Holistic education : Trends and challenges

Samarjit Kambam *

The word 'Holistic' according to Webster's dictionary, is the principle that "Whole is greater than the sum of its parts". It lays down that the system as a whole should determine how its parts behave. Holistic Education is based on the premise that each person finds his/her identity, meaning and purpose in life through interaction to the community, to the nature and inculcating humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. It is meant to bring a synergetic relationship between developmental areas such as body, mind and soul.

The 'Holistic' ideals in every country, including the Western countries, can be traced back to indigenous cultures. Generally, the aboriginal or indigenous person sees the earth and the universe as infused with meaning. Advocates of holistic education try to recover this sense of meaning and purpose in education. The concept of holism articulates that the universe is made up of integrated wholes that cannot be reduced to parts.

Thoreau, Ronson Alcott and Francis Parker as well as Montessori and Rudolf Steiner emphasised on the spiritual nature of the human being. Rosseau, though more humanistic than holistic, provided some underpinnings for holistic education. He viewed the child essentially good and believed that the soul of the child should be allowed to unfold according to its own natural pattern. This view of the child as good is the basic assumption of Holistic Education. In the past century, two of the most important holistic educators have been Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.

The Gurukul model of education, which was prevalent in ancient India had the 'Guru' imparting knowledge to their 'Shishyas' sitting under a tree. Invariably, the pupil used to stay along-with the teachers. The teacher, ('Acharya' as known during those times) in the Vedic age was responsible not only in imparting knowledge, but also in molding the character and personality of the pupils of his 'Ashram'. Education was considered to be the means to attain social efficiency and happiness, preservation and spread of culture, infusion and piety and development of best type of personality.

Shri Aurobindo Ghosh, one of the greatest thinkers of modern India emphasised the emergence of spiritual energies during successive stages of growth. In contrast to the dominant empiricist thinking of the modern age, the philosopher/ spiritual reformer insisted that human development is essentially "an unfoldment of inherent potentials". The individual is seen as "an organismic whole which contains innate wisdom and motive force". This spiritual voice requires careful guidance and cultivation by loving, alert adults. Truly, Indian approach to holistic education was a testimony of such unambiguous wisdom inherited from the concept of Gurukula.

At the threshold of the modern era - the 20th century in Bengal, while the nation was reeling under British rule, Rabindra Nath Tagore envisioned a Holistic Educational paradigm known as 'Shantiniketan'. From the inception, it was modeled in the principles of humanism, internationalism and sustainable environment. The curriculum was developed to promote the free interchange of human values and cultures. Thus, over 100 years ago, Shantiniketan promoted a unique blend of art and cultural interchange in its classrooms that were held in the open air, free from the confines of spatial or ideological boundaries.

Contemporary educators understand the essentiality of the broad curriculum frame work and pedagogy. It should be flexible according to the child's needs, motivating them to inquire into various aspects deeply and to enable learning in a fun-filled and loving environment. 'Happiness is the goal and "happy" should be the journey' is the underlying theme amongst the modern era educationists.

Reformist efforts of Shri Sonam Wangchuk - The Rolex Awardee for Enterprise in the year 2016 are noteworthy for their revolutionary impact in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. He is the founder of 'Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh' (SEMCOL) founded in 1988. He experimented the new system of education first in a small number of schools and later expanded it to the whole district under the name, 'Operation New Hope'.

The innovativeness of SEMCOL is that it gives an environment to the students where they could grow. Not just in mind, but also in their hearts and by their hands. This model is called 'Bright Head, Skilled Hands and Kind Heart'. The idea is to let the students run the school which includes building the eco-friendly mud buildings, cooking the food and managing the expenses. The students learn 'on the go'. As a result, even the students who failed in their board exams multiple times prior to joining SEMCOL, there exists an alternative - solar powered student built, student run school for failures - by those who were rejected by the conventional system.

The upcoming project of Mr. Wangchuk is 'Himalayan Institute of Alternatives' (HIAL). HIAL aims at engaging youths from multiple Himalayan countries viz, Nepal and Bhutan in Research and Development to tackle the issues faced by mountain people, especially in the domains of education, culture and environment. Like SEMCOL, the university aims to break the rigid boxes of conventional thinking, be relevant to people's thinking and lives and encourage learning through the medium of practical application of knowledge.

While the efforts of individuals like Sonam Wangchuk are non-profit based, there are good numbers of educational institutions offering holistic education on commercial basis. They all uphold the general perception, that a boarding school offers holistic education than a day school.

While educational institutions offering supposedly holistic education are mushrooming, it is noticeable that many amongst those entrepreneurs have no background in the field of education. Most of them are switching-over from the corporate world to education sector, determined to bring about a 'change' in the field. There is a phenomenal increase in the number of enthusiastic parents, who go all-out to fetch their child an education that will radically change the future. However, many challenges are perceived to be existing in the path of a truly Holistic Education.

The current system of education is obsessively focusing on the standards of testing. In fact, it abandons any attempt to educate the whole human being. Holistic educators see the incumbent approach as a reflection of materialistic and consumerist culture. Present schools have been reduced to centres which train individuals to compete in the global market place. Therefore, any change in the prevailing system to a new one, such as holistic education will be a time consuming and cumbersome process which is heavily hampered by consumerist aspects of present world order.

Holistic Education is humanitarian education. However, prevailing system cannot afford to focus on the 'Wholeness of life', foregoing the prevalent 'sum of the parts' syndrome. Simply put it, no one amongst the modern era educators, who crossed over from the corporate world, shall risk the competitive edge they may at present enjoy in the spectrum.

In the modern era, education is yet another sector that returns rich economic dividends. The world order demands education of a child only to feed the job market. Selected growth is just what everyone is looking for and too sufficient. Hence, educating or training in parts is a 'make-believe' world, where everyone seems happy. The concept of Holistic Education is therefore, consistently under threat of destruction. The very aim of both educators and learners has become materialistic prosperity, while pushing wholeness and holism towards the rear.

Holism, in itself, needs to be more clearly understood by the citizenry. 'Unfolding the inherent Godliness of a Child' is a concept easier said than understood. Consequently, the noble intentions of Rosseau and Postalozzi - leave alone the practices of Gurukula - are hijacked by a few modern era educators who find education to be another lucrative business. Education is no longer just about learning tangible and measurable skills. Our past educational paradigms relied on the 'average' measurements and standardisation.

Children were prepared to memorise information and then take examinations. Not only is this inept but also considered to be unhealthy psychologically, by educational scientists. Identifying oneself with the society and inculcating humanitarian values is the fundamental aim and concept of Holistic Education. This cannot be done through an 'academic curriculum' that condenses the world into instructional packages; but through direct engagement with the environment.

One way to promote Holistic Education is to take account of a diversity of progressive traditions and discourses in education that are yearning towards connectedness with others, the natural world, not virtual, so that the human consciousness is looked after by education. There is no single best means to accomplish this goal, there are many paths of learning and the holistic educators should value them all. There needs to be an understanding that what is appropriate for some children and adults, in some situations, in some historical or social contexts, is not the best for others. More deliberations are needed between the areas of education and holistic education. There is a need to find collaborators in analysing the existing situation of broken paradoxes and to develop models of education guided by more holistic approach.

It is widely acclaimed that university system existing in South Asian countries is benefiting from the autonomous system prevalent. Therefore, professional independence of teachers is to be looked after by the government and the society. Now, ibid autonomy of the teachers should be in tandem with the responsibility expected from teachers' community. Educational institutions can enhance the autonomy of teachers and include them as well as the students in mainstream education.

As laid down in National Policy on education (NPE 1986), "The government and the community should endeavour to create conditions which will help motivate and inspire teachers on constructive and creative lines". Consequently, teachers should deliver on the diverse needs of the students, inculcating values such as compassion and peace. Three spheres of human life - the mind, body and soul should be targeted by the teaching community for development, as an institutional policy.

Modern education is perceived to be failing and educators are criticised for failing to meet the aspirations of the society. This is probably because most of the people see it predominantly as preparation for succeeding in materialistic world. Remember, people often can hear what they expect or want to hear. For 'Holistic Education' to be popular and to be successful, we should re-invent education as a 'Service' which is not a means for materialistic prosperity. And, that re-invention shall require a paradigm shift in our approach towards life.

* Samarjit Kambam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on August 4, 2017.

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