What is Education? Overcoming the Noetic Factory!
By Deepa Majumdar
“The first casualty of this money-making education has been text-mastery. Accustomed to their egos being stroked for doing the minimum, and their opinions being sought eagerly, as if it were priceless knowledge students no longer read. And if they do, they often confuse their own views with those of the authors. If you add to this debacle, the realities of grade inflation, plagiarism, and over-liberal constant saccharine-sweet narcissistic sympathy for students, then the results are even more disastrous.”
One sign of the extraordinary turbulence of our current historical moment lies in what we have come to accept as education. Ideally education should uplift the mind of man, serving as a herald of what ought to be – not what actually is. This means education should lead the mind of man – not the other way around. But today universities and school systems meekly follow the drifting waves of a collective consciousness that is floundering in the open sea of human desires. Subject to the dictates of modernity, formal education is honing in on the “I,” that modernity forges. The world today is divided between the extremes of the west and the rest.
Here in the western world I am personally witness to the crumbling of higher education, as teachers are coerced more and more to pander to creativity and the needs and opinions of the “I” – at the cost of basic skills and altruism towards the “we.” Given the sad self-indulgence endemic to modernity – students now declare themselves to be this or that kind of learner – as if learning styles are inflexible and the individual student has no will of her own. Moreover, given the worldly nature of higher education, colleges and universities have become noetic factories that process students with no interest at all in a life of the mind. Increasingly bereft of wisdom and reflection, curricula are drenched in the utilitarian and the sensate. If at one end we have the dark amoral corporeality of the sciences, then at the other extreme, we have the sensuous floundering of the humanities. God is not dead, as Nietzsche claimed. God has fled higher education!
The first casualty of this money-making education has been text-mastery. Accustomed to their egos being stroked for doing the minimum, and their opinions being sought eagerly, as if it were priceless knowledge – students no longer read. And if they do, they often confuse their own views with those of the authors. If you add to this debacle, the realities of grade inflation, plagiarism, and over-liberal constant saccharine-sweet narcissistic sympathy for students, then the results are even more disastrous. The writing is clear on the wall. We are teaching in a climate of literate illiteracy! Critical thinking has degenerated to bashing authors and trumping one’s own ego. The final nail on the coffin of higher education are teacher evaluations rated by students. Not only disrespectful, these ratings compromise seriously the quality of classroom teaching, with teachers pandering to spoilt youth for the sake of a good evaluation.
In non-western nations like India, the opposite has been true – with excessive emphasis on text-mastery and little to no attention on developing the student’s intellect – by asking her to reach beyond ordinary critical thinking, to engage in thoughtful and reflective exegesis of text materials – an activity that presupposes a prior text-mastery. If we add to this, the draconian exam system Indians inherited from the British, but imbued with their own authoritarianism, then the noetic factory in India becomes all the more formidable. I belong to a generation still traumatized by its experiences of the Indian education system, where “coming first” was a matter of family honor. Instead of excessive liberal sympathy, we saw a transition from our parents’ generation, in which, teachers were like family members, to a harsher system that focused heavily on exams and marks and very little on cultivating the mind of the student.
But today, things are perhaps far worse, inasmuch as education has left the moral for the utilitarian. The noetic factory now is more literally a factory that reifies knowledge to information and data, focusing unduly on the practical, at the cost of moral ideals, contemplation, and reflection. But this brings us to the whole question of what “external” knowledge means. Clearly knowledge is to be distinguished from information, and data. Knowledge is also to be distinguished from opinion. Unlike opinion, knowledge demands explanations. But in the end even the best of knowledge is merely discursive “external” knowledge that does not necessarily impinge upon or alter being. If anything, it exacerbates the ego. External knowledge comes with the inherent risk of hypocrisy, for it goes by what is said – not who the speaker is – that is, not by the inner stature or moral character of the speaker. In my years as an educator I have seen my fair share of scoundrels with Ph.D.’s!
How then do we sublimate the harsh utilitarianism of the curriculum, converting the noetic factory to a garden that nourishes young minds? The first step is to remember that external knowledge is no more than a propaedeutic to true knowledge – which means Self-knowledge through unitive knowledge of God. This inner meditative knowledge cannot be prostituted for money-making purposes, the way external knowledge can. Small wonder then that Sri Ramakrishna refused this bread-winning external knowledge – “bundling of rice and plantain” as He called it – plunging, instead, into the deepest depths of contemplation and meditation. For Plato, this higher notion of education, which eludes the noetic factory altogether, meant orienting the entire soul, away from the world of becoming, and turning it towards the changeless Good (his God). The best external knowledge is that which heralds and inspires this deepest contemplation that not only redeems us, but serves a salvific purpose, by reminding us of our own highest universal divine Self.
For such a lofty purpose, the noetic factory will not do. It must be scrapped radically and upon its tomb, we must rebuild the human mind, paying exquisite attention on character formation. Making the utilitarian a servant of the moral, we must use education to enable individual students to become ethical citizens, selfless leaders, and thoughtful servants of humanity. Here it helps to hearken these words of Swami Vivekananda – “We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one’s own feet” – meaning external education must be man-making – not money-making!
Imagine walking into the classroom one day to find the grave stone of the noetic factory, now adorned with the fresh flowers of a garden of minds. Imagine finding students who are so eager to learn, they cannot wait to return to class. Imagine teachers teaching for the sake of a higher principle – not as workers in a noetic factory. Imagine young graduates, shining with ideals – leaving their schools and colleges to go out into the world as humble servants of humanity, ever ready to serve others.
(The author teaches at Purdue University, USA. Email: [email protected])