Saturday, November 10, 2012

Can Philosophy Help?

Mathematics and Sciences are the most hallowed subjects in the primary and secondary  schools in India. While certain formulae always produce certain results, the pedagogic style (of the text books and the teachers) is largely informational, and almost never critical. When the teacher teaches a lesson, he expects the students to understand and implement the concepts in broadly the same way as text books prescribe or as the teacher understands the text books. 

Since there is only one accepted solution (or a very limited number of accepted solutions), this tends to divide the students into three broad groups. The first group understands and internalizes the concept in largely the same way as the author and the teacher articulate it. These students are often categorized as the “bright ones”, who are expected to do well for themselves (this kind of categorization is often supported by hard evidence, which indicates that the “bright ones” are more likely to thrive in the examinations).  Let’s define these “bright ones” as the “Conformists”. The Conformists go on to achieve great things in life. However, their achievements often tend to render them self-centered.  While some of them may be sympathetic to the students falling in the other groups (defined below), they are never committed to recognize the position of the others. In other words, their way is the only way! (In a different context, Amartya Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment by emphasizing that   the former is only a state of mind while the latter goes beyond it, requiring the person showing commitment to accept a lower level of well-being even when an alternative for a higher state exists).

The second group never understands the concepts in a way the Conformists do, but pretends to so understand, to avoid falling into the third group (also defined below). This second group comprises people who are dishonest to themselves and take decisions only to conform to the Conformists’ point of view.   In trying to emulate the Conformists, some people in this group also do well for themselves, and tend to be just as self-centered as the Conformists, with the additional qualification of being dishonest.  

The people in the third group neither understand the concepts in a way the Conformists do, nor do they pretend to do so. Some people in this group are even driven to question the point of view held by the Conformists, only to be sidelined and frowned upon.  Since there are a limited set of solutions, none of which appeal to their reason, these students are forced to conform to the Conformists' point of view, at least for the purpose of the examinations. With no possibility of exploring an answer that could appeal to their reason and yet having to choose one, the people belonging to this group are often frustrated.

The above arguments could be true not only for mathematics and science but for social sciences as well (even if some schools promote discussion, criticism of established -rather entrenched- principles and historical viewpoints is hardly encouraged).  

The above may seem like an over-simplification (and may not be true for many schools and colleges). However, if it were to be true (even mathematics and sciences are based on some assumptions!!), then we are left with just three kinds of people in our educated society, namely self-centered, dishonest and frustrated (overlapping in the same person, at times). Is our education system designed to produce self-centered, dishonest and frustrated citizens? Does this in any way explain the nature of political discourse in India? Aren’t our politicians a reflection of the society?

Shouldn’t we philosophize the education system, so as to subject even the most universally accepted principles of gravity, evolution and calculus to some critical questioning? When we teach students about different religions, shouldn’t we let them explore the possibility of an idea that there could be no God? Someone could argue that in the real world there are certain things, which can only be done in certain ways and there are certain facts which are unchallengeable. While it may be difficult to dispute that, when students are denied the opportunity to explore alternatives -no matter how outlandish their ideas may seem- isn’t the educational system preventing critical thinking, and thereby  subverting democracy?

P.S. This is inspired by a discussion session I attended at Oxford this week, and a casual conversation with a friend about the justifications for studying philosophy.