Education – Considering its Ultimate Purpose.

Student – I’m studying education, not to be a teacher, but to create curriculums. At first, it was easy, but the deeper I get into education, the more I wonder about the actual purpose of educating our youth and whether the present world-wide systems are offering real benefits or do they need revising. Could you share some thoughts on this.

Master – What is the real purpose of education? This is such an important question, yet most countries don’t give it a moment’s thought. Instead, they just plough on with present-day systems like blind men following other blind men.

If pressed for a reply, however, most policy makers would no doubt claim that the purpose of education is to enable graduates to find employment or to help a nation progress. But, are these the ultimate worldly goals of educating the youth? No, both employment and progress are merely stepping stones to a higher aim – to raise the quality of our collective lives. If they do not lead to this goal, then what is the point of seeking high paying jobs or promoting development? 

Now, as we are inherently connected to society and the environment, a good quality of life can only be achieved when we live in a harmonious, safe, and fair world. Put in another way, even if we have a good job and live in a country that enjoys a high GDP, can we really live with a relaxed mind when the streets are unsafe, schools are incubators for drug-abuse, depression and suicide rates are high, and we are destroying nature? No, it would be comparable to planting papaya seeds in toxic soil. It would not produce the desired result – strong and healthy fruit.

Against this criterion, we can ask whether the education systems prevalent around the planet are creating the economic and social structures that actually raise the quality of our collective lives. Of course, they can be credited for admirable advances in medicine, from which we all benefit. Otherwise, they have mostly led to the creation of labor-saving devices, such as faster planes, more powerful cars, vacuum cleaners, and mobile phones.

Without a doubt, these devices have made life more convenient, but have they helped reduce depression, suicide, drug abuse, violent crime, or wars? Have they contributed to a greater cohesion among families and communities or produced a cleaner and fairer world? Have they turned out to be compassionate, caring, and well-adjusted adults? Are they creating a culture where the elderly are cared for in loving families and communities, or where those who fall through the cracks of society are nurtured so that they regain their lives? As mentioned above, these ideals are the true foundations of a good quality of life, and so if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then should we not reassess the system?

Unlike traditional wisdom-based education as found in ancient India and China, present-day systems were developed by colonial powers as a means to preserve their aspirations of accumulating wealth and power. As these systems spread, they superseded indigenous education and became a standard for the planet. However, to repeat the question, are these systems creating the causes and conditions that lead to a good quality of life?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche contends that they are not and suggests that a new system rooted in more humane ideals be developed: “Since our current education with its focus on degrees, jobs, and self-gratification transmits values like competition, individualism, and materialism, a new and more sane education has no choice but to emphasize more human values like confidence, kindness, resilience, creativity and authenticity.” 

As a result of the colonial powers’ enduring influence, no country hesitates to adopt western science in a school curriculum, even though research is an on-going experiment, which means that the latest discoveries will likely be obsolete in twenty years, considered primitive in fifty, and laughable in a century.

In contrast, even traditional Buddhist countries rarely embrace the teachings of the Buddha, which have never been disproved nor required updating in 2,500 years. Perhaps this hesitation arises due to a misconception that Buddhism is a religion, which is perhaps understandable with all the ritual and the monastic paraphernalia that is attached to practice.

In reality, however, Buddhism is a mind science that focuses on the actual source of joy and suffering – the mind. In fact, at the time of the Buddha, monks and nuns were considered the scientists of the day, seeking ways to permanently transcend pain and suffering. However, instead of experimenting in laboratories with microscopes, they went into forests. Obviously, no-one would seriously suggest deleting western science from an education system, but it would definitely enrich a curriculum and lead to youth developing a more balanced view of the world if the wisdom of the Dharma were included, especially the Four Seals of Buddhism.  

What would be the benefits of introducing the Four Seals into a school curriculum? Well, as a simple example, take the third Seal – ‘all compounded things are empty of inherent existence’ or put in another way, ‘everything exists interdependently and nothing appears as an isolated and independent entity.’

Now, as a hypothetical situation, imagine how a human body that was ignorant of this basic truth and instead solely adhered to an individualist and materialistic education system would function. What would happen? Well, the organs would work hard for personal gain, which is fine, but lacking understanding of how they exist interdependently with the other organs and the body as a whole, they would not share the fruits of their labor. Instead, the heart would keep the blood for itself, while the kidneys would be unwilling to share the fluids that it purifies, and the result would be a weak and dying body, which is exactly the current situation on the planet.

Think about it. Global warming and an increase in zoonotic viruses are not occurring by chance. Similarly, the high rates of suicide, depression, drug addiction, and violence that are plaguing much of the world are not happening at random. Instead, these scenarios are arising due to man’s ignorance of how we are connected to others, and this has led to an unhealthy obsession with personal gain and well-being, while neglecting the welfare of others and the planet. 

So, to answer your question, the purpose of education is to create an order that leads to social and economic systems that offer a safe, content, and healthy life to all. To achieve this goal, however, the world needs an education system that places wisdom and compassion at the core of curriculums, not materialism and individualism.

Of course, a system will never be perfect because we, as samsaric beings, are not perfect. Still, if we develop a system of education that aims to create a fair, healthy, and clean planet we will at least move in that direction.

Anyway, one thing is certain – the present economic and social systems are not only totally unsustainable, but dangerous. However, to initiate meaningful change requires a massive shift in the way we educate our youth. How do we achieve this goal? Well, there is no one way, but at least if these words of HH Dalai Lama could become a guiding light for educationists like yourself, I think the situation would improve immensely: ‘The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers or all kinds.’

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