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

July 10, 2017

[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.

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Seine at Govindanur

January 8, 2017

Writer Payon has been sharing many wonderful paintings of acclaimed painters on his Twitter account. I’ve been saving some of the paintings. I showed them, this week, to the children at our learning centre.

Haseen, who was upset with me till then, as I had inquired about the tussle he had with his brother and another boy on their way back from the class the previous day, was the first one to join. (“Appa, Haseen anna would become alright, if you offer to show some movie on the laptop,” my daughter had suggested.)

After going through most of the paintings, he himself chose one, (Gabriele Münter “On the Seine”, 1930) and started drawing. Sahana and Tamilselvi joined him as well and drew their own interpretations. Jumana, who had been troubling everyone with her naughtiness, lended them the crayons for colouring.

“Akka, do you have those Bangalore biscuits,” asked Jai. We had run out of them long back, and offered them other biscuits.

The learning centre took on a new hue. We started clicking some pictures. A joyous sensation gripped everyone. Unexpectedly, a celebration got staged.

A Beautiful Tree

May 28, 2014

‘A Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal, led me to this intriguing story about Andrew Bell and his Madras System.

Most of us think, we owe our education system to the British. But I was completely surprised to learn that the Madras System, which was inspired by what Bell saw in the late-18th Century India and his experiments in a Madras Asylum,sowed the seeds for the dramatic improvement in education standards in England in the first half of 19th Century, along with Joseph Lancaster who had modified Bell’s system.

From a mere 40,000 students attending school in Britain in 1792, the number increased to 21,44,377 in 1851.

In contrast, one-third of the boys (but hardly any girls), surprisingly belonging to a wide variety of castes, went through the native primary schools, in Madras Presidency in 1820s.

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite. The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamilspeaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

But the decay had started setting in much earlier with the advent of the British and got worse over the next century. The situation was similar in Bengal, Punjab and elsewhere. The quality of content taught in schools can be subjected to scrutiny and debate, but, these schools, at the minimum, ensured basic literacy and arithmetic.

Macaulay and others, whatever were their intentions – not all of them were nefarious, seem to have only led to the reversal of the gap between UK and India.

Most of these arguments had been put forth by others earlier, especially some of Gandhi’s associates, based on the reports of the early English administrators. Dharampal has developed on that work by meticulously going through the old archives and piecing together the whole story.

I am usually a skeptic, when it comes to grandiose claims about our past glory. But going through this book, and all the supporting archives that have been published in detail in the annexures, and glimpsing through a couple of other books which had been published much before this one, my skepticism has definitely been shelved for now.

I will be curious to read any criticism of Dharampal’s work. Interestingly, a strong criticism is already in the book, in the form of the decade long debate between Sir Philip Hartog and Gandhi.

When your most potent weapon fails…

September 4, 2008

If anybody thought that we will become a cleaner, more disciplined nation, through eduction, it is time to review the views. Education alone doesnt help us achieve anything.

Education has not helped us to follow traffic rules. It is not just the cab drivers and rickshaw drivers who skip signals or honk unnecessarily or overspeed or indulge in drunken driving or talk on the mobile phone while driving or overspeed or park under ‘no-parking’ or bribe, when caught or drive in no-entry lanes. The highly educated engineers and managers and doctors and bureaucrats are equally, or probably more, culpable. Driving on the roads of Bangalore is an education on the futility of education in such matter.

How many educated rich folks take their ultra-expensive dogs out for a walk, with the sole purpose of making the dog pee and faecate on the road? They must have even employed an expert trainer to train the dog to do so.

How many ivy-league graduates will blink before lying to a customer; would not play with numbers to sex them up?

How many media journalists will put up their hands and refuse to discuss about the Arushis on primetime and allow them to live a peaceful death? More words would have been written and more sound-bytes would have been spilled on the poor Arushi’s murder than even Gandhi’s assasination – people investigating her death, people condemning the role of police, people preaching morals, and people like me, inadvertantly or advertantly, adding some more words to the Arushi saga by condemning the media for its insensitivity.

Why do people violate rules, not merely legal regulations, but the ethical and logical ones demanded by common sense? Does man have capability to self-regulate? Is man inherently constituted to be dishonest, to willfully commit a wrong, if he can escape the punishment for wrong-doing? Or has he got so accustomed to being dictated to all the time, through fear for god and religion and ruler, that he is now bothered, not about the crime, but only about the punishment for the crime?

Stricter enforcement is the obvious solution. But then, who will regulate the enforcers? Who decides what to enforce? It is a vicious cycle.

Do we need more gods to regulate us? Education has made man more religious and superstitious (was astrology such a mass industry ever?), but he has learnt to manipulate God. He believes in God but does not fear God. Is this what Dostoevsky meant, when he supposedly said that if God is dead, then everything is permitted? Maybe, a different, more powerful, omnipresent, omniscient and more importantly, more tangible God needs to be conceived.

The failure of education to reform us scares me; blinds me. When your most potent weapon fails, what next…?

Will a reform in the education system help? Are we laying more emphasis on the result than the process? Therefore, it becomes more important for us to score well in an exam, even if we have to copy.  If a school-boy will not avoid copying if he can, after growing, he will not stop at a traffic signal, if he is not watched; he will not hesitate to fudge, if can; bribe, if required. What has made it more important to excel in an exam than learn a subject? It is the same that has made it more important to reach the destination, quickly, at any cost.

How do we shift the focus of education, away from the product: results, back to the process: learning? This, I believe, is the fundamental problem that we need to resolve.