Education as Expansion of consciousness

Published in Deccan Herald, 3rd May 2016

Rohit Dhankar

“The child lives in a somewhat narrow world of personal contacts”, says John Dewey. He thinks that from this “narrow world”, the child has to be taken to a world which is “stretching back indefinitely in time, and extending outward indefinitely into space”. This, it seems to me, characterises the most important task of education.

We all begin our lives in a close and protective environment. Naturally, the child’s world is confined to direct experiences with the people and physical environment she is surrounded by. But life, even in that confined world of family, demands enormous expansion of consciousness (mind) as a child interacts with others. She is socialised in ways of behaviour, thought and feelings of her community. That helps her in connecting with others, in understanding their intentions, pains and hopes. In a way, she includes them in her own consciousness, they become a part of herself, and her consciousness expands.

While it is a great achievement for the child to have become a thinking being; her consciousness is still bound by that very cultural and physical environment. The very process of formation of mind also imprisons it.

That is why the most important role of education is to liberate the mind from here and now. This is a tricky endeavour though, as this liberty has to be achieved without alienating the mind from the community in which it was formed, for the most basic conceptual equipment is formed with the experiences gained in life as lived in that community.

Severing connection with that experience will render the conceptual equipment empty and useless. On the other hand, without loosening the connection, those conceptual structures will become unreceptive to anything beyond the pale of the community experience and will judge everything else with the narrow yardstick of that particular community.

Therefore, education becomes an endeavour of turning receptive to the ways of knowing, feeling, judging and doing of the humanity with intelligent analysis. That means learning to see oneself as part of the great mass of humanity and sharing in its destiny, while also expanding the imagination to construct human past as well as imagine its future. The vastness of the universe situates even the humanity in a much larger system and the full picture makes humanity a subject of critical assessment: How important is it? How sacrosanct are its ways? What future direction could/ should it take?

All this can be seen as liberating the mind from here and now. Liberation, in this sense, is not disconnection; it is simply growing beyond. The 3 most noisily preached ideals of education today all militate against this expansion of consciousness. They are more pronounced in the higher education, but also shape the school education significantly.

One of these ideals looks at education as preparing cannon fodder for capitalist economy. Riding on the economic aspirations of people, it almost exclusively emphasises marketable skills. Even when it uses lofty terms like “global citizen”, it only means being able to render services to market anywhere on the globe; not in the sense of feeling human pain caused by these market forces.

This not only disconnects the person from his/her formative roots but also makes her mechanical and self-centred to the level where rather than expanding the self, she can see all others only through the prism of self-interest.

Another ideal starts with a critical look at the society and offers a lot of hope in the beginning. But soon, this approach becomes so obsessed with identity politics that it focusses exclusively on one’s own identity; be that Dalit or woman or majority or minority. This particular affliction manifests itself most devastatingly at the university level, and becomes so completely obsessed with injustices done to one community that the whole humanity and all human actions are seen only through that lens. Rest of the humanity is not included in the consciousness, but is forcefully excluded by reducing it into an object of judgment.

Imagined identity

The third ideal, more forceful in last 2-3 years, is that of disregarding the formative community experiences to emphasise only one kind of consciousness that is based on a pruned and imagined Indian culture. Thus violating both the principles of keeping the connection with the formative stage as well as expansion. It considers the first as an aberration; while confining the self to include only one narrowly defined cultural and national ideal forcefully called Indian.

All three broad ideals are out to confine the mind to their own rigidly defined boundaries. They all, while having some grain of positive development, finally want to shape the self into a particular mould, which is incapable of encompassing the whole of humanity with its pain and pleasures, with its perils and achievements, with its depths of depravity and peaks of exalted achievements.

We need to re-emphasise the educational ideal that is capable of feeling the pain of particular sections of humanity without rejecting the rest of it. Which is capable of contributing to the economic machine that sustains the human life, without becoming just a cog in it. Which is capable of deriving nourishment from our limited experiences while subjecting them to values that cherish all humanity.

Often, though, this kind of thought is challenged with the question: all that if fine, but what is the way? The problem is that there is no settled prescription which can combat these fragmentary tendencies. One necessary ingredient of any possible solution, however, would be thinking with clarity and sensitivity towards whole humanity, acting with commitment and connecting with others in their struggles for justice. If we can manage that, some solution should emerge in due course of time.


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