Schooling or learning?

Robert Frost defined education as the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

The other day a news report about a group of rowdy young doctors attacking and beating up the Medical Superintendant in his office in Gujranwala got a lot of coverage on the national news channels and quickly vanished as other more horrendous news clamored for attention.

Young doctors attack the MS in Gujranwala

This is not an isolated incident and young doctors are not the only ones resorting to violence these days. Violence has become a way of life for us. People pick up fights at the slightest provocation, murders are committed for no reason and vendettas and blood feuds are an everyday occurrence.

Something is seriously wrong with our society and I can’t help but trace it to our education system, especially at the school level. It is estimated that in 2011 alone something like over $2 trillion was given over to military expenditure across the world. While we continue to spend billions of rupees to defend ourselves from our external enemies, it’s the enemy within we must conquer and education is our greatest weapon in this war. Like any other weapon it too can become disastrous for its owner, if used carelessly.

Now, mind you, when I say education I do not mean certificates and degrees, though that is a part of it. I specifically mean what is always referred to in Urdu as ‘Taleem o Tarbiyyat’ or learning or value based education. The spirit to learn, develop and grow…to learn simply because it is our nature to be curious and to quench that curiosity. In our times education has been confined as a means to earning a livelihood…an investment that is advisable as it is supposed to yield huge dividends.

History tells us that in the beginning, for hundreds of thousands of years, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration. Adults in hunter-gatherer cultures allowed children almost unlimited freedom to play and explore on their own because they recognized that those activities are children’s natural ways of learning. There was no distinction between work and play as, essentially, all of life was considered to be play.  Hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands (of about 25 to 50 people per band), made decisions democratically, had ethical systems that centred on egalitarian values and sharing, and had rich cultural traditions that included music, art, games, dances, and time-honoured stories.

Although Hunter-Gatherer children had to learn an enormous amount, there were no schools, no curriculum, or attempt to motivate children to learn, or give lessons, or monitor children’s progress. When asked how children learn what they need to know, the answer invariably was: “They teach themselves through their observations, play, and exploration.”

 Agriculture and the associated ownership of land and accumulation of property created clear status differences. People who did not own land became dependent on those who did. Landowners discovered that they could increase their wealth by getting other people to work for them. Thus systems of slavery and other forms of servitude developed with the rise of agriculture and later of industry.

This meant that humans had to be trained to be servile and obedient and childhood was the best time to start this training. Thus children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were suppressed. Willfulness, which had been considered a virtue, became a vice that had to be beaten out of children.

A ‘whipping post’ used in the UK circa 1598 AD. This mode of punishment continued till end of 18th century.

The principal lessons that children had to learn were obedience, suppression of their own will and the show of reverence toward lords and masters. These were cruel times when stealing a piece of bread would merit punishments like flogging and imprisonment in the UK. A rebellious spirit could very well result in death!

With the advent of industrialism, the labor of children was moved from fields, where there had at least been sunshine, fresh air, and some opportunities to play into dark, crowded, dirty factories. For several thousand years after the advent of agriculture, the education of children was, to a considerable degree, comprised subordinating their willfulness in order to make them good laborers.

A good child was an obedient child, who suppressed his or her urge to play and explore and dutifully carried out the orders of adult masters. Such education, fortunately, was never fully successful. The human instincts to play and explore are so powerful that they can never be fully beaten out of a child.

For various reasons, some religious and some secular, the idea of universal, compulsory education arose and gradually spread. Education was understood as inculcation. As industry progressed and became somewhat more automated, the need for child labor declined in some parts of the world. The idea began to spread that childhood should be a time for learning, and schools for children were developed as places of learning. The idea and practice of universal, compulsory public education developed gradually in Europe, from the early 16th century on into the 19th. It was an idea that had many supporters, who all had their own agendas. In America, in the mid 17th century, Massachusetts became the first colony to mandate schooling, the clearly stated purpose of which was to turn children into good Puritans.

Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write.

Thankfully, there were also reformers who truly cared about children. These were people who saw schools as places for protecting children from the damaging forces of the outside world and for providing children with the moral and intellectual basis needed to develop into upstanding, competent adults. But they too had their agenda for what children should learn. Children should learn moral lessons and disciplines, such as Latin and mathematics, which would exercise their minds and turn them into scholars.

As the concept of schools became popular, people began to think of learning as children’s work. The same power-assertive methods that had been used to make children work in fields and factories were quite naturally transferred to the classroom. Repetition and memorization of lessons is tedious work for children, whose instincts urge them constantly to play freely and explore the world on their own. Just as children did not adapt readily to laboring in fields and factories, they did not adapt readily to schooling. This was no surprise to the adults involved. A prominent attitude of eighteenth century school authorities toward play is reflected in John Wesley’s rules for Wesleyan schools, which included the statement: “As we have no play days, so neither do we allow any time for play on any day; for he that plays as a child will play as a man.”

In recent times, the methods of schooling have become less harsh, but basic assumptions have not changed. Learning continues to be defined as children’s work, and power assertive means are used to make children do that work.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved toward what we all recognize today as conventional schooling. The methods of discipline became more humane, or at least less corporal; the lessons became more secular; the curriculum expanded, as knowledge expanded, to include an ever-growing list of subjects; and the number of hours, days, and years of compulsory schooling increased continuously. Just as adults put in their 8-hour day at their place of employment, children today put in their 6-hour day at school, plus another hour or more of homework, and often more hours of lessons outside of school. Over time, children’s lives have become increasingly defined and structured by the school curriculum.


School today is the place where all children learn the distinction between work and play. The teacher says, “You must do your work and then you can play.” Clearly, according to this message, work, which encompasses all of school learning, is something that one does not want to do but must; and play, which is everything that one wants to do, has relatively little value.

That, perhaps, is the leading lesson of our method of schooling. In schools children learn the difference between work and play and that learning is work, not play. Children whose drive to play is so strong that they can’t sit still for lessons are no longer beaten; instead, they are medicated.

Children now are almost universally identified by their grades in school, much as adults are identified by their job or career. Thus there is a race to get good grades at school level as good grades are a passport to a good college. Good grades at college level are a passport to a good university  and good grades at a university are the passport to a good job which is a passport to acquiring a good spouse and eventually a good life!

Getting a good result, by hook or by crook, has become the topmost priority of students and parents alike. I see students spending large amounts of money and countless hours of time after school on private tuitions. I see parents adopting dishonest means to get their children more marks in board and practical exams. Cheating is condoned by parents and teachers alike and many schools resort to organized cheating in board exams to ensure that their students obtain high scores so that the school can solicit more admissions. All this has given another dimension to the teaching and learning process. Learning has lost its spirit and so schools have become lifeless buildings churning out a product designed to ‘succeed’ in life. Success has also been redefined for most part. The more material possessions you have in today’s world, the more successful you are!

So if young doctors, with 18 years of formal ‘education’, wish to beat up their seniors, who do we blame? They are the products of the system that their seniors designed. The values that made us humans are no longer important.


  1. Sir, Once again a nice article with immense historical facts. I myself am a part time adjunct professor, I volunteer my time once a week to pass on the education and experience that I have gained over 20 years to others as I don’t want to take that accumulated knowledge with me to my grave.
    When I started teaching my first challenge was the outdated curriculum that was mandated. For a class of 24 students only 5 or 6 would sign up. I took a stand and convinced the University to allow me to change the style and the curriculum. I changed the style from lecture based learning to hands on learning and exploring the subject. In addition I created smaller groups within my class so everyone could learn in smaller independent groups. It was a hit, from 5-6 students within a semester I increased the class size to 24 students and had to turn students away.
    These days I break my class in 4 groups of 6 students each, I give each group a technology that they need to learn, come upto speed and then demonstrate as a group their findings ( that’s their final)… to make it interesting I tell them this class is not about grades, it is about learning… I also tell them that if they all want A’s I will give them, however they must demonstrate that they deserve it. I also ask the students to evaluate the class at the end, with what worked what needs to change… and I make changes accordingly… so far the class has been a hit (don’t mean to pat myself on the back)….. so I agree that the teaching methodology needs to change from re-gurgitating teachers notes and presentations to self learning and exploration.

    • Many thanks Raja Sahib. We need more teachers like you. Keep up the good work! Each one of us can make a difference.

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