There is a delightful story of Birbal, who, on his way home, saw a group of people searching for something under a street lamp. What have you lost? he asked, and was told that a precious ring had been lost. Birbal got down on his knees and joined the group to search. After a while, it struck him to ask, where have you lost it? Out there, he was told, and the place was pointed out to him. The puzzled Birbal asked, ‘Then why are you searching here?’ Oh, well, he was told, ‘There is no light over there!’ This is a good story to understand what is happening to attempts to improve education today. To search in the dark, we need to ask the question, "What is education for?" Educational policy statements make it clear that the purpose of education is to develop skills and knowledge critical to the process of economic growth. At an individual level, a majority would say that education was needed for a ‘decent’ livelihood and status in society. These answers are so final, and the nature of personal and national economic growth are taken as so undeniably good and wonderful, that education has become a holy cow today. Re-thinking education then, is very difficult.
Another reality is that most of us have been educated in the same system and possibly enjoyed many aspects of it. This makes it difficult for educators and policy makers to step out of the conditioning that such a system entails and do more than just dealing with methods and issues such as extending education to more children who cannot afford it (as the RTE Act proposes). We need to use the very tools we learnt through education to re-think education – it is as tough an exercise as the eye seeing itself. Today, it is established that economics without taking into account the ecology of the earth has led to unsustainable development. Just as a field of ecological economics is being developed taking into account principles of ecology, we need to re-think education, relating it to living sustainably on earth. Ecological education would demand that we honour diversity of students, contexts, systems; that we believe in self-regulation and dynamic flow in processes of working amongst children and whole systems; that we understand the complexity of learning processes and interrelationships with the context and times we live in; that we look at long term implications of education and economic activities. For instance - why does schooling not include the learning of agriculture and rural crafts at least for rural students in their syllabus? Why don’t children learn what is meaningful to their context?
Why don’t they learn the basics of taking charge of their food and health, if possible through growing plants in gardens or through what is grown on their own farms? Why is there so little effort to involve children in issues regarding environmental degradation around their schools and learn more about how every person contributes to climate change? What notions of ‘success’ are we reinforcing? To deal with these questions, we may have to turn the current educational norm on its head in many ways– for instance, learning together with students and villagers may be required rather than ‘teaching’ as inputting by the teacher.
We need to step away from looking at Education as a ‘Public Good’ as mainstream economists call it, which makes it a product or a service delivered by schools to children. We need instead to look at schools and colleges as ecosystems – connected with other ecosystems / communities around us. Just as innumerable groups around the world are re-thinking food habits, there is an awakening around the world about re-thinking the education habit for our long term success as a civilisation. We thank all the writers and leaders who have gifted their articles to us to bring out this issue of Eternal Bhoomi focused on re-thinking education and sustainability.