When Kamala, the courtesan in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha asked the young brahmin ascetic what skills he had, he replied that he has learnt “how to think, how to wait, and how to fast.” To my mind, that is a complete education. Being able to fast is the ability to live on a limited amount. Freedom is inversely proportional to the external resources one needs to survive. One is free only to the extent that one does not depend on resources external to oneself.
Knowing how to wait is an excellent skill. It is freedom from the universal tyranny of time. A lot can be accomplished by someone who can afford the luxury of patience in a world where both favorable and unfavorable events occur randomly. Only the gods can be totally free with respect to time, of course. I like the story about Indra and the householder. Indra, one of the manifestations of Bramha the Supreme god, was asked by a man what the nature of time was. Indra said that he will tell him but first he needed a drink of water and could the man go and fetch him some. The man agreed and went off to get a glass of water.
The man knocked on the door of a house and a very beautiful girl answered the door. He was captivated by her charm and fell in love with her. He courted her and in a short time they were married. In a few years, he had a wonderful family. His business flourished and for many years, life was without any troubles. Then one day a tsunami hit the land. The giant waves washed away his family and his house and all his belongings. He found himself clinging precariously to a tree as the waters raged around him. In desperation he called out to god, and Indra appeared and said, “Were you able to get me the drink of water I asked for yet?”
Waiting and fasting are skills that enable one to interact with the world external to oneself. The ability to think is, in contrast, a skill that is internal to oneself. With waiting and fasting, one has mastery over others. Only thinking allows one to gain mastery over the self.
The Eight-fold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth set forth by the Buddha, is accessible only to those who have the ability to think. Thinking, not belief in some big daddy in the sky, allows one to follow the eight-fold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Of the eight, I think the most important is the right view bit.
Depending upon your point of view, you will see things different from the way that others see it. If you clearly perceive the reality (which others see differently from you but not necessarily incorrectly), then you can undertake the right action and apply the right effort.
I think that at a minimum, an educational system must teach people how to think. How to fast and how to wait would be good but perhaps it is too much to ask for right now. Does such a system exist anywhere in the world? I don’t know for sure but I doubt it very sincerely. I realize of course that there are people who have gone through the current educational systems and they are also able to think. But I would be wary of ascribing that result to the present setup. It is more likely that despite the present system, those people have learnt how to think.
I believe that learning how to think may be something alike to learning a language. It appears that we have a language learning sub-system in our brains which shuts down sometime around age 12 or so. Before reaching that age, you can very easily learn languages; after that, learning languages is extremely hard. So also, I believe that if you catch a kid early enough, you can teach him or her to think. It is as if the brain circuits are just a lot of firmware in early childhood and then as one grows up, the firmware hardens and become hardware that cannot be re-programmed.
Here is my prescription for a good education. Focus primarily on teaching how to think and on teaching people how to learn. Teaching how to think is like giving kids a very high powered CPU. Teaching them how to learn gives them control of a very broadband channel through which they can have access to content that the CPU can process. Alternative analogy: good thinking skills is like have a good operating system. And good learning skills is like having a great set of applications.