have been content to gather data and leave the business of theorizing to the West. The colonization of the mind has been complete.
Our habit of non-thinking also makes us disregard the cultural nuances of Indian languages. For example, the uniquely Indian word and concept of “adhikara”, which actually means capacity to do a particular task, or a particular qualification or an authority arising out of the capacity or ownership entitling the individual for a particular position or favour, gets mistranslated as the English word “right”, which is more generic and brushes away all kinds of differences, subtle and non-subtle. This has significant implications for our social-cultural experience, both as individuals and in collective. Because once the idea that “all individuals must have the same right to everything” is accepted as the truth without any questioning, all our social, economic and political policies must be directed by this ideological truth, otherwise we run the risk of being labelled as non-progressive, regressive, conservative, fundamentalist or worse!
A similar non-thinking is at work when a so-called “alternative” reading of our ancient texts is defended simply because of an unquestioning acceptance of the ideology of academic freedom or “right to free speech” without bothering to explore the possibility that some alternative readings might be nothing but only mis-readings and faulty readings. Such a non-questioning mental attitude doesn’t only stop at defending the ideological truths it rigidly considers sacred; it also aggressively rejects any opposition and condemns it by labelling as regressive, fundamentalist, chauvinistic or narrow. No question is asked whether the scholar providing the “alternative” reading has earned the “adhikara” to do so. No question is asked if it makes any rational sense to apply a certain theoretical framework to the study of religion, just because it is acceptable in other social sciences. As a new religion of non-questioning becomes dominant, all wideness of mind and thought is gradually lost.
The solution lies in a gradual and consistent training of the mind to question, to develop its capability to think rationally, to learn how to examine a thought or a situation from all possible angles, to practice the art of concentrating on a given problem in a focused yet widest possible manner, to learn how to synthesize different arguments in the light of a higher ideal. Such a training of the mind helps it to grow in wideness, plasticity and flexibility, and such a mind is capable of going from truth to higher truth in its ascent.
The only way to recover our lost intellectual freedom is by liberating our minds from the servitude to authority, by breaking all our chains. But this liberation must be from ALL; we can’t simply replace one set of ideological superstitions, mental preferences or prejudices with another. We must question everything.
A fearless questioning, deep inquiry and an intense curiosity to discover is what our schools and colleges must help facilitate. It is a grand goal. But if we have to survive and renew ourselves as a culture and civilization, there is no other way.
Beloo Mehra has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She taught at Antioch University Midwest, Ohio, and is on the faculty of Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research at Pondicherry.