Getting a degree should not be the real purpose of education. What should be the aim of education?
Education is something we desire for our children, but what is its purpose? To some of us, education is valuable because it provides us with the means to earn a living, with more education implying higher incomes. Others consider education to be a character-building exercise which churns out tolerant, compassionate, honest and courageous individuals.
Even if character building and income enhancement are taken to be the only goals of education, we would see that many education systems fail to attain these: lack of tolerance for other religions often characterizes people with ‘impressive’ educational qualifications, and the highly educated are very often involved in corrupt dealings; schools which fail to inculcate basic skills of reading, writing and doing arithmetic are also not uncommon.
But are these the only objectives of schooling? John W. Gardener (1963), former U.S. Secretary for Health, Education and Welfare, had this to say:
The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursuing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else. Not only does education continue when schooling ends, but it is not confined to what may be studied in adult education courses. The world is an incomparable classroom, and life is a memorable teacher for those who aren’t afraid of her.
What Gardener is saying is that as individuals, we need to keep on learning, i.e., acquiring new knowledge or skills. Learning about new topics is found to augment happiness; it also contributes to better functioning of the brain and memory. When a person acquires a new skill, it can form the basis of her promotion in an organization which in turn can augment her happiness. However, the acquisition of a new skill, an achievement in itself, can also be the cause of an increase in happiness.
Learning about topics that interest us makes us feel happy by keeping our boredom at bay and helping us advance our personal and professional development goals. It is also found that learning can delay the onset of dementia-type symptoms among the elderly. Studies found that learning a new musical instrument or picking up new skills, such as digital photography, helped to prevent cognitive decline or even improve memory.
The upshot of this discussion is that learning throughout our lives can help us achieve more fulfilling and satisfying lives with our brains functioning at higher levels of efficiency. However, the educational institutions – organized means of enabling learning – that we enroll in engage us only for the initial years of our life. The question is regarding how these institutions can provide us with a foundation to learn continuously throughout our lives.
The answer lies in ensuring that our educational institutions enhance our skills of comprehension, deductive reasoning, intuition and imagination. While many of us might not remember what we were taught in sixth-grade geography lessons, the mentioned skills, if properly inculcated, can serve us throughout our lives. For example, the diversity of textual matter that we come across in schools, much of which we are encouraged to go through on our known, can help hone our skills of comprehension. Knowledge of the principles underlying deductive reasoning, which help us identify cause and effect in phenomena, are so fundamental that once appropriately learned, they are difficult to forget.
Once deductive powers are firmly instilled in a human being, she would be able to form chains of deductive reasoning without being consciously aware of the components of these chains. This facilitates fast deduction — a power known as intuition. Deduction and intuition give us the satisfaction of creating new knowledge from existing knowledge and thus derive maximum benefits from learning. Imagination is needed to comprehend the full implications of what one has learnt, as was demonstrated by Einstein in his discovery of the theory of relativity. What one has imagined, however, has to be subjected to the test of deductive reasoning, as was done by Einstein.
Comprehension, deductive reasoning, intuition and imagination are, therefore, wonderful gifts that our school and higher education system can give us as they would facilitate continuous learning throughout our lives and make learning more rewarding and more attractive. This would help us lead happier and more productive lives and ward off the diseases of old age, such as dementia and memory decline. When educational institutions formulate their syllabi, they should not only check whether they are enabling their students to earn adequate incomes and build a good character but also whether they are adequately empowering them to lead a life based on continuously learning.
(Siddhartha Mitra is Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)
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