Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

[This is the full text that I had prepared for a speech at IIT Chennai. The actual speech delivered there was shortened due to time constraints. I have broken the text into 3 parts: The first part has a bit of my personal experiences; the second part focuses on references to learning in early Tamil literature, and a look at the situation of education in India in the recent past;  the third part deals with contemporary issues. One may choose to read the whole essay or only the parts that are of interest to you – they can be read together or independent of each other.]

Reading at a Table - Picasso

Reading at a Table – Picasso

“For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs;
why then, doesn’t one keep learning till death,”
– Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.


Educators have a pet peeve. They say only a lawyer advises on issues of law, a doctor on medicine, an engineer on his field, an artist on art and so on. But everybody has something to say about learning. That is because everybody learns. While educators may have a major role to play in learning, learning is not the preserve of educators or educational institutions. Learning may happen because of them, it may happen despite them, and it may well happen without them.

How we learn, why we learn and what me must learn are questions crucial to the human civilisation today.

What I intend to speak about learning has a lot to do with how I myself have learnt, and still learn. I have been to premier educational institutions, and have worked in large corporates. But I was continually plagued by the questions, what was I learning, and how was my learning relevant to the society that I lived in. I incidentally started translating Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil text by Thiruvalluvar. I also started to read deeply about Gandhi, and works by Gandhi. My questions didn’t go away – they got deepened. I saw a big mismatch between what we were learning and doing, and the impact of all that on my own inner self, and the society around me. I decided to quit my job, and corporate career. I started training students on leadership – righteous and compassionate leadership – using the tenets of Thirukkural and Gandhi. While my efforts may have helped inspire some students, I still felt a void. I began feeling that sitting inside a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching fancy multimedia slides, and doing pre-designed activities, however absorbing they may be, is not how children, or adults, learn. Learning, I began realising, emerges from and has to be rooted to the society, to its culture and Nature.

Despite rampant urbanisation, a large part of India still resides in its villages, and I too, decided to shift to a village. Along with my wife and daughter, we are now learning farming and various other aspects of life from the village. Yet to forego our vanities, we run a learning centre at our home, which we call ‘Payilagam’. It is a free, open space for the village children to come, read books from our library or play games or do homework or clear doubts, be themselves and do what they want to. It has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about learning. Our nine year old daughter doesn’t attend formal school, and has been learning naturally from the rich experience she is gaining from her environment, and the people and books around her.

With this little personal background, let me proceed deeper into the subject of interest for us today: learning. Learning, I would like to emphasise again, has to be rooted to the culture, society and nature. The impact of learning is today measured by the exam scores, the entrances that one clears, employability, earning potential and depth of knowledge. But we have reached a point where not many of us really care about the impact of our learning on the society. Cultural continuity has been lost in our learning, which in turn, negatively impacts the societal relevance. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher,’ said William Wordsworth. But much of our modern learning has taken us too far away from nature. In the course of this speech, I shall devote some time to each of these aspects.

Firstly, culture. An understanding of one’s culture, and aligning our learning to our culture, will, one can understand intuitively, enhance learning. However, our education systems, on the one hand, think learning is universal and local culture has nothing to do with it. There has been a disdain towards our learning heritage, and many of us seem to think that our education started with Macaulay. There is no need for us to seek a false sense of superiority, but to have an understanding and rootedness is essential. Being rooted to one’s culture, will give the thrust to embrace all other cultures. Of course, there will be, and has to be points of departure from certain aspects of the cultural past. But an understanding is a must for making those departures too. As a first step, I first seek to understand our culture of learning.


India has had a rich tradition of learning, and honouring the learned. It is this richness of learning that has kept alive a thriving civilisation, with its uniformities and diversities in various regions, for many millennia, despite various external and internal tumults. I shall focus my observations on Tamil literature, with which I am familiar, but one can see parallels to these in the cultural traditions of other regions too.

Starting with Sangam literature, possibly the earliest extant literary work in Tamil, dating back to 2000 years ago, there are quite a few references to a vibrant culture of learning in Tamilnadu.

There is a wonderful poem in Purananuru, by the Pandya King, Arya Padai Kadantha Nedunchezhiyan, which has been translated by George Hart.

Learning is a fine thing to have if a student helps a teacher
in his troubles, gives him mass of wealth and honors him
without ever showing disdain! Among those born from the same belly,
who share the same nature, a mother’s heart will be most tender
toward the most learned! Of all who are born into a joint family,
a king will not summon the eldest to his side but instead he will
show favor to the man among them who has the greatest knowledge!
And with the four classes of society distinguished as different,
should anyone from the lowest become a learned man,
someone of the highest class, reverently, will come to him to study!

“உற்றுழி உதவியும் உறுபொருள் கொடுத்தும்
பிற்றை நிலை முனியாது கற்றல் நன்றே!
பிறப்போரன்ன உடன்வயிற்றுள்ளும்
சிறப்பின் பாலால் தாயும் மனம் திரியும்
ஒரு குடிப் பிறந்த பல்லோருள்ளும்
முத்தோன் வருக என்னாது அவருள்
அறிவுடையோன் ஆறு அரசும் செல்லும்
வேற்றுமை தெரிந்த நாற்பா லூள்ளும்
கீழ்ப்பால் ஒருவன் கற்பின்
மேல் பால் ஒருவனும் அவன் கண்படுமே”
– (புறம்-183)

The poem touches on various important aspects of learning, which hold contemporary relevance. It talks about how a teacher should be honoured, and be showered with a mass of wealth. I’m sure it will resonate with the teaching community here.

It goes on to talk about how, not only a leader, but even a mother, tends to favour the most learned in the family.

Most importantly, it poses a counter to the premise that education was exclusive to the  elite in the past, by highlighting the cultural mobility and respect that learning confers on the four classes. While acknowledging a hierarchy of classes, the poet-king says that the hierarchy did not stand in the way of respecting the learned from the lowest class.

Tamil texts do not stop with calling people learned. They use the word, chaandror, which adds nobleness to learning.
Says a mother in another Purananuru poem:

To bring forth and rear a son is my duty.
To make him noble is the father’s.
To make spears for him is the blacksmith’s.
To show him good ways is the king’s.
Ponmutiyar, Purananuru 312

ஈன்று புறந்தருதல் என்றலைக் கடனே
சான்றோன் ஆக்குதல் தந்தைக்குக் கடனே
வேல்வடித்துக் கொடுத்தல் கொல்லற்குக் கடனே
நன்னடை நல்கல் வேந்தற்குக் கடனே
ஒளிறுவாள் அருஞ்சமம் முருக்கிக்
களிறுஎறிந்து பெயர்தல் காளைக்குக் கடனே.
– பொன்முடியார், புறம் 312

Being noble, and treading a path of goodness were always aligned with learning. The learned poet Picirantaiyar, when queried about why his hair had not grayed, says

it’s because
my wife is virtuous,
my children are mature;

younger men wish
what I wish,
and the king only protects,
doesn’t do what shouldn’t be done.

Moreover, my town
has several noble men,
wise and self-possessed.

– Pichirantaiyar, Purananuru 191

யாண்டுபல வாக நரையில ஆகுதல்
யாங்கு ஆகியர் என வினவுதிர் ஆயின்
மாண்டயென் மனைவியொடு மக்களும் நிரம்பினர்
யான்கண் டனையரென் இளையரும் வேந்தனும்
அல்லவை செய்யான் காக்கும் அவன்தலை
ஆன்றவிந்து அடங்கிய கொள்கைச்
சான்றோர் பலர்யான் வாழும் ஊரே.
– பிசிராந்தையார், புறநானூறு 191

Picirantaiyar makes two important points: young men followed the learned poet; and, his town had several chandror – the wise, noble men, who kept him free of worries.

The learned men were respected, and even had the ability to stop wars, as seen in this poem:

Waist thin as the purslane creeper,
gait heavy as with grief,

the young brahman came at night
and entered the fortress quickly.

The words he spoke
were few,

and the ladders, the wooden bolts,
came down,

and the war bells
were loosened

from the flanks
of the veteran elephants.

– Madurai Velacan, Purananuru 305 (Translated by AK Ramanujan)

வயலைக் கொடியின் வாடிய மருங்குல்
உயவல் ஊர்திப் பயலைப் பார்ப்பான்
எல்லி வந்து நில்லாது புக்குச்
சொல்லிய சொல்லே சிலவே அதற்கே
ஏணியும் சீப்பும் மாற்றி
மாண்வினை யானையும் மணிகளைந் தனவே.
மதுரை வேளாசான், புறநானூறு 305

One lean young learned man, with a few words, could unarm an army. There are more instances of learned poets intervening to drive sense into berserk kings. Here is another:

A Poet’s Counsel
to a cruel king when he was about to have his enemy’s children trampled to death by elephants in a public place

You come from the line of a Cola king
who gave his flesh
for a pigeon in danger,
and for others besides,

and these children also come
from a line of kings
who in their cool shade
share all they have

lest poets,
those tillers of nothing
but wisdom,
should suffer hardships.

Look at these children,
the crowns of their heads are still soft.

As they watch the elephants,
they even forget to cry,

stare dumbstruck at the crowd
in some new terror
of things unknown.

Now that you’ve heard me out,
do what you will.

– Kovur Kilar: to Killi Valavan, Purananuru 46 ((Translated by AK Ramanujan)

நீயே புறவின் அல்லல் அன்றியும் பிறவும்
இடுக்கண் பலவும் விடுத்தோன் மருகனை
இவரே புலனுழுது உண்மார் புன்கண் அஞ்சித்
தமதுபகுத்து உண்ணும் தண்ணிழல் வாழ்நர்
களிறுகண்டு அழூஉம் அழாஅல் மறந்த
புன்றலைச் சிறாஅர் மன்று மருண்டு நோக்கி
விருந்திற் புன்கண்நோ வுடையர்
கேட்டனை யாயின்நீ வேட்டது செய்ம்மே.
கோவூர்கிழார், புறநானூறு 46

Even a cruel king lent his ears to a man of learning. The learned man also did not fear anyone. He put his learning to use by guiding the erring king.

It is clear from the Sangam poems, and later works, that the ancient Tamils placed great emphasis on learning. They were aware that ‘Learning had no shores and the learners’ days were limited’; they were of the firm belief that ‘It’s good to learn; it’s good to learn indeed/ Even if one were to beg, it’s good to learn.’ A teacher was equated to God.

From the grammar text Tolkappiyam, and Akam or inner landscape poems like those in Akananuru, Kurunthokai etc, we also see how closely language, learning and life were intimately integrated with nature. I am resisting my temptation to go deeper into those works.

Thirukkural, the defining work of Tamils, has much to say about learning. (The translations cited here are by me.)

Thiruvalluvar doesn’t define what has to be learnt, since it changes from time to time. But he preaches flawless learning and practising one’s learning:
[Learn, what is to be learnt, with no flaws; once learnt,
stand by what you learned.]
கற்க கசடறக் கற்பவை கற்றபின்
நிற்க வதற்குத் தக.

He considers numbers and letters to be the eyes for the living.
[Numbers and letters, they are known as;
eyes to the living, they are.]
எண்ணென்ப வேனை யெழுத்தென்ப விவ்விரண்டுங்
கண்ணென்ப வாழு முயிர்க்கு.

The erudite, through their speech and action, cause ‘delight when they are met, and nostalgia when they have left.’
[Delight when they are met, and nostalgia when they have left,
are the effects of the erudite’s deeds.]
உவப்பத் தலைக்கூடி யுள்ளப் பிரிதல்
அனைத்தே புலவர் தொழில்.

The learned inspire others; what excites them excites others; and hence, they fall more in love with learning.
[Seeing that the world gets excited by what excites them,
the learned fall more in love with learning.]
தாமின் புறுவ துலகின் புறக்கண்டு
காமுறுவர் கற்றறிந் தார்.

He draws a thick line between intelligence and learning.
[Though the illiterate may display streaks of intelligence,
they would still not be acknowledged by the learned.]
கல்லாதா னொட்பங் கழியநன் றாயினுங்
கொள்ளா ரறிவுடை யார்.

He mocks and derides the ignorant. He is at his satirical best, when he says:

[Even the ignorant will be considered good
if they shut themselves up before the learned.]
கல்லா தவரு நனிநல்லார் கற்றார்முன்
சொல்லா திருக்கப் பெறின்.


[The vanity of the ignorant vanishes,
when they start speaking in a gathering.]
கல்லா வொருவன் றகைமை தலைப்பெய்து
சொல்லாடச் சோர்வு படும்.

He has no mercy for the ignorant, and no respect even for their wealth.
[Not even the penury of the good is as pernicious as
the wealth that has fallen on the ignorant.]
நல்லார்கட் பட்ட வறுமையி னின்னாதே
கல்லார்கட் பட்ட திரு.

He insists that learning shatters the hierarchy of birth:
[The uneducated, even if they be of high birth, do not equal
the erudite, though they be of low birth.]
மேற்பிறந்தா ராயினுங் கல்லாதார் கீழ்ப்பிறந்தும்
கற்றா ரனைத்திலர் பாடு.

He considers learning by listening to be as important, or more important than reading:
[Even if you can’t learn by reading, listen; it is
the crutch in times of crisis.]
கற்றில னாயினுங் கேட்க வஃதொருவற்
கொற்கத்தி னூற்றாந் துணை.

He distinguishes learning and wisdom. Mere learning grasps what one reads but wisdom gets the true meaning:
[Whatever whoever may say, wisdom is to
comprehend the true meaning of it.]
எப்பொருள் யார்யார்வாய்க் கேட்பினு மப்பொருள்
மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்ப தறிவு.

The purpose of all learning and wisdom is to think good and act good.
[Without letting the mind to wander on its own will,
wisdom steers it away from harm, and towards good.]
சென்ற விடத்தாற் செலவிடாத் தீதொரீஇ
நன்றின்பா லுய்ப்ப தறிவு.

The wise love the world, embrace it without expectations.
[Wisdom, it is to embrace the world, and not to be
overtly delighted or dismayed.]
உலகந் தழீஇய தொட்பம் மலர்தலும்
கூம்பலு மில்ல தறிவு.

Above all, Valluvar considered it most important to not give room to envy and anxiety, but to surround ourselves with those better than us.
[The mightiest of all strengths is to patronize,
and pay heed to those who are better than us.]
தம்மிற் பெரியார் தமரா வொழுகுதல்
வன்மையு ளெல்லாந் தலை.

Thirukkural also enumerates the qualities of chandror and others seeking learning and greatness. These qualities can today be seen to be essential qualities for a teacher.

1. Doing good
Doing good is never a forced act; it is an act of duty and comes naturally.

[For those who dutifully strive to be noble,
To do all that’s good is seen as natural.]
கடனென்ப நல்லவை எல்லாம் கடனறிந்து
சான்றாண்மை மேற்கொள் பவர்க்கு.

2. Being good within
Valluvar always draws a distinction between doing good and being good within.

[Being good within, is nobility;
All else is no quality.]
குணநலம் சான்றோர் நலனே பிறநலம்
எந்நலத் துள்ளதூஉம் அன்று.

3. Humility
Humility is the hallmark of the learned. The humble have no foes.

[Humility is the cherished capability of the capable;
it is the weapon of the great leaders to convert their foes.]
ஆற்றுவார் ஆற்றல் பணிதல் அதுசான்றோர்
மாற்றாரை மாற்றும் படை.

4. Composure
One can expect the true teacher to be calmest person in the room, when there is calamity all around.

[Those known to be the ocean of nobility aren’t perturbed
Even when there is the proverbial Flood.]
ஊழி பெயரினும் தாம்பெயரார் சான்றாண்மைக்
காழி எனப்படு வார்.

5. Patience
Patience under provocation is the key to nobility. Punishment and retaliation never win the day.

[Those who retaliate rarely rejoice for a day;
the repute of the patient remains till the end of the world. ]
ஒறுத்தார்க்கு ஒருநாளை இன்பம் பொறுத்தார்க்குப்
பொன்றுந் துணையும் புகழ்.

6. Speaking the right word
All the good that one does will be undone, by a single word that hurts the other. Choice of the right word, the kind word, is essential for a teacher, even when one has to admonish others.

[Even if there is one harm caused by harsh words, all the good
caused by other virtuous deeds will also be seen as evil. ]
ஒன்றானுந் தீச்சொல் பொருட்பயன் உண்டாயின்
நன்றாகா தாகி விடும்.

7. Avoiding Anger
Anger is to be avoided at all costs. Anger is futile with those who are above us; it is harmful even with those below us.

[Where it can’t have an impact, anger is harmful; where it can,
there is still nothing more harmful.]
செல்லா இடத்துச் சினந்தீது செல்லிடத்தும்
இல்அதனின் தீய பிற.

8. The five pillars
Nobleness, with all the above qualities, rest on these five pillars:

[Love, compunction, beneficence, compassion and truthfulness:
On these five columns rests nobleness.]
அன்புநாண் ஒப்புரவு கண்ணோட்டம் வாய்மையொ
டைந்துசால் பூன்றிய தூண்.

To summarise the past, the ancient Tamils, and by inference, ancient Indians, had placed much value on learning; they saw the purpose of learning to lie in enhancing the moral and material lives of man; the impact of learning on the society and the rulers was visible; the word of the learned carried much weightage; greatness and nobility were expected from the learned men.

Coming to a more recent past, we must deal with the demon of colonialism. Many educated Indians believe that our modern education, like railways or postal system, has been bequeathed to us by the British. If we dig into the writings of Gandhi and Dharampal, we will realize how far from truth it is.

Dharampal, in his book, The Beautiful Tree, establishes that Indian education, till the early nineteenth century, was in excellent shape. Some of the British administrators have written with wonder that every village had a school. All sections of the society got primary education, while higher education was based on profession. Till nineteenth century, learning in India was far more widespread than in Britain and Europe. In fact, British education got a major impetus by adoption of the monitorial method of teaching used by Joseph Lacaster and Andrem Bell, which incidentally originated right here in Chennai, and was called the Madras System. With the collapse of the autonomous village based economy of India, the indigenous education system, along with a host of other technologies and knowledge systems, collapsed rapidly.

Later, the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw some extremely original and innovative thinking on education emerge in India, through the likes of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, J.Krishnamurti, Tagore and Gandhi. Ramakrishna Mission emerged from the vision of Vivekananda. Aurobindo’s thoughts around seeking perfection for man have led to some vibrant experiments around Auroville; Tagore’s Shantiniketan was an innovative experiment integrating art, nature and culture with science and learning – giving shape to some illustrious alumni like Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen. J.Krishnamurti, with his emphasis on the uniqueness and free thinking of a child, continues to inspire alternative education systems till date. Gandhi’s Nai Talim system, with its emphasis on self-supporting education, societal relevance and work as a medium of instruction, in my opinion, is as important a contribution from him as Satyagraha. Almost all of them stressed on the importance of an all-round education that saw (in the words of Gandhi) ‘the development of mind and body going hand in hand with the awakening of the soul.’

With such a long and enviable heritage of learning, we in modern India, chose to completely ignore that heritage. Instead, we have persisted with the colonial system, and have continuously turned towards West for every subsequent development in education. On the one hand, the ills of the past have been highlighted while the benefits have been buried. On the other hand, we seek to derive mileage from history, and pick up only those elements which guarantee that mileage, while continuing to look West for all our policies and practices. I am not one to say that we become prisoners of our past and our culture, or that we should shut our doors to relevant ideas from outside; but we should understand our past, the impact of the past on our present, and dig into it, like a treasure chest, to pick up gems. Severing, altogether, the links to the past, especially one that is as significant as ours, is impossible and counter-productive.


Going back to where I started, I assert that our learning systems today are divorced from our culture, the society and nature. The purpose of learning has been narrowed down on materialistic lines, altogether skipping the moral and social basis.

The very setting and infrastructure of many of our educational institutes cuts its students off from nature. The text books alienate them from their communities. The pedagogy curtails their imagination. Like Edgar Allan Poe said, learning and science have become a ‘Vulture, whose wings are dull realities,’ and has torn from us, ‘The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.’ A place like IIT is built in such a natural setting but it is a moot question to ask, how much of the learning here is integrated with and inspired by nature? Do we have occasional classes conducted under trees? Do the teachers go for a walk with their students in the forests, which will provide opportunities for unexpected and uninhibited learning? Another disturbing question to ask is, how long and how much of this natural setting will last?

Over half of India, even today, is a large rural society. However, our political system is not aligned to the decentralised, agrarian nature of our economy and culture. As a result, our education system is also not aligned to that rural reality. We seem to have accepted that centralized, urban-centric, large scale industrialised economy as a means to materialistic success to be a proven and irrefutable scientific truth. Our education system is merely mirroring that, and, worse, reinforcing that thinking.

We have not given sufficient credence to the fact that most large developed countries have fuelled their development through one, or both of, two important factors: first, colonisation, imperialism, slavery or genocides. Secondly, discovery and uninhibited exploitation of abundant natural resources either in their own countries or others. Of course, there are exceptions but one cannot cite many. India, most of us will agree, has not had that luxury; and is unlikely to have that luxury; and is undesirable too. Yet, we hear arguments in favour of shifting 80% or 90% of the population to urban-based, industrialised jobs. Our entire economy and education system, by design or chance, is getting structured towards achieving that sort of an objective. Our rural culture is seen as an inconvenient baggage that must be shed. Even if we assume that 10% of the population, with machinery and economy of scale, can produce enough food for the other 90%, questions have to be asked about how 90-100 crore people will be employed in industries, and what sort of industries, where will the resources come from for such massive industrialisation, what will be the impact on the environment, how long can this be sustained.

One may wonder, why talk about politics and economics, while talking about learning. Because, the politics and economics determines the agenda for learning: what we learn and how we learn is not merely an academic choice but a by-product of the political system. And it works vice versa too – what we learn and how we learn determines our politics. What makes us choose to learn about modern large scale production processes of iron and steel, while completely ignoring the indigenous process of making Wootz steel, which fascinated early British settlers? Why do our civil engineers learn about modern construction processes using bricks, sand, steel and cement but are rarely ever exposed to mud structures or Madras Mortar? How many of our textile technologists consider learning about and introducing innovations in spinning and weaving with hands? Why do we not spend time learning about and renovating low cost, low risk indigenous irrigation systems instead of investing our time and knowledge in building better dams and digging deeper bore wells? Why do we not channel our energies to preserving our ancient seeds of grains and native breeds of cattle but instead opt for genetic modification? We rarely ask these questions. Noam Chomsky describes formal education as ‘a deep level of indoctrination that takes place in our schools’ and a schooled person ‘is one who is conditioned to obey power and structure’.

Consumerism and Warfare are two giant factors determining many of our actions and policies. And they are fuelled by modern education.

Some of our brightest minds are engaged in finding the next big weapon – a more powerful nuclear bomb, a devastative chemical weapon, a ruthless biological weapon, an undetectable aircraft, an intrusive drone and so on. A major chunk of our budget is going towards defence. Of what use is all our learning if it is contributing to destructing our race and planet. Albert Einstein denounced the fruits of his learning in condemning nuclear warfare; it shouldn’t be long before our brightest minds desist from pursuing this path of self-destruction. Svetlana Alexeivich, in her book on the Soviet-Afghan war, Zinky Boys, produces this comment by a Russian soldier: “I was so shocked by the injuries, by the bullets, by the realisation that such weapons had actually been invented. The entry wound would be small but the intestines, liver and spleen a terrible twisted mess. Apparently it wasn’t enough to kill or wound, there had to be torture, too. ‘Mum!’ they screamed, ‘Mum!’ when they were frightened and in pain. Always, always for their mothers.”
She narrates another story:
“I remember once seeing a mujahedin leader in prison. He was lying on his metal bed reading a book with a familiar cover. Lenin’s The State and Revolution. ‘What a pity I shan’t have time to finish this,’ he said, ‘but perhaps my children will.’

Once a school got burnt down and just one wall was left standing. Every morning the kids came to school and wrote on that wall with bits of charcoal from the fire. After the school the wall was whitewashed as clean as a blank sheet of paper, ready for the next day’s lessons.”

Is this the impact we expect from our learning? Will our learned men say no to activities of destruction in their name, using their knowledge and tools? Like a Kovur Kizhar of the Sangam poem, will we advice the rulers against war mongering? Or like Thoreau, who faced imprisonment for refusing to fund slavery and war, in his name, with his taxes, will we say no to destruction in our names?

If Warfare is seclusive when it is not invasive, consumerism is all pervasive and equally destructive. Learning to live a meaningful life is sacrificed at the altar of ‘good life’. Comfort and convenience take precedence over common sense and common good. University degrees are an outcome of this consumerist culture, and also the drivers of the same culture. “Neither learning nor justice is promoted by schooling because educators insist on packaging instruction with certification. Learning and the assignment of social roles are melted into schooling,” says Ivan Illich, in his seminal work on education, Deschooling Society. He goes on to add, ”In each country the amount of consumption by the college graduate sets the standard for all others; if they would be civilised people on or off the job, they will aspire to the style of life of college graduates. The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system.”

I constantly worry about the impact that I have on my village community. Despite our relatively simple life compared to my peers from my alma maters, we still lead a luxurious life when compared to our fellow villagers, and increase their aspirational levels in consumption. I know of graduates from IITs, IISc and foreign universities who have returned to villages to take up simple, spartan living; despite all their best intentions, I can assure you, they set and increase the consumption standards in their respective villages. One is reminded of what Sarojini Naidu quipped about Gandhi – that it cost a lot to keep him poor. If this is the case of those graduates with the least consumption, imagine the impact of those with monstrous consumption patterns, which today is the norm. Consumerism convinces us that collective greed is good; makes us forget Gandhi’s dictum that the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed; it gives sanction to a new breed of collective selfishness. A young child in John Holt’s book, ‘How children Learn’, asks in frustration, ”Mother, why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?”

A large base of knowledge systems lies outside the Universities. Much of our learning happens outside educational institutes. But such learning and knowledge is not given credibility, since it is not accompanied by certificates. When I get hurt, any villager from our area will tell me to apply the juice of a prominent weed. It acts as a wonderful herbal medicine and brings instant but lasting relief. University educated friends brand it as pseudo-science. The branding of science or pseudo-science is determined by who says what, and which is the ruling methodology. There may be no lab experiments to prove the effectiveness of this ‘medicine’; yet, centuries of practical application, on a much larger base than can be replicated by any lab trial, makes its effectiveness obvious but unproven. No researcher may prove scientifically the medicinal value of this popular weed till its commercial viability is established. Then suddenly, like patents on neem or turmeric, patents may be filed on this weed. Till then it will be dismissed offhand as pseudo. Unproven is taken to be unprovable; unprovable is alleged to be false. It may not be the way of Science but it happens to be the way of most men of science. It inhibits real learning.

A few years ago, I was travelling on the ECR with a retired Professor from IIT Delhi. We stopped for coffee on the way. While sipping coffee, he looked at the cafe, and commented, “This innovation is more important and appropriate than anything that has come out of our IITs.” The cafe was operating from a discarded trailer, which had been made up tastefully, and a few tables were laid out outside it.

In the Japanese book, Totto-Chan – The Young Girl at the Window, the young Totto-Chan is fascinated by her school and falls in love with it at first sight, since the classrooms were situated in old railway compartments.

Such innovation, I believe, is the result of true learning – learning that helps a person utilise the available resources in the most meaningful manner. Such learning cannot be imparted by any institution; only life long learning from experience gives such insights.

Any villager, I meet, possesses multiple skills. To be a farmer, one needs to be an all-rounder in life. He can typically do ploughing, sowing, weeding, rear cattles, do a bit of plumbing, electrical work, carpentry and construction; he can identify most plants and birds in his area; he knows home remedies for common ailments; he has a clear idea of seasons. He can lead a complete life, all by himself, but is still a vibrant member of the local community. Yet, we call them uneducated, and when they migrate to cities, they become ‘unskilled workers’. Most school-going boys from the village, who come to our learning centre, possess most of these skills but are considered to be academically weak. They are continuously told by the school, by their family and society that they are weak. At some point, they start believing in that lie.

We had a 15-year old boy, coming to us. I consider him to be incredibly talented. When we have anything to be fixed at home – we depend on him – be it a faulty electric connection, a leaking pipe, a coconut to be plucked or peeled, a shed to be set up, a submersible pump to be repaired – he can do it all. He is supremely confident when it comes to doing any work with his hands, which of course, require an application of mind too. But he is allergic to English. His memory works in a different pattern. He doesn’t remember words but can memorise alphabets. For him, a cat is C-A-T and a dog is D-O-G. He memorises whole poems as a set of alphabets. Same with maths. He was more comfortable memorising entire solutions than understanding them. His teachers considered him to be dull. He was part of the ‘dull set of boys’ who needed special attention. Every time I sat with him, trying to help him to read, or do maths, I could see his supreme confidence melt away.

By the way, he passed his 10th exam. He will now pursue a BA or a BCom. He will be told for another 5 years that he is dull. He may even end up with a low-paying office job. But someone who could become a great farmer or a skilled village worker is likely to turn into a dreary clerk. Someone with a keen engineering mind cannot aspire to be an engineer because the academic skill sets required are different from his natural skill set.

Modern education, thanks to reservation and other affirmative initiatives, has helped disturb the hierarchy of castes to some extent. I wouldn’t say we have been fully successful yet, and there are inherent fault lines that are getting exposed, but the intent is there. However, modern education has introduced a new system of hierarchy – based on the nature of job, and the language one can speak. It has given rise to the Corporate elite and the English speaking elite. It has led to what Maria Montessori termed as ‘the isolation of the masses of the poor’, and ‘We have herded them together far from us, without the walls, leaving them to learn of each other, in the abandon of desperation, the cruel lessons of brutality and vice.’ We have exclusive spaces everywhere for the neo-elite, and we have exclusive elite schools, often, ironically, practising the Montessori method.

Technology can be a big leveller and a big enabler. But it is also a double-edged sword that needs to be used with care. The dialogue about the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus, quoted by Carl Sagan, sounds more relevant today than ever: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without its reality.”

From an integration of mind, body and soul, which Tagore, Gandhi and others strived for, the focus of learning has shifted to accumulation of knowledge suited for employability. More than economic merit and social relevance, the hierarchy of labour is determined purely by an imposed social status and perception. Bodily labour is typically looked down upon. A BPO employee or a junior doctor earning 10-15000 rupees commands higher status and respect than a construction worker earning equally well or more.

Every farmer wants his son or daughter to be in the IT field. They beg, borrow and ultimately sell their farms to fund the education of their children. In the process, the millennia-old knowledge system is getting eroded. That knowledge system is under attack from many fronts. One is the new set of aspirational social status imposed by modern education and culture; another is on the economic front – while the salaries of their children in the services sector keep growing, the farm income keeps nosediving; yet, another is on the climatic front. Trump and his cohorts may deny climatic change with rhetoric and data, but for the farmer on the field, it is already a reality. Monsoons have been playing truant for many years. We have either floods or draughts. The onset of monsoons have become erratic and unpredictable, which means traditional knowledge about when to sow and when to harvest, is rendered useless. Our traditional irrigation systems have become dysfunctional due to encroachment and urban expansion.

It is against this backdrop that we have to view learning. Much of the learning that happens in educational institutes is not helping the masses. Formal education alienates its students from their society. The learning that happens outside is discredited, and traditional knowledge systems are discarded indiscriminately. “The small society of the school must serve the larger society around it,” said the former President Zakir Hussain. Schools have to regain this aspect of education which has been lost in the process of manufacturing certified factory-ready employees. Ivan Illich saw decommissioning of schools and deschooling the society to be the path to real and relevant learning. We may not be ready to go that far, yet. But we also have to find a way to recognise and encourage learning that happens outside formal educational institutes, which in most cases, is more useful to the individual and the society. Recognition of a skill by the local community should take precedence over certification by a university.

Centralisation is the bane of modernity. Our education system also has fallen prey to it. Our learning has to be integrated with the natural setting around us, and our local communities. While, like Thiruvalluvar says, “For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs,” that universality has to be rooted first in the community. In my opinion, IIT Chennai and IIT Guwahati should have different purposes and should produce different impacts, given the vastly different communities in which they are situated. But I feel, their current structure is to serve a mythical global-community. Service to the nation or the world cannot happen without service to the local community. Vinoba Bhave had this to say to those of us who crave for uniformity and standardization, be it in having a national curriculum or national exams:
“You can’t teach in exactly the same way in Sevagram as in Paunar. And why not? Because Paunar has a river and Sevagram does not.” Paunar and Sevagram are about 6kms apart. How true! Learners are not commodities. A child in a village has to learn differently than a child in a city. A child in a village in Tamilnadu has to learn different things than a child in a village in Assam.

For learning to have real, lasting and sustainable impact, it has to be relevant to the individual, her culture, the society and nature. Learning should become a tool that liberates people, and allows them to regain control over their lives. It should help them to stop worshipping the false gods of the modern world. It should aid them in seeking true happiness and true growth for everyone.

“The alpha and omega of education is the quest for truth,” said Gandhi. Let us strive to seek true learning and truth through learning. And whenever, we are in doubt, let us remember Gandhi’s Talisman:

“Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen?
Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.”



2 Responses to Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

  1. Zeron+ says:

    Really influencing and persuading context behind this quite reminding post and as i also live in India , in majorly rural region in Udaipur, Rajasthan ,this is the same case and no matter how ,but it is the time to execution and preparation, where keeping silence and co-operation takes it no-where ,experimenting will be much faster than debating , i think you do agree?

  2. thelongview says:

    I agree with many of the things you say, Kannan, especially about learning from nature. But iI have to disagree with you about cultural context. I feel we have already lost what is valuable in our culture, and replaced it by absolute materialistic rubbish. Failing to learn what is good in the west, we hang on to the worst aspects of our traditional culture – the patriarchism, sexism and casteism. In the past, farmers respected and lived in harmony with nature. But now I find our neighbouring farmers have forgotten everything their ancestors knew; maybe because we are near the city, and they have been blinded by dreams of big money. No farming seems to be possible without the auspices of the gods Tractor, JCB, DAP and ‘Government Aushadi’. The villagers are still good people, for the most part – kind, helpful and generous, but I feel they have lost their way. In the times we live in, ‘culture’ is not a very humane thing. I am not talking of language, literature or the arts, but of the rigid underlying beliefs. We need a new culture, one that is based on the understanding that we are all children of nature.

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