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Published in the 16-31 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

SPECIAL REPORT

Education, secularism and human values

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Education is highly valued in modern society. One cannot survive without it in this world. One must attain higher educational levels if one has to progress and be economically well off. Thus in modern times education is more a means for higher economic status than search for truth or search for meaning of life. It means equipping oneself with more and more information than knowledge (what we traditionally called (gyan or ‘ilm). 

No wonder then that information technology has acquired such importance in contemporary world. It is also referred to as knowledge industry thus dragging knowledge to the level of information and reducing it to an industry, a profit making venture. Thus knowledge has lost its sanctity and it is no more a quest for truth, but for money. It is no more a goal but an instrument, not an end but a means. 

Also, as the well- known American philosopher Herbert Marcuse aptly said our universities are no more centres of knowledge but have become centres of acknowledgment and they are no more centres of cognition but are centres of recognition. Excellence in knowledge and learning is no more encouraged in these institutions. Competition for jobs has become its aim.

Today education is controlled by the Government on one hand, and by the rich, on the other. Both have their own objectives and agenda. While government tries to promote its political ideology the rich try to enrich themselves. In country like India the government is still a major player in the field of education. It determines what to teach and prescribes text- books. Thus the education is largely controlled by government, both central and state. Its role is most crucial in deciding the quality of education.

We are a secular state in India but our education is far from being secular in content. Our text books both at primary and higher levels are thoroughly contaminated by communal outlook. We often blame the British rulers for their divide and rule policy but our text books even 57 years after independence are divisive in character with some honourable exception. It systematically cultivates communal outlook and creates hatred against minority communities. 
It is regrettable that despite such sustained controversy against communalised textbook there are no concerted efforts to change them so that these textbooks can become a dynamic instrument for promoting secularism and secular values and respect for all religions, languages and cultures. Our text books represent majoritarian outlook and fail to strengthen pluralist values. Pluralism needs to be promoted with vigour today in our country to fight communal ethos.

Today in most of the schools we find pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and slokas from Hindu scriptures. Recently I visited a school run by Mumbai Municipal Corporation and found entire atmosphere suffused with Hindu religion. There was no representation of any other religion at all. Not a single picture or quotation from Bible or Qur’an or Sikhism. This obviously discourages children of other communities to study in such atmosphere where they feel totally alienated. 

Our aim through education should be to cultivate critical thinking. No school even remotely reaches this goal of education. All our schools cultivate conservative unthinking outlook. The students are encouraged to imitate traditions rather than develop faculty to critically evaluate. The teachers themselves come from highly conservative environment and pass it on to their students. Most of them do not even teach, just read out from textbooks so that students can memorise and pass the examination.

The Latin American educationist Father Paul Ferear stressed interactive method of teaching so that students can discuss and raise questions on a subject. This method can develop students thinking and critical faculty. What our teachers do is to deposit information in the minds of their students and totally discourage any critical discussion. Also, real learning involves quest for truth, quest for knowledge. Our educational institutions are simply not equipped to promote this kind of learning.

Our educational institutions do not cultivate universal humanitarian outlook. They perpetrate narrow sectarian thinking. These institutions promote majoritarian ethos and a sense of superiority in majority culture and majority religion. It holds good for our entire subcontinent which includes India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh. We simply take pride in our past and fail to build our future. We stress cultivating superiority of our respective religion and culture rather than universality and humanity. We do not even stress core values of our religion and its spirituality. We simply promote certain rituals, customs and traditions. We do not promote love but hatred of others.

Our textbooks still promote caste superiority and contempt for low castes. The exposures recently of some Gujarat textbooks were shocking, to say the least. A crow was likened with a safai kamgar i.e. with dalits. Thus dalits are presented as ugly. How can we ever cultivate humanism in our students. At every step in our educational institutions we stress discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.

No wonder then that educated people are more communal than poor and illiterate persons who are found more humane. All these prejudices and stereotypical thinking is acquired through educational system. When the BJP government came to power it tried its best to inject pride in the Hindu past and demonised the Muslim past. Past associated with one particular religion is glorified and the one associated with other religion is demonised. This is not history, it is its mockery. 

Human society, past or present, has always been full of conflict and violence. It is not religion which makes a society good or bad as often thought. It is human beings who promote good or evil, depending on their interests. There has not been a single era in history, which was without conflict whatever religion it was associated with. It is human interests which determine the dynamics of a society. Unfortunately it is human interests, not religious values which occupy the centre stage of history.

If we have to build modern India our education system must be thoroughly reformed. Unfortunately no government has such political will, whatever their proclamations. Without such thorough cleansing we cannot promote genuine man outlook among our people. There is so much communal polarisation today in our society thanks to our education system and communal propaganda. 

Today we find fundamentalism and communalism among lower middle classes as well as upper classes though for different reasons. Among lower middle classes and backward castes and Dalits they go to municipal and government schools and acquire narrow and sectarian outlook through the textbooks and prevailing atmosphere. And as far as upper classes are concerned they concentrate more on their career through acquiring degrees and building professional future. They have neither time and aptitude for spiritual quest for philosophical truth. 

These people do not mind exploiting fundamentalism for their own interests. Many highly successful professionals are today joining communal organisations in their search for power and pelf. They exploit lower class and lower caste people through their narrow outlook and religious sectarianism. This is what happened on large scale in Gujarat. The upper caste and rich Hindus used dalits and backward castes for their political objectives and won assembly elections.

The political exploitation of caste and religion has reached its apex in the quest by the rich and powerful for power. We had the ideal of a casteless society but no one even dreams of it today let alone try to build such society. We have no more desire to combat communalism, let alone build a secular nationhood. Those in search for power leave no opportunity to exploit caste and communal ethos. Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy is its classical example. 

We, with all our modernity are not prepared to give equal status to women. Our textbooks still glorify women as ideal housewives and good mothers. Our laws, Hindu or Muslim, are unable to give women justice in the name of religion and tradition. Tradition is more dear to us than justice. Our traditions must be upheld even if they result in grossest form of exploitation. Muslim personal law board refuses to abolish triple divorce or accept nikahnama whatever the sufferings of Muslim women.

And our educated people uphold such injustices in the name of identity and our politicians refuse to change laws for fear of losing political power. Politicians would not reform education system either as rational and humane outlook will make people more aware of their rights and will strengthen desire for better and more just society. But to ensure better future and just society where pluralist ethos and minority rights are respected there is no other go but to thoroughly overhaul our education system. We are otherwise doomed to live with violent conflicts and bloodbath destroying our future and keep us stuck in the quagmire of our past.
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