What is the purpose of education? Does it mean to learn the letters? Does it mean to learn a language? Does it mean going to school and college to get a degree? Is it just that or more?
The real purpose of education lies in enlightenment. Education is nothing if it is not an awakening. If one learns by rote, without understanding the essence, then that learning remains limited to a certain time. With time, memory fades and so does this kind of learning. But a critical reception of knowledge imparted ensures its longevity and fulfills its real objective. Wasn’t Tagore right when he said
“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”
If we are unable to interrogate with the knowledge that we gain, then we have not understood our lesson well. It is the ability of an individual to question, debate and when needed, defy the ‘system’ which ensures that the true purpose of education has been served.
I recently came across two such instances where education has led to an awakening which consequently has brought changes in our society. These changes are not small in their sweep. They signal a movement of change, a ripple of betterment.
I begin with Kakenya Ntaiya from Kenya. A feminist, an educator and a social activist, she tells the story of her life in her own words. To see the video, click http://www.ted.com/playlists/193/the_importance_of_educating_gi
Hailing from Kenya, she describes the difficulties she faced when she wanted to pursue education while the society expected her to get married and become a good wife. As a child, she saw her mother being abused by her father. She saw that her mother had no financial security as everything belonged to her father. When she reached her 8th grade, Kakenya was expected to go through a ritual all girls went through in her village. She saw this ritual as a chance to gain freedom. She demanded from her father a promise for further education or else she would not go through the ritual, which she didn’t even know the name of. The ritual as she later found out was genital mutilation, a cause of number of deaths of young Kenyan girls. As the ritual has special significance in the village, if Kakenya refused to do it, her father would become the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons. This fear of disgrace and social ostracization compelled the father to give in to her daughter’s demands. It was later however when Kakenya reached US that she gained ‘knowledge’. She came to know of her ‘rights’. She gained insight into the injustices rampant in her society. And she found out that what she went through was illegal. She was awakened to the knowledge of her rights as a woman, as a girl.
If Kakenya had reserved this knowledge to herself, would she not have failed in her education?
So she did not stop there. She went back to her village and opened schools for girls. She gave back to her society something that would help shed its prejudices and ignorance. She learnt the lessons well and made sure that this learning was not stopped there. She let it flow where it was needed most – her village.
The second person I talk about in this post is Dr. Urvashi Sahni, who features in the book The Poetry of Purpose – A Portrait of Women Leaders of India. To read more about the book, click The Poetry of Purpose.
Once again I need to acknowledge and thank The Better India for this. Had I not read this article, I would not have known much about Dr. Sahni.
First thing that I need to point out is that being born in a privileged or well-to-do family does not ensure freedom in its true sense. So was it with Urvashi. She felt that education just meant leaning what was taught and it did not involve a critical thinking or introspection. She got married at an early age but her passion for learning continued and she persisted in her efforts even after becoming a mother. She realized that one needed to develop a keen sense of ‘self’ in order to engage with the society.
The concept of ‘self’ has been discussed across disciplines and is open to debates and discourses. Who am I? What constitutes ‘I’? Do I have an identity ‘individual’ to myself or is my ‘self’ a constitution of the ideologies of the society I live in? These are questions that one needs to ask from oneself. The answers that one gives may tell where this consciousness is rooted.
When Urvashi was schooled, she did get the education of reading and writing but she realized that this education was not giving her the answers to her questions of her ‘selfhood’. This inquiry into the role of education pushed her further into an interrogation on the whole concept of ‘pedagogy’. It was at the University of Berkeley, where she went for her Masters, that she discovered that ‘pedagogy’ was far from ‘neutral’. Rather, there were layers of influences – social, political and otherwise. What was needed was a questioning of the purpose of education, a questioning of the way education was imparted. Thus, the concept of ‘self’ became of paramount importance to her. She stresses that the ‘self’ is not a solitary individual but an entity rooted in a context, never limited, ever expanding, all-embracing.
Her school Prerna is an inspiration to the underprivileged girls of Lucknow. She teaches them to stand for themselves. She teaches them their rights. She teaches them confidence. She teaches them that they have a voice and that they have the right to use it.
Urvashi Sahni is another example of someone who has used the education she received to not just passively accept the givens. She has interacted in valuable ways by shedding light on how education itself limits and conforms to the ‘norms’ without questioning critically and radically. This reminds me Louis Althusser who highlighted the fact that schools were one of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ used by the dominant ideology to enforce and reinforce standards generally accepted and considered ‘normative’. Urvashi Sahni brings that role into open and questions it by engaging in critical pedagogy.
I find it apt to include a quote here
‘Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.’
These two women have helped bring a change by spreading real knowledge about life and the ideologies we live by. They have taken what they were given to a new level of inquiry and have helped in the betterment of society. They come from different ladders of social affluence and stand at an equal pedestal of enlightened individuals, raising questions, challenging stereotypes and disputing conservatism.
If you are educated, what purpose are you serving? What change have you brought about? What questions have you asked?