Review of book by JACQUES, DELORS: Learning the Treasure Within, UNESCO, 1996

REVIEW

While talking of education, we must bear in mind that with the advent of scripts numerous problems have taken birth. Besides who should read what and prepare for a life deprived equally by oneself and the society, numerous complications have apparently surfaced because of religion, philosophy, anthropology and politics. Each one of these areas has made claims on literacy and education. I am deliberately making a distinction between education and literacy because I believe education could not be perceived independently of human existence. Even the primitives must have passed on their `life-skills’ to their children and Nature would have naturally yielded treasures at the instance of creativity and innovations. Possibly, even in those times of yore, human had a philosophy of life for guidance.

Literacy, coming along with the advent of scripts, has hastened to confuse the parameters of education. Education is the sum total of one’s philosophy, religion, politics and what have you. Whereas literacy is no more than an instrument of political and social response, education covers a wide terrain. The two, therefore, need not be perceived as one beyond accepting the fact that literacy has certain inherent advantages over education like uniformity in learning, storing of information, offering an additional means of communication, etc. But literacy does not exhaust education.

However, the way literacy has created problems should not be over looked. It has helped in building pyramids of learning and class hierarchies solely on the basis of information definable in terms of quantity and quality. Whatever may have been the nature of social structures in the primitive stages of human development, one thing is certain. Their hierarchies otherwise would have been neither all that stable nor so clean-cut as they are today.

Be that as it may, education and literacy have come to be equated and are generally accepted as implicitly interchangeable terms.

The demands on education and the definition of its nature have yielded countless volumes in philosophy, religion, sociology, etc. If we have a group of people who have nothing but admiration for education and for whom it is the only key to resolving all problems we face, there are others who regard it as an instrument of class war, a means by which even the indefensible can be defended, and a trick which takes away one’s peace of mind by creating a bug bear of uncertainties of future. The entire concept of market economy versus social welfare is the direct result of the wonder called education.

One wonders whether the uncertainties of future and the unstable nature of nation-states and their politics would ever help individuals regain their peace of mind and yield pleasures of existence even if such pleasures are less than permanent. Even the bodies and organisations like UNESCO have not been free from the pressures which have arisen out of the wealth and the power this wealth has created. We already have divisions in societies demarcated in terms of social classes, quality of information, goals of life corresponding to occupations people have created. In fact, the world itself has been divided on these very bases i.e. of power and pelf, and nation-states are clubbed under the economic terms `developed,’ `developing’ and `underdeveloped.’ These terms cover a wide area of social existence, i.e., of skills, information, quality of life, political power and the like. Not content with this kind of categorisation, we have the terms like Third World countries as contrasted with the first and second world nation-states. This classification implies a condemnation of certain nation-states which are placed as the bottom rung of the ladder.

Interestingly enough, there is yet another dimension to this classification. The state of a nation’s development is judged in terms of citizen’s longevity, their education, social security cover, etc. These criteria seem to have been evolved more to measure the wardness of the erstwhile colonies than to discover the reasons for the advancement of the few. However, what one is not able to measure on this scale is the happiness of the nation-states. A recent survey, cited in The Times of India (22th December 1998), has revealed significantly that happiness of a people cannot be judged on the criteria evolved and accepted by the rich and advanced countries. While the USA and many European countries were found to be the unhappiest, Bangladesh topped the list of happy nation-states, with India occupying the fifth position. The top consumerist society does not necessarily also become the happiest.

In the quest for refinement of skills and for ever speedy communication of information, we have put an immense burden on the school system. Children are being given more and more information. Selection and distribution of information appear to have become the sole purpose of schooling. Education and schooling are being used as synonyms. Ranking of educational institutions is symptomatic of classification and typology of skills and information. Those institutions which are selective in these matters, put a market tag on their provisions. Consequently, not only we have classes, we have correspondingly a hierarchy in educational institutions. Seen against a world order, in which a few lucky ones are able to lap up everything, educational institutions become status symbols and knowledge/skill a branded marketable commodity.

It is against this drop that we should read Learning: The Treasure Within, a report submitted to UNESCO, Paris by an International Commission on Education for the twenty-first century headed by Jacques Delors. In the opening submission chapter by the chairman, education has been declared to be a necessary utopia. Education is declared to be “the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human development and thereby to reduce poverty, exclusion, ignorance, oppression and war.” One would like to agree with Monsieur Delors but he has overlooked the fact that education, coupled with economic power, can itself become a source of terror and oppression. The more Americans are getting quality education, the more their thirst for power seems to become insatiable. They can attack other nation-states at will and can support dictatorships and downright terrorist nations in the name of democracy. If education can result in twisting and skewing the very purpose for which such commissions are set up, there is little hope for mankind to grow into civilised beings. Perhaps this is the reason why Delors accepts yet another reality: “The truth is that all-out economic growth can no longer be viewed as the ideal way of reconciling material progress with equity, respect for the human condition and respect for the natural assets that we have a duty to hand on in good condition to future generations.”

Monsieur Delors regards “education as an ongoing process of improving knowledge and skills, it is also perhaps primarily an exceptional means of bringing about personal development and building relationships among individuals, groups and nations.”

Being chairman of an international commission has its own compulsions. Therefore one must talk of education in very general, utopian perspectives. Education must be implicitly accepted as a `good’ because one cannot go on regarding education merely as a tool for improving one’s lot.

The commission identifies a few tensions that it regards will be central to the problems of the 21st century. They are: 1) the tension between the global and the local, i.e., local people need to become world citizens without losing their roots; 2) while culture is steadily being globalised, this development being partial is creating tension between the universal and the individual; 3) the third tension is pretty familiar to Indians the tension between tradition and modernity. Whereas for some the process of change is slow, for others it is not so, thereby creating problems of adaptation; 4) the need to balance between impatient cries for quick answers to peoples’ problems and a patient, concerted, negotiated strategy of reform results in the problem/tension between long-term and short-term considerations; 5) tension arising out of human desire to complete and excel and the concern for equality of opportunity; 6) the tension between the extraordinary expansion of knowledge and the capacity of human beings to assimilate it; 7) lastly, another perennial factor the tension between the spiritual and the material.

It is the last tension which the commission thought was necessary to address. In the language of Delors; “There is, therefore, every reason to place renewed emphasis on the moral and cultural dimensions of education, enabling each person to grasp the individuality of other people and to understand the world’s erratic progression towards a certain unity; but this process must begin with self-understanding through an inner voyage where milestones are knowledge, meditation and the practice of self- criticism” (p.19).

For an Indian, this paragraph should appear very familiar. One wonders whether Dr. Karan Singh had a role in its evolution. Reading Dr. Singh’s write-up (pp. 225-27) one does get that impression. However, the familiar stages through which an individual acquires wisdom or is able to realise truth and face reality are Shravan, Manan and Nidhidhyasan. When one listens or reads, that is the first milestone, meditation the second and reflection the third. I can hear an Indian ring about Monsieur Delors, milestones.

While the commission acknowledges the implicit message in these milestones and the need for the establishment of wider and more far-reaching forms of international cooperation, it does not undervalue the central role of brainpower and innovation, the transition to a knowledge-driven society, the endogenous processes that make it possible to accumulate knowledge, to incorporate new discoveries and to apply them in different areas of human activity, from those related to health and environment to the production of goods and services.

The commission lays stress on life-long learning a concept which the UNESCO has been propagating for over four decades with an added emphasis to rethink and broaden the notion. For the commission, there are four foundations of education. The first foundation is learning to live together by developing an understanding of others and their history, traditions and spiritual values so that conflicts could be managed in an intelligent and peaceful way. This is for some the commission’s utopia number one. The other three pillars are learning to know; learning to do and learning to be on which there is already a report by Edgan Faure. Where this commission has apparently gone beyond these four pillars is its utopia number two. Their stress is on “the talents which are hidden like buried treasure in every person lie untapped. These are: memory, reasoning power, imagination, physical ability, aesthetic sense, the aptitude to communicate with others and the natural charisma of the group leader, which again goes to prove the need for greater self- knowledge.”

The commission’s third utopian idea is creation of a learning society founded on acquisition, renewal and use of knowledge. These three, put together, need to be emphasised upon.

Having defined its parameters of education, the commission faces a dilemma which, with or without any report, exist and confront all governments even the dictatorial ones. Therefore, Monsieur Delors talks of a fresh approach and the stages and bridges of learning.

Citing Jomtien (Thailand Conference on Education For All, 1990) the report’s Article 1, Para 1 talks of basic learning needs like knowledge, skills, values and attitudes necessary for survival. The commission defines education, once again, as “a social experience through which children learn about themselves, develop interpersonal skills and acquire basic knowledge and skills.”

We should pause here to try and understand the terms this commission uses like “learning society,” “basic skills and knowledge,” etc. One is hard put to reconcile the concept of `learning society’ as R.M. Hutchins had talked of in the 1950s and with what this commission tries to say. While Hutchins was talking in the context of the USA, making it a powerful and innovative leader of the world, this commission surely has some other definition in mind, which is democratic, egalitarian and least domineering. What the USA has become today, no one would want another of its like tyrannical, domineering, democratic within and dictatorial elsewhere, and least supportive of other people’s rights and freedom. Today’s USA was Hutchins’ dream which has come to fruition, and I am sure this is what Delors is not propagating.

Secondly, one should be very clear about “knowledge and skills” concept. Unless we permit others to live in peace, the way they want to live, and do not impose uniform norms of progress and define and grade life-skills, I do not think anybody should dispute the commission’s contentions. When `progress’ and `peace’ cannot live in harmony, where both humans and their societies find labelled and where `knowledge and skills’ do not sustain one’s life, the meaning of basic knowledge and skills becomes surrealistic.

Let us see what Delors has to say about higher education.

The first thing this commission acknowledges is the existence of several types of institutions of higher learning, both private and public, and also vocational and non-vocational. The increasingly stringent selection in order to ease the pressure on higher education is unacceptable; therefore, the first suggestion is for the universities to diversify what they offer, like

– as scientific establishments and centres of learning from where students go on to theoretical or applied researcher teaching;

– as establishments offering accupational qualifications;

– as meeting places for learning throughout life;

– as leading partners in international cooperation;

– for the developing countries they must provide the vocational and technological training of future leaders; the higher and middle level education is additionally required to save them from grinding poverty and underdevelopment.

The strategies proposed are (i) seeking cooperation of the local community including parents, schools, teachers and others, (ii) public authorities, and (iii) the international communities.

Before we go any further, we must ask the commission about their basic assumptions: (1) Do they think that in the developing and underdeveloped nation-states the elites will stop taking advantage of their position of power and status? In India, e.g., the ruling elite send their wards for education abroad and the Indian universities are left to educate middle and lower level classes. Rarely does a local have a chance to gain elite ranks. (2) Instead of market surveys, these institutions copy the West which, according to them, are models of progress and `good’ life. The courses evolved seldom meet the local requirements. The mismatch of quality product from IITs, for instance, has created an immense problem. (3) Most of these recommendations amount in effect to condenscension and are not very appropriate.

The commission in general and Monsieur Delors in particular should have remembered while talking of international cooperation that neither in Europe nor in Middle East does one see any signs of international understanding or cooperation. The way the so- called developed nations behave is decidedly not designed to bring about any cooperation. It is these nations which define `progress,’ `quality of life,’ `development,’ standards of cooperation and even norms for research. The way they have usurped the right of others to think independently is surely not very ideal. For example, how UNESCO should operate has been questioned by the rich and militarily powerful nations. Would Monsieur Delors claim any freedom granted for others to think? One could overlook the flaws in the thinking of the commission only on the ground that nothing is perfect in the world and even the wisest commit faux pas.

Not unlike our -grown concept of the overload of curricula, Delors also points out the dilemma education faces, i.e., when children and adolescents should be care free, they are worried about future. There are no places where they can learn and discover none to give them the wherewithal to think or offer them a choice of pathways suited to their abilities.

Clearly this is the price our societies in general and children in particular have to pay hooked as they are on the concepts of `progress,’ `development,’ and `future well-being’ as defined by the rich and powerful. The lure to achieve lands them in the competitive grooves which very few are able to master.

Delors repeats the off-cited concept of broadening international cooperation in the global village. If these terms are to be defined by the USA or Great Britain only, God can save us from the impending disasters. Still his suggestions are worth noting because there is considerable repetition of what the World Summit in March 1995 at Copenhagen had recommended. Various conferences have underscored the need for encouraging girls’ education. This commission also says what has been said earlier and recommends that while giving aid education may not be ignored.

The reason why the commission titled its report Learning: The Treasure Within is taken from a line in one of the parables of La Fontaine, titled The Ploughman and his Children, which calls learning a treasure. But what placed it inside is not clear except that the spark within is divine.

The chapter scheme in the report reflects the basic thinking already done by Delors and Co. But, interestingly enough, everything said and suggested/recommended in less than extraordinary.

For instance, Chapter 1 is titled “From the Local Community to a World Society,” Chapter 2 is “From Social Cohesion to Democratic Participation,” Chapter 3 is “From Economic Growth to Human Development,” Chpater 4, “The Four Pillars of Education (partly new in ideas); Chapter 5 is “Learning Throughout Life” (Chapters 4 and 5 together constitute Part Two of the volume), and part Three starts with a chapter titled “From Basic Education to University” (which is considerably different from the Gandhian idea); Chapter 7 is “Teachers in Search of New Perspectives” (which I have reserved for my special comments); Chapter 8 is “Choices for Education: The Political Factor,” Chapter 9 is titled “International Cooperation: Educating the Global Village,” and the last is called “Epilogue.”

Before I take up the chapter on teachers, let me make a couple of points on international cooperation. I have my reservation regarding European or the American way of ideal life and find them worried about the so-called “have-nots.” The way they terrorise and demoralise others is definitely not intended to yield the term “international” an acceptable definition or meaning. Village the world has become thanks to technological revolution, but it is not a peaceful or a habitable place because of the political dominance of a few over the rest of the world. Look at the way Americans and the British can flout the world opinion or consensus as and when they so choose. Obviously, this is not how villages are dominated or governed. At least not so in India. The `village’ of Monsieur Delors is non-Indian/un-Indian.

Considering how education/literacy has spread across the globe, we have a couple of models to choose from the Soviet which made all its republics literate in less than two decades; the Chinese model where the Red Army played a crucial role in the spread of literacy and made China a literate nation in about four decades; or the British model which took more than a century with legislation supported by an enlightened and purposeful government; an American model in which `literacy’ and `being in school’ have different meanings and even in 1998 more than 26 per cent American High School graduates cannot spell their names. A detailed comment on these models is not possible, yet they define the political role of a nation in educating its people.

Surprisingly, what has now come to be widely acknowledged is that education of a nation is neither dependent on its wealth (the Arabs would otherwise have been the most educated), nor does education make any group of people `civilised’ or `peaceful.’ Education is, whether one likes or not, an instrument of political dominance which rarely makes governments amenable to the well-known democratic processes. Indeed, education is capable of being put to such sordid scheming that it becomes difficult to defend it. Also, it could be a subject of international research to discover how many of the nation-states in Asia and so-called sub-Saharan Africa have contributed through centuries of exploitation and consistent demoralisation to the status, wealth and power which today the Americans and the Europeans enjoy. We might discover in the process that the maximum number of American Nobel Laureates are first generation naturalised Americans which makes them both a prized possession and an example of what and how greed/lure for money can play a (significant) role in their greatness. The commission acknowledges (p.246): …economic and technological advances will lose their true meaning if the humanistic and cultural dimensions are not made the central component and goal of development efforts. In the twenty-first century, when industries will be more technology- intensive and human society increasingly knowledge-intensive, human capital developed through education and training will assume increasingly crucial roles.

This theme is the commission’s message or its interpretation of a projected reality. The trends are such that the educationally ward without a strong political will shall not come forward or become literate and the rich and powerful nation-states shall continue to dominate three-quarters of the world through glib talking, ed by strong-arm techniques of diplomacy and refined means of exploitation which their educational systems are likely to continue updating.

On teacher education one could write a long note of disagreement and question the role teachers supposedly play. I think teachers are a ward looking, conservative community who always further the cause of their respective governments. So far there is no proof that the association of teacher training with the universities has been very beneficial in any sense whether in their training (component) or in their attitude formations. One needs to find out: Why.

On the whole, a thought provoking exercise.

By R. P. Singh in Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, NIEPA, Volume XIII, Number 2, April 1999, New Delhi (INDIA).

Copy Right: EDITOR, JEPA, NIEPA, New Delhi (INDIA)