February 6, 2004
Alternative Education: Replacing the three R’s by three E’s
The other day I listened, spellbound, to a talk given by Prof. Ramachandra Gandhi, or Ramu as he is known to his friends. Ramu has an illustrious ancestry – he is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi as well as of Rajaji. But unlike others, Ramu and his brothers and sister have made no attempt whatsoever to cash in on this advantage. In fact, they have bent over backwards to hide it. Ramu is a teacher of philosophy, and his specialization is Advaita. He not only explains the subject most lucidly, but – like in the case of his grandfathers – the power of his words stems from his transparency, his personality, his humility.
Ramu talked, among other things, about education, and suggested that the three R’s should be replaced by three E’s – Ethics, Ecology and Enlightenment. All my life, I have felt that something is basically wrong with our education system. I have written a few articles, presented a few papers, trying to explain what exactly is wrong, but have never succeeded in conveying it properly. That day, as I listened to Ramu, it suddenly dawned on me – this is it, this is exactly what I have been feeling. I think what Ramu was trying to convey is of immense importance, especially to those involved in ‘alternative education’. Therefore, let me use this occasion to elaborate on what Ramu had suggested – replacing the three R’s by three E’s.
The three R’s, for those who may not be familiar with that term, refers to Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, and represents the basis of modern education (why they should be referred to as three R’s when only one of them begins with R is an eternal mystery). What Ramu was suggesting was that the very basis of education, and therefore our way of looking at life, needs to be changed. We need to replace our stress on reading, writing, arithmetic by a stress on ethics, ecology and enlightenment. Even if we pay only lip service to it, the need for ethics has never been questioned, and these days ecology is also becoming an acceptable word. It is with ‘enlightenment’ that the greatest perplexity is likely to be encountered, hence let me start with explaining that term, especially because once that is understood both ecology and ethics will take on a totally new dimension.
Enlightenment is associated, and rightly so, with personalities such as the Buddha. But it is also assumed, and that is where we make a basic mistake, that the ordinary human being can never take any steps in this direction. Added to this is the modern scientific establishment’s dislike for anything smacking of the spiritual. These two facts have combined together to ensure that in the modern education system, dedicated to scientific pursuits, there is no scope for any teaching or learning connected with enlightenment.
To get over this prejudice, we need to first understand what exactly enlightenment is. Let us start with the word ‘light’, which is central to enlightenment. In science we learn that light is a form of electromagnetism. We also learn that the electromagnetic spectrum has a wide range – from . Of this, visible light occupies only a tiny, very tiny portion: . Therefore, there is – all around us – so much that we cannot see. Our knowledge of such as cosmic rays comes from indirect perception, such as laboratory experiments using cathode ray tubes, not direct perception.