Educating poor kids

– Partha

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After having spent a year at home, not being involved in any activities involving monetary gain (popularly called as sitting jobless at home), almost every week I meet someone who suggests that I do some ‘social service’ in the form of educating poor kids, like Anand Kumar. The eyes of many people brighten up at this very thought (of educating poor kids) and they consider this to be a holy thing to do. They even want to involve themselves in such acts of social service once they retire or at least some point later in their lives. This post is addressed at them.

First and foremost is the question of why we want to educate the poor (by education here, I simply refer to studying till class 12 in todays schools and then doing some under graduate degree). The immediate answer is that one is moved by compassion by their not so fortunate state. Certainly it aint wonderful to be poor, especially in the cities of an under-developed or developing country where poverty means living besides filth, facing the brunt of pollution, being treated like garbage by the high and mighty of the society besides not having the means to involve yourself in activities that interest you. So, providing a poor person education definitely does open up opportunities to improve his/her life condition. It certainly is a god-send gift to those people. Similar is the case with other ‘social work’ like ‘running orphanages and old age homes’, ‘providing jobs for the poor’, ‘assisting sex workers to find a better life’ etc etc. The lives of the beneficiaries indeed take a turn to the better.

But, I am not motivated to ‘educate’ people in the sense I had described above and have serious reservations about it. Education to me has three primary goals: (a) to understand ones true self as the observer and not the actor so as to be at peace always (b) to find that one thing that one likes so much that one would like to do it day in and day out, without any consideration to the social status that it might give and/or the monetary gains one might get from it and, (c) to earn a livelihood that can sustain ones basic needs like food, shelter etc. But, all of education today is reduced to a means to earn livelihood. In addition, the educational system is in total subordination to the economic system. The only and primary goal of all educational institutions in India (and most institutions in the rest of the world) is to ensure that their students (read products) fit into the market place. If we look at the economic system, it ensures that unless the top (in terms of money) 10% become richer by 90%, the bottom 90 cannot get richer by 10%. All the great investments in SEZ’s and all the other hi-tech things in India wont do much for the poor for this reason (besides pulling a small percentage out of desperate poverty). The structure of the economic system will ensure that there will always be a vast number of the people below the poverty line.

Even if we want to ignore these questions about the economic system, there are still other questions to be asked. Are the vast majority of conventionally educated people the ideal citizens of our society? Are they the most compasionate, the most benevolent and loving people in our societies? Are they free from committing all sorts of violence and, at least, are they themsleves personally free from suffering (fear / anger / despair etc)? The simple answer is no. Of course some of them are, but that has no correlation with the fact that they went through the conventional educational system and are successful in the economic world. So, my question is, looking at the larger picture, what is it exactly that we are achieving by educating poor kids? At most, we might free a few people from poverty and give them the relative freedom of prosperity. Is it realistically possible to scale this economic system to pull everyone out of poverty? How many more planet earths will we have to destroy for that? In my opinion that will never happen. We will simply be like the satellite that is perennially falling towards the planet but the planet is constantly moving and hence the satellite will simply continue to be in motion around the planet without ever reaching the planet.

Thus, educating poor kids is no solution for an en-masse change in our society and the end of all violence in our society, though it provides some kind of symptomatic relief. The social / economic / political structures will retain their violent characteristics. So, the question arises what is it that we should be doing? Obviously, it is stupid to be constantly going around in cycles and always be giving symptomatic relief without addressing the root cause. I feel, all individuals who are interested in finding a solution to all of this violence should answer this question first before jumping into ‘social service’. To effectively answer the question, we should understand the problem from its root. Is there a single root cause for all the violence we see around us? If there is no single root cause, then we will have to make progress separately in the various spheres of life like economic sphere, social sphere etc. But if there is one, then ,obviously, we should be tackling that.

I spent a significant part of my last three years investigating this, of course with a lot of assistance from a lot of people. As I see it, the human mind is the centre of all the social structures we see around us, be it violent structures like the army or benevolent structures like public hospitals. Conventionally, the human mind is equated only with the intellect and is repeatedly credited for all the scientific advances we have made over the last few centuries. Though these are indeed wonderful advances, the human mind is not just the intellect. Ego, which is the constant and unrelenting temptation of the mind to seek out permanence and greatness for itself, is also a part of it. This, I think is simply a matter of cultural software that trains the mind to constantly seek psychological desires and avoid psychological fears in the intention of seeking out permanence and greatness. The minds of most individuals is caught in this cycle without ever realizing that there is a way out of this and without ever realizing the peace outside of this cycle. All the social structures that have evolved, like educational & economic systems, have evolved purely out of this dysfunctional mind that is in service of the ego. The mind that is caught in its ego is sick and thereby all the social structures that have come out of it are destined to be sick and violent. There is no way that the product (social / economic / political structures) can be better than the mould (human mind).

Thus, as I see it, there will be no end to the violence we see around us unless the human mind is cleansed of ego. The average human mind is continuously restless and is constantly on the look out for drama or ways and means to become happy or wants to hold on to all the comforting factors. A little bit intelligence, a little bit of training, a little bit of good company combined with a lot of sincerity and perseverance will help us to still our minds. When the mind is stilled and is cleansed of ego, all the restlessness and the compulsive need for happiness, which is just a need for drama in disguise, will go away. This is basically an evolutionary push. Perhaps, humans are the first species that have so much conscious control over their future evolutionary paths. Its time we put it to full use and pull ourselves out of the mess we find us in today. How else can be even start to address all the violence? If fundamentally our minds are dysfunctional how can we expect to achieve any long lasting improvement without any work on this. Educating poor kids is nice and might give them a way out of poverty, but from a deeper perspective of the problem in the mind, the kids are probably still within the same system that causes all the violence in our society. Thus, isnt it imperative of us to work on this?

This requires us to work on us first. For, if we ourselves are caught inside our egos, we really cannot contribute much to the society. This is the hardest job to do for its much more easier to jump up and start doing work outside. But, its much more harder to stay calm when your relative / friend has a fight with you or when a junior bypasses you for promotion, and then respond to the situation with love and kindness. Its so much more harder to respond on the basis of truth and not on the basis of the narrow self interest of ego. Its even more harder to not demand things that are conventionally regarded as acceptable desires – want of a career, want of property, want of respectability in society, want of a partner etc etc. But, no matter how hard it appears at the outset, it is the ultimate problem and it has to be addressed if we hope to even genuinely begin addressing the violence in our society. Now, this necessitates immediate action from all us and especially from those who are thinking of doing some kind of ‘social service’ in the future. It requires all such of us who are living conventional lives, for whatever reasons, to immediately work on our own minds and cleanse our own thoughts and state of consciousness. If we put in our sincere efforts in understanding how our mind tricks us into fearing and desiring, we can begin the process of cleansing it. This would be a great contribution for us to make till the time we are living our conventional lives. Even when we are doing ‘social service’, cleansing ourselves of our ego would be a great contribution without which the ‘social service’ being done has little or no benefit.

To begin with, this is a hard task and is easier said than done. It needs constant vigil to find out the various ways in which our ego functions – constant vigil in relationships to see if we ever act based on ego (remember all the times you abused someone you did not like), constant vigil on our thoughts to see if we ever have a repetitive thought (remember all the times you complained about your situation), etc etc (there are lots of literature to the sincere seeker in these aspects). Then, the moment one is ready to forego the conventional life of earning money in the conventional economy (this has nothing to do with running around in a forest with just a piece of loin cloth on the body avoiding all pleasures of the senses), one can start providing symptomatic relief also. This is also important, but our state of being that is free of ego is probably more important due to its long lasting and deep impact. This state of being will constantly inspire others around the person to be in the same way and will slowly start creating a critical mass of such people, which will then lead to the flowering of a new human consciousness on a large scale. Then, with little or no narrow egoic self interests to clash, the society can start to move towards a state that is free of all forms of violence.

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Prof. Devdas Menon’s Response:

Excellent post!  Very well written!

My comments in brief, aimed more as a footnote to your article:

The pursuit of a “new consciousness” (which many are talking about nowadays) is perhaps another egoic concept in disguise.  The ego in us is always trying to identify with something unique or special; that’s how it operates (from the backdoor).  Isn’t engaging with the “flowering of a new human consciousness on a large scale” at least 2500 years old?  This was precisely the motivation behind the Buddhist “sangha”, for example.  But that is just a historical aside.

What you point to is very important, and something we all need to work towards consciously.  But we need not wait to be “free of the ego” (which would take forever!); all we need to do is to be “awake” as frequently as possible so that we are alert and attentive whenever we slip from trans-egoic awareness.

Moreover, things don’t look all that bad under sustained awareness, in the state of ‘pure consciousness’.  In fact, paradoxically, every thing seems to be imbued with beauty and perfection.  This is because the perfection in the formless essence stands out powerfully even in the hearts of forms (physical and mental) that appear to be terrible.  It is communion at that level which gives us the “deep inner peace” from which wise and skillful action can emerge.  This cannot be expected from an agitated or troubled mind; the means are no less important as the end…

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