Revisiting memory lane: At university, I had written an essay, or rather a story about education. It was part of a centennial writing competition which I hadn’t won. But soon after I wrote another essay and got selected to an all-expense-paid trip to Switzerland, having won the St. Gallen Symposium. This essay about university education, I had written sometime back in 2005. The details about the competition could be found at the National University of Singapore, NUS weblink: nus.edu.sg/centennial/writing.
We were asked to write either an essay (word limit: 2000) or a story (word limit: 5000). I initially started writing an essay but then realized I had too many things to say, hence turned it into a short story so that I had more room to write! Hahaha, have fun reading!
NRIC/Passport no.: Z1706265
From the infinite source
Ideas of a University
…a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers… It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation. It is this and a great deal more, and demands a somewhat better head and hand than mine to describe it well. John Henry Newmann.
I begin with my story. As a child I always nourished a secret desire to unearth the great mysteries of life. I dreamt. I questioned. I questioned repeatedly everything that I saw around me. Why should I go to school? Because I have to grow up to become a big girl full of wealth, success and fame, I was answered. But I don’t like school I told them. I hate classes, I hate studying, I hate reading those thick books and I hate writing exams. But this is the way of life my child, this is the only way you will get whatever you want, they all told me. Have patience, and struggle now, when you grow up you will have a wonderful life with all the happiness that you have always wanted. Just do what we say, we know the best for you, they said. I was naïve and gullible and I thought they were right. So I did exactly what they asked me to. I studied. I brought home good marks, great grades and made everyone happy. My parents were proud of me as they watched with satisfaction my certificates file grow thicker and boasted of a child with remarkable achievements and extraordinary records. I was proud of myself, my achievements. They put me through dance, music, drawing, games, recitation, sports and all kinds of other classes and told me to fit in all of it in my tiny schedule with no room for my dreams, imaginations or silly questions. You have to become a whole individual, with good ECA records and academic accomplishments, they all parroted. And I listened, without complaints with patience. But my questions remained. The only difference was that now I stopped asking them aloud. I still secretly dreamt of not having to go to school or of not doing those things I don’t like. But I never again dared to voice them out, lest my parents become unhappy or angry. I believed that by following what they say I will eventually get all those things that are ‘supposed’ to make me and them happy.
As I grew up, I started realizing they all cheated me. I am not becoming happy. I am only putting myself into more and more torture. More classes, more exams, more stress and more expectations to meet. So much that I no more had the time to dream, to nourish my childhood fantasies and thus buried them into a deep pit in my heart for which I have no time and which everyone else will consider silly anyways. I conformed to the society and prepared myself to meet all its expectations; but, what about my own expectations? I thought better of them and decided I am wrong to expect or to dream of things that no one else talks or even thinks of. So I continued to struggle, to compete and to better myself in every way possible, to win the race, always. When I won I was loved, given a thumbs up and looked up to. I was celebrated! Yet there were definitely times when I lost. It was these times I felt lonely, humiliated, shown sympathy and did not feel loved. I always sought love from everyone around me. So I always sought to keep up to people’s expectations of me in order to make them happy. I decided it is only by making them happy will I be happy and loved.
I became more and more restless. The harder I tried, the less I achieved. My questions persisted. My dreams kept coming back and haunting me until I was forced to seek the answers. And this I did, eventually. The process was torture, there were times I was isolated for seeking such stupid answers yet I started looking at the bigger picture. I attracted a few ‘good’ friends who thought like me and they gave me hope, to once again try to live a life that will manifest my heartiest desires. So I brought back the questions and opened up my heart, my mind, for the answers to dawn upon me. And through excruciating and blissful experiences I found the answers. I now live a life of faith, hold the courage to manifest my dreams into reality. In this light I begin my views and education is the first place to start. I got the opportunity to express myself today through this short story about me that I hope will inspire my readers and touch that part in them which honors the feelings and the fantasies. What I write below is MY TRUTH, the things that I connected with and intuitively feel for. I would like to share them, test them in order to see if anyone else can connect with them. I implore to my readers not to expect any conventional form of writing or reasoning and to pardon repetitions which I might have done in areas or ideas I felt important.
I begin by exploring John Newmann’s ideas of a University. When we talk of ‘ideas’ we are kindling that intangible aspect of a human being which is essentially how a person thinks, feels and rationalizes as an individual and it is here that we should set aside all rules and be willing to, if not accept, see the truth in what one says. Every person’s ideas are based on how he perceives his world to be, essentially what he thinks of the world and life. It is rightly said: A man is what he thinketh!
As I commence my ideas, I would like my readers to ponder over the following thought: What would happen if everything I thought was ‘wrong’ was actually ‘right’? This is where the beginning of our understandings will mark, setting aside all assumptions and starting over. All great discoveries have been made from a willingness, and ability, to not be right, and that’s what I’m trying to explore here. I am going to present certain concepts that may sound absolutely out of place, yet if probed further, the truth may come to light.
I draw attention to a section of Newmann’s description: …It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.
When we talk about a University, we are essentially talking about imparting education and how education is serving its purpose in creating a brighter and more equipped future generation. Here, education in universities in particular; however, before narrowing my views on the University, I would definitely want to explore the bigger picture, education as a whole and what it attempts to achieve.
Through education we try to acquire knowledge. What is knowledge? What are we trying to teach our future generation and our own selves? Let me probe further. By trying to gather more and more knowledge, we believe we are equipping ourselves to handle life in a better manner, raise our standards and learn how to live by every situation in life and make the best of them. Basically, our motive is to apply the knowledge learnt in our real life situations or in other words, gain wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge applied. However, I would like to highlight the things that education is manifesting, directly or indirectly, in the light of what we human beings as a species say we want to achieve.
We all talk of peace, cooperation, integration, harmony, love, fulfillment, happiness. All humans seek these same things in order to live a complete and more meaningful life and enrich this process by facilitating inner growth and evolution of the mind. The only difference is that each of us seek the same things in different ways, in ways that we believe we may achieve, and oftentimes fail trying to find a rule or a perfect way to manifest such things into our reality. This is because most of the times we believe that the situation is out of our control, or we have no other choice in a particular matter even if we don’t like it that way. What we essentially do is react to every situation that come our way and try to find a more stable position in relation to that situation. Yet, we all know that we have been bestowed with the gifts of ‘free will’ and ‘choice’, our tools with which we constantly create our realities, consciously or unconsciously. We make a choice of either living a life by chance and unconsciously react to situations or live a life by choice and consciously create the situations the way we want them. When we “C” things the right way we can start CREATING our realities instead of REACTING to situations. If we are just willing to change how we “C” things, the position of our outlook, we can start the beautiful process of creating a life of our desires. I stress the importance of perspectives here. Think of this: essentially we are defining who we really are in relationship to every situation that we face, and thus evolve as a person or get to know ourselves better in life. Every human being has had it all: the failures, the successes, the happiness, the depression, the anger, the hatred, the jealousy, the joy, the elation, the love. Yet we condemn our failures, our sadness, our times of test, and those challenges that show us who we really are in the face of a crisis.
Let me take failures. Failures merely give direction to our success. They tell us how not to do certain things, how not to look at certain things the way we do. So look not at failures as ‘failures’ for successive failures puts us on the path to success. They are a means to success! In essential, failures are merely illusions as they don’t exist; we create them. If we see them differently, change our perspective about them, we start unfolding the process of creation by not letting failures affect us. In universities we have stressed the importance of grades and scores as a parameter to judge the capability of students. As if human beings can be measured on some ‘unit’ scale and those who are above the mark get most of the opportunities not only while in university but far beyond, in terms of jobs etc. in comparison to those who are below the mark deserving nothing. We term them lazy, not hard working enough, or not doing things the ‘right’ way. Yet what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’? What was wrong 50 years ago in many cultures is considered right today. Each individual defines his own sets of rights and wrongs, and it is through these parameters he evolves. And there is no ONE way of doing things. We are all infinite beings, capable of everything and anything. Yet we condemn those among us who are not able to keep up with the rat race, the competitions, the struggle, the CAP requirements that certain other humans in authority have created and expect everyone else to follow. Perhaps these humans who seem to have failed think differently. Perhaps they don’t believe in a life of struggle, competition. Instead of respecting them we condemn as we believe that our way is the only way to do things and no other way could take us where we say we want to go as a human race.
I want to question, openly now. How successful have the existing systems been? We teach people how to become better than the rest, how to stand out, how to succeed even by an iota over another, how to have an edge over others. What are we doing? Aren’t we discriminating among humans, if not in terms of race or religion or skin color, but by their capabilities, in a system that compares people in terms of their material gains, how many certificates/records one has to his credit and how much above the mark are they, that set them apart? We are making boundaries, limiting our capabilities by setting these parameters. Our thoughts, our feelings, ideas, emotions are proof of our infinite nature; yet we make ourselves finite by our actions. We do not heed to the feelings, our truths, as we have no way to gauge them, no way to peek into the soul of another, no parameters to judge them. This is our truth as there can be no parameters to our thoughts and feelings; they are infinite. The only limitation is our thought that we have limitations. And what are we essentially? What prompts our actions? It is our thoughts about them. We have been taught to think that we should score well, that we should chase the world and compete for the resources in order to survive: Survival of the fittest!
I say this. The world and life is infinite. There is enough for everyone in this world to survive, to live a life where one doesn’t have to worry about his next meal, housing or clothing. We have set up organizations that strive to eliminate poverty, hunger, wars, conflicts and all those things we say we don’t want to see in the world. Yet we have lacked in our education. We have produced people, who have been told that there is not enough, that life is a struggle, whose own survival is never guaranteed, who has to first ensure his own and family’s survival before he can look into the broader picture. It is these people who man the big organizations with finite consciousness of their beings. How then can we achieve the infinite? How can we distribute the resources of the world if all one tries to do is acquire more and more, possess and own? On one hand we have produced billionaires and taught them the skills to become one, on the other hand we have rendered another poverty-stricken who cannot meet the ends or for whom every meal is a question. A redistribution of wealth can solve the problems in an instant, but who would want to give up their accumulated wealth? We all know the inevitability of death, and believe that there is one life to do everything we can to better our standards of living. We come to this world alone and at the time of death leave alone. Can we take even an iota of the wealth we have accumulated to our deathbed? Why then our own systems have given possessions so much value?
A ‘good’ University education is supposed to land us a great job, lot of wealth, fame and opportunities. Those people who have the capability to eliminate poverty, hunger, etc. are more preoccupied in accumulating than looking at the bigger picture. We are trying to ‘secure’ our future generations through education, and make a better place for them to live. Yet we try to cushion our children from hardships, heart breaks, or any kind of torture, trouble, failure and thus accumulate more and more so that our children can have a ‘safe’, ‘stable’ and ‘secure’ future. We don’t mind struggling but our children shouldn’t. What are we doing? We are rendering them weak. It is only in the face of hardships, failures, crises, challenges that we grow, mature, emerge strong and become wise. We all know the importance of these things intuitively, yet our actions always demonstrate the contrary; because we have labeled growth ‘trouble’ and standing still ‘safe’. We always seek comfort zones; try to establish ‘routines’ and ‘rules’ of doing things and in the process we forget that the only thing constant is change. We always resist change, anything new or different we don’t wish to consider unless we have guarantees of their success. We all want guarantees in life, in everything that we do. Yet what is a life lived with guarantees? If we do not have the wisdom to act out in a situation that has not guaranteed anything, what have we learnt through our education? We are constantly changing, evolving every moment, yet we do not wish to acknowledge this. We want to follow the footsteps of our leaders, those who have succeeded in becoming rich and famous and big. We want their success formulae. Yet we know that no one thing works for everyone. And in the end we get frustrated if we don’t attain the desired result by following another’s footsteps. This is because each individual is different, unique and each individual must have the wisdom to develop his own success formula, a success that is changing constantly in its meaning and definition to that individual, as he evolves and grows. We seek to follow others because we like being told what to do, because creating our own strategies and definitions will require too much energy, too much thinking, too much courage. We’d rather react and do things that promises guarantees ahead of time, than create and be willing to fail. Because failures have been condemned, how can one be proud of them? Never! What if failures actually show one what he really is? What if these very failures teach him wisdom, give him courage to turn them to success. Still they are no guarantees. So why even try? We regret if we do dare to do something we feel was right even when others told us not to and end up failing, eventually. We feel had we listened to another we wouldn’t have failed. We thus deny a part of ourselves and miss the lessons the failure might have taught us in the process.
What the world needs today is a raise in consciousness, a change in outlook. That it is ok to fail and it is ok to constantly change one’s definition of right and wrong because it is through these parameters we evolve and grow. We are born into a world that starts feeding us the moment we step onto it. What to do, how to do things, how to surely succeed and a thousand other things. As we grow up we observe and learn that we don’t always get what we really want. The reality is very different from our dreams and desires. In reality there is a lot of compromise needed and we should be CAREFUL. Even when we try out something, we should be sure ahead in time of its success. We do not give room for failures and mistakes. We condemn them. If someone dares to try something different and fails we laugh on his face and tell him to follow the proven methods of success. Yet we know that failures are important. Thomas Edison learnt 999 times how not to make a bulb and when he succeeded he en-lightened the world. We would not have light today if not for his successive failures. We tell people all this, inspirational talks, but do nothing to stress their importance. Our present education systems fail to bring across the importance of failures in our lives. And when one fails once, he better not fail again because there’s no room for more. If he doesn’t live up to the expectations and standards of the University or the system he’ll be ousted! He cannot be given a second or a third chance. No way!
I thus dare. I dare to dream. I dream of an entirely different system of education. Universities are that platform, that thin line standing in between supporting oneself and being supported. They are that boundary crossing which we start to face the real world, to be independent and support ourselves as we step onto the corporate world from our cocoons with big hopes and dreams. And thus they are very significant in shaping who we are and give us a sense of ourselves. They judge us telling us what we are good at and what we should do based on our performance in various fields that we explore while in a university. They tell us what to think. Yet I dream of a university that will teach me how to think. That will essentially free me instead of binding me to any system. That will not judge me based on my grades or performance and will give me lots of room for my mistakes and encourage me to go my way, what I believe or feel is right. It is through this that I will really learn if my way is right or wrong. But I need to make the mistakes in order to acquire this wisdom. Our education is ignoring wisdom in favor of knowledge.
We are teaching children what to think (knowledge) instead of how to think, how to get to their truth (wisdom). But one cannot ignore knowledge in favor of wisdom. A certain amount of knowledge must be passed from one generation to another but as little as possible. Let the child discover for itself and draw his own conclusions. Knowledge may be lost but wisdom is never forgotten. Our schools should turn the emphasis around.
Until now our schools and universities have allowed and encouraged competition, where being the ‘best’ and learning the ‘most’ have been rewarded, performance ‘graded’ and moving at one’s own pace is barely tolerated. What do we understand from this? I dream of an educational institution that teaches one of movement and music and the joy of art and the mystery of fairy tales and the wonder of life and lessons in unconditional love. We should be taught logic and critical thinking and problem solving and creation, using the tools of our intuition and deepest inner knowing, rather than the rules and the memorized systems and conclusions of a society which have already proven itself to be wholly unable to evolve by these methods, yet continues to use them. We ought to be taught concepts, not subjects. A new curriculum built around awareness, honesty and responsibility may be devised. Fairness, treating others nicely, being tolerant, seeing others as equal, believing in oneself, walking in dignity no matter what, how to live without fear, how to solve conflict without violence, how to act without self-interest, how to love without condition, faith are some basic values that must be ingrained in all of us right from where our education begins. We know these things are important but we don’t teach them with emphasis. I recommend Courses such as:
- Understanding power
- Peaceful conflict resolution
- Elements of loving relationships
- Personhood and self creation
- Body, mind and spirit: how they function
- Engaging Creativity
- Celebrating self, valuing others
- Joyous sexual expressions
- Diversities and similarities
- Ethical economics
- Creative consciousness and mind power
- Awareness and wakefulness
- Honesty and responsibility
- Visibility and transparency
- Science and spirituality
- Appreciation of nature
I’m not talking about a 2-day unit in a semester long course. I am talking about separate courses on each of these things. I am talking about a complete revision of our schools’ curricula. I am speaking of a values-based curriculum rather than a facts-based curriculum. I’m talking about focusing our attention as much on understanding the core concepts and the theoretical structures around which our value system may be constructed as we now do on dates and facts and statistics. Concepts for living should be taught and emphasized. Right now our schools exist primarily to provide answers. It would be far more beneficial if their primary function was to ask questions. What does it mean to be honest or responsible or fair? What are the implications? For that matter, what does it mean that 2+2=4? What are the implications? Even computational skills should be taught within this framework. Arithmetic and mathematics are not abstractions, but are the most basic tools in the universe for living life. The teaching of computational and all other skills should be contextualized within the larger life experience in a way which draws attention to and places focus upon, the core concepts of life and how it should be lived with peace, harmony, balance and love. Students may be allowed to observe more, see what has worked until now and what has not. They may be allowed to draw their own conclusions and empowered to create a life they wish to live rather than to react to life’s situations. Instead of presenting data to students as That Which Is Right, data should be offered as simply that: data. Past data should not be the basis of Present truth. Data from a prior time or experience should always and only be the basis for new questions. Always the treasure should be in the questions, not in the answers. And the questions with regard to past data, history, should be whether we agree or disagree and not told what to assume; what do we think and not what we should think. This should be the focus. School’s intention and purpose would be to encourage offspring, from the earliest age until the end of formal education, to explore the values, and to learn how to use them, apply them, functionalize them and yes, even to question them. For parents who do not want children questioning their values are not parents who love their children, but rather, who love themselves through their children.
The writings of Rudolf Steiner, I heard of, seem very inspiring; the Waldorf School, which he developed. It is a good model, one which may work, given where we say as a human race we want to go; given what we claim we want to do; given what we say we want to be. It is just an example I could cite where wisdom is focused upon more than simply knowledge. There are many differences between a Waldorf School and other schools. Let me give an example. In the Waldorf School, the teacher moves with the children through all levels of the primary and elementary learning experience. For all those years the children have the same teacher, rather than moving from one person to another. The bond which is formed here is priceless! The teacher comes to know the child as if it were his own. The child moves to a level of trust and love with the teacher which opens doors many traditionally oriented schools never dreamed existed. At the end of those years, the teacher reverts to the first grade, starting over again with another group of children and moving through all the years of the curriculum. A dedicated Waldorf teacher may wind up working with only four or five groups of children in an entire career. But he has meant something to those children beyond anything that is possible in a traditional school setting. This educational model recognizes and announces that the human relationship, the bonding and the love which is shared in such a paradigm is just as important as any facts the teacher may impart to the child. It is like home schooling, outside the home.
I talk about schools before moving onto universities as they form the foundation of university education. When I walk around and ask my peers how they are doing, I’m always presented with the same answers most of the time: too stressful, too busy, too tired, no time to meet up and have nice chats etc. I am surprised that nobody tells me they are happy and doing great. Everybody complains. As they cannot change the system all they do is take out their grievances and comply with a system that is demanding more and more out of them and trying to fit everything within the 24 hours that we have in a day. We cannot expand our time even by a second yet we want to fit in more and more within this time frame. How then can we learn? We merely acquire. We have learnt the worth of everything but the value of nothing. A lot of unnecessary things are forced into us. We have been taught, the more we acquire the better. More facts, more figures, more knowledge but if we had truly learnt the applications and ways to achieve what we desire then today the world would not be in this shape, where one is affluent beyond boundaries and another is rendered homeless, condemned to die; and where hardly anyone is truly happy. Our education should eliminate vested interests in big companies, governments, politics, nations, international organizations and look into the bigger picture, look at all human beings as a part of the big family. We are all one and we should strive to bring each other up instead of trying to be better than another.
I have noticed that nature plays an important part in our lives. The amount of wisdom we could attain from the perfect balance and harmony in nature is truly overwhelming. A sense of love and true beauty and being in sync with nature will even eliminate our environmental problems. Appreciating the plants that our horticulturists spend so much time to tender to, sitting under the tree and reading a good book, recognizing the blessings the flowers behold on our way to ease the tensions and stress of the day calms us down. Our productivity increases manifold. The energy we may gain from natural sources and their part in our lives is truly beautiful and worthwhile. All we need to do is pause a while, to look at the rose garden and smell the roses before we carry on with our daily routines.
I know my views may seem radical and too idealistic or that of a dreamer. I am not saying my way of thinking is a better way. Mine’s definitely not the only way. It is just another way! And that’s what I wish to stress here. Let each child choose her own way to define life, to define who she is, and to define what is right and wrong for her and what works and what doesn’t. May she not be told what Is. Let her decide. I dream of an education system, an institution, a university that helps me manifest my desires into reality and allows me create my own; a system that allows me to discover infinite self worth in me, independent of my circumstances, a system that allows me to love unconditionally, sans judgment, sans conditions!
I conclude with my favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw:
I dream things that never were and I ask why not?
Some ideas in this essay were inspired from the works of author Neale Donald Walsch. Those days I used to be very motivated by his books, but little did I know then, that soon, very soon, I would actually win another essay contest on the topic “Inspiring Europe“, a symposium, and meet him in Switzerland, that this was just preparation for what was to come. I was in for a big surprise from life!
The acronyms used in this essay are,
- ECA: Extra Curricular Activities
- CAP: Cumulative Average Points