Beyond sword and shield

A shield is a weapon of defence; an insurance policy. It won't recreate the Mughal or Roman empires, but it will keep you safe. A sword is a weapon of offence; a tool for creation, boldness, and conquering. The sword versus shield analogy is useful for thinking about education. Education as a shield is a set of skills for doing well in exams, getting into college or getting a job. But what if education is not about exams or jobs?

The notion that a liberal arts or broad education is superior has deep roots. Yale shut down its engineering school because it was a "trade" school. The same year, Frank Terman started Stanford's engineering college, which catalysed Silicon Valley. The education-as-a-sword worldview believes that education is about self-knowledge, about synthesis rather than analysis, and creation rather than manipulation. The poet W.B. Yeats, patron saint of education as a sword, said, "Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire". Obviously, the best education is both a sword and shield. But most kids in India will not get an education that is both, because getting such an education in one school is hard, expensive and rare. Since India needs both at scale ó about 10 lakh young people will join the labour force every month for the next 20 years ó public policy must explore diversity in institutional objectives, structure and capabilities.

Education as a shield implies rote learning and repetition; defined skills; short/discrete windows of learning; an easy to teach, teacher-directed, individualistic and outcome-oriented mindset; frequent exams and a one-size-fits-all approach, among other things. Education as a sword implies experiential learning that is hard to teach; inquiry directed, extended learning periods; a learner-directed, process-oriented mindset; team/ diversity appreciation and multiple intelligences. The weakness of this classification became obvious at a recent policy conference. Both are stereotypes of traditional Indian and Western schools. Indian teachers envy Western schools because they encourage independent thought and creativity, while Western teachers idealise Indian schools for their rigour and hard work. As with life, the truth is somewhere in between. But the scale of education in India indicates that the golden mean is hard to find. Our education policy simultaneously pursues excellence, expansion and inclusion. But can we be equal and excellent? Is vocational education for "other people's" children? Are quantity and quality contradictory?

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