Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Concept of true education

Education imparted through the medium of schools and colleges, in countries across the world, has a deep impact on individuals, families, societies, and how people function as a unit and then ultimately as a country. Self-education also has a strong role to play in this.

Any nation’s economic and social power is generally a result of what its ‘umbrella of education’ imparts—what kind of education are their children getting at home, away from home, in, formal setups and sometimes in, informal setups? Does it lead to growth and true empowerment, not just monetary, but a balanced empowerment, without the need to resort to addictions or extremist behaviour, or does it only follow routine techniques of dissemination of knowledge and skills?

Formal Education

The existing formal structure of education across many countries in the world is ever-present and necessary as it stands and has provided a firm foundation for innumerable students in the past and continues to give consistent and structured know-how to children and young adults, almost everywhere. Formal education rendered by some reputed schools and universities in the world have contributed to particular successes across the world.

However, this kind of formalized education has drawbacks, too, because of restrictive parameters set within educational frameworks. This takes away from a student’s independent development and could create hindrances. More flexibility in such fixed educational models is required, because times are changing, the challenges are varied, unpredictable disharmonious conditions are taking shape, adversities can happen, imbalances do take place, and hostile conditions could develop. Opportunities are also changing form as professions are diversifying as the world evolves.

In spite of structured teaching and conformance to a formal syllabus, along with an emphasis on sports, or other co-curricular activities, it is apparent that a lot of successes in the world are also coming from creative thinkers, strong individuals, those who do not follow norms, are unconventional, those who have adapted to the changes that are continuously arriving in the world, and who in spite of the hurdles, have carved a niche of their own. They are those who have more than a framed educational skill-set in their armour.

Formal program structures do give students a stable foundation from which to work from, but they may not prepare them for out of the blue uncongenial and demanding situations, which may arise in life. If we became aware of ‘everything’ in professional setups and at home, why are there so many self-help books in the world, so many new-age gurus, why do people learn meditation and other eastern philosophies, why do people take up specialized courses and acquire separate social skills, why are people opting for off-curriculum creative fields, why are there so many talented, business oriented and creative personalities emerging in the world, who have pursued dreams and enhanced varied talents, which were probably not even taught in class?

These successes, in any amount, have come to individuals, because they strove to think uniquely and have been able to face the challenges life has thrown at them. Therefore, formal education, though of import, is not the only answer.

Additional Abilities and Know-how

Having the ability to adapt to adverse events, to self-teach if needed, to stay balanced, to stay off addictions, to remain content while remaining goal and action oriented, to practice harmony and non-violence, being noble in speech and in action, and being innovative and creative, amongst other requisites are needed. Such attributes cannot be gained only from formal classroom training and application of instructions to be followed; these can be acquired by honing a myriad list of helpful skills, having an understanding of the significance and working knowledge of some meditation techniques, certain Eastern philosophies, which may sometimes be needed to combat hostile circumstances and people.

To think creatively, to be strong, to be fearless and to stay balanced, to know how not to give up and other such strengths should also be inculcated in students. In addition, having some knowledge of other religions and what they preach, to understand why people behave the way they do, to better adapt to the differences arising in the world and hence be tolerant of each other, could also be espoused. This is not to overlook any wrongdoing, but to prevent it from happening again. The list of further powers and knowledge needed may be quite long.

The effort behind all this should not be to put everything learnt to practice, but to be aware of the possibilities that exist beyond classrooms.

True Education

These additional abilities can be attained from “true education,” which is a combination of the established structure of schooling and university education that already exists, combined with equipping students with additional powers, so that they can understand the different perspectives leading this diverse world, and handle problems intelligently and succeed, without losing sight of human values, at the same time.

True education can also have another connotation, where formal education takes a back seat, and self-education becomes primary, since education can also be self-initiated, through choice or otherwise. Rabindranath Tagore, Mark Twain, William Blake, Maxim Gorky, George Bernard Shaw, Leonardo da Vinci and many other such names are personalities who were self-taught. These personalities abdicated formal education in lieu of self-education, but as long as it served to accomplish their life goals and brought forth necessary skills for survival and eventual success, keeping humanitarian goals alongside, in mind, formality was never even a concern. Here are some of Nobel Laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s thoughts on education, which may interest many of us. He was also the founder of the Visva-Bharati University that follows a unique model of education.

Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune

― Jim Rohn

A self-educated, gifted, firm and self-motivated person can emerge far stronger than a formally educated individual as the examples above confirm.

Nevertheless, within a formal setup, for those who can afford it, choose it and want their children to pursue it, textbook information and traditional education culture are an important existing force. These setups as pointed out above are not complete in themselves. There are questions, which need to be consistently asked and suggestions on other target teaching areas be periodically made, so that children and young adults are armed with more than textbook knowledge and are better prepared to face a challenging and evolving world.

The idea is not to force any philosophy or methodology on anyone, but to create different sources of growth. These could be kept as optional courses, for students and parents, to take a decision on, as these expanded subjects will help students be stronger, more knowing and humane individuals when they head out into a world beyond the boundaries of formal education.

Viewpoints and Suggestions

Julie Hearn, an elegant author of many beautiful and intriguing young adult fiction novels, has some personal experiences to share and excellent advice to give regarding true education. She says, “Most of what I learned in school, in order to pass exams, I can no longer recall. My “true” education came from the books I borrowed from the library – from stories that fed my imagination, and my soul, and taught me unforgettable truths about the business of being alive. I believe now, more than ever, that the most important room in any school, in any part of the world, is still a library and that fiction – especially contemporary fiction written about, and for, children – plays a vital role in equipping young people with some of the psychosocial and interpersonal skills that can make the journey through life less bumpy.

When I go into schools, as a visiting author, I always ask if anyone has read, or is reading, anything amazing. I have seen 14 year-old faces light up like beacons when I ask this and it is not over Shakespeare or Keats. It is over John Green’s the Fault in Our Stars, Veronica Roth’s Divergent or Meg Rosoff’s, How I Live Now. A number of critically-acclaimed modern children’s books are, I know, being taught in secondary schools as companions to more archaic set texts. History teachers are using young adult fiction to develop a more nuanced understanding of past events. My own historical novel, Hazel, is recommended reading for teenagers studying the suffragette movement.

It is the books that children read for pleasure that impart the most valuable lessons. When young readers connect with a character in a story, when they follow that character through all manner of crises and see how that character copes—or sometimes fails to cope—they are learning life skills, vicariously. A story tackling, for example, peer pressure and drug abuse, in an intelligent, engaging and accessible way, can shape a young reader’s attitudes, and promote healthy life choices more efficiently than any lecture.

Giving young people opportunities to express themselves creatively, without restrictions, is something else I feel strongly about. There is much enforced conformity within the education system and too many boxes to tick. The UK based charity First Story supports and inspires literacy, creativity and confidence by placing established writers in challenging UK schools. I worked in one such school for a year, and was astonished, and moved, by how hungry my students were to express, or even find themselves, through writing that far from being prescriptive and target-driven could—and did—go anywhere. We need more, much more, of that.”

Dr. Dhrubodhi Mukherjee, associate professor at the School of Social Work, Southern Illinois University, shares some sharp and perceptive views on the topic. He says, “I am a believer in education. Education can be divided into two parts: one is teaching specific skill sets. This is structured and is designed for classroom teaching and learning, which happens between the teachers and students. It provides a basic orientation to students, as in Mathematics, History, and Geography. The second part of education concerns its dynamic areas. This is a top down approach—it is not created and is completely unmonitored. Like for example ‘meditation’—it is not imposed but could have elements of growth for a human being. The results of this are difficult to measure. For example, Ivy League students may not necessarily be great critical thinkers, although they may have been educated quite skillfully. Individuals, issue justice, set down rights, without thinking critically—this will not work. It is important to have a well-rounded personality.

It is essential that when trying to design a curriculum, in addition to setting patterns and giving instructions, make it dynamic, too. There are some schools, where there are no playgrounds, no craft sections, nothing like guitar classes, karate classes, places, where the child can have some free time and can be totally unsupervised. Structured education is entirely formal, and this culture of tutorials on its own is not sufficient.

The Wall Street disaster happened because corporate ethics was missing; since then, a class on corporate ethics has become compulsory in the US. Formally educated folks who do not have standards and values could also lead to fascism and dictatorship. We need to have a balance. There needs to be a combination of structured education and dynamic and active spaces; in these spaces, ensure children’s safety, but leave them on their own for some time. Let them figure it out. We don’t always learn in linear patterns. Sometimes, kids learn from other kids. Only structured patterns will not create critical thinkers and truly educated personalities.

Philosophy should be included, reading habits should be inculcated—the regular education system is exploitative in nature, because of set structures of marking. In India, we need innovators like Steve Jobs, not a garage culture. Students are scared of bunking classes (because they think, “What will happen to my IIT?”); there is hardly any scope for fine arts, creative writing or other specialized classes for students in India. School curriculum is not completely impeccable—it is influenced. The education system should expose all kinds of contradictory views, but set patterns are followed so that we can control people’s views. Multiple ideas and knowledge should be put forth for students to learn from. Knowledge is waiting to be disputed and disproven—it is not to be crammed. Don’t try to kill variety, to compare and contrast, at the same time. Nobody wants to debate, people want ready-made knowledge. This needs to change.”

Parents Speak

A few concerned parents, especially, observant mothers of young children from various cities had the following suggestions to make, which they felt could be incorporated within formal educational organizations, mainly, schools.

They share, “It is a good idea to offer a wide variety of co-curricular activities in school, the exposure allows kids to explore various options and see if they are passionate about it or not. A good teacher or mentor can breathe life into a program, and on the contrary a bad teacher totally defeats the purpose. Meditation has miraculous benefits, and if the kids are introduced to it at an early age, it may work wonders in making the journey of life smoother. Educating children about the importance of healthy eating is also important where child obesity is on the rise. Small acts that show resilience, persistence, integrity, empathy or honesty should also be rewarded so as to encourage children to be nice. Bullying in school also needs to be checked by creating awareness and implementing strong disciplinary consequences if children are found to bully others as it leaves a lasting impression on tender minds.”

“Indian schooling at an early age should inculcate more of a play based learning; more involvement in curricular activities from the beginning, such as sports, music and the arts so that kids can develop those crucial skills they need to succeed in life, both professionally and personally. There should be more emphasis on the child’s development instead of competition and comparison. There should be an introduction of a few optional foreign languages for children to choose from. Teachers are responsible for imparting knowledge so their experience and skills should be evaluated well before they are in the role.”

“An ethics class in school concentrates on the importance of strong values and ethics. It could be taught in the form of ‘Storytelling.’ There are also classes about healthy eating habits, self protection classes—where they talk about appropriate and inappropriate touch. Besides these, there should be a strong emphasis on the threat that our natural environment is facing. They should be made aware of this from an early age and how they could contribute to conserving nature. These are also important contributors to true education. Reading should be strongly emphasized upon. Every child, in the class, should talk about the book that they are reading—this would help in forming the habit of reading.”


Structure, organization, knowledge can be gained from formal education, but creativity, endeavour and enterprise come from an inner motivation and force within an individual. An education style, which will oppress a student will not help, but a system, where students are also accorded space to flow freely, to be more independent, should be allowed to exist. Therefore, those who allow self-education, flexible learning to co-mingle with formal education they have received and are receiving have a lot to gain. And those who are totally reliant on self-education along with attributes like perseverance and will power and some other qualities are also going to derive much.

Life is manifold; it is unpredictable and truly extempore. To have the ability to maneuver life in the best possible manner, it is vitally necessary to not depend only on structured education, but to bring more flexibility to it through a consensus between responsible authorities, successful individuals from around the world, who wish to contribute, representation from parents and families, as well, and most importantly, keeping the interests of children in mind. Other forms of education like open education, E-learning and alternative education have also emerged, and positives from these should also be used to benefit children everywhere. A gradual change should be allowed to take place, where the best education possible is provided to children.

Students all over the world need more support than ever before to grow into complete personalities and true education could be the answer to this.

Education is also a matter of choice and affordability. There are individuals who can’t afford any kind of formal education at all, for them true education comes from experiences and skills they gain from life, and in several cases, they find immense success. In terms of selections and prerogatives, following the philosophy of To Each His Own, some decisions and choices on education methods to be pursued are made by parents or children themselves, some early, some later, given circumstances and the will to follow through. Whatever track is chosen, it should be done keeping true education in mind, a concept, through which a child could achieve the best possible from life, and give back to the community, as well.

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