Scarcity amidst Plenty


By Yuingam Jajo
Some referred to the present age as the Age of Information marked by the ubiquitous explosion of information around us. Still others choose to call this age as the Age of Knowledge. But what exactly is this explosion of information? Are we, in fact, being more informed about fewer things/issues? What are these fewer things/issues about which we are being more informed? Who or what determines certain things/issues and not others will be more informed about? More importantly, is information the same as knowledge? Is a more informed person more knowledgeable as a rule? Can the euphoria in the educational circle regarding use of information and communication technology (ICT) in furthering educational goals be really educational as it is claimed? What is education? What is knowledge? When should one be credited with knowledge? What do knowledge or knowing entails? What is the role of the school and the society regarding information, knowledge, and education and so on? The aim of the article is not to delineate precise definitions of the major concepts-information, knowledge and education; on the contrary, it is aimed at posing uncomfortable questions so that we would be prompted to step out of our own comfort zones and venture into new areas with a spirit of adventurous responsibility.

By education, Mahatma Gandhi, refers to ‘all round drawing out of the best in human body, mind and soul’. Resting one’s understanding of the meaning of education on this and other similar definitions, it can be safely concluded that more education would lead to more goodness-both at the individual and the society level. Ironically, the opposite seems to hold truer; with more education comes more degradation as the social, economic, political and natural environment around us attests. David Orr, an environmental educator in the United States of America, in an article titled “What is Education for? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them” (1991) aptly remarked that ‘If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare’. Similarly, Vinoth Ramachandra in Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (2005), in the context of claims of information explosion, curtly remarked that ‘we tend to be exposed (informed) to the worst in each other’s cultures. Those who seek to build bridges of mutual learning and understanding are in short supply’. Perhaps one may also recall His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s ‘Paradox of our Age’ to bring home the point that I am trying to emphasize here. Who is responsible for such a mess? ‘It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs’ contended David Orr.  Quoting Elie Wiesel he further clarified this is because (education) “it emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience”. Against such a backdrop, one needs to ask: Is anything wrong with our education?

I have a son who will be four years many months from now. He is admitted in a ‘prep school’ because of shortage of manpower at home. This is his fourth month in the prep school. He can rattle of all the 26 English alphabets and numbers till 50 watching his favorite cartoon show on the television. When asked ‘who is the present chief minister of Manipur?’ pat comes the reply ‘Okram Ibobi Singh’, ‘as easy as drinking water’ like one of my high school teacher used to say. With equal ease he can tell the name of the state animal, tree and flower – as easy as drinking water! Watching him and his accomplishment within such a short period of time in the prep school I secretly started longing to see his photo in one the local dailies being felicitated for topping an exam or something like that. But what is the point? Does my son, or many of his school mates, really ‘know’ what/who a chief minister is? What worth would this knowing have for a boy of such an age? Are they just being informed or being really made to know? How different are the practices at the higher classes? Under what circumstances have only higher scores in exams come to be equated with being meritorious? Do goodness, truth and beauty not have any standing in today’s understanding of the meaning of education? As things stands today teachers responsibility is apparently confined only to informing that 2+2=4 without making them know the conditions under which this particular mathematical equation holds true and under what changed circumstances such equation would not apply; for instance, two cups of water plus two teaspoons of sugar would not yield four cups of water or sugar. What E.F Schumacher said in Small is Beautiful with reference to specialization seems to remotely hold true in this context. He said: ‘The sciences are being taught without any awareness of the presuppositions of science, of the meaning and significance of scientific laws, and of the place occupied by the natural sciences within the whole cosmos of human thought’ reverberating Elie Wiesel.

Elsewhere extending the same argument he had contended that our educational pursuits have bereft us of ideas and values – ideas and values that are more than mere formulae or dogmatic assertions. Ideas and values that help us to think and feel with; the very instrument, through which we look at, interpret and experience the world. In this bereft state, thinking, which is ‘the application of pre-existing ideas to a given situation or set of facts’ to make that situation intelligible to us, comes to a grinding halt. Consequently, without thinking the world around us becomes unintelligible; in turn because it is unintelligible one become estranged from it and gradually lose one’s sense of participation. How beautifully Schumacher captures the paradox of our age – scarcity of thought churning knowledge in the midst of splintered information! The way out, he suggests, lies in refocusing on education. He said: ‘…the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives…At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom’. He goes on to add: ‘The essence of education, I suggested, is the transmission of values, but values do not help us to pick our way through life unless they have become our own, a part, so to say, of our mental make-up.’ Herein lies our educational goals and the roadmap to the much anticipated social transformations. Indeed, just as David Orr asserted, it is not education that will save us but education of a different kind. To say the least, education whose goal is not the mastery of subject matter, but of one’s person and knowledge which carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world. Perhaps such education and knowledge should entail certain amount of humility and honesty so that we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.

‘Shall I teach you the meaning of knowledge?’ said Confucius.

‘When you know a thing to recognise that you know it, and when you do not, to know that you do not know – that is knowledge.’


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