Education Should Spark Critical Discourse

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Education endlessly lights up human reason and elevates life by shaping the flame of freedom about the mindful existence. Uncultured conduct can easily expose individuals to brute instinct. It, therefore, prepares individuals for modern society, a society free of the forces of inertia, fatalism, prejudice, decay and disorder. In no way education denotes the learning of only dry books or consuming lecture notes of teachers. It is about developing a culture of civilised practice in the community and society, beating the infinite problems and renewing tuneful social, economic and political order. Cross-fertilisation of education kindles the flare of learning and removes the gap between knowledge and wisdom. It reflects the heart, soul and mind of a nation as it transforms people into citizens and human beings with corresponding rights and duties. 

This is the reason Nepali constitution has accepted the right to education and endorsed sustainable development goals espousing “inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting life-long learning opportunities for all.”  Practical benefits of these policy goals can spread to future generations even enabling the poor to climb buoyantly in the ladder of progress and gain desired social mobility. Gautam Buddha has favoured “self-illumination “implying that knowledge is not only a gift received from teachers or books but also from self-reflection of the context, gaining experience about truth and attaining enlightenment.

Changing spirit of age

Constantly pursuing teaching, research, innovation and change enables the Nepali society to comfortably adapt to the changing spirit of the age no longer burdened by the coercion and necessities of life.  Systemic efforts to gain facts, norms and experience informed by both theory and practice of learning and cultivating mental growth and maturity of persons open the possibility for healthy living. In Nepal, however, research and teaching face repulsive disconnects. Neither of them is autonomous of either market imperative, political control or funders’ interest. Nepali teachers’ apathy to update curriculums and non-use of research findings in teaching has turned educational practice esoteric, not exoteric, apt to be imparted to individuals to release them from irrelevant theories. 

Likewise, social and economic research fail to build links with crafting public policy, moralising politics and business or legislating desirable social change for the creation of a good society. Powerlessness of Nepalis amounts to a lack of utilisation of power of education and consciousness and tantalising division of the educated into disciplinary sciences and social sciences fit for a disciplinary society but unfit for inter-subjective cooperation to resolve complex problems. Epistemic circles of knowledge entrepreneurs must bear a common purpose of education for national progress.    

This marks a departure from Nepal’s own classical tradition of scholarship practiced in Gurukul (residential school) and Shastrartha (critical public discourse). Both encouraged the learners finding truth independent of power consideration and prepared them as inquiring persons able to pose questions, use scientific canon to distinguish vidya (true knowledge) from abidya (false consciousness) and acquire aptitude for critical judgment of authorities in various areas of public life. The modern class-based education and club-model conferences, seminars and workshops hardly ignite the spirit of Shastrartha as knowledge acquiring, truth-testing and socialising purposes.  Seeking knowledge was a voyage to atma gyan (true self-discovery) beyond one’s own egoism, not ossified by narrow mentality, tribal conformity and ideological indoctrination.

The eternal knowledge of dharma sought perfect harmony of the world, reconciling faith, feeling and reason unbounded by a disciplinary cage. This is incarnated in each enlightened sage engaged in universal search for knowledge. It is vital to link education to the needs of national state, polity, economy and society through both generalised and specialised learning and meet national needs for human development. Emotion, feeling, passion and desire, not reason, that dominates politics of Nepal is divorced from entrepreneurship and productivity rise. Rescuing institutions of learning from party politics, academic freedom of teaching and research, legal, financial and administrative autonomy in their operations and orienting them to professionalism is the central challenge to make them serve the needs of the society. 

The classical treatises of Nepal define the telos of education to make an awakened person capable of honing inner vigilance and understanding the external world able to lead a fulfilling life. Except physical science which occupies universal character, the general social and humanistic education, are not couched in neutral language. As conscious beings, educated persons have to be adaptable to nature and society and assume responsibility to both. In this sense, it is value-based. Education is aimed to build a civilized character of a person able to possess a sense of constant and critical reflection on changing milieu where even opponents’ point of view is taken into account. It enables us to evolve, clarify and update rational thinking. 

The transformation of biological evolution of an individual into a rational and then cosmological sphere of nirvana is the function of education shared by a large section of humanity. The intellectual traditions of many nations have their own claim of enlightenment where the meaning of one relates to the other, each aiming for higher order of life. Thinking occurs in ecological, social and cultural context. Its assumptions are greatly modified with the scope of learning and widening circle of socialisation and with the acquisition of mental habits and emotional intelligence. Dissemination of education in society improves social mobility and makes the fluidity of classes, castes and gender thus easing peaceful national integration.

Turning education into a business of wealth-creation based on self-interests loses its moralistic tone which recognises other’s concern. Democracy considers education as public good which in no way arises out of selfish interest fostered by market incentives. The top-down model of economic growth as an engine of progress has, therefore, been discarded in favour of sustainability and equity while democracy requires the paramount value of equal opportunities for all Nepalis where education is deemed vital leveler. The creation of the binary mode of education based on the economic model of the public and the private, however, belittles this spirit. 

The responsiveness to private sources of funding and marketisation has undermined both the purpose of education and their autonomy and made the educated persons less sensitive to national affinity, history, culture and existential needs. This shows that the universality of knowledge has become less objective. It has been culturally relativised to the functional utility of the funders and political class.  Nepali scholars feel the public education is in disarray as academic thrust is frozen into partisan politics. In the knowledge society Nepali leadership has to think sincerely as to why educated persons and aspiring students find the temptation to emigrate abroad and get stuck in the jobs there rather than return to engage in nation building. 

Meritorious way of organising the academic system requires autonomy from student, officials and teachers’ unions politics and party politics. So long as key academic positions are distributed along partisan lines without due consideration to talents, intelligence and ability of persons, education cannot leap forward. Scientific and technological progress including AI has exalted the universality of knowledge. The faculties of social sciences rooted in rationalism lost a sense of oneness of humanities previously evolved in Nepali educational institutions to shape the character and conduct of individuals along democratic and humane lines and gratifying human connections. Rote learning and marketisation of education in Nepal, therefore, reduced social science to callous subjects and management to a system of regulation and control. 

The faculty of humanity has become feverish to forge a link between compassion and conscience posing trouble for Nepalis of diverse origin to live in bustling coexistence. As social science concepts, not humanities, are used in public policy, their indigenisation in life forms is vital. Social science cannot be reduced to science because of its social contents nor without reference to systematic study of society’s dynamic patterns, the yardstick of science. Certain complementarities do exist. Both utilise the faculty of human reason to solve social problems. The logic of many social struggles marks a revolt against this culture and drive to restore justice in every sphere of life.

Critical discourse

The training of individuals is aimed to enable them to ask questions, be able to reason and participate in the public debate. The ancient version of critical discourse put knowledge in vital tests of its value in building consciousness, informing policies and apt change of the society, economy and polity. Universities imbibe certain universal norms. Nepal has decentralised colleges and universities on a regional, functional and vocational basis. But the uneven internal progress of the nation shows unequal access of Nepalis to educational services, such as trained teachers, text books, library facilities, funding, jobs and scientific instruments. 

The emergence of specialised universities, for example, medicine, engineering, management, agriculture and forestry, etc. has to meet national needs in technical aspects, others like Sanskrit and Buddhist have to enrich soft power of national heritage, language, culture, etc. aside from integrating relevant frontiers of knowledge. Each of them has to become competitive in producing and disseminating knowledge, skills and management ability to the task of nation building.

Critics, however, argue that university in Nepal is partly motivated by specialization, partly by laissez faire tradition, partly by fads rather than producing new forms of knowledge apt to resolve the nation’s interconnected problems and uplift the nation’s standards of living. Modernization of education with new knowledge, technological and informational developments has to augment national civility and competitiveness in all spheres of life. Quality education enhances the melodious progress for nation-building.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.

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