Challenging the Adult Mind – the missing dimension in Education
Posted on February 13th, 2013

R Chandrasoma

Education as a training in skills useful in adult life is widely accepted as a prime reason  for schooling the young. Thus, the study of arithmetic and the aquistion of basic literary abilities among schoolchildren are seen as preparations  for the successful accomplishment of duties and tasks that all adults must face.  However, there is another – some would say a more important “”…” aspect of education that is ignored in this time-honoured approach. The basic thrust of education – of the young and the old alike – ought to be cognitive training – which is to say the adaptive shaping of the mind to reason and think in dealing with life’s multifarious problems.  Let us give an example – in the study of mathematics, young pupils are taught the ‘Prime  Number Theorem’ of Euclid. This exercise has, arguably, no worth whatsoever as preparatory training for a life-skill – but it does challenge the young mind and sharpens and re-frames its approach to problems in a very general setting. It makes the mind grow in strength and reach. The mind at any age stultifies if this kind of challenge is absent. Indeed. recent research has overturned the myth that one’s IQ (innate Intelligence) is a genetic bequeathal that remains fixed for life. The mind (and its physical basis, the brain) are continuously modified by experience. There is no need to add that if this experience is repetitive, stereotyped and unchallenging, the brain – which is the physical basis of the mind – remains much as it was in its early formative years.

We have noted that this approach is well recognized by educators with respect to children of school-going age – that what is  taught is a shaping rather than a training. Romantic verse and Latin Grammar – if these are learned at school – are like push-ups in physical exercise. Their value lies in ‘shaping’ the system for enhanced performance. Consider, now, the situation adults face – when they leave school and have long forgotten Euclid and romantic poetry.  Have they ‘finished’ their education in any real sense? In the light of what we have said above, to answer in the affirmative is not only foolish – it is woefully destructive at both the individual and the social level. The greater part of the life of an individual is spent as an adult and to deny education in a real and substantial sense to this leading cohort of humanity is a social disaster. Yet this is, in broad outline true of the situation in our country and in most parts of the world. The great contemporary revolution is in entertainment and communication – of the trivial kind epitomized in such things as the Mobile Phone and the TV display. While it is not true of everyone, is it not fair to say that intellectual laziness has been promoted in an age when our faculties should be at their keenest? Are we to believe that our brains have been ‘overloaded’ through syllabuses and exams and no longer need training?   Whatever the old thinking on this subject, it is now a proven fact that “ƒ”¹…”neurogenesis’ “”…” the dynamical refashioning of the synaptic connections of the brain – continues into advanced old age and is vital to stave off dangerous dementias such as Alzheimer’s Disease. We need intellectual challenges in all phases and times of life’s troublesome journey to stay alive and healthy. These observation lead to our central theme – that whatever the merits (and demerits) of our school and university systems, we in Sri Lanka are in the backwoods so far as adult education is concerned. How is the quality of this ‘quarternary’ education to be improved? Not, of course by sending adults back to school but by creating an informal ‘virtual school’ through the revolutions in communication that characterize our age. Let us be specific. Why are English radio broadcasts in Sri Lanka so jejune and childish in their content? Is music the be-all and end all of public broadcasting? Are religious sermons and broadcasting (of which we have a surfeit) educational? Must seriousness and intellectual challenge be avoided because of perceived offense to some sectarian group? Why do intellectuals (if any) fail to participate in public discourse over Radio and TV in this country? So far as TV is concerned, we are in the sad position of Advertisers and Sponsors dictating the content of Television programmes – a sure guarantee of intellectual decadence even if the moral issues of stereotyping are ignored. We have, in short sacrificed brains for visceral titilation and dumbed down all that is presented in the belief that  public discourse must be soporific and uncontroversial if it is to win acceptance. Political broadcasting alone raises blood-pressure – but this genre can hardly be regarded as food for the intellect.

It remains to say a few things about books – in an earlier age the symbol of learning. It is now a rare sight for an adult to be seen with a book in a public place – although fifty years ago this was commonplace. The replacement of English by the vernacular was not a simple switch to a new mode of communication – it changed the ethos of approaches to self-development. In reading in English there is the challenge of a world that entrances and spurs the reader to intellectual adventure. There is no such challenge in the native languages imbued with a tradition of obedience and pliant acceptance. It is difficult to underestimate the profound impact this has had on our national psyche. As repeatedly pointed out by the President of our country, bilingualism is the answer – but let us admit that fluent bilingualism is a rare skill that few in contemporary Sri Lanka have.

4 Responses to “Challenging the Adult Mind – the missing dimension in Education”

  1. Ben Silva Says:

    Good article by Chandrasoma. We live in a fast changing world, where the shelf life of knowledge is getting shorter. In such a situation the useful skills are problem solving, information gathering, analysis and communication, critical thinking skills with a scientific approach, prepared to learn and evolve and reject theories that do not agree with evidence. Sadly, many dislike scientific approach and hang on to old unproven dogmas.

  2. Naram Says:

    Excellent work, Mr Chandrasoma. There is little in the offerings to the public by both stateand private sectors to expand the understanding. For example the recent film ‘Siddhartha Gauthama’ seemed to me like an advert for the horoscope readers Neecha Vidya or false beliefs.

    There should be some education about how human understanding of the universe grew, how and when did humans realize the number of days in an year moving from lunar calendar to solar one – as former caused errors in predicting the seasons, seeding, harvesting, taxing etc. I believe this was an achievement of Middle Eastern scholars who made observations with astrolabe, in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Poet and Mathematician Omar Khayyam took a leading role in this study, if my memory of a BBC programme on the subject serves me correct.

    Today even OL science students of developed countries learn the stages stars go through as fuel stock for the fusion reaction depletes over years. These facts should not be kept closed from the knowledge of the public fearing foul cries from religious dignitaries or any other parties.

  3. Nanda Says:

    “In reading in English there is the challenge of a world that entrances and spurs the reader to intellectual adventure. There is no such challenge in the native languages imbued with a tradition of obedience and pliant acceptance.”

    Absoulte rubbish written by a brainless who is living like a frog in a well.

    How about Chinese for a change ?
    How about learing the proof of Pythogourus Theorem by the Chinese before Pythogorous ?

  4. sena Says:

    Sir some of the things you say is correct (and some of the things you say I may not have understood well b’s your tendency to write in advanced English). But my point in replying to this article is to make you aware of the impact of knowledge based economy on continuous learning. This economy is common to all developed countries in the world. The intellectuals, technocrats and the educated active in this knowledge based economy is constantly learning new things (they have to), technologies, business acumen, social development etc etc in order to come up with new products and services. The unfortunate thing is despite eighty years of higher education, Sri Lanka has not developed this type of economy and the educated depend on the productivity of blue collar workers who as you know have no need to learn English. So in the absence of no innovation, the opinion of intellectuals in Sri lanka is that learning and keep improving prowess in English is the sign of personal and professional advancement because that is what they all do in their high ranking jobs – impress each other with fluent English. My opinion is that English (or rather the social status we attribute to it ) is the main reason the professional and the technocrats have not contributed much to the Sri lanka economy. Because in Sri lanka for most careers all that is considered is how good you are in English. Take for example the legendary ceylon civil service in 1950s, when our neighbors to the East were advancing their economies by adopting new technologies from West and making their own inventions, our high achievers in CCS (together with politicians) were impressing each other by speaking in as advanced English as possible.

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