ABCs of education
Chitra Raman
Book Review: ABC’s of Indian National Education

Book : ABC’s of Indian National Education

Language: English; Price : 495 INR

Author: Dr. Beloo Mehra; Publisher: Standard Publishers (India); 1st edition (2014)

Available at: Amazon.in , Indian Books Worldwide

BOOK REVIEW

ABCs of Indian National Education

By

Beloo Mehra

Some years ago I walked into a Landmark bookstore in Gurgaon, India, looking for a jigsaw puzzle for my daughter. I walked out instead with a gift for myself, a puzzle game called Lokulus.

Based on the Loculus of Archimedes, the puzzle consists of 14 triangular and polygonal tiles to be fitted into a recessed square to create any one of the 33 specified designs pictured in the accompanying flier. Each of the 33 solutions has an interesting title, such as “Jagged Cliffs” and “Shadow of the Pyramids” as an identifier. Adding an element of fiendish perplexity to the process is the fact that all tiles are double-sided with different colours on each side. So one might pick a shape that fits a particular space, but find that it is the wrong colour for that orientation.

game 1

That little box — the literal meaning of the word Loculus is “little space” — was to consume me over the next five days. I was obsessed, but it seemed the harder I tried, the more exasperatingly elusive the solution seemed. And then one night, instead of trying to solve the pattern within the square, I took a triangle out of the box and rotated it in two-dimensional space. That’s when I had my own Eureka Moment, and with it experienced the euphoria that propelled old Archimedes out of the bathtub. I hasten to add that my moment was far more decorous.

game 2

In the end, what it took to solve a problem devised by a mathematical genius was simply this: a brand new way of seeing a familiar shape, both in terms of its position in space and as a composite of other shapes.

I can think of no better analogy for what Beloo Mehra has accomplished with her little primer on how best to put the “Indian” back in “Indian education.” Stakeholders in the contentious field of education tend to be like the tiles of the Lokulus puzzle — angular and inflexible in terms of their opinions, diverse and individualistic in nature, uncompromising in their claim to space. If some tiles are grouped the wrong way, one is obliged to exclude certain others.

But instead of cursing the shape or the box that it came in, if one takes a step back and applies a fresh perspective to assembling the whole, then all tiles can be accommodated. Not only do they all fit together, they do so in a variety of permutations.

This book is structured around 26 interrelated ideas, each chapter theme corresponding with a letter of the English alphabet. Mehra’s perspectives are imbued with the incandescent idealism of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Her method of introducing us to that idealism is by no means didactic. Rather, it is akin to opening up a fresh portal and stepping back to give the reader the choice to examine, introspect, and either accept/reject that perspective or contribute to its further refinement.

Mehra sets out her vision in her introduction:

“Based on our badly borrowed misunderstanding of the words ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ we seem to have become blinded by the dominant intellectual ideology of our times, according to which schools as secular organizations are supposed to not have anything to do with matters of the spirit. Education has, therefore, become concerned only with matters of material life (eventually leading to commodification)… This dichotomy between ‘education for social success’ and education for spirit’ must go if we want to make Indian Education more relevant for the future of India. Education needs to become more integral, more complete through a meaningful synthesis of the two.”

Lest readers should take umbrage at the phrase “matters of the spirit” as a veiled term for religion, Mehra makes the following clarification in the very first chapter:

“Education must help create an awareness and facilitate an opening in the young minds and hearts for the fact that there is a personal inner truth, independent of and transcending all the layers of outer identity of the individual. And that the discovery of this inner truth through intense self-search and deep self-knowledge is the ultimate aim of human life. It is essential to understand that this is NOT same as helping learners develop a mental acceptance of a respectful and empathetic understanding of different religious traditions. And it is definitely NOT religious education.”

Being that I am the parent of a young lady with autism, the chapter that most resonates with me is titled “E — Educe, Evoke.” Although Mehra does not directly address the topic of educating the ‘differently abled’, she addresses that chronically overlooked area of education by way of pointing out that we all bring different learning styles to the classroom. As she puts it:

. . .the way each one of us internalizes or receives the information that is given to us has a lot to do with how we learn and what we learn. So the emphasis should be on preparing the instrument — that, which facilitates the educing, the evoking, the bringing forth of the knowledge. . .”

And how is this accomplished? By

 . . .providing ample space and time to the learner so that a meaningfullearning experience can be naturally and organically created, … by not forcing the learner to learn in a particular“right” way but rather giving him or her the freedom to discover hisor her unique learning style. . .”

This chapter is followed by a revelatory chapter on teacher education in which Mehra delves into Sri Aurobindo’s “First Principle of True Teaching”, which proposes rather intriguingly that “nothing can be taught”. I will not share excerpts from this chapter so as to let readers experience the unfolding of this idea.

Under the letter H, the author discusses the topic of “History and Heritage”. She points out the importance of connecting with the formative events of the past by understanding the deeper forces at play rather than just memorizing the chronology of historical events. She argues that the knowledge gained by this process would stimulate young students to purposefully chart a future course for themselves that invests in their legacy.

Mehra emphasizes that teaching history “should not be a chauvinistic and narrow-minded retelling of the past glory that India was”. According to her, the learning of history should be motivated by the objective of preserving and building up the integrity and unity of the Whole:

“Learners must also be given full opportunity to critically evaluate and understand the reasons behind India’s decline and downfall, the outer and inner factors that led to it, the impact such a downfall has had on shaping the present-day India, and how a different future can be made possible. Instead of ideologically driven history wars which have a sinister political agenda, educational thinkers and policymakers must figure out ways to facilitate a developing sense of unity among learners through a deep, critical study of Indian history that is free from preconceived mental biases and prejudices.”

So what if any are the shortcomings of this book? Are there errors and impracticalities, presumptions and assumptions? Some reviewers believe their work is incomplete without pointing out some or all of the above.

I draw my inspiration from the story of the Zen Master who was visited by an important and highly regarded intellectual who came with questions on philosophical matters. The Master offered to discuss things over a cup of tea. When tea arrived, the Master poured and poured into the cup until it brimmed over and spilled onto the robes of the visitor. Annoyed, the intellectual sprang up and shouted, “Enough! Can you not see that the cup is full?” At which the Master smiled at his guest and said “You are like this teacup, so full of yourself that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when you have emptied your cup.”

To quote Alvin Toffler,

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

To put it succinctly, that is the best reason to read this book. But not before you have first emptied your cup.