In defence of formal education

It has become a fad nowadays to denounce formal education. If not denounce, a lot of us think the process is futile, and that the knowledge gathered there would be of no use in the future in most of the professions we go into. This idea was triggered more by Rashmi's posts trying to answer her daughter's questions about why she needs to go to school. (Read the second part here) Make no mistake, I agree with a lot of her points of view. But the point that I don't agree with is that you have learned most of what you will need to know (the three R's and basic math and social science) and should be done with formal education from then on. I've heard similar views from other people over cups of tea, when they cut jokes like "Why the hell do I need to know what wars Akbar fought?" or "Why should I care what type of ocean drift goes past Russia?". This post actually is a response to such questions.

The idea is not to assimilate facts, but to discover facts out of interest. Ask a teenager about the statistics of random stars from 20-20 cricket, and you will get the exact scores he made in the world cup per match, and even a detailed analysis of the way he was dismissed in the inning. When I was a kid, my parents and others used to scold me because of this: "You remember everything about a cricket match. Why can't you put the same devotion to studies?". The answer, I now believe, was that the content wasn't made as interesting. The onus isn't upon the child to apply interest into things. The onus is upon the adults to create content that is interesting enough so that children may follow them with the same zeal they devote to a cricket match. That is why programs on Discovery such as "How its made" is much more informative and interesting to a kid than the details in the textbook preached in a classroom. You see, the content in the textbooks isn't at fault. It is the way they are presented to a child that makes or breaks the education. The goal of a teacher should be to pique the interest of the child enough to make him/her read the book out of interest. It definitely should not be to test and find out which child can memorize the facts the best. This way, a test will actually be fun to take rather than a mechanism invented to torture a student.

Let me give you an example here. We were at my grandparents' place and my brother was complaining to my grandfather that history was so boring: it was meaningless to know what happened when Babar attacked from the North-West. While I sat beside the two of them, my grandfather just described one battle, with all the factors leading to it and the consequences to my brother in about a couple of hours. That night, my brother did not leave his side until late at night. When he went home, he read the textbook chapter he had with ferocious interest, and aced the test that was presented after the summer vacation on the topic.

I cannot do justice to the depth of knowledge and philosophy that my grandfather has. Not in one post, not in maybe a thousand. But the point here is, the topic in itself wasn't useless. It was the way it was being taught that was at fault. While the best of teachers may not be available everywhere, what do you as a parent do? Instead of asking a child why he can rattle off cricket match statistics and not number multiple tables, you should ask the question to yourself.

How can one leave behind history or the science books? Every chapter in a history book is a thousand years of wisdom summarized, every chemical reaction in a book is the life's work of a brilliant mind. Why don't we re-invent the wheel from scratch? Because someone already did that, and there is no need to do it. But you will want to learn better ways of making a wheel only when you try making one yourself. Necessity will be the mother of invention as well as discovery for all time to come. It is the necessity that you need to create in a child's mind to make him learn things. Imagine if you were interested in chemistry. Very deeply interested: you wondered why the phenol you bought to get rid of snakes stings your skin or why people put lime-and-turmeric on a sprained ankle. Then, you started mixing turmeric with random stuff to find out what happened. It will be aimless, and most probably futile. But then you pick up a book on chemistry and happen to read the reactions governing them -- what is in turmeric, and why does it change color in lime. It is only now that you will truly appreciate what is written in that book. How every scientist and alchemist of the past toiled through endless hours to isolate a single chemical. How the periodic table happened, how the protons happened. You see, what is in front of a child in a single page is the wisdom of a hundred sages condensed into something for you. As an adult, it is up to you to make the child interested in it. Most importantly, formal education provides you the terms to articulate your thoughts and ideas. To discover that there is a term for an abstract idea that you have been mulling over, and that the term conveys what you mean exactly to other people -- this is a joy in itself.

Finally, about the utility of knowing all this stuff. To make a proper choice, you must know the horizon first. If you limit yourself to the first opportunity that came along, you will never know what treasures lay beyond the chamber you've just stepped into. The passion for a topic comes from within, I agree. But the motivation must come from without. You must demonstrate to an evolving brain what challenges exist there out in the world, and how as civilization has progressed, so has his formal education over the years. The classes, the tests, the common content till Class X, then the specialized classrooms till XII -- there is a reason why they were created. The method may be flawed, but the content is still worth a thousand gems. As an adult, it is up to you to show the children the sparkle. Else, the gems remain just another pebble by the roadside.


  1. brilliantly articulated, longhorn!

    I agree, the presentation is of highest importance here.

    From a totally different perspective, I believe a lot of character build up happens in school and wherever you go next, builds only your career. At least for that, you need those formal years. Of course, depends where you do it.

  2. do NOT underestimate the power of the western boundary current (kuroshio)! i know how important it is.. :D

  3. Yes, Agreed 200 percent. Without formal education, life is a vehicle moving by itself with no steering wheel.
    Very well written post and the incident about your brother and grampa is great. Wish our world had more teachers like your grampa.

  4. Completely in tune with you, Bhai :)
    and this is where Internet and Bloggers can play a vital role!

  5. Gradwolf, thank you! :) And I agree that a lot of character and personality is built early in life, and good teachers can define your future here. And therefore, formal education brings a better chance of learning both social skills as well as finding non-parental role models.

    Galadriel, oh yes... you of all people would know best which sea not to sail your boat in :P

    Mampi, great analogy! And yes, I certainly wish we had more educated people like my grandpa around.

    Varun, thank you, Bhai :) Yes, social media and even community content, if harvested effectively, can be a great resource.

  6. I cautiously agree with you on the need for formal education, but at the same time, there is always a small chance that a rigid formal education can kill creative talents of people who are exceptionally gifted in a particular field, especially if that field is non-academic (e.g. sports, art, music, drama etc.).

    I think schools wrongly over-emphasize science and technology as the be-all and end-all of education while de-valuing the Arts. Therefore you have everybody queueing up to do engineering and medicine after school even without being really interested in it.

    I think that for most of us, a formal education helps us find some direction. For others, it can steer into wrong directions based on improper or inadequate knowledge.

    Content is as important as presentation.

  7. I agree that it's the way a subject is taught that makes it interesting (or not). History is taught really badly in Indian schools. We are fine at teaching Math (there are really no stories there) but Science and History could be taught better..

    The interesting part is that they do teach Science better in the US, but that doesn't seem to have made more kids interested in Science.

  8. Hari, I totally agree: science and technology should never be forced upon students, nor should arts. Unfortunately, in our education system, a student has to approximately choose a direction as soon as he/she passes class X -- which is even before one can fully appreciate or know what one is getting into. What happens finally, as you say, is that every peg is forced into a square hole irrespective of whether it is a round or a square one.

    Lekhni, yeah... interesting point. But in the US, I think, children are presented with more opportunities and exposure. Hence, people can find interests in other areas such as drama, literature, geology, etc. In India, if you are bright, you have to like and take up science.

  9. Nicely put...we usually don't value what we have and the same goes for education. I sometimes wish though that we didn't have to make the choice of specialized classes so early on, I don't like being ignorant of the sciences.


  10. I think we need basically a more flexible system. A wider choice of subjects, all at different difficulty levels. An option to choose ANY six or seven subjects we can excel at. Creative arts and any two languages included, having the same weightage as Math and Science.
    IB works like that. In International Baccalaureate, you get to choose, one subject each from Science, Humanities, two languages, Math (at three levels), and one creative arts subject(visual art, theater, music). If you are totally uninterested in Math, you can take it at a very basic (easy) level, if you like Math take it at Higher Level (equivalent to first year in college). Same for all subjects.
    In special cases one can drop all Science/Humanities/creative arts subjects, but you are encouraged to take up one subject from each group.
    Why not have such flexibility in Indian boards. One blessing will be that the mad competition we have today will come to an end. You will not require to take tuition in Math/Science/Hindi even if you never intend to touch a Math book after tenth.
    The best part is, it's not the school but the student who decides what subjects they take.
    NIOS Board in India offers the same options but unfortunately regular schools don't offer NIOS Board in their curriculum. Okay I think I am hogging your comment space..I feel strongly about this this maybe I should do a post on this.

  11. HEY, theres something for you at my blog!!

  12. Nicely written Sudipta!

    I think that anything formal is indispensable. Afterall formal education has structure, accountability and scope for measurement.

    What India lacks is the training of teachers. With lack of qualified teachers due to whatever reasons, students do not get taught topics in the way they are supposed to be taught. As a result, we have a system that is excessively focussed on memorization and forces a child to spend 6 hours in school and 6 hours in coaching class.

    Our people's obsession with Engineering and Medicine boils down to the "security" or "getting settled" mindset that most of us have. Arts or Sports do not guarantee stability, hence are unfortunately ignored.

  13. Very nicely put. A case in point for people who followed the CBSE system before 2001. We had an amazing history book in in Class X depicting the both world wars and russian revolution which was a pleasure to read (with or without the pressure of board exams!). However the same history text book tellin about the indus valley or egyptian civilization was probably enough to kill an already dead man again!

  14. *mumble course youre on my blogroll* i always clicked on your link on the referer blogroll and never even realised it!!


  15. I cannot agree with you more. The method needs to be revised. I graduated with Political Science from one of the leading colleges of Kolkata - such an interesting subject to begin with. But we were not encouraged to do any research or participate in any debates. If I had a theory of my own - I had to keep it to myself. We got high scores only if we memorized the notes that were dictated by our professors - those notes had been going on for generations. They for some reason did not change with the current political scenario. To think of it our professors did not have a job at all. By the time I graduated, I knew nothing about the subject, had lost all interest in it and moved on to design. I still draw a blank when I think of my college days. I have no recollection of what our syllabus covered. It seems like three years of my life was an utter waste.

  16. Sky, yes that is something that needs a major revamp. We like to push people into slots irrespective of what other talents they have.

    Indian Home Maker, that is a very interesting concept! Will be looking forward to your post.

    Grafxgurl, :) Okay!

    Priyank, thank you. And the point you've raised is exactly something I was discussing with my mom last night. I believe there is a reason behind the obsession -- like you said, "security". The government can help here by creating lucrative opportunities and career options in these other fields.

    Ellie, thank you! :) Oh yes... some chapters are written by certain authors and they feel very interesting reads. Others are really sub-par, as you found out in your case.

    Mala, again, like you said, this is a very good illustration of the problem I pointed to. And I really feel sorry for the scores of students like you who find their interest squashed by the age-old machinery crushing students.

  17. Hi Sudipta, you made your points right.. that was an awesome example of your grandpa.. when I look at my brother teaching light to his 4 yr old with a home made pin hole camera, I was feeling sorry that I did not do that with my definitely should begin at home..

    Formal education no doubt contributes to more discipline, but the pattern of teaching in India is stuck. Most of the kids are under peer pressure and they just follow the crowd instead of their hearts.. My sister's daughter in the US even after graduating from her masters degree in electrical engineering, changed course and took up teaching degree because she discovered a new love there..which we dont see much in India, is the system rigid or the mindset?

  18. Pranathi, welcome onboard. I believe it is both -- the system as well as the mindset. And they're symbiotic. But like Mahatma Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.


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