The Flower and its Petals
seed needs air, water and sunlight in order to germinate and grow into a plant,
children learn in primary school. It is one of the elementary lessons in science.
But how did that lesson get in there? By that, I do not refer to the educational
curriculum that included the topic in the syllabus. I refer to a process that
took place over a couple of hundred thousand years!
Early humans foraged for food, going to where the food was. When they exhausted an area, the hunter gatherers moved to newer places. During such a nomadic life style, over generations and millennia, they discovered, understood, misunderstood, corrected and improved their knowledge of the workings of nature. They learnt that the life story of a tree begins with a tiny seed. They found when the seed sprouts, under what conditions it flourishes and when it shrivels, what makes the plant bear flower and fruit, what makes it wilt, and what soil it grows best in. And so, after being around for 200,000 years, we humans developed agriculture less than 20,000 years ago. We needed that 180,000 years to learn and improve the process of growing our own crops. It is this process, that we took nine tenths of our entire existence on earth to learn, that we summarize in that one line in our primary school text books! Much of our education has evolved this way. What school and college students learn from a lesson in their text book is the essence of the cumulative knowledge humanity has discovered over thousands of years of living and learning, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
Education is one of the greatest organizations that we have devised. It is a marvellous system in which we have taken all the knowledge that humanity has learnt so far, weeded out mistakes and superstitions, organized all the component elements within a comprehensive framework and multi-layered structure, and encapsulated everything into a 15 or 20-year study. But we have a problem here.
Teachers and parents often hear youngsters ask ‘Why should I learn this?’ Its various variants are: What is the use of learning history, isn’t it the future that is relevant? After school, who uses the Pythagoras theorem or logarithm? How will reading Shakespeare help me get a job? Why memorize the Latin names of plants, who speaks Latin these days anyway? Marvellous though the system of education may be, many students simply do not connect to it any more than they need to. The fascination of discovery and the joy of learning are no longer real to many. How and why did this happen?
Stand very close to a beautiful painting, with your nose almost touching it, all you can see are rough brush strokes of various colours and shades. You can no longer see the beautiful picture or even tell what it depicts. When one sees the close-up and close-up alone, there is nothing beautiful or appreciable there. Similarly, with education. When all the knowledge that humanity has collected over millennia are to be presented to every new generation in a decade, it has to be abridged and organized elaborately. Knowledge is broken into different parts, that we call subjects -- Language, Science, History, Geography, Economics. Within each subject, we again classify knowledge into smaller parts. Geography becomes Geology, Cartography, Meteorology, Astronomy. In thus partitioning knowledge into smaller and smaller portions, we begin to stare at the picture from closer and closer, losing sight of the beauty
of the whole. American author Marilyn Ferguson describes this horizontal divorce of knowledge from the real world when she says that our educational institutions “break knowledge and experience into subjects, relentlessly turning wholes into parts, flowers into petals, history into events”.
Take the Indian freedom struggle for example. Shunning all violence, against a better armed colonial ruler, Mahatma Gandhi awoke the dormant aspirations of all Indians, channelized their energy and obtained independence for India. In the token act of making one’s own salt or spinning one’s own cloth, he showed how an organized, nonviolent grassroots level movement can take on one of the mightiest powers of the world. Indian independence was followed by three dozen countries obtaining political independence in Asia and Africa. Gandhiji’s life and struggle inspired and continue to inspire movements for freedom and civil rights across the world. But when such a complex and multi-disciplinary idea is reduced to facts that students are required to learn and reproduce - M.K. Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) employed nonviolent civil disobedience and led India to independence against the British on August 15th 1947 – profound ideas are condensed into definitions and formulae, such as the algebraic formula (x+y)2 = x2 + y2+ 2xy. In this process, the student is lost, and so is much precious knowledge.
It is this fragmentation of knowledge from life, the abstraction, the divorce of the part from the whole, this breaking of flowers into petals that creates the disconnect that students experience from education. No wonder students quip, “Dear Algebra, please do not ask me to find your X, I dont know, I dont care, and dont ask Y”.
So, what is the solution? One approach is contextual education. In order to understand any part, we also need to understand the whole and the relationship of the part to the whole. In other words, we understand anything when we see it in a context. Poetry and art can be appreciated better if one knows the period when it was created. Literature can be understood more deeply when the environment in which the author wrote is known. Pollution can be checked when we understand its links to industrialism, development and sustainable practises. Fundamentalism can be tackled only when its root causes, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and marginalization, are addressed. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything needs to be seen in a context. In the same way, education acquires meaning and comes to life when we make it contextual.
Along with teaching the subject, there needs to be a constant emphasis on establishing relationships - between the subject and all other subjects, between the data and the circumstances in which it was generated, between the lesson and the learner, between knowledge and life.
Some institutions attempt to contextualize education through teamwork, discussions, project-based learning, internship and service learning. Stanford University, US in its report ‘Stanford 2025’ envisions a movement from ‘learning’ to ‘purpose learning’. Just as the very words suggest, purpose is added to learning. Students will select a mission at the start of the course, and couple their disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fuels it. These missions will guide their careers.
Students, instead of saying ‘I’m a biology major’ or ‘computer scientist’ will affirm instead that ‘I’m learning biology to eliminate world hunger’ or ‘I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.’ This will put an end to the question ‘Why am I learning this’ and make all learning relevant to a larger personal or social cause that every student can relate to and feel for.
However, contextualizing education is not systematized in the curriculum in most educational institutions and curricula, it remains highly dependent on the creativity and innovation of individual teachers and institutions. An organized, collective effort to add the context to the information imparted is needed. This way, we can put the petals back together to form the flower.