The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?

The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?

by Ranajay Ghosh and Aloke Kumar - Wednesday, August 8, 2018 10:58 AM IST
The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?Students at a classroom in Indore. (Arun Mondhe/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • The current education system is not geared towards a creative understanding of concepts, as was the case during the Indic age. A return to old-school methods to rekindle the fire of brilliance is the need of the hour.

The most strident criticism of the Indian education system is that it stifles creativity and bores the students to death through rote learning. One tech guru even went public so far as to say that Indian culture lacks creativity. In private, the criticisms are even harsher. This issue is recognised by several educators and industry leaders and unless it is stemmed, it will become a roadblock for growth and prosperity of Bharat.

This is not a mere academic coffee table issue or fervid paranoia. Lack of creative juices can not only stifle long-term growth but also imperil the long-term dividends of important strategic initiatives such as ‘Make in India’. Without inculcating creativity, India’s demographic dividend will soon turn into a deadwood nightmare. A perfect trap of stagnation. In fact, few countries have managed to get out of the vice-like grip of long-term growth loss before fully reaching their potential. For a civilisation to ultimately rise and be a dominant and consistent geopolitical and economic force, it must be a centre of creativity.

Common prescriptions by experts on Indian education include abrogating exams, drastically reducing coursework, more free time, open disobedience of authority, removing homework and finally let children simply follow their ‘dreams’. However, these remedies lack an important secret sauce – abstraction.

Humans rose to the top of the food chain through their ability to form abstract conceptual paradigms. Such leaps of abstraction allowed the formation of complex religions, hierarchical socio-economic organisations, stunning architecture and, ultimately, modern science. Development of abstract ideas allows for insightful forward leaps in progress. Ironically, ancient Indic thinkers were pioneers of this naturally progressive trajectory. It is no co-incidence that Sanatan Dharma (i.e. Hinduism) abounds in concepts that are far too profound to be easily captured in mere words or paintings. Perhaps, the best example of abstraction is the syllable ॐ (Om), which abstractly captures meaning that no painting, murti or other art form can portray. Here, abstraction also serves as a method for achieving data compression. A simple, single syllable is able to convey information that can easily be the subject matter of multiple themes. Another fascinating instance of abstraction is in the use of fractal structures in temple architecture.

Fractals are self-similar geometrical shapes, and in the context of Sanatan Dharma, have been used to signify the self-similarity between the Atman and Brahman. Thus, abstraction, in a sense, is a tool to access the otherwise unimaginable niches of reality.

Abstraction is also a route to self-rejuvenation as it allows the mind to innovate and transcend the boundaries of physical experience. It is no surprise that growth in the abstract arts in the early 1900s was intricately intertwined with the disruptive emergence of modern physics. The early 1900s introduced an era of scientific turmoil wherein the ideas of Albert Einstein and fathers of quantum theory not only altered the landscape of scientific thought forever, but also fundamentally altered how humans viewed reality.

Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the world of arts started seeing profound changes around the same time, leading to cubism, surrealism and expressionism. Einstein and cubist Pablo Picasso never met, yet Einstein’s new understanding of space-time had a profound resonance in Picasso’s later arts.

Picasso’s cubism, among other things, was his attempt to show that there is no single perspective of vision, as many in the pre-cubist era believed. This idea may well have been inspired by the lack of an absolute reference frame in Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

In fact, we now know that other eminent scientists such as Poincare, who had a taste for both science and art, played a key role in this sangam of science and abstract art. Similarly, surrealists such as Salvador Dali, whose painting ‘Persistence of Memory’ can easily be counted amongst the greatest art works ever was deeply influenced by modern physics and tried to tie it with mystical and religious overtones. Einstein, himself struggling with internalising the framework of quantum mechanics, met with Rabindranath Tagore to exchange metaphysical viewpoints and find solace. This double helix of arts and sciences tied by strands of abstraction led to the twentieth century surge of creativity in the western world. This led to even greater advances in science, architecture, fashion and consumer goods in spite of it being perhaps the deadliest and most brutal century in humanity’s history.

A creative world emerging from the tandava of destruction.

Whereas, the western world never shied away from tracing its arc over sciences and arts. Indian students learn science and engineering in a series of culturally dry, alienating soup of Greek alphabets. Few are introduced to the breathtakingly beautiful rainbow of science, which has always glanced over literature, architecture, parables and philosophy.

Unfortunately, in Bharat, science and technological education have been divorced from the ancient philosophies, mathematics and art forms of this land. One path to infusing creativity in Indian students would be to pursue a three-way sangam of science, abstract art and dharma. Indic thought has highly developed forms of artistic expression – from festivals, to dance forms, to temple art, to general rituals. Instances of nature-inspired art are manifold in dharmic works, yet very few instances of a sangam of modern science with dharmic thought can be found.

A new sangam can re-energise the Indian mind and lead to extraordinary benefits. Our temples, monuments and culture should not be left trapped for cultural nights but a living document from which modern thought can be directly spun.

This fusion represents uncharted territory, offering opportunities for novel work and inspired out-of-the-box thinking, while adding to the veritable treasure-chest of Indic thought. Readers who wish to partake in such an exercise would be well advised to visit different museums in India and abroad and soak in the spirit of art and abstraction. Similarly, when visiting a mandir the next time, take time to appreciate the mathematical beauty of the temple. On similar vein, when reciting a shloka, its structure and allegories should be imbibed rather than the rote.

Our own research has drawn from such a theme. After the editor of the venerable Royal Society of Chemistry journal Lab on a Chip asked for an art to represent our newly published paper, we immediately drew inspiration from the riot of colour that symbolises Holi (see below). This was an apt abstract depiction of the more arcane research on bacterial colonisation at the microscale. This was our own experience of the sangam of science, abstract art and dharmic thought and we further exemplify this idea here:

The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?


Bacteria play Holi/जीवाणुओं की होली

Image Source/Credits:

Cover Art image for the manuscript - Hassanpourfard, M, Ghosh, R, Thundat, T and Kumar, A, 2016. Dynamics of bacterial streamers induced clogging in microfluidic devices. Lab on a Chip, 16(21), pp.4091-4096.

CreditMahtab Hassanpourfard, Ranajay Ghosh, Thomas Thundat and Aloke Kumar

Scientific Description

The images depict bacterial colonisation of a microfluidic porous media subject to hydrodynamic flows. The panels show colonisation of the porous media at different times and were instrumental in showing how bacteria interact with hydrodynamic forces leading to significant changes in its colonisation pattern. Green florescent bacteria was used in the experiments and this final image is false coloured. This image was also highlighted on the Back Cover of Lab on a Chip. Interested readers can also read the full manuscript from the RSC website.

Artist’s Statement

These inspiring images echo the myriad colours we see in the festival of Holi. In that sense, the image embodies the philosophy of the festival. The bacteria are, in a sense, playing with ‘water’ as they grow, detach and mature into various structures over time.

The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?


Ātman & Bráhman/ आत्मन् और ब्रह्मन्

Image Source/Credits:

Prof Aditya Bandopadhyay, IIT Kharagpur

Scientific Description

The images are captured moments before a droplet merges into a pool of water. Such events are often part of various fluid mechanical experiments used to understand droplet impact on surfaces.

Artist’s Statement

In an abstract sense, the image showcases the philosophy of both Advaita and Dvaita Vedanta, and eventually, the Atman and Brahman undergo yoga as the droplet merges into the pool and loses its identity.

Depending on how one views the time axis, the image also signifies birth or death and thus the cycle of samsara.

The Missing Link In Education: Is A Return To Old-School Methods The Way Forward?


The Yoga of Fluid Mechanics - Droplets splash, cascade and merge with a thin liquid film demonstrating the multiscale beauty of fluid mechanics.

Image Source/Credits:

Image also featured as Cover Art for the ‘Journal of the Indian Institute of Science’ Vol 98, Issue 2 (2018)

Dr. Aditya Bandopadhyay (IIT KGP), Dr. Aloke Kumar (IISc) and V. Sarath Chandra Varma (IISc)

Scientific Description

As multiple droplets crash into a water reservoir, they create a splash pattern. Here, such a splash pattern can be seen immediately before another droplet falls and merges with the reservoir. Images taken at 50 FPS using a diffuse light and a dye. The image is false coloured (original monochrome).

Artist’s Statement

Individually, the splash patterns last for only a second, but in that small instant there is a display of pure beauty, which reminds us of the beauty of life. Finally, the drop merges into the reservoir like the Atman merges with the Brahman.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the personal opinions of the authors.

Dr Ranajay Ghosh is currently an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida (USA). He tweets at @ranajayghosh.

Dr Aloke Kumar is currently an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He tweets at @aalokelab.

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