“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”

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?


16 thoughts on ““Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”

  1. The real role of education couldn’t be explained in a better way. Though fulfilling the purpose after being educated is a decision of the individual, but the education imparted to us even in the supposedly finest institutes doesn’t give the slightest thought on developing this feeling. Therefore I feel we, as elders have a major role to play in making at least our young ones believe in the power of one. Because I have seen that most of us excuse ourselves from giving back to the society by thinking ‘I, alone cannot make any difference’. I would like to share this video by Naseeruddin Shah on similar lines:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Prateek….How do I thank you for sharing this wonderful video….It brought tears to my eyes. Simple and strong, lyrical and full of purpose….what beautiful story with what beautiful message…..and you say that what I wrote was done well….No No No…..I have a long way to go….Still many pearls to discover….still many starfish to save….Still many differences to be made…..Thank You so much….my morning could not have started in a better way….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, by sharing the wonderful words of wisdom and love on both your blogs you have thanked me enough 😉
      And I am glad you liked the video. I felt the messages from your post and the one from the video resonated with each other quite well. Also, it is great to learn from your words during the long journey you have taken. The starfish are waiting. 🙂
      Have a lovely day ahead 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a beautiful post. I agree with you, education can raise us above the level of beasts and as Gibran says ” And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Education, irrespective of gender and economic prejudices, is a continual and individualistic process which runs along and coherent with academic curricular education I would say. Your blog touches very conceptual and eye-opening points. Loved reading your examples and quotes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey….welcome here…..Yes, you are right to point out that education is a broad concept, and academic education is one part of it…..it needs to be coherent with the life we live, the principles we live by….to do away with discrimination, education must lead to an awakened consciousness and a receptive heart…..


  5. Definitely agree on the role education should play.

    We are a group of socially conscious youngsters working to understand what helps people to do good things. Our goal is to find out how to increase the quality and quantity of good deeds. Simply, We’re trying to understand what motivates people to go do good deeds. We want to help people do more of them!

    While we understand that you may not want to contribute, we urge you to share the survey on social media with the hashtag #humhaingood in addition to taking it yourself. It only takes ‘5 minutes’!


    Liked by 1 person

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