A Plea for Wholesome Education

by Major General OP Parmar (Retd)

Former Chief of Education, Indian Army

“Education, to be complete, must be humane, it must include not only the training of the intellect but the refinement of the heart and the discipline of the spirit.”(1) - Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A Unique feature of the twentieth century was an all-round ‘explosion of knowledge’. Sadly, there was no matching ‘explosion of wisdom’. Nor can there be one ever. For, whereas knowledge is always itching to gallop, wisdom is content to trot. Hence, the proverbial gap between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’. Meant to bridge the gap, education has only served to widen it further. This has come about because our system of education is grossly one-sided and unwholesome. The courses of study are heavily skewed towards Natural and Social Sciences, leaving little space or scope for the Arts and Humanities. As a result, colleges and universities are busy breeding tall professionals, but small human beings. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan was acutely aware of this grave anomaly, and repeatedly brought it out in his speeches and writings, never failing to make a passionate plea for restoration of Literature, Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy and Religion to their rightful place in the schemes and systems of education. 

In his inaugural address at the UNESCO Round Table Conference in 1954, Dr. Radhakrishnan said, “Both natural and social sciences give us instruments and no norms for the right use of those instruments… If we are to use the knowledge of sciences for helping human progress… we must obtain the discipline of human nature from aesthetics and ethics, from philosophy and religion… Sciences, natural or social, give us knowledge not judgement… strength not sanction”(2). We have not paid much heed to his sage advice with the result that the whole process and practice of education continues to promote knowledge and demote wisdom. Thus, education has unwittingly become a ‘mixed blessing’, a ‘double-edged weapon’, our lofty aims and claims notwithstanding! Though the deadly consequences of this supreme paradox are as clear as daylight, it is astonishing, nay puzzling, that this fact has failed to arouse the high priests of the system and its over-zealous advocates from their blissful slumber. Maybe we pride ourselves on being a ‘Knowledge Society’ in an ‘Information Age’!

Be that as it may, let us recall some telling observations made on the baneful influence of the present education systems. To quote Dr. Radhakrishnan once again: “The great crimes against civilization are committed not by the primitive and the uneducated but by the highly educated and so-called civilized.”(3) Still more damning is what Dr. Kurt Hahn (Headmaster, Gordonstoun, where Prince Philip and later Prince Charles had their early education) said while addressing the British Association for Commercial and Industrial Education: “I hope I may be forgiven if I state that I have often found in the the uneducated classes a greater wisdom and a greater humanity than among the highly educated men and women”.(4) A character in Will Durant’s classic ‘The Pleasures of Philosophy’ says, “But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; and that is all that the people have time to acquire. Education you trust in is only a machine to turn men and women into calculating villains.”(5) In fact education and character are not always mutually inclusive. Rajiv Gandhi made this insightful observation in Harvard in 1937: “I do not think literacy is a key to democracy. Wisdom is much more important. We have seen that literacy sometimes narrows the vision… it does not broaden it”. In short, education without a sturdy sense of values can be both a boon and a bane. 

Another major flaw is the disproportionate emphasis laid on science and technology. This needs to be suitably moderated. The National Commission on Excellence in Education appointed in 1981 by President Reagan expressed the concern “that an over-emphasis on technical and occupational skills will leave little time for studying the arts and humanities that so enrich daily life, help maintain civility, and develop a sense of community”.(6) Bertrand Russell also strongly felt that “it is quite possible that under the influence of scientific discoveries and administrative possibilities… the world may get so organized that there will be no fun to be had anywhere”.(7)


How often to reform and revamp the existing education system so as to enable it to promote the ideals of good life, knowledge, and wisdom in equal measure is the challenge. Some random steps being taken by certain agencies and institutions in this direction are attempts in isolation. And that is not enough. What is required is a neatly-articulated, comprehensive, result-orientated and implementable national policy formulated by involving all stake holders in the matter. The key to the reform of education, however, lies, as indicated above, in the induction of the Arts and Humanities as an integral part of all courses of study. It is from the realm of these disciplines that one can pick up pearls of wisdom to bridle knowledge and harness it for enhancing peace and prosperity, health and happiness on Planet Earth. The ultimate aim is to develop a wholesome package of education for the whole man delivered in an enabling and ennobling environment. A few other inputs to this end are suggested as below:-

(a) There should be a judicious balance between ‘scholastic activities’ which aim at academic excellence, and ‘non-scholastic activities’ which help build character. This balance is of the essence. Apart from participating in informal educational and cultural activities and games and sports, a student must be a member of a service-orientated club or organization such as the Red Cross, scouting, and so on. Outward Bound Courses must be instituted to develop students’ taste for adventure.

(b) Interactive methods and means for dealing with the Arts and Humanities should be adopted where applicable. Abolition of formal tests and examinations in these disciplines needs to be considered seriously. Of the many known evils of examinations, the one standing out as the worst has, unfortunately, not been properly grasped. And that is theexisting concept and practice of examinations vitiates the entire teaching-learning process, making it thoroughly examination-orientated rather than life-orientated. Hence, a complete divorce between education and life. Meaningful individual and group tasks and projects should focus on developing students’ creative faculties and initiative, scientific temper and attitudes, and train their imagination. All this must rigorously relate to life and living.

(c) Let us remember that it is easier to raise a child than to repair and adult. So, catch students young when their minds are most malleable. How to simplify subjects like Ethics and Philosophy and tailor them to the measure of young budding minds’ reach and grasp is a challenge for teachers. They must, however, resist the temptation to make philosophical and moral issues cloudy. Too much solemnity, portentousness, and dry didacticism is the surest way of putting the young off, perhaps, for life. The best course is to keep it simple smooth, and straight. Wisdom is best received when laced with wit, and doled out in small, palatable doses.


(d) It is not within the scope of this article to identify specific social, moral and spiritual values and virtues which go into making meand women. However, the road-map for this purpose should be drawn within a clear framework of well-considered priorities, sense of proportion and perspective. For example, keep civility before spirituality; clean the body before cleansing the mind; build shelters for the homeless before building temples for the gods. Propelled by pseudo-religious zeal, we often pursue the latter ignoring the former. Let us recall Swami Vivekananda’s words: “This indeed is worship-worship of the Lord in human tabernacle”.(8) In any case, ‘First Things First’.

(e) A delicate subject, religion needs to be handled with tact, sympathy, and understanding. Attention should be focused on similarities, not on differences. The basic tenets of all religions are broadly the same, though mythologies, rituals, social and cultural customs and traditions vary vastly due to incidence of time and place. So, the emphasis should be laid on basic tenets. Most importantly, one should never be critical or judgmental in matters of faith or religion. All paths lead to one and the same Lord.

(f) ‘History’ for children should be what Thomas carlyle called ‘the Biography of Great Men’. Perhaps, the best way to cultivate young minds and inculcate in them sterling qualities of character lies in studying the lives of great men and women. CDs/DVDs of television interviews/conversations with leaders of outstanding calibre in various fields can also be excellent resource material for this purpose. Here, you are face to face with what is best in human nature, not couched in abstract, esoteric terms, but in flesh and blood, and, above all, IN ACTION. Real-life events and anecdotes relating to valor and wisdom, service and sacrifice are an abiding and unfailing source of inspiration. A fine example of this is given at the end of this article. 

Obviously, the education model suggested above is a tall order. It can implemented only if education becomes a whole-time process. Schools will have to prolong their working hours, which will be possible if day-schools are converted into day-boarding schools. Given the mid-day meal scheme, this may not present much hassle. Anyway, this is the closest we can come to the spirit and philosophy of the ancient Gurukul Model. Lastly, education has become too big and too serious a business to be left educationists alone. There has to be a partnership between all stakeholders, public and private, in this crucial nation-building task. 

As promised above, here is an extract from a British national named Flying Officer VAW Rosewarne’s letter written to his mother shortly before his death in 1940: “Today, we are faced with the greatest organized challenge to Christianity civilization… and I count myself to be lucky and honored to be the right age and fully trained to throw my full weight into the scale… you must not grieve for me… I have no fear of death; only a queer elation… The universe is so vast and so ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice . We are sent into this world to acquire a personality and a character to take with us that can never be taken from us… Thus at my early age my earthly mission is already fulfilled… but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have contributed to that…”(9) Can there be a worthier example of a heroic spirit in action unto death! What calm self-discipline, fortitude, and willing and ready acceptance of the Divine Will! Above all, there a ring of certain nobility of soul, of spiritually, of a sort of Transcendence in every word of the passage! Finally, loud and clear message: For a heroic soul, supreme sacrifice in the line of duty is the ultimate ‘celebration of ‘Life’.(10)



(1) From “Occasional Speeches and Writings’ by S Radhakrishnan - October 1952 - Janurary 1956, Presidential Address - UNESCO General Conference (pages - 142)

(2) Ibdi., pp.97-98 Teaching of Social Sciences in South Asia

(3) Ibid., p.59 - Convocation Address - Delhi University

(4) From an article by Dr. Kurt Hahn based on his address, published in IPSC News Letter - July, 1980.

(5) From ‘The Pleasures of Philosophy’ p.391

(6) From the Commission’s Report ‘A Nation at Risk’, p.10

(7) From ‘Bertrand Russell’s Best’ edited by Robert E Egner. p.108

(8) From Swami Vivekananda’s ‘Pearls of Wisdom’, p.223

(9) From ‘The Art of Leadership’ by Captain SW Roskill, p.157

(10) From the poem ‘ A Psalm of Life’ by HW Longfellow 

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