When education becomes a meaningless ritual

Education is the making of meaning and the development of thinking individuals; meaningless ritualism is the antithesis of that

Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

My grandfather’s formal school education ended after grade seven. That did not stop him from gaining a reputation as a formidable lawyer in the “princely state” of Sarangarh. This self-taught lawyer was also an equally formidable self-taught scholar of Indian philosophy. No wonder he had no notion of what knowledge was appropriate for what age. I was unilaterally commandeered by him as a student of philosophy, at the age of nine. My head would be ringing with the nuances of Advait Vedant when he would visit us.

I did not understand anything, and the limitation was entirely my own; he was ceaselessly energetic in lecturing me. But there was something like an Abhimanyu effect of all those lectures. Later in life when people talked of the same concepts, I grasped them much more easily than I thought I was capable of.

What I understood and enjoyed was how he made fun of priests and their rituals. This was between me and him, and not malicious. His point was always the same, that most priests do not understand a word of their own chants. And that even if they understand the words literally, their chants and rituals are devoid of any meaning whatsoever. Every once in a while he would trip up some priest by asking completely innocuous questions like why some mantra came before the other one or the connection between two concepts. And then he would laugh and wink at me. So, I grew up learning that what many people held most sacred was often the most empty of meaning.

Decades later, I became responsible for a global, high-precision engineering business. In that business the quality of the product was by far the most important requirement. We had clients, partners and suppliers across the world. Working with the engineering and manufacturing world in Japan was an immersion in a meditative experience. Refined minimalism of processes, simplicity of methods, unwavering discipline and focus, deep connectedness across, and the importance of taking time unhurried, that world was in calm and serene order. It also produced the highest-quality products, consistently.

The world of Indian manufacturing had something that the Japanese did not. Any factory and manufacturing business worth its name would have a range of impressive certifications and systems. ISO, QS, Six Sigma were just the more common ones. And to back up all these there were reams of neatly written, well-thought-through documents. But quality in the products was either absent, or was the result of panicked firefighting.

The Japanese were mystified by this inexplicable contradiction, especially when compared with themselves. They had no certifications but had quality. Indian manufacturing had all the certifications but no quality. Certainly there was a range and there were shining exceptions, but they were just that. Most of us who were part of that world in India would hate to admit it but we had to, if we wanted some change.

It was the familiar world of priests. All the certifications and the manuals were like the mantras, and the systems were sacred. But they were completely devoid of meaning. Written by experts, understood by few, used by even fewer. With little or no connection to reality, basically written to impress, not to live. The priesthood of the quality teams would lead the empty rituals, and their lay followers, i.e. the rest of the teams, would chant along.

Let me add that there were forces gaining ground which were beginning to shake this empty ritualism, and I hope things have continued to improve in the past few years.

This evisceration of meaning from actions and their conversion to empty rituals seems a culture common in modern India. School education is afflicted by this at every level and on every dimension. Let’s take some of the most obvious and universally visible examples.

The class echoing multiplication tables is the prototypical filmic image of an Indian school, and there can be no better demonstration of the malady in schools. The children repeating those tables (more often than not) do not understand the meaning of multiplication, nor its relationship to life. The teacher does not even attempt to develop this understanding; her purpose is the flawless mantra-like repetition. The officials visit and inspect for the same. And this is part of the larger phenomenon of rote memorization being the primary pedagogical approach in our schools. The examinations only reinforce this emptiness.

The daily assembly, which is potentially a powerful process for social development of the students, is invariably ritualized to a prayer and a student reading news. The text books are crammed with information with an expectation of regurgitation after reading. We can go on.

Most of my columns are about people who are attempting good education, and this is the cultural tide that they swim against. Education is the making of meaning and the development of thinking individuals. This culture of meaningless ritualism is the antithesis of that. Our education itself has become a meaningless ritual.

Paradoxically the only social process for curing our culture of the malady of meaninglessness is good education. That is the wedge with which we can pry our culture open to embrace the making of meaning, and so that must be the focal point of our collective maximal force.

Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere

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