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Buddhistdoor View: The Purpose of Learning

Children learning inside a yurt pre-school. From the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative Press Center

Since leaving her post as Kyrgyzstan’s interim president in 2011, Roza Otunbayeva has devoted herself to philanthropic services for her country. One of these is an ambitious initiative to educate its nomadic children in a modern pre-school setting (inside mobile yurts, and during the summer). Ms. Otunbayeva is following in the footsteps of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), a charity that pioneered these nomadic pre-schools in 2006. In the same year, the 14th Dalai Lama outlined his fundamental ideas about education in a speech in Dharamsala, noting that knowledge is needed to preserve Tibet’s culture and best pursued through modern learning methodologies.

Burulai Aitikulova, currently the AKF’s education program officer, suggested that pre-school is crucial for a child’s development and providing nomadic toddlers with access to education is critical to their future. What she did not mention, however, was specific reasons for how modern arithmetic, spelling, and other curriculum basics would benefit nomads (aside from better chances to move into cities like Bishkek to find employment or start a business). To our modern sensitivities, Ms. Aitikulova’s assertion is complete common sense and needs no justification. Especially in industrialized nations (or industrialized regions within developing countries), most cannot fathom the idea of not going through the modern system of primary, secondary, and now tertiary education. In industrialized societies, an unschooled child is a doomed child.

Yet, from observing the ballooning rates of youth unemployment and underemployment, along with a growing demographic of “working poor,” it would seem that the orthodoxy of guaranteed contentment through modern education is failing too many. Furthermore, plenty of highly educated, economically secure professionals are suffering more pressure, stress, and personal dissatisfaction than ever. There would appear to be a difference between recognizing the virtues of modern education, like the Dalai Lama has done, and pursuing it in order to gain wealth and success. In order to envision an education inspired by Buddhist values, we need to examine what education is assumed to impart today. Why do many families, from Kyrgyzstan to China, want a modern education for their children?

Understandably, they are conditioned by their circumstances, and many parents have their own painful memories and experiences of poverty. Most simply wish their children to survive and participate in the world they are born into. But parents in the developed world do not simply want their children to survive: “survival” denotes subsistence and a harsh, miserable life. They want them to be successful. Education is seen as the pathway to economic prosperity through the dignity of a well-paid job. Through their paycheck, they will be able to meet the criteria for success their society has set: a family, a home, and social recognition (if not outright prestige). The yardsticks set for young people’s “success” have even multiplied, one of them being indulging in consumerist spending habits and buying the latest, high-status products.

These assumptions about success and happiness are not taken for granted in Buddhism, and in many ways, they are debunked. Even the word “success” is effectively a meaningless word for the Buddhist, since it is loaded with so many materialist and social connotations that it is a contingent, unstable condition dependent on other contingent, unstable conditions. The materialist understanding of success is not a solid foundation on which to pursue education.

Buddhism celebrates parents’ love for their children and their desire for their security. The tradition also abhors poverty as an injustice that can indeed be remedied by education. Yet the Noble Eightfold Path reminds Buddhists that success is not the summum bonum of human life; liberation is. And modern education should be a means to walking the Eightfold Path, such as refining a child’s ideas about Right View, entering school and the workforce with the Right Intention of helping beings, and developing a serious commitment to Right Livelihood, avoiding harmful professions as much as possible (what constitutes “harmful” is a complex debate, and is beyond the scope of the present article). Meditation and mindfulness classes can certainly be a part of this Buddhist-inspired model for a more fulfilling model of education.

It is important not to romanticize the real struggles of nomads or other traditional peoples. To go back to tilling the land or herding animals is unrealistic for most in the developed world. There is also an important debate about whether people of traditional lifestyles need to “arm” themselves with modern knowledge and institutions in order to resist uniquely modern injustices. For example, a tribesman living in the forest who studies to become a lawyer might stand a better chance of saving his village from relocation by the government. Modern education, if taught with Right View and Right Intention (and angled towards Right Livelihood), can be a powerful means to benefit society and individuals. 

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