Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Learning

We are born, we spend a few happy months learning that we can’t get our toes into our mouths and that sucking our thumbs is easier…… and then we’re packed off to school.

Children, these days, are being sent to school earlier and earlier (and I say this, drawing myself up to my full twenty-year-old height). In my school, back in Kolkata, they now take them in at age two-and-a-half. Two-and-a-half! Children that age don’t even have individual minds yet. They’re still in that phase of omniscience when they can’t distinguish the rest of the world as being separate from them.

I once saw a whole line of these two-and-a-half-year-olds being led to the play-ground by their teacher. Each one clutching the edge of the uniform of the one in front, they followed in a mindless line. One of them let go of her friend’s uniform to wipe her nose, and all those following her, bumped into each other, one by one. It was like a cartoon. After a number of bumps, the one who had stopped the line, fell down and hurt her knee. She began to cry. One by one, like dominoes, the little girls behind her burst into tears too! And they just stood there, lost, while the segment of the line before them, marched off to the playground. They only moved when their teacher came back to lead them.

Surely children that young are too small for school! And of course there’s pre-school to attend before that… so all in all, they never get to be just ‘kids’.

Once they’re through with school, they set off to college, after first trying their luck in medical and engineering entrance exams (because, of course, those are the only two professions available!). The ones who don’t get in there, do things like nursing, or end up in arts and science colleges… There are of course, the few odd exceptions who skip along to the arts and sciences (and indeed medicine and engineering) colleges of their own free wills and they are to be respected and commended… but these are few and far between. It is heartening to know that these numbers are on the rise… but so is our population, so that may not actually mean much.

After college, they attend campus interviews and start amassing wealth right away or study a bit further before getting down to that.

Being part of this glorious educational edifice, I cannot help but wonder at the point of it all. What are we trying to achieve with all of this? At the end of three years, whether or not I understand the subject I am supposed to have been studying, I will be awarded (with great pomp and ceremony, I might add) a piece of paper which certifies that I have a bachelor’s degree in that subject (provided I have enough presence of mind to cram a few facts into my head before every test or exam). I might even top the class if I work at it, a bit!

But what is that certificate really worth? I can produce it at job interviews and send in attested copies with my applications to colleges, but does that mean I’ve learnt anything?

Yes, we’ve all heard that most learning happens outside the classroom (particularly here, in MCC)… but is that indeed something we are to be proud of? Why bother coming to class, then?

There is a subtle difference between learning and studying… well, perhaps it’s not that subtle. Studying is something that is required, as part of a structure. It is a requirement that one fulfils in order to obtain or achieve something. Learning, on the other hand is an aspect of the inexhaustible joy of life. And I think our education system fails in that it requires us to study, rather than learn. I am in no way claiming that the two are mutually exclusive… in fact they intersect and overlap… but it is possible to have one without the other, and it is in separating them, that our education system makes it’s largest blunder.

I do not point fingers, or lay the blame for this flaw on any one class of people. It is our collective failure. The fault lies in our society, in our homes, in the system, in the students and in the classroom… but the fact is, the fault exists.

Learning, I believe, is an inseparable part of life. As long as you live, you are learning. I (personally) believe that learning is the purpose of our life itself. Whatever you want to call the higher power you believe in, (or don’t believe in, as the case may be), it is my belief that each one of us, has been sent to this earth to learn something. Perhaps some have been sent here to learn about love, others about freedom or forgiveness… whoever we are, whatever we do, whatever happens to us, I believe, it is all part of our journey of learning.

It is this joy and wonder that gives our lives purpose. It is possible for anything to spark this wonder. For some it is numbers, for others, notes of a song, still others find it in technology, or words, or plants, or in the past, or in dance, or in being with other people… many things can kindle this wonder in each of us. But like any spark, it can die. Unless we nurture this spark, and kindle it in each other, we cannot keep it alive in ourselves… and then our lives can become colourless and drone on dully in the background as chalk screeches across a blackboard.

Learning is whimsical and insubstantial. The strangest things may impart the most profound lessons… and there is really not much one can categorically say about it, but from my experience, learning happens best in an atmosphere of freedom. It is, of course, impossible to have a situation of complete freedom, because we are interdependent and live in a society, but it is possible to, at least, free our minds. Here again, institutions interfere with learning, by conditioning us to think in certain ways and accept certain rules, despite their being blatantly unfair and unnecessary (often, they are discriminative on several bases, as well). But for our part in it, we can free our minds and question everything, until we reason out our own answers. Personally, I have found that this attitude of questioning, fans the flames of my curiosity and intrigues me, tangling me further in the warp and weft of this journey, we call life.

All around us, life flourishes. It flashes colour and vibrance… and we take it all in. Be it, sitting in the cafeteria and laughing together; or cleaning up the beach; going on turtle walks; singing in the choir; crossing the busy road; looking, and for a second, actually seeing the beggar on the street as a fellow human being; laughing during play practice, until the director gets annoyed with us all; boarding a train; drinking chai; sweeping out your room; holding late night practice sessions; cooking; watching a squirrel; sitting under a tree and discussing mathematical logic; hearing about the massacre at Chhattisgarh; feeding a kitten; marveling at the impossible structure that is an ant-hill; darkening a piece of glass with soot to watch an eclipse reflected in it… life surges around us. And there’s always something to think about. Something to talk about. Something to learn.

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