The World That Might Have Been…

Sherig Manadala

Granted that ‘nothing stays … everything flows’, as in the old Heraclitus fashion, the manner and magnitude of change, whether natural or induced, if dramatic or subtle, momentary or enduring, carries with it a force that can affect and alter the fate of nations and of peoples often far beyond the realm of the normal and the desirable. The human race has witnessed the fall of empires, collapse of civilisations, decimation of cultures, and disappearance of institutions. Mighty symbols of power and prosperity, formidable bulwarks of human ingenuity, colossal spectacles of earthly deeds lie in ruins like the fallen face of Ozymandias, half-buried in the sand.

This is, perhaps, the more dramatic part of human history that reminds us of the inexorable law of impermanence that binds all phenomena. Enduring monuments to the marvels of human creativity continue to honour and cooperate with the infinite gifts of Mother Nature that sustain us and bless us. This is the reason for the faith that lives in us and that keeps us going despite the vagaries of time and chance. This might have been the ordinary principle of the universe and that remains as our point of reference in a world where ‘things fall apart’ and the centre often doesn’t seem ‘to hold’!

I return to the theme I started with – change. I am an admirer and upholder of all the good things that the progressive impulse of the human race has brought to us. Indeed, I am a grateful beneficiary of the fruits of innovation and adventure that the inquisitive human spirit has made possible. And, I cannot afford to be guilty of committing the proverbial sin of ‘throwing the baby with the bath-water’! But I cannot ignore the cost to the human race and the world arising from a subtle but far more corrosive and disastrous change that has been taking place in a field that has come to dominate every sphere of our society in every corner of the globe – Education.

It was in the fitness of things that some great minds described Education as the pre-eminent Noble Sector of public service as they were fully convinced of the strategic role of Education in the life of citizens and of nations. Education was meant to cultivate the nobility of the mind, the nobility of the heart, leading to the nobility of action by the hands. Therefore, it made sense to build schools, colleges and universities and to collect the most precious segment of the society – children and youth – and keep them in seats of learning for extended periods of time. Teaching and learning had to have a purpose, a higher purpose, beyond the need to master a certain discipline and carve out a career for oneself, as important as that was.

The global educational paradigm has shifted and the sector seems to have become all but noble! And, that has made all the difference. Despite the Buddha, Gandhi and Delores, as indeed, despite the valiant efforts of generations of dedicated educators, our public roles have too often moved tragically far from their nourishing souls. Our willingness and our ability to re-discover the soul of our role and make them allies for mutual flourishing will decide the fate of the Noble Sector and the future of our world. Short of this change of heart, the mess will continue and we will still call our pursuit Education – for whatever it might mean.

But, Education as a human mission is an act of faith. It is built on the principle of hope and of possibility. Why else would we begin with nursery rhymes and end with generalization, otherwise? Why would we continue teaching the Humanities, the Sciences, the Arts, Mathematics and the Social Sciences and every other discipline in which knowledge is packaged? We do this because we see value in doing this. It cannot be otherwise.

Let’s pause a while and reflect on the relationship between role and soul, if you will. For want of a better analogy, we may look at this relationship in much the same way as we view the link between the seed and the flower. The seed is the essence, the promise, the womb of vital life. The flower is the reality, the manifest entity, the public proclamation of the urge to find utterance. The flower is the realised self of the seed.

Role and soul need each other for mutual fulfilment in much the same way as the interdependence of the real and the ideal. To be sure, soul ante-dates and anticipates the role. Role, in turn, heralds and fulfils the eternal presence of the soul. Soul is the cause; role is the effect, in a manner of saying. Role and soul are, therefore, the ultimate soul-mates, as the real and the ideal.  

The irony of our times is the general preponderance of role and the steady eclipse of the soul. This is nowhere more striking than in the realm of education. In the physical world, such a change may have been seen as cataclysmic, or phenomenal at the very least. In the social or ethical realm, however, change, no matter how devastating in the long run, enjoys the benefit of slow realisation by those affected, reluctant acceptance by those who can make a difference, and indeed real or feigned ignorance by the masses.

In the meanwhile, unsteady sand keeps shifting inexorably from under our feet.

Where did the rains start beating us? The defining principle of education is positive, holistic, and noble. Its basic commitment is to discover, reveal, and celebrate the potential good inherent in each learner. The reach and range of learning embraces all life, the entire universe, the united nation of our planet Earth. Love of life and the integrity of learning form the undying spirit of education. All teaching and learning ought to aspire to ever higher levels of awakening and actualisation befitting the sector called Noble.

At a time like today when chasing after degrees and diplomas has become more important than acquiring education and knowledge, an appeal to nobility might sound a far cry. But hope for a better world ought to be accompanied by affirmation of right values.

We must be sensitive to the changing needs of our societies and engage education to meet the diverse demands of a fast developing knowledge economy. But even as we look forward and tap the benefits of innovation and human ingenuity, it is essential to remember the fundamentals that lend meaning and integrity to progress.

I believe that education is built on the principle of hope and of possibility – that despite the limitation of prevailing circumstance, things can be and will be better, indeed, they ought to be better.

Only, we need to rehabilitate education to its essentially creative, humanising and progressive function so that it produces individuals who are at once useful and graceful. Beyond equipping young men and women with knowledge and skills to carve out career for themselves, education ought to make them wise, sensitive and cooperative members of the society.

Or else what use is education if it does not invoke the higher order impulses of young men and women and gives them true sense of their place in the general scheme of things? We need a new ethic for education to restore the harmony of life that we seem to be losing.

In Bhutan, we tried to realise this goal by nurturing green schools encompassing the natural, social, cultural, intellectual, academic, aesthetic, spiritual, and moral dimensions of greenery within the overall ambit of Educating for Gross National Happiness. The hope is that children and youth brought up in an environment characterised by these multiple green elements will help imbibe and build the intended positive energy and release it to the larger society when they graduate and join it as its contributing members.

I am a firm believer in the integrity of the role of the teacher in the scheme of education. We may have sound policies, powerful programmes, state-of-the-art facilities and motivated students, but the teacher occupies the center-stage and brings alive the process and experience of learning. With all our memory banks, e-learning and internet facilities that open up novel ways of acquiring knowledge and information, the teacher still holds the key to the success and integrity of any educational programme.

In the course of my own labour of love, I have discovered that deciding to be a teacher entails internalizing what I call the three sides of the Triangle Noble- an abiding love of children or pupils, a deep passion of learning, and a conviction about the importance of education as a powerful instrument to change lives, improve societies, and transform nations.

Anybody who gets into teaching for any other reason will go so far but no further. Disillusionment and frustration will soon set in and one finds oneself in strange territory. Therefore, the moment of truth is essential: why do I want to be an educator, in the first place?

Teaching involves a compelling need for mutual illumination between the teacher and the discipline. Just as the teacher needs a subject to express his of her life and learning, the subject too needs a medium to communicate the power and the promise that lie at its heart. The more passionate and engaged the teacher, the better are the chances for the subject to find its utterance. Maintaining this tension is the secret of success.

What is more? The teacher not only teaches a subject or the curriculum. The teacher is the field, the subject, the curriculum. Indeed, the teacher not only works in an institution; the teacher is the institution. Where the teacher is, is the school, the college, the university.

It is a monumental job – to be a teacher. It is at the same time the most beautiful and rewarding job in the world. Teachers build nations as they build people

There is then this layer of complexity in the work of a teacher – we teach what we know, but more importantly, we teach who we are! What we know is in the book, in the syllabus, on the net. Often, students can access these on their own and learn from them.

Who we are is not in the book. It is us – our entire being, our public self as well as our private self, our values, beliefs, philosophy, convictions, behaviour, outlook, attitude, what we consider to be important – everything in us and about us that makes us who we are.

These we do not teach, but show in obvious ways as well as in ways subtle. Every move matters. We need teachers in this mould, of this conviction, with this level of courage. And you have made the world!

Our role meeting its soul will redeem Education to the high claims of the Sector Noble that carries the promise and potential to redeem the world. The world that might have been will be the world that we will live in.

…Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education

    Author: My Green School: An Outline.