Is Education Failing Us and our Environment?

Patricia Mukhim

In India, education has been mistaken for the grades that students score in their examinations. That is the end all and be all of education as we see it in our country. Sadly there is no attempt to re-calibrate the idea of education and its all-encompassing goals which are to enable the students to acquire life skills and social skills and respect for the environment. Also in this country parents think that education is the preserve of schools; that children learn everything in school. By the time children enter school they have already imbibed many family values. Responsible parents teach their kids not to litter; to clean up and tidy their play space after they have done with playing. Some parents teach their 3-year olds that they should bring home potato chips and chocolate wrappers and make them pick up those if they throw them at picnic spots or playgrounds. These are the first lessons in responsible citizenship. Alas! Many parents themselves litter so their kids learn from them that throwing ‘away’ anything anywhere is their birthright. When such ill-bred kids enter school they continue with their bad habits because those early habits are embedded in their psyche. It takes a lot of re-education for kids to re-learn life’s valuable lessons.

Now, coming to the larger purpose of education and one that we expect teachers to inculcate in students is the idea of “littering;” who litters and who picks up the garbage. Why is the city so full of litter? Why do people without any twinge of conscience dump their garbage into a clean, flowing river? Don’t people know right from wrong anymore? Are all these people who throw garbage into the river, illiterate? Did they never go to school? But did they need to be taught in school even the basic etiquettes and their moral obligation to the environment? Where have we lost our social moorings? What have we exchanged those for?

The word “disposable” needs to be broken down in the classroom by teachers. What are we disposing off? Where are we disposing off the disposables? True now we have disposable plates, cups, bottles and what have you? And we dispose them unthinkingly because we don’t get to see where they finally end up. They end up at our one and only dumping ground at Marten which can no longer take the load of the daily quantum of garbage generated by a population that is nearing one million, but which is a fact we are all blind and deaf to. To bring this fact up close and personal the schools of Shillong should organise a visit to Marten in batches to see what is really happening there in order for them to be conscientised on the new “disposable” culture that we have callously adapted to. This would be a befitting activity for “Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW)” instead of what is done today which is that students make their parents do stuff and bring them to school and they earn marks for that. And do schools and colleges ever speak about reducing what we dispose? And which we so easily label as garbage?

On September 7, when we were cleaning the Umkaliar River, the NEHU students and I were shocked to see a beautifully sequined blue-green sari being dumped into the river several months ago so that it had lost its colour but could have nevertheless been used by someone less fortunate. Why do people throw jackets, shirts, belts, shoes, slippers into the river? What sort of education makes people so callous and so devoid of feelings? The river is not a dead ‘thing.’ It is alive; it feels the pain; it reacts every now and again by vomiting out what it cannot digest and then causes flooding. If the education we impart misses out on these critical issues then it is no education. Students of some of the schools, colleges and universities that have joined The Shillong Times+ + civil society + Government+schools+Colleges+Universities+EnvironmentalOrganisation “Operation Clean-up” understand what I am talking about. They have been pulling out plastics and polythene bags and clothes and sacks and chips packets and more from the river and they ask with pain, “How can people do this? Yes, how can people do this to a living environment called a river? A river that provides water for drinking, washing clothes and much, much more!  But yes we have lost our connect with nature because our hands no longer touch the soil and many have never even visited a river and waded in it. Those young students who have been involved in the cleaning drive have received far more education than those of their peers who cogitate on social media about every issue under the sun and more particularly the environment but will not get down to doing some work to alleviate the problems. Life skills demand that you get down to where the problem is and work at lessening that problem. Short of that we are part of the problem and hence have no right to gripe about anything.

Most institutions now have Environmental Studies as part of the curriculum. I wonder what is taught in that subject but if what’s taught is not making a change to the environment then it’s pointless. Indeed if what is being taught is far removed from ground reality and the young continue to remain indifferent to what is happening to the environment, then experiential learning has not happened. Yes, experiential learning is the key here. When you ‘feel’ and ‘do’ you learn better than when you are learning abstract principles. Yet how many students really get the opportunity to experience their learning outside the classroom? Is that not why education is failing?

Students from the rural outback would score very well if their education included gardening and farming and recognition of edible and medicinal herbs and their nutritional values – a thing that city folks have lost touch with. The city students who excel in the sciences and mathematics, would score a zero here. This is the huge gap in our educational methods and practices; that is why it is important that students are not judged just by one scale since they have different aptitudes. It’s the scale of judgment used that is defective, not the students. No wonder many students drop out because they find the classroom and their learning so far removed from their living environment. Yet we have no research on this very critical area of education and expect all students to come out with the same learning outcomes.

We are failing our children, ourselves and by extension our environment. Why is the classroom so distant from the real world? If the classroom taught students to develop empathy for the environment would we have so much litter around? Would we have allowed hawkers to sell food in the open without any quality control when restaurants are subjected to strict supervision by the Health Inspectors?

If education does not change our attitudes to the world around us then perhaps it has become a meaningless pursuit of a livelihood devoid of ethics and principles. There is a moral obligation we have to our rivers. We cannot kill our rivers by turning them into garbage and sewage disposal dumps. The rivers are alive; they feel and they will fight back with great consequences to humankind.