Education: ‘Modern’ and ‘Religious’

Founder of the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is one of India’s best-known religious scholars and an active proponent of inter-community dialogue. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he reflects on issues to do with ongoing debates about ‘modern’ education and what these mean for our understandings of religion and spirituality.

Q. ‘Modern’ education seems to have little or no role for spiritualism and ethical values. Its focus is almost wholly on drilling bits of information into the heads of children, and not on their character-building and nourishing their spiritual lives—that’s how my schooling was, for instance. In this context, what changes do you feel are necessary in the present education system? How, in practical terms, do you think these changes can come about? Do you think it is possible to reform the existing system or is there a need to evolve a parallel system?
According to my experience, educational institutions, both modern and pre-modern, are meant for learning, and not for spirituality. Shantiniketan was established by Rabindranath Tagore for the same purpose, but it completely failed.
Spirituality can be achieved only through extracurricular activities. There are engagements other than formal education appropriate for this—reading, interaction, attending spiritual meetings, and so on.
Q. The fundamental aim of the ‘modern’ education system is to train children for future economic roles (including as consumers), while the ‘classical’ religion-based education systems (including the Islamic) saw the purpose of education as being primarily to train people to submit to God and to help them attain success in the life after death. In the ‘modern’ system, there is little or no discussion of God and the Hereafter, and often these are seen (including by the students and teachers) as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’. Given this fundamental difference between ‘modern’ and ‘classical’ religion-based educational philosophies, how do you look at the former?
 It is an overemphasizing of the power of institutional education to say that it is the only factor that shapes a person’s personality. There are several other factors that play a role in this regard. Education can be either formal or informal. With regard to Muslims, for instance, I would think that they must join modern, educational institutions for their formal education, but, at the same time, there should be a system of informal education that can fulfil their spiritual needs. This is the best settlement to balance the two requirements. Formal education will give them the jobs that they want. And, at the same time, informal education will help to build their spiritual or religious personality.
As far as belief in God is concerned, it isn’t something that any educational system, neither secular nor religious, can give by itself. It depends on one’s own endeavour. There are many people who are educated in modern system, but they are believers. At the same time, there are other people who are educated in religious seminaries, but they had no strong belief in God.
Q. The modern education system is based on stiff, cut-throat competition and on cultivating the ego of the child, both of which are diametrically opposed to spiritual values, or some will argue. They are trained to see others as opponents, and they come to see selfishness (in the sense of being concerned, above all, with oneself) as normal. How do you see this argument?
There is no direct link between competition and egoism. There are factors other than competition that make people arrogant. So is the case with selfishness. Selfishness is not the outcome of training—it is an ingredient in every human being. It is right informal education that can save people from the kind of selfishness and egoism that you refer to. And that’s the responsibility of social reformers, not of school teachers.
Q. On the one hand, in our writings and speeches, you often hail modern science for discovering or highlighting the laws of God that operate in His creation. But do you agree that ‘modern’ education alienates people from God by almost completely excluding Him from the system?
Modern science is neither pro-God nor anti-God. The only concern of modern science is to discover the laws of nature through objective study. This means that science has detached the Creator from His creation. If one studies science and is able to relate the laws of creation with the Creator, then, for such a person, science becomes greatly helpful in developing God-consciousness.
Q.  It is claimed that the ‘modern’ educational system places stress only on the intellect, on intellectual development, rather than on the heart, ignoring ‘emotional intelligence’ almost altogether. Do you see this as problematic? What, in your view, is the solution?
I don’t think there is any bifurcation between the mind and the heart, or reason and emotion. Both are the same actually. If you are able to train your mind, it will automatically be able to train your heart and emotions. Both reason and emotions are phenomena of mind.
Q. In the classical Muslim education system, teachers, at least in theory, were seen as role models for their students to emulate—people whom students so admired that they wanted to become like them. They were not just a means to pass on information but were also spiritual guides. This is not so in the ‘modern’ system, where teachers are seen as simply vehicles for the transmission of information. How, in your view, does this impact on the development of the personality of students in ‘modern’ schools?
According to my experience, the source of spirituality is not imitation. Rather, it is an outcome of reason. If you are an awakened mind and if you are able to inculcate positive thinking in your mind, your mind will suffice to make you a spiritual personality.
Q.  Can you suggest a blueprint of what you would regard as a spiritually-appropriate educational system (including aim and purpose, teaching methods and curriculum) for the ‘modern’ age?
I don’t believe in educational amalgamation. I believe in education for the sake of education. Secular institutions must focus on secular education, and religious institutions must focus on religious education.
Q. ‘Western’ style, particularly English-medium, schools, which vast numbers of people have now come to imagine as the ‘best’, are said to alienate non-Western people from their own cultures and religions, which they begin to look down upon. Hence, it is said, they are problematic. Do you agree? If so, what is the way out?
A. Your reporting of this phenomenon is correct, but the explanation often given for it is wrong. Non-Western cultures and religions have failed to upgrade themselves. They are misfits in modern times. It is this failure that has created the problem that you allude to. The blame for this phenomenon goes to non-Western traditions, and not to the Western tradition

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