By W.A Wijewardena –
The objective of education should be to create relevant and applicable wisdom among students
The continued economic prosperity of a nation depends on its having a critical pool of wisdom. Those with wisdom learn from the past with impassion, live in the present, map out the future avoiding a repeat of past mistakes and strengthen past achievements. When a society is equipped with a majority of such people, it becomes a critical pool.
To create this pool, it should put in place an appropriate system of education, provide citizens with facilities for continued training, encourage researchers to come up with new inventions and help entrepreneurs commercialise such inventions, a process known as innovation.
It is therefore crucial that a nation should attune these four elements to wisdom building rather than to mere knowledge building. For this purpose, education at all levels – at school, university and technical college – should be reformed.
It is the duty of schools to produce students – known in education as throughputs – with a mindset conducive for undertaking studies at higher levels at universities and technical colleges. Then, it is the duty of universities and tech colleges to equip them with ‘relevant and applicable wisdom’. Hence, making education relevant is a matter for all educational authorities including universities.
Thus, the relevant education should lead to the development of creative capital and not mere human capital viewed from an orthodox point. That creative capital will accomplish two tasks: invent new things and innovate them commercially. The responsibility for creating an environment conducive for both inventors and innovators to operate side by side devolves on respective governments.
Inventions and innovations should go hand-in-hand
Thus, in today’s context, both inventions and innovations, the outcome of creative capital, should go hand in hand. What it means is that without innovations, inventions become fruitless; without inventions, innovations could not take root. This is evident from a number of inventions made by scientific minds.
The first Apple Macintosh desktop was invented by a creative engineer called Stephan Wozniak. It would have remained just a prototype invention, unless an innovator by the name of Steve Jobs had assembled resources necessary for bringing it out as a commercially viable product.
Later in 2004 when the first iPhone was produced by Apple Incorporated, the scratch-free unbreakable gorilla glass for the screen came from Corning Incorporation which had invented it in 1960 for the US Air force but remained unutilised until Steve Jobs chose to use it for the new iPhone.
Inventions are created by creative scientific minds that are produced by education, training and research activities. Innovations are produced by entrepreneurs who are also trained by the educational system supported by a culture conducive for entrepreneurship. Hence, education is at the core of both invention and innovation.
Since wisdom is global and not confined to a given geographical territory, the objective of education should be to develop a global citizen who will respect knowledge coming from any part of the world with no pre-biases or prejudices. The 4th century BCE Indian Guru Chankaya also known as Kautilya, too said so in the Ethics of Chankaya when he said: “No land is foreign for a scholar”.
Wisdom of Rev. Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Maha Thero: University students should be probing, critical and rebellious
The founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, the predecessor to the current University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Rev Weliwitiye Sri Soratha Maha Thero, is reported to have stressed this point when the university was opened in 1959.
The erudite thero had advised the university students that they should be “probing, critical and rebellious”. Though all these three attributes stressed by him are interconnected and cannot be separated from each other, for ease of understanding, they could be analysed separately in their reverse order.
‘Being rebellious’ means that university students should be intellectually rebellious by questioning the existing and accepted wisdom. For that, they should be sceptical and should not accept anything as being presented to them. Being critical requires them to evaluate both the good side and the bad side of an issue that demand their attention before deciding on their own stand on it. What he meant by probing was that university students should not accept anything presented to them without seeking for evidence for or against it.
He, therefore, advised students to get into a culture of ‘questioning, evaluating and exploring’ if they wanted to be learned men and women. These three attributes constitute the foundation of evidence-based decision making which leads to the creation of a creative society.
It is the school system that should begin to develop critical minds
Such a culture cannot be developed merely at the university level in Sri Lanka today. That is because, before entering the university, students spend nearly 12 years at schools and the culture at schools is not to question the existing knowledge but to accept it blindly. The culture of questioning, or in the words of Rev Soratha Maha Thero, the culture of being rebellious, should be developed in the school system by teachers.
But what is observed in the school system in Sri Lanka is, instead of encouraging students to question, they are trained to observe and uphold conformity. The pressure of examinations too does not allow students to learn by questioning. All they are required to do is to learn by rote the matters that would be questioned at examination papers and get the highest marks possible so that they can ensure a place at a local state university.
A student who does not get enough marks to enter a university is labelled as a failure by the system, including his or her family members. Then, why should one bother to learn by questioning when one can have a safe journey to a university simply by following the opposite.
Paradoxical view of commerce students: Eliminate the middleman
This is obvious when students celebrate commerce days in schools. Though they follow a stream that leads to a profession involving ‘buying and selling’ or functioning as middlemen, the short dramas they often perform on stage on school commerce days have a paradoxical theme: That is, labelling the middlemen as exploiters of both consumers and producers thereby suggesting that they should be eliminated.
It is a paradox that they are suggesting that they themselves should be eliminated. This is because students learn not by exploring, evaluating and questioning but by simply accepting the society’s views on traders. But if the students explore by themselves, they would find that the middlemen serve both the consumer and producer by reducing the inconvenience to them – called transaction costs in economics – and facilitating the exchange of goods by buying from producers and selling to consumers.
The aberration of the system occurs when the middlemen holds monopoly power over information which he uses to his advantage. Thus, instead of identifying the problem, students cry like parrots that middlemen should be eliminated from the system.
Vicious circle of ignorance within the country’s school system
The pressure of the present examination system has forced students not to devote time for wholesome learning or engage in extracurricular activities that help them to become wholesome personalities. Hence, they do not read, discuss, debate or interact on matters other than what is needed for them to pass examinations.
Thus, the general knowledge, world outlook and aptitude of students become very narrow. When students do not question teachers, teachers too do not have incentive to learn anything other than what is needed for preparing students for examinations.
Hence, the education system in the country has got into a vicious circle of ignorance: teachers do not encourage students to question; students do not want to follow a path involving learning by questioning, evaluating and probing; since students do not question, teachers do not gain the capacity to answer the possible questions; since teachers are unable to answer the questions, they do not encourage students ask questions. Thus, the school education system in Sri Lanka moves around this vicious circle of ignorance.
Universities practically becoming a continuation of Advanced Level classes
When these students enter the university, they expect the university lecturers too to function as school teachers who would do nothing but prepare them for examination papers. The prescribed readings for students are rarely read by them before lectures.
With modern technology, most of the lectures are presented in the form of PowerPoint Presentations. Hence, students have given up even the habit of taking down notes of lectures. If a question is asked from the previous lecture, not many can answer it because they do not even practice the reflection of what was taught previously before the next lecture. All they do at the university is not going through a continuous learning system but collecting lecture printouts and other materials till the announcement of the examination and start learning by rote. But by that time, it is too late for them to have a critical knowledge of the subject being taught to them.
Max Planck story: A Nobel Laureate being impersonated by his chauffeur
The Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, in his 2013 book The Art of Thinking Clearly, has distinguished between two types of knowledge, the chauffeur knowledge and the Planck knowledge by referring to a story attributable to the 1918 Physics Nobel laureate Max Planck.
In this story, Planck, after being awarded the Nobel Prize, had gone on a lecture tour across Germany where he had delivered the same lecture to every new audience he had met. After some time, it had become pretty boring for him to do so. But his chauffeur who had been with him throughout had learned the lecture by heart and had proposed to his master that they could exchange positions in the next lecture just to kill the boredom: Chauffeur impersonating Planck and delivering the lecture while Planck enjoying it in the audience dressed in chauffeur’s uniform.
Everything had gone on well until the question time when one academic in the audience had asked a question. The chauffeur had been taken completely unawares but instead of revealing his true identity had played the smart card. He had ridiculed the questioner saying that it was such a simple question that even his chauffeur could answer it. So did the chauffeur who was in the audience.
Distinction between chauffeur knowledge and real knowledge
Based on this story, Dobelli makes a distinction between the chauffeur knowledge and Planck knowledge. Planck knowledge is the real knowledge acquired in the hard way learning all facts and depths of a subject. Chauffeur knowledge is, on the other hand, learning simply to put on a show by imitating someone or just presenting what someone has said.
Though it is difficult to distinguish between the two, Dobelli gives a clue to do so. Those who have the real knowledge know the limit of their competence and if a question is asked beyond it, they would simply apologetically respond that they do not know it. Chauffeur knowledge holders, on the other hand, would continue to play the game by pretending that there is no limit to what they know.
Rolf Dobelli: Be sceptic of even views given by authorities
In another chapter, Dobelli has advised those intending to think clearly to be sceptic of everything they see as patterns or revelations because it may be due to an illusion in the brain. For instance, he advises that if someone sees Jesus Christ in a pancake, he should immediately ask the question why Jesus wanted to reveal himself in that manner. This scepticism he says should be extended to every authority on issues because authorities are not correct always. His advice has been simple: when one encounters an authority, challenge him.
What Dobelli has said here is simply an echoing of what the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutra some 2,600 years ago. He told those from the Kalama clan: “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’.”
Don’t produce people with chauffeur knowledge but those with real knowledge
Sri Lankan education system, both at school level and at the university level, produces people with chauffeur knowledge and not those with real or Planck knowledge. Accordingly, students go through the education machinery but come out not as really learned men and women but those who are unable to think clearly.
This has to be changed if the country wants to align its education system to create the innovation economy, a must for attaining sustainable economic growth. Until and unless this target is met, spending money on education is a waste of resources. That is why it is necessary that Sri Lanka should provide relevant education to its students enabling them to think clearly and creatively. It will build up a creative capital and not just a human capital.
Israel, a leading innovation economy in the modern world, built its creative capital by allowing students to be sceptic all throughout and thinking out of the box when it comes to providing solutions to issues they have faced, according to Dan Senor and Saul Singer who documented the story of Israel’s economic miracle in their 2009 book ‘Start-up Nation’.
Go for creative capital instead of human capital
The purpose of education should be to develop creative capital and not mere human capital as has been traditionally emphasised. Such creative capital should be global in outlook rather than national or territorial. People with creative capital are known today as global citizens. The foundation for creating such global citizens should be laid from the very beginning of a student starting his education at the school level and continued through his tertiary education at universities. Any reform of education should have this as its prime target.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org