On education: A philosophy paper


Revathi Sampath Kumaran

“Only the educated are free”- Epictetus.

 Ask: “Is education a good thing?”  Most people, except, perhaps, a diehard sceptic, would unhesitatingly respond with a resounding “Yes!”

Ask: “Why is education a good thing?” and the response is likely to be less unanimous and spontaneous.

Some will stress on the inherent values of education while others will emphasise its exchange value.  For some education is a good in itself, an end in itself.  But for most others today, education is a tool to transcend class barriers, a means of socio-economic upliftment, and a passport to the job market. The kind of passport you have determines whether you go to the assembly line or into academics.  So you have different ‘kinds’ of education, packaged attractively, and priced appropriately, confounding people by their bewildering variety. Like blind men presented with a chameleon to comprehend instead of an elephant, people pick their way through an ever expanding maze of alternatives.  Through the choices they make thus, the ‘educated’ ghettoize themselves, voluntarily abjuring their freedom and allowing themselves to be led from the real to the unreal, from light to darkness, and from immortality to annihilation.

T S Eliot, in ‘Notes towards a definition of culture,’ says that some of the persons we closely associate with ‘culture,’ such as artists, writers and the like are among the most ‘uncultured’ people in the world.  The so called ‘educated’ people of today, like Eliot’s people of culture, often appear to be icons for negating what education has traditionally been considered to do: lead one out of passionate physical engagement with the material world and towards contemplative mental engagement with things non-material, metaphysical, spiritual.  However, since education etymologically stops with just saying ‘lead out of[1]’ and does not specify out of what, is it, perhaps, time for a paradigm shift in our conception of education?  Should we re-consider our assumptions and identify education as merely a “teleological weapon of the mind,” for purposes of “practical inquiry,” that results in satisfying our “finite needs, desires, interests and purposes?[2]”  Or should we go along with Tagore who proclaims, “Man’s cry is to reach his fullest expression. It is this desire for self-expression that leads him to seek wealth and power … but he has to discover that accumulation is not realisation. It is the inner light that reveals him, not outer things.[3]” If one were to go with Tagore and say that education should lead one on an inward journey rather than provoke one to seek gratification in material things, the question then arises: “What should one do to get this inner light?”

Saints who preceded Tagore by centuries have said: “Let go of everything; let go of your very life and latch on to Him who alone matters.  You’ll be enthralled by the experience and find your ‘self’ in the freedom that flows from breaking with bondage[4].”  Once again, however, a question confronts us: it is all very well to say be oriented towards the higher self, the ‘Reality’ and all that, but is it really possible?  Is it practical?  Take the case of Rishyashringa.  In the early chapters of Valmiki’s ‘Ramayana’ we are introduced to this young sage, the renowned son of the celebrated Vibhandaka.  Having been brought up in isolation (not unlike Rousseau’s Emile), the reclusive Rishyashringa was fascinated by the sight of other human beings the first time he encountered them. Despite his erudition and upbringing, he could not resist being lured away by the pleasures the company of fellow human beings offered, and he left his father’s hermitage to go with them to their kingdom.  Even an ascetic accultured in rigorous meditation and exploration of the religious texts sought to be ‘educated’ in the ways of the mundane world.  Isn’t this paradoxical?  Doesn’t this put a question mark over the exhortations of the philosopher and the saint?  Or, does it only prove, as Rajagopalachari said, in a different context, that virtue guarded only by ignorance is insecure[5]?

So, what is education?  Learning oriented towards the fulfilment of one’s social obligations or one’s self-interest, knowledge that leads to self-realisation, and wisdom that results in renunciation of everything in pursuit of a higher Reality appear to be the broad objectives, or goals, of education.  But what is education per se?  Perhaps, we can find out the meaning of ‘education,’ if we look at education as it is practiced[6].  This would involve considering the elements that make up the educational process, the interconnections between the elements, and the manner in which the process, or the journey, unfolds, in pursuit of the destination, or goal of education.


The educated person: Identifying the characteristics

Obviously, the ‘educated person’ is an expected outcome of ‘education.’  So it would be reasonable to ask “how may such a person be described?” in an attempt to understand what qualities or characteristics one could look for in someone who is educated.  Then arises the question:  How are these qualities to be acquired?  Let me begin by trying to answer the first question first.

To find oneself as the atomistic representation in all creation, to cultivate one’s consciousness till the house and the city and the earth and the whole world is inside oneself[7] and existence is understood as being one with the intangible, subtle force that manifests in everything physical, giving it its form, and its life[8] – this seems to have been what Vedic, and, indeed, all ancient systems of education strove for.  Says the Gita: “He is the source of all senses though he is not bound by the senses … He is outside and inside all beings, far yet near … divided among all beings, and undivided yet … He is knowledge, the object of knowledge and the goal of knowledge[9].”  Plato, it appears, concurs.  “[In ‘Parmenides,’] Plato discusses his thoughts … how the One itself is the principle of all things, which is above all things and from which all things are, and in what manner it is outside everything and in everything, and how everything is from it, through it, and toward it” [10].  A student’s education was considered incomplete if they did not comprehend this subtle something, “which if you know, you know that which cannot be perceived,” and “which if you learn, you have learnt everything.”  The ‘Chandogya Upanishad’ tells of a student, Svetaketu, who returns home after completing several years of schooling under a teacher.  His father, Uddalaka, asks a smug Svetaketu if he has learnt “that which if you learn you have learnt everything.”  The humbled son answers in the negative and asks his father to teach him.         “In the beginning there was only existence, infinite existence.  He, who brought out everything from himself, then entered into everything.  He is of everything and in everything.  He is the self supreme, and you are that, Svetaketu.  You are that,” says Uddalaka, affirming the great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the universe, and the imperative need for a person to be aware of this oneness of the self with the reality in order to be considered ‘educated.’

This quality of perceiving the oneness of everything in the universe presumes a capacity for transcendence or detached attachment, which was considered the quintessence of education[11].  Surprisingly, this is in tune with the modern principles of one of the most in-demand disciplines of today: Management.  Says Prof. Mahadevan of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, attachment leads to desire and infatuation, with the potential to generate anger and greed.  The latter negative emotions cause the clouding of memory and reason, leading to loss of intelligence and, ultimately, annihilation.  Every major blunder in management can be explained within this framework.  The beginning of the end starts with a deep attachment to the fruits of action.  Wary of failure, innovative actions that involve an element of risk are avoided.  Though the solutions are known, they are not implemented.  Tough decisions to make the change are avoided by strongly defending the status quo instead.  Developing a sense of equanimity, on the other hand, would help one concentrate on the long term goal instead of short term ends.  Tough decisions are taken in tight situations by leaders who can view the dynamics of the present with a sense of detachment.  Unfortunately, such leaders are few and this is what has resulted in the truncated lifetimes of several organizations.  In fact, the average life expectancy of Fortune 500 companies is only 40-50 years, and in one sorry decade, between 1970 and 1983, a third of the companies listed as Fortune 500 companies had ceased to exist.  Many traditional knowledge systems and religious institutions, on the other hand, have had an unbroken run over several centuries, perhaps because they know that effacement of the self is the only way to preserve the interest of the larger structures; it is the intrinsic nature of gross objects to keep changing, but the subtle reality is changeless.  And understanding this notion of changelessness is the fundamental building block of any change management initiative.  “Process orientation gives way to result orientation, from now or never to now and forever[12].”

While the quality of transcendence presumes a capacity for self-effacement, self-effacement, that is shunning the limelight in the larger interests of the collective goal (whether it be institutional success or universal harmony), one could assert, presumes a quality of humility.  And humility, not to be confused with false modesty, was a characteristic that was considered a mark of both the enlightened teacher and the taught.  Socrates echoes the Upanishadic sentiments in this regard when he says, in ‘Apology,’  “I’m wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he doesn’t, whereas when I do not know, I do not think I know either; so I’m wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know[13].”  Says the Upanishadic teacher to the hapless student, “I know because I know I don’t know.  You won’t know and you can’t know because you don’t know, and you don’t know you don’t know.[14]”  So, how does the student overcome this ignorance?  How does a student acquire those qualities that would distinguish the ‘educated’ person from the one who is not?  Would someone who is self-taught, or one who has grown in the lap of Nature and learnt from observation and contemplation, qualify as an educated person if they regard themselves as one with the universe; if they are self-effacing, humble?

Consider, for instance, the following story.  An elderly academic once approached a young cobbler boy who was sitting under a banyan tree outside his college.  The learned professor was a fun-loving person and the young cobbler boy, with a serious demeanour that belied his age, it seemed to the professor, could do with a spot of good cheer.  Having handed over his shoe to be repaired, the professor settled down on a rock under the shade of the banyan tree and tried to engage the boy in conversation.  When all his initial pleasantries elicited no more than monosyllabic grunts or nods from the boy, the scholar decided to shake the boy out of his reserve and said, “You know, I just returned from Vaikunta, the abode of Vishnu.  And you know what I saw Vishnu do?  I saw him sending an elephant through the eye of a needle.  Just as you are sending that piece of twine through the eye of the needle, see?”

The cobbler boy didn’t say anything and the frustrated professor exclaimed, “Well boy, say something!  Isn’t it astonishing?  A huge elephant – you’ve seen an elephant haven’t you – through the eye of a tiny needle, no bigger than yours.  Can you believe it?  Do you think such a thing is possible?”

The boy quietly took up a fig that had freshly fallen from the banyan tree.  He squeezed it open, and picking out one tiny seed from the pulpy mass inside, said, “This huge banyan tree has been hidden within this seed that you can barely hold between your fingers.  If such a remarkable thing has been possible, then why can’t an elephant be passed through the eye of a needle?”

To go back to our question, would it be right to say that any person is educated who exhibits clear evidence of qualities that we have identified as those that distinguish an ‘educated’ person?  If yes, the cobbler boy would surely qualify as an educated person, whereas the probability is that he has never been formally ‘taught.’  On the other hand, this claim could be criticized as being ‘elitist,’ as the cobbler boy has obviously been taught a trade, or a skill, involving set procedures and method, though he may not have undergone an institutionalized education.  And he has acquired a wisdom beyond his years perhaps through contemplation or a natural intelligence or knowledge attributable to cultural capital.  One could hark back to the story of Ekalavya, Prahlada and Abhimanyu who learnt by imbibing teaching that was essentially meant for the benefit of others and at least in the case of Ekalavya and Abhimanyu, the learning was related to skill and technique involving physical prowess rather than learning of a mentally stimulating, scholarly nature.   So, that leaves us with a few more questions.  In addition to deciding whether anyone may be considered educated if they exhibit the qualities expected of an educated person, it is also necessary to ask whether all kinds of knowledge qualify to be considered as education, and whether this learning or training can occur anywhere, anyhow.


The Education process: How does one become educated?

“In all societies, throughout human history, people have educated their children.  Indeed, a universal characteristic of human civilizations is a concern for preparing the next generation …,” says Timothy Reagan, American academic and author of ‘Non-Western educational traditions: Indigenous approaches to educational thought and practice.[15]’  From the Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets to Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus to messages on the mobile and tweets on Twitter, human beings have demonstrated their irresistible urge to communicate beyond the spoken word.  Most often, though not always, the communication has not only sought to inform but to edify as well.  And, the purpose of the edification has been to both transcend the intellectual and emotional limitations of the time that binds us[16] as well as to leave an imprint on the world about a way of life – a culture, its practices, its beliefs, its stories, its songs, its battles with man and Nature.  There were schools to teach cuneiform[17] just as there are schools to teach the three R’s and more today.  The obvious conclusion, in concurrence with Reagan, would be that societies have always sought to educate their children; perhaps in order to pass down their knowledge, perhaps to preserve their civilization, perhaps to leave a link so that the future generations may connect with the past and not feel rootless and lost. However, according to Dewey, while all social contact and communication is educative, this education is not to be confused with the education that one gets out of a deliberate act of learning such as attending a school or enrolling for a period of tutelage under a teacher[18].  Even sages’ offspring, prodigies and teachers themselves had to seek out teachers to have their skills honed.  Mookerji (1996, p.102) narrates the episode of a scholar, Maitreya, who, in the course of a discussion with a compatriot, Maudgalya, found the latter’s knowledge of a subject to be far superior to his own.  Since this was actually the subject Maitreya was teaching, he dissolved his class and himself sought further instruction, resolving to resume teaching only when his mastery of the subject matched Maudgalya’s.

However, santa (an unperturbed mind), danta (self-restraint), uparata (self-denial), titikshu (patience) and samahita (composure) – the five qualities that a student who aspires for the highest knowledge should possess according to the ‘Katopanishad’, may require an entire lifetime to cultivate (Mookerji,1996, p.96).  But for one who attains a learning of that high order, the rest follows: Knowledge gives humility; in the absence of arrogance, people gain the ability to conduct themselves with propriety; a person who acts in accordance with norms is respected; respectability begets prosperity; wealth makes it possible to perform one’s duties satisfactorily, resulting in happiness[19].  Recognizing this, one wonders at the structured manner of studentship envisaged by the Vedic education system.  Those who sought to study under a teacher were often put on probation initially.  The tasks allotted to the potential student appear, to modern sensibilities, to be of a gross nature: tending to the fire, the cattle and so on.  Satyakama Jabala, for instance, was asked to take out his teacher’s cattle and return to the ashram only after they had multiplied manifold; surely, a foolproof way to test a student’s endurance: their composure and patience and their capacity for self-restraint and self-denial!  In due course, when he became a renowned teacher, Satyakama asked a student of his to tend to the fire for twelve years.  Though the student, Upakosala Kamalayana, diligently attended to the task, Satyakama went away on a pilgrimage without teaching him the ultimate truth.   The student was grief-stricken, but understood his teacher’s mind: Upakosala was not as unperturbed as he should have been; he was incessantly anticipating the day and the hour when his teacher would grant him the ‘ultimate knowledge.’  Vedic teachers would not even take on board those aspiring students who failed to demonstrate the requisite strength of body, mind and spirit.  This ensured that the teachers would not fritter away their efforts in making the men of “limited purpose” that Tagore bemoans[20].  But for the students who passed the initial tests, and stayed back to learn, the teachers would not be just shikshaka – instructors; they would be preceptors, using rules and rituals to reinforce the sense of oneness among the students and their awareness of their interdependency; they would show their students by practice the right way to be instead of just preaching to them; and they would direct the students towards the path of knowledge and remove the darkness to help them see light – they were already conscious of their pressing responsibility for the Other and the need for the teacher to realize their responsibility for the Other without expectation of reciprocity, that Levinas spoke about, centuries later.

The extraordinarily high levels of moral distinction and scholarship of people, cutting across class divides, which doubtlessly indicates a learned society, a cultured society, an ‘educated’ society, which prevailed during the Vedic or later Vedic period, is illustrated by a wonderful incident, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps true[21].  Once, Brahmadatta, the king of Benares, who, in a future birth would be born as the Buddha, left the city in disguise, taking only his charioteer with him.  He wanted to find out if the people of his country had any grievances against the throne.  However, everywhere that he went, he heard only praises.  He reached the end of his kingdom and then turned back to the city, taking a low, narrow, cart-track.  At the same time, Mallika, the king of the neighbouring kingdom of Kosala, who had been out on a similar mission as Brahmadatta, and who had similarly been pleased to find that there were none who found him lacking in virtue, was also returning to his city, via the same cart-track.  When the two charioteers came face to face on the narrow cart-track, which ran at a height between two deep valleys, they had an exchange of words.

Said Brahmadatta’s charioteer to Mallika’s charioteer: “Please move out of the way for the most righteous of kings is seated in my chariot.”

Mallika’s charioteer, in turn, exhorted Brahmadatta’s charioteer to move out of the way, as he felt that his king was the most virtuous, proved as it was by their recent sojourn among the common people of Kosala.

“How righteous is your king?” asked Brahmadatta’s charioteer, and the other replied:

“The strong he overthrows by strength,

The mild by mildness, Mallika, my king;

The good by goodness he overcomes,

The wicked by the wicked too.

Such is the nature of my king!

Now, pray, describe the goodness of your king.”

Brahmadatta’s charioteer replied:

“Anger he conquers by not-anger,

By goodness he conquers what is not good;

The mean he conquers by giving gifts,

By truth he meets the speaker of lies.

Such is the nature of my king, Brahmadatta.

So, now, pray, move out of the way!”

As Confucius is believed to have said, it is learning that differentiates the straightforward from the rude; the courageous from the rebellious; the strong from the violent[22].  Education should ensure this distinction.

The paper began as an attempt to find an answer to the question “What is education”?  As Sanatkumara tells Narada in the Chandogya Upanishad, if the mind is asked to think of an explanation for one word, it simply uses more words to do the job.  In the end, what we have is a verbose rationalization projected on to the word instead of a simple sutra.  While nothing conclusive has emerged, it may perhaps not be inappropriate to compare education to a potter’s wheel.  While a pot can be fashioned from clay even without the help of the wheel, the wheel helps to make a pot that is perfectly symmetrical and smooth.  Of course the same wheel can be used to design different clay artifacts, and what the final product turns out to be depends on the quality and quantity of the clay and the skill and imagination of the potter.  When all is said and done, a pot should serve the purpose it is meant for; education should set minds free.



Blake, Nigel  et al. (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education,

Blackwell Publishing (India Reprint), 2003.

Davis, T. W. Rhys, ‘Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales),’ George Routledge &

Sons, London.

Eliot, T. S., Notes Towards A Definition of Culture, Faber & Faber, 1948.

Klibansky, Raymond,Plato’s Parmenides in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: A

Chapter in the History of Platonic Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Mookerji,  Radha Kumud, Ancient Indian Education, Motilal Banarsidass.

Nsamenang, A. Bame et al., ‘Ethnotheories of Developmental Learning in the

Western Grassfields of  Cameroon,’ in Pierre R. Dasen and Abdeljalil Akkari

(eds), Educational  Theories and Practices from the Majority World,’ Sage

Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha C, Education for Profit, Education for Freedom, Journal of

Educational Planning and Administration, Vol. XXII, No. 4, October 2008.

Rajagopalachari, C., Mahabharata.

Tagore, Rabindranath Sadhna: The Realisation of Life, 1916.  Available at:


Trigg, Roger, Understanding Social Science, Blackwell Publishers UK, 2001

(second edition).

[1] Ex was a common preposition used in the Latin language that simply meant “from, out of, from

within”.  Ducere is the infinitve form of the Latin verb duco, which means “to lead, conduct, guide,

etc.” The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of,  etc.


Rousseau, however, traces education to ‘educatio,’ which means ‘nurture.’ ((Emile, Book I, 39

from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

[2] The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education, ed. Nigel Blake et al., 2003. With apologies to

William James, whose quotation cited in the book I have used without an adequate

understanding of his philosophy.

[3] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Sadhna: The Realisation of Life, ‘ 1916, http://www.ebooksread.com/

[4] Nammazhwar, ‘Tiruvaimozhi,’ 1.2.1, 1.2.2.

[5] C Rajagopalachari, ‘Rishyasringa,’ in Mahabharata.

[6] “The meaning of concepts is given by their use in practice.”  P. Feyerabend, cited in Roger Trigg,         ‘Understanding Social Science,’ and Peirce: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have

practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then our conception of

these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” Quoted in Jim Garrison and Alven

Neiman, ‘Pragmatism and Education,’ in ‘The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education,’ ed.

Nigel Blake et al.

[7] Vasco Popa, ‘The Little Box.’  In the poem, Popa uses the metaphor of the little box for the mind or

the consciousness.  “The little box continues growing …. and she grows bigger bigger bigger/ Now

the room is inside her/ And the house and the city and the earth/ And the world she was in before

… Now in the little box/ You have the whole world in miniature” he says, and concludes by urging

us to “Take care of the little box.”

[8] Nammazhwar, ‘Tiruvaimozhi,’ 1-1-10

[9] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 13, verse 15-18.

[10] Raymond Klibansky, “Plato’s Parmenides in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: A Chapter in the

History of Platonic Studies,” Medieval and Renaissance Studies, p. 34.

[11] Patanjali’s “yogah chitta vritti nirodhah” , for instance, and Rousseau’s “Those who can best  endure the good and evil of life are in my view the best educated.” (Emile, Book I, 39 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

[12] Prof. B Mahadevan, ‘Srimad Bhagavad Gita: Lessons for Modern Management,’ Into the Future    

     with Knowledge from Our Past seminar, September 26, 2007.

[13] Plato, ‘Apology,’ 21.d

[14] ‘Kenopanishad,’ 2-2, 2-3.  http://sanskritdocuments.org/all_pdf/kena.pdf

[15] Reagan, cited in A. Bame Nsamenang et al., ‘Ethnotheories of Developmental Learning in the

Western Grassfields of Cameroon,’ in Pierre R. Dasen and Abdeljalil Akkari (eds), Educational

     Theories and Practices from the Majority World,’ Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2008.

[16] T. S. Eliot.

[18] John Dewey ‘Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,’   Macmillan: New York, 1921, p.6

[19] vidyA dadAti vinayam; vinayAdyAti pAtratAm; pAtratvAt dhanamApnoti; dhanAddharma tatah sukham…

[20] “History has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the commercial man, the man of limited purpose.”  From Martha C Nussbaum’s ‘Education for Profit, Education for Freedom,’ Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, Vol. XXII, No. 4, October 2008, p. 369.

[21] T. W. Rhys Davis, ‘Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales),’ George Routledge & Sons, London.


2 thoughts on “On education: A philosophy paper

    • Thank you. All the more for the opportunity this intervention created for me to get to know about you and your thoughts and ideas. I just had a wonderful hour or so browsing through your blog.

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