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Getting our world to somehow work

Fast on the heels of the terrifying news of college admission cutoffs, I got to hear a philosopher rekindle the difference between the 'descriptive' state (the way things are) and the 'normative' state (the way they ought to be). Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2011 00:19 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Fast on the heels of the terrifying news of college admission cutoffs, I got to hear a philosopher rekindle the difference between the 'descriptive' state (the way things are) and the 'normative' state (the way they ought to be). Between the two lies the field of human action, our reason for living. So I would like to refry what many say anxiously about the real benefits of education. Education, if we think about it, is not just a technical qualification, but a life code. It centres us in a worldview that upholds liberty, equality and fraternity. This means respecting another's space, which in turn breaks down into good road manners, good queue manners, good elevator manners and paying our dues. It's practical, just like the rule about uphill traffic having right of way ensures that transitions are smooth. Oiling the wheels of civilisation also means an adaab, namaste or good morning when we come in to work or just a cheery Hi. But if parents don't teach children, we'll have to live with anger and anxiety forever. We may well protest, "Life trips us with big and small disappointments at every step. How can we bother when we're dragged down so much?"

True. "A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken" (Proverbs 15:13). That's precisely where 'education' can help us. Enjoying history, scripture, literature and art, regularly dosing ourselves with dance, music and theatre, letting ourselves observe and experience Nature are part of education too. These experiences give us a long view of existence beyond our immediate problems, they 'refract the ocean in a dewdrop' and pull us back from the edge of the ledge when we're fed up with life. They cheer us up. That is fundamentally important to individuals and society, because "All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast" (Proverbs 15:15).

The greatest gift of such 'education' is that it constructs a safety net in our minds to catch us when we're falling. The mystics tend to dismiss the mind as 'cold intellect' compared to the heart's fiery God-love. But the mind is our friend if we cultivate it. It helps us soften the rougher edges of human contact, to face up to disappointment and somehow make our world work - and so we get a life.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.