Let me state in the beginning that I am a former engineer, currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the humanities, which I hope to follow up with the study of jurisprudence. Much of what follows in this post are opinions formed through my own experiences during my many years as a student, and, of course, as an individual reflecting upon society.

Education is a problem across the world. Contrary to the general view, it is not a problem just in the United States or the United Kingdom. Education is a disaster even in those Asian tiger economies, those places where they produce thousands upon thousands of little yellow and brown people that can do complicated math problems faster than most college students can in the West. The Asians have just managed to capture an emerging market of information technology and biotechnology, giving them the appearance of whizkids. It is a good question as to how many of them have read the Mahabharata, or studied Plotinus. Few even know who alTabari was, let alone what he is known for (Muhammad ibn Jarir alTabari wrote the famous History of the Prophets and Kings). It is unlikely that too many students would be able to tell the difference between Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt, worlds apart really, but unfathomable to the average student. It is sad to see that most college graduates would struggle to differentiate between a symphony and a symphonic poem, and to many, the works of Virgil, Dante, Goethe, and Dostoevsky are lost forever. Schools don’t seem to teach Yeats or Rilke anymore, and why should Moliere or Mahfouz matter?

If you are a humanist, you may think I am stating the obvious, drawing attention to the dying throes of civilisation. If you are a “modernist,” you may be thinking that this is ridiculous – today’s world requires specialisation and all these “artsy-fartsy” pursuits serve no purpose. The technical knowledge required by industries nowadays is so much that there is no time for leisure. Others – pomo folk and postcolonials – may argue that the values I talk about – the literary insights, the music pieces I mentioned, the works of philosophy – form a structure of power that each individual must create for him/herself and certain intellectuals should not be privileged by schools. However, these empty criticisms do not come up with any solution, nor is there any hint of the problems created by “modern” education: alienation, loss of purpose, and more importantly, loss of meaning.

My cousin used to joke that kids nowadays are scalars, not vectors. When I was eighteen, it sounded silly, but I now understand what he meant (for you non-technical types, a scalar quantity has no direction, eg. length, mass, power. Vector quantities have direction, eg. velocity, lift, drag). This generation is largely lost in its search for itself, something older generations did not seem to need to do. Nihilism, existentialism, and postmodernism may have drawn our attention to the systems that contain us, but to those with inadequate intellectual equipment, they have decimated structure and value. Besides, they ignore overarching values cultures share.

So what should education teach us? If values are so contested, what can we agree on that can be taught objectively? Supporters of classical education would argue (as do I) that there are certain overarching, core values that are shared. Civility, dignity, honour – perhaps not in the minutia, but in the general concept, allowing for cultural differences. Respect for knowledge, honouring one’s parents are common values in Indian culture as well as Judaism…and perhaps other cultures as well. Similarly, there may be other ideas that reach out across peoples. Education is not the answer on its own; cultural education takes time. My grandfather used to say that culture comes after three generations of good education: the first generation receives education, the second receives good education and secures some financial security, and the third finally secures wealth. It is only after that, with the wisdom of three generations, that the next generation can be raised properly, with proper focus on various aspects of education.

Today, education is populist. We want as many people as possible to go to college and get degrees, worthless though they may be. Standards are lowered, and even in some of the top schools, there are some incompetents floating around. The pity of this age is that despite the rapid rise of basic literacy, it has created no giants like Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. There is no Divine Comedy or Faust. I suggest that it is better to have higher standards that fewer people can satisfy…that way, a PhD really means something and there is no glut in the job market. Secondly, only those who are truly serious will even attempt to get a higher degree – a PhD would actually mean something then. Higher standards would mean that a high school diploma should be enough to get one a branch manager’s job at a bank. A college degree would enable one to look ahead to CEO positions and the like. A masters would suffice for research, while a doctoral degree would establish true expertise. Like in Germany, schools should be divided into gymnasium, realschule, and hochschule after the eighth grade. Students with the best qualifications can go to gymansiums, while hochshule are trade and craft schools that allow a person to find other means of supporting him/herself. Elitist yes, but workable, and better than the egalitarian cess pit we have created today.

Life is not merely about technical progress – it is also about human growth. It is about evolving from homo sapiens to homo lucens. As someone said in some movie or another, “life is not merely a matter of tasks but also tastes.” Isn’t that what we should aspire to develop through schooling instead of automated roots that can perform Laplace transformations and solve differential equations?

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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