In the 1980s, the Govt of Tamil Nadu was confronted with a serious problem. Education levels of school-going children kept dwindling down and the dropout ratio became unacceptably high. The govt had commissioned a detailed study through which it learnt that ill-health and acute malnutrition were the primary causes of falling education standards and high dropout ratio. The state govt decided to introduce a unique scheme to solve the problem— the now popular mid-day meal scheme. Within a couple of years, the education levels started rising and the drop out ratio was kept firmly in check. Even today, as Jean Dreze observes, the mid-day meal scheme is the prime reason for high performance of Tamil Nadu in primary education, compared to any other state. This incident proves the age-old saying that change is the end result of all learning. Both learning and change are indispensable in order for us to be better humans, build better societies and shape great nations. In this essay, we will examine what is meant by ‘learning’ and ‘change.’ We will then examine how learning led to change throughout history and across geography. Next we will discuss the problems and hindrances in learning and changing. Finally, we will conclude by seeing how we can instill change in our lives through constant learning.
LEARNING AND CHANGE: DEFINITION
Learning can be understood as the process of acquiring new ideas, processes and examples that add value to our knowledge and thinking. For instance, when we teach a child that stealing is bad, he learns that he should not do it. When we teach children that men and women are equal, they learn that patriarchal society is unjustified and immoral. Thus, it can be seen that from learning comes change. On the other hand, change refers to a fundamental transformation in our attitudes, values and belief system. The more we learn about the society and the world, the more amenable we become to change.
HOW LEARNING LEADS TO CHANGE: ACROSS SPACE AND TIME
Historically, from 1500 to 1860, for 350 years slavery was considered the norm. But Abraham Lincoln showed the world that American civil war not only about saving the Union, but also about abolishing the unjust, immoral practice of slavery. As the US learnt a bitter lesson through war and bloodshed, it decided to abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.
Back home, Mahatma Gandhi united the country and taught the world about non-violent struggle. It made the world change its outlook and its attitude about violence. Similarly in the economic field, it was earlier thought that Capitalism was the panacea for curing poverty. But unbridled capitalism has ravaged societies in poor countries of Asia and Africa. Today, no country allows complete freedom of markets. All countries have now moved towards a mix of capitalism and socialism as followed by developed Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden.Further, GDP was the single parameter to gauge the prosperity of a country before 1990. Through Mahbub-ul-Haq and Amartya Sen’s efforts, we have learnt that human development index is a much better parameter to capture all-round development. This learning helped the nations of the world move from GDP to HDI to measure their holistic progress.
In politics too, there is always a constant flux. French Revolution was the result of learning that all humans are equal and that liberty, equality and fraternity are every person’s fundamental rights. This realisation led to abolishment of dictatorship and the establishment of the French Republic. Even today, the Arab Spring gives us a good example of how when people learn about new ideas, it leads to change. This relationship between learning and change extends to social sphere as well. Before the 1950s, women were thought to be inferior to men. Their freedom was restrained and rights restricted. But as we learned about the inherent equality between men and women, we are constantly striving to achieve gender justice. India was one of the First Nations to grant universal franchise to all— thus marking the beginning of change. Similarly, today our regressive attitudes towards LGBTQ community are constantly being demolished as we learn about the scientific and moral reasons to recognise and respect the LGBTQ community. The struggle to repeal Sec 377 of IPC symbolised that journey towards change.
Moreover, even in the administrative field, we see the interplay of learning and change. As we learn that corruption is a result of human discretion, the government is framing laws to move towards online delivery of services (Eg: Direct Benefit Transfer). Govt schemes such as soil health cards, e-Office etc are all results of learning and changing policies for a better future. Lastly, learning and change are most relevant in tackling climate change. There is strong scientific consensus— 97% — that human induced causes are the prime drivers of climate change and planet destruction. This learning has challenged our previous beliefs that climate change was a natural phenomenon. And so, the world got together at Rio in 1992 to establish UNFCCC and changed the discourse on climate. Paris climate deal of 2016 is a step towards this major change so as to ensure the safety of our planet.
Having discussed the importance of learning and change and how learning has led to change throughout space and time, let us examine the obstacle to learning and change.
LEARNING AND CHANGE: THE BARRIERS
Firstly, change is never easy and there is always fierce resistance to it. There are always vested interests who want to maintain the status-quo. For instance, the way dictator Bashar-Al-Assad has crushed rebellion in Syria is a case in point.
Secondly, poverty, ignorance and disease keep people uninformed about their rights and prevent them from changing. For example, majority of Indians practice open defecation due to lack of viable, functioning toilets. Thus, even though a poor family wants to forgo that practice, they cannot do it due to lack of resources.
Thirdly, we must realise that free speech is fundamental for learning and change. The moment there’s a threat to free speech, we lose an opportunity to learn a new idea or a novel perspective, This keeps us in a perpetual state of ignorance and thus prevents us from changing. For instance, during Stalin’s reign in Russia, there was a firm clampdown on any criticism of the communist party or its ideology. This made the government ignore social justice and civil rights of people. Thus, dogma and intolerance are the enemies of learning and change.
Lastly, another major barrier is the phenomenon of fake news we are witnessing these days. Our lives have become so much dependent on online content that any fake WhatsApp forward or a false story on Twitter can keep us entrenched in our own ideological echo chamber and prevent us from appreciating others’ perspective. So, how do we overcome the barriers so as to learn and change ourselves and our societies?
LEARNING AND CHANGE: TOWARDS A BETTER FUTURE
As Nelson Mandela said, ‘If you want to change the world, start with children’. Inculcating the right values and attitudes among children is essential to build a better tomorrow. Children must not be taught what to think, but how to think. Critical thinking, reasoning, and logic are tools that shape children’s thinking so that when are faced with a new idea or a new perspective, they evaluate it objectively rather than get mired in dogma. As children learn through imitation, teaching them examples from the lives of great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King can mould them in a way that challenges any regressive beliefs constantly.
Similarly, for constant learning, education must be free and decentralised. With the power of technology, we have the tools to take ideas and education even to the remotest corners of the world. Further, our country also needs to set an example of how we can learn and change to better ourselves. History has shown us that change is the only constant in life. Without learning and change, we risk stagnation as individuals, as a society and as a nation. Let us avow to be constant learners and be agents of change so that we build a better world for everyone. For that to happen, learning should never cease and change must begin with us. As Gandhiji once said, “Our greatness lies not so much in changing the world as in changing ourselves.”