Fighting ignorance and apathy
To meet the challenges of a post-COVID world, our education systems must be reformed from their roots to be more conscientious, inclusive and pragmatic in their approach
Prolonged uncertainty unhinges emotional balance even amongst seasoned mature persons. Everyone is worried and it is linked to the Coronavirus. The sense of helplessness and even fear stands considerably pronounced after media reports — and visuals — on governments and private hospitals. In the capital city of New Delhi, people are in the dread of hospital visits or God forbid, admission. Immunity enhancing measures are now being taken more seriously but concerns are not diminishing. In every family, safety, security and education of children is paramount in everyone's mind. Even eminent experts and academics would not be in a position to envision the shape of things during the next months, leave alone the next few years. Humanity was never put to such an intriguing universal dilemma that spares none. It is the pursuit of knowledge — formal education included — that keeps human beings afloat even in apparently worst looking circumstances. Ingenuity, skills and mental agility pave the path to apply knowledge and arrive at a solution. The present crisis is no exception; people are exploring in all sincerity how to combat the disruptions in their sector of activity. While immediate and short term initiatives are necessary, the primacy must go to the continuation of teaching and learning to ensure that generations ahead are not adversely impacted even in these adverse circumstances. I find a considerable number of webinars being organised practically in every area, with learned and knowledgeable persons presenting their analysis of the present and vision for the future. In India, a massive exodus of the labour force from the places of their work back to the ancestral village is an eye-opener, clearly indicating how the ideology of progress and development not related to the culture and soils of the people collapses even without warnings! Now, once again after Mahatma Gandhi, we are talking of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, which would become a reality only if the concept of 'Gram Swaraj of Bapu'; or PURA — Providing urban amenities in rural areas — of APJ Abdul Kalam is understood, accepted and implemented in full sincerity and with undiluted commitment.
Successful implementation of Gram Swaraj or PURA would require an unprecedented attitudinal transformation amongst the adults and also young ones. Building public confidence through adult awareness initiatives using diverse strategies is the first step. It ensures active public participation. Simultaneously, education must be reoriented to shift focus on character building, skill acquisition, and nurturance of creativity that would lead to innovations. No more heavy burdens of school bags. Let 'Learning to learn' be the new slogan for every school. It would not focus on certificates and degrees but on developing entrepreneurial skills. It would inspire young persons to come together, generate resources and become employment creators. The traditional climate and culture of India would not let them become self-centred; they would certainly think of the last man in the line. The values of 'for the welfare of all' and that the 'world is but one family' would prevail. Young Indians are fascinated by the idea and possibility that village, agriculture, artisan. Local product and their marketing are going to be supported and encouraged. Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda had high hopes from the youth of India. These are said to be the golden years of the demographic dividend for India. It is time to expect that young persons shall accept their role and responsibility, and never ignore the welfare of the 'last man in the line'. This last man made his presence felt on the burning roads of India, marching on foot for thousands of miles with family and children, unsure of the next meal and even drinking water! What more devastating proof does one need to infer how the ideology of progress and development India adopted after independence has just failed the nation. The Coronavirus crisis has tilted the emphasis on rural India, which was long overdue. New pans and policies must be formulated by those who understand India, Indian culture, history and heritage. In addition, one expects them to be thoroughly aware of international developments.
It would be worthwhile to recall why the Mahatma was so insistent on Gram Swaraj. In a letter written in 1922, he lamented that his people would not be happy even when Swaraj is achieved. Four things would weigh heavily on them: Defects of elections, injustice, the burden of administration and the treachery of the rich! It was prophetic indeed! He had studied the British election system, and knew that similar aberrations would creep into the Indian system as well! That is exactly what has happened. India urgently requires serious electoral reforms, to regain the confidence of the people in a democracy, and restore trust in elected representatives. India must accept that so long as money power dominates, the credibility of most of its elected representatives would remain suspect. In 1925, the Mahatma published 'Seven Social Sins', which must be at the fingertips of everyone working for the people of India and their welfare. These were: politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and worship without sacrifice. Could the new policy formulations ignore the presence of all of these, and their serious impending impact on each and every initiative? The generations are to come must comprehend the implications of each one of these and transform India. They must be ready to substitute 'with' instead of 'without' in all the seven! Rethink the basics of education. The learning systems of the 20th century would no longer serve the desired purpose in the post-COVID world. For learners, no more sufferings because of curriculum load and heavy school bags! Take note of the warning signals indicated above, and search for alternative models of learning in the post-Corona schooling. I would like to offer the following words of wisdom by Swami Vivekananda: "If I am to start my education again, I will not start reading many books. I will focus on improving my concentration. If you have a concentrated mind, you can read many books in no time." It has the potential to transform formal as well as community education to really higher levels, making life easier for the young and old alike.
The writer works in education and social cohesion. Views expressed are personal