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Knowledge is meaningless without understanding the knower || On Advait Vedanta (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
10 min
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Questioner: Swami Vivekananda has said, “Education must strengthen the mind, expand the intellect, form the character, and make one stand on one’s own feet.”

So, the existing education system, I think, presumes that all which is to be known has more or less been known, and whatever little is left, there are the specialized experts to know that. So, our education as such trains students to memorize the existing knowledge and find a cozy comfortable place for themselves in the society on the basis of that knowledge.

So, in that sense, the student is told that he is redundant as such, and the best that he can do with himself is to be a part of this big machinery that the society is. But, in the end, students do manage to earn some money on the basis of this education, and money tends to give them some independence.

So, I want to understand how the existing education system lacks these characteristics which Vivekananda Ji spoke about, expansion of intellect etc. Also, is the existing education system a degenerated or worn-out version of what Swami Vivekananda is talking of? Is it the equilibrium state of Vivekananda Ji’s system that we are seeing?

Acharya Prashant: See, every system is designed by someone for some purpose. Can you blame the car if it doesn’t travel to the moon? Isn’t it a severe shortcoming that the car is not able to fly up to the moon? Why don’t you blame it? Because that was not the design goal. The car is perfectly fine at doing what it has been designed to do. What has it been designed to do? It has been designed to be a terrain vehicle; it has been designed to horizontally scan the surface, so it does that.

Now, what is the intention of the current education system? The system is good, very good at doing what it has been designed to do. But what is the intention of the designer? Must that not be asked? And when you ask about the intention of the designer, you will have to ask, “What is your vision of the products of such a system?”

When you envisage a product of the current education system, what do you see? And related to that is the question, do you understand who is entering the education system? If you understand who is the one who enters the system, you would probably be nicely placed to see who is it that must emerge from the system.

In other words, do we know who we are and therefore who we must be? The ones that we are is the input into the system. The ones that we must be must be the output of the system. Do we know who enters the system at age three or five? And therefore, do we know what to expect from the one who emerges at the age of twenty-three or twenty-five?

Do we understand both our fact and our possibility? And is not education the movement from our somber fact to our splendid possibility? Please, must that not be the very definition of education? A movement from the sordid, primitive fact of our physical existence to the glorious, splendid possibility of the liberated human being—education must connect these two, right? But is that even the thought or the idea? Is that the intention? No, that is not the intention. I’ll tell you what the intention is.

The makers of the system think of the input as a raw material and the output as a finished product that must serve the needs of the social order and in the process ingratiate itself as well. So, if the existing social and economic order requires people who can produce shoes, then the education system will be directed towards educating kids and young men about leather, about tanning, about shoes, about marketing of shoes, and such things.

In the process it would be told that if you do this well, then you will get material comforts. If you are a good manufacturer of the shoe, young man, or a good marketer of the shoe, young man, then you will get good material comforts from the society, young man. In other words, if you provide the society with good material comforts in the form of good shoes, then the society would reciprocate by providing you too with good material comforts like money, like respect, like other physical and monetary things.

Is that not how our education system proceeds? Are we not producing goods for social consumption? In fact, is that not what we consider a great virtue in a college or a university? The products of this university find good positions in industry, and we say, “Wow!” The products of this university find good positions with the government, and we say, “Wow!”

We fall and grovel at placement figures, don’t we? What exactly is this thing called placement? Absorption of the individual into the social-economic order—is that not what placement is? And we take that as a great virtue. If that is happening, then we say that the education system is practical. Where is liberation in all this? Where is Truth? You are being educated to become something. You are not being educated to unbecome what you erroneously have become.

A good education system would have two components. One one hand, it would surely tell you about the world, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you do not know about the world, then you are prone to imagination. The absence of facts is a good breeding ground for imagination. So, you must know the facts so that you do not fall prey to baseless imaginativeness.

Secondly, when you know the world, then you also know the hollowness of the world. If you do not know the world, the world remains a distant attraction. When you go close to it, only then its attractiveness starts waning and you see that it cannot offer you what you really, deeply and desperately want.

So, that component education must surely have—deep, clear, factual, solid knowledge about the world. That includes sciences, mathematics; knowledge about different lands, their cultures, their political systems; history, cosmology; the rivers, the trees, the hills; man, his life, his health, his body; molecules, the atoms, the medicines. Education must surely tell us about these things. If we do not know about these things, then we will be superstitious.

And education must have a very important, second component also: education must tell us about the one being educated. How important does that sound? If you are being told of a lot of things, if you are being given a lot of knowledge without being told of the one the knowledge is coming to, how good is it for you?

So, this second component of education must tell you of who you are, why at all do you need to be educated, why do you know about the planes of central Asia, why do you need to know about the prairies, why do you need to know about the Ural mountains. You’d probably never go to Antarctica—then why do you need to know about the glaciers there? You’re never going to be found on Saturn—then why do you need to know about the rings and moons of Saturn?

This second component of education must tell you who you are and, therefore, why do you need knowledge. It will tell you why you need knowledge, and it will tell you the distance to which knowledge can go, and therefore the limit of knowledge. And where knowledge stops, love begins and meditation begins. If you do not have this second component in education, there is no possibility of love or meditation. All you will have is factory-made products. Those factories would be needlessly named as universities. There would be an admissions office, and there would be a placement office, and in between there would be an assembly line.

The second component of education is almost totally missing. The ones who are educating do not know who they are and who is being educated. The one who is being educated has no idea why all the knowledge is being thrown upon him. If you ask him, “Why do you need to read those books?” if at all he wants to justify himself, he will have just one response: he will say, “It will give me acceptance and placement. I will get a job, or I will get admission into a subsequent course.” Ask him, “Why do you need that?” He will mumble something. Go deeper, repeat the question, and he will get irritated because he will have no answer, because he has no understanding.

It’s alright if a three-year-old has to be just taken to the school, let’s say to the play school. You really can’t explain to him why he needs to be there, so you’ll have to just engage him and entertain him and these things. But by the time the student reaches the age of six, eight, or ten, the thing has to be consensual. The student must know why he is proceeding to class five or six. There has to be clarity about the learning process, and only then would there be love for learning.

Isn’t this an obvious question to ask? “Mom, I am going to spend eight hours in the school every day. Why at all do I need to be there?” Does the fellow not deserve a convincing answer, a solid and truthful answer? But who would answer? Mom herself never knew why she got educated or got married or gave birth. What does she have to tell the kid? She will say, “This is the way it happens. You just go.” Or if she has some wits, she will say, “Son, had I asked so many questions, you would not have been there to ask even a single question!”

Knowledge is totally meaningless without an understanding of the knower.

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