Life-Centered Education


All over the world nations are confronted with unprecedented challenges: the pressing need for rapid material advancement in the developing countries of the Third World and the increasing incidence of psychological disturbances, crime and violence in the modern industrial nations of the West. Education is regarded as one of the key elements, if not the key, to the development of society, and, therefore, as an instrument for meeting these challenges. But it is now becoming apparent that the present educational system is incapable of playing this role effectively, because it is actually a source of these problems. The system itself needs to be changed so as to generate the solutions rather than contributing to the causes.

The present educational system is composed of two distinct strands which derive from different origins: the first, pure abstract knowledge in various fields of thought which is derived from the European tradition of liberal education for upper class gentlemen and the second, practical knowledge and technical skills relating to material objects and processes which emerged as a result of the recent industrial and technological revolutions. This system suffers from two major deficiencies: it divides knowledge into various separate subjects and disciplines, thereby making it partial and fragmentary; and it divorces knowledge from real life, thereby making it abstract and irrelevant to living.

The modern university derives from the Christian theological schools of the Middle Ages which gradually opened their doors to the non-clerical upper classes and widened their field of study to include a range of philosophical and literary subjects which constituted the “gentleman’s education” of the 18th century. The study of theology and classical language gave birth to philosophy, linguistics and literature, history and psychology emerged from philosophy, economics from history and so on. Along side these subjects another line of biological and physical sciences emerged from the close observation of material and life processes.

With the emergence of each new subject, knowledge became more detailed and study more specialized. The removal of traditional barriers to freedom of thought enabled mind to pursue each line of enquiry to its farthest ends. The development of new instruments of observation made possible the detailed analysis of physical facts which is the basis of modern science. These trends stimulated many fold the accumulation of facts and information and the formulation of abstract theories and concepts to explain them.

The body of knowledge called modern science is the product of mind’s division of existence into innumerable separate fields of study and its unidimensional investigation of each field. At the same time there has been a progressive withdrawal of the observer from the field of observation into the laboratory, a rapid development of theories and concepts, and a growing tendency to view life in terms of abstract thought rather than through direct observation. The result has been a fragmentation of knowledge and an abstraction of knowledge from life.

Impact of the Educational System on Society

These characteristics of our educational system have been transferred to our political, economic and social systems as well, and herein lies the chief cause of the most pressing contemporary social problems. Unidimensional thought and knowledge has given rise to unidimensional action and change resulting in unbalanced growth and disruption of physical, biological, social and psychological harmonies. In the Third World we find problems such as the population explosion, ecological imbalance, urban migration, and educated unemployment which are all the result of unilateral development programmes. In the industrialized West, material and technological advance have outstripped cultural and psychological growth resulting in various expressions of social tension and psychological distress. Exactly 50 years ago a special committee on social trends in America appointed by President Hoover predicted that “unless there is a speed up of social invention or a slowing down of mechanical invention, grave maladjustments are certain”. The Committee reported that the whole organization of society was in a state of disequilibrium and that disharmony in economic life due to rapid technological change was generating disharmony in the social life as well. Far from helping to eradicate the ills of unbalanced unidimensional growth, the present educational system institutionalizes unidimensional thought and specialization, thereby perpetuating and aggravating the situation.

In India, for example, it trains future development planners and administrators to design partial uncoordinated programmes without regard for their impact on other spheres of life. It produces unidimensional technocrats with a high level of pure technical skill, but little knowledge of the strategies by which their skill can best be applied for national development or of the consequences of technological applications on the environment and the society. It perpetuates the values of the colonial period when salaried employment under the British was considered highly prestigious, instead of fostering attitudes conducive to self-employment and entrepreneurship, thus creating the problem of educated unemployment and retarding industrial development. It produces record numbers of scientists, most of whom have been trained to pursue lines of pure scientific research with little or no relevance to the needs of the society. It fosters a rejection of the traditional wisdom of a 5000 year old civilization in favour of western ideas and materialistic values which are barely a few centuries old and which are destroying the very fabric of society and culture.

Interdisciplinary Studies as an Inadequate Alternative

The recognition of these facts has led educators all over the world to strive for an alternative approach. There is now a general consensus that the fragmentation of the study of social problems by different academic disciplines separated from one another by rigid theoretical and professional barriers is a major obstacle to the generation of effective solutions. To compensate for this inherent structural deficiency, a greater emphasis is being placed on interdisciplinary and interprofessional research on the problems of development.

Interdisciplinary study can mitigate some of the greater ills of specialization. They can prevent the creation of more planners who view development solely in terms of capital and technology ignoring the impact of political organization, education, social values and culture. They can equip technologists who become development administrators with an awareness of the consequences of rapid technological change on society and the environment. They can help future managers appreciate the political, social and cultural factors which influence the expansion of commerce and industry. They can foster the creation of more comprehensive development strategies in place of one-sided approaches.

But a mere modification of the existing system to emphasize interdisciplinary studies, while welcome in itself, will not be sufficient to overcome the deficiencies of the present system or to resolve the most pressing social problems of developed and developing nations. Studies made from the multiple viewpoints of many separate disciplines instead of from only one discipline are still based on a fragmented approach without a real centre of reference. At most they can generate an awareness of the many aspects and dimensions of social problems. They cannot unite these many diverse aspects in a single integral vision of the whole. At best a multidisciplinary approach can foster greater coordination among the various agencies involved in implementation. It cannot produce strategies which are harmoniously integrated with the present life of the society and designed to release its energies for development.

The basic limitation of an interdisciplinary approach is that it abandons the old centre of vision which is limited to the theoretical framework of a single specialized field without creating a new centre which is capable of integrating the divergent viewpoints of various disciplines. What is really needed is to discover a higher unifying perspective based on fundamental principles common to all disciplines and a new centre of vision which is coterminous with life rather than divorced from it.

If our goal is to create a socially relevant education that can contribute to the resolution of contemporary social problems, then interdisciplinary studies will not suffice. Interdisciplinary studies, even if they become perfect, can achieve perfection only in the mental sphere of pure abstract knowledge which is not integrated with life. In mind different fields can exist in isolation from each other, but in life they are inseparable parts of a single reality. A pure mental education can train the mind, but it cannot solve the problems of social life. For that, mental knowledge must integrate itself at the life center for accomplishment on the physical plane. For the solution to life’s problems, a life centered education is necessary.

The Organisation of Knowledge: An Analogy

The difference between the existing system of specialization, an interdisciplinary approach, and an integrated life-centered approach can be illustrated by an analogy with the organization of knowledge in an encyclopedia. Until recently all general encyclopedias have been compiled by an alphabetical organization of innumerable entries, each entry limited in scope to information on a particular item. This system provides ready reference to specific facts, but at the same time it fragments knowledge into tiny unrelated categories in the same manner as specialization divides life into separate disciplines. This standard format has been abandoned by the 15th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica which was first published eight years ago. The new Britannica is organized in terms of broader topics which present individual facts and ideas in a wider context rather than in isolation, thereby revealing their interrelationships. The organizational chart for this new edition is an outline of all fields of human knowledge and the form of the outline is a circle of knowledge which expresses the fact that all aspects of human knowledge are related to all other aspects. The shift from the alphabetical organization to Britannica’s new format can be likened to the shift from specialization to interdisciplinary studies. In the standard encyclopedia a topic such as Olympic Games is discussed in isolation as a separate entry which describes the history and highlights of the games. In the new Britannica the Olympic games are included in a longer article on athletics contests which describes the Olympics as the most important of many international sporting events. This represents a partial progress away from pure isolation and fragmentation. In an encyclopedia based on an integrated life-centered perspective, the Olympics might be discussed in an article on development of international institutions. The growth of the Olympics and other international sporting events represents a movement toward greater international cooperation between the countries of the world community. The Olympics is far more than just an athletic contest; it is an expression of the movement toward human unity and is symbolic of the greater political and social significance it embodies.

Integrated Life-Centered Approach

The basis of this new approach is to take life itself as the center of perspective and to study it as an integral whole, rather than dividing the subject into specialized disciplines and abstracting it from its living context which destroys a vision of the whole and makes it irrelevant to life. The aim should be to discover the common principles and processes which govern change in all fields of life, rather than constructing partial and limited theories to explain change in each different field. These principles and processes constitute the basic concepts of the Science of the Development of Life.

Each of the sciences of social life has identified basic laws or characteristic patterns of activity in their respective fields of enquiry. These laws are various expressions of universal principles which govern man’s social existence, each law focusing on one dimension of social life which is integral. So long as social scientists view life from the different perspectives of their own disciplines, it is not possible to piece together the enormous number of inter-dependent factors to create an integral vision of the whole and a true view of interrelationships. For that, the partial laws and theories of each discipline must themselves be replaced by the more fundamental principles of which they are all expressions.

Principles of Development

These universal principles which constitute the science of development have been known to mankind from time immemorial and passed on as traditional wisdom and culture from generation to generation. Only in the wake of modern science they have been brushed aside and their value largely forgotten. The laws of development have three main characteristics. First, they are valid on all planes from the material to the spiritual because physical, social, mental, cultural and spiritual development are part of a single continuous and integral process, rather than separate and independent movements.

Second, these principles are valid in all fields of life – political, social, economic, linguistic, cultural, etc. – because all these fields form overlapping and interrelated aspects of one integral whole. Third, the laws of development apply to both the individual and the collectivity, for these two are not separate and distinct from each other and neither exist in isolation. The process of inner psychological development in man corresponds to the process of social, economic and cultural development in society.

Modern thinkers have rediscovered many of the old truths. Sigmund Freud described the process of sublimation by which man and society restrain the expression of instinctual animal propensities and channel these energies upward into higher social, cultural and mental activities. The world-renowned historian Arnold Toynbee identified several such principles and derived from them a unifying theory of history. Toynbee recognized that the study of history in terms of individual countries was an arbitrary approach which distorted reality since each country is part of a larger evolving unit of mankind which he called a civilization. By viewing the past as the history of civilizations he was able to discover certain underlying principles which were valid in all fields of life, in all ages, and in every part of the world. Principles such as withdrawal and return, individual creativity and social mimesis, challenge and response are equally applicable to the social and cultural sphere as they are to economics and politics, to ancient city-states and modern superpowers, to technological discoveries and spiritual realizations, to the individual and the collectivity, the family and the modern corporation, Toynbee’s principle of Challenge and Response, for instance, explains the rapid growth of Japan after the confrontation with the American fleet in 1854, the emergence of Punjab as India’s leading agricultural and industrial area after the devastating communal riots following partition in 1947, the elevation of Jews to the highest positions in business, finance and education throughout the western world following centuries of persecution by that society, etc.

Principle of Harmony

One of the most important principles of life in all Eastern societies is the principle of harmony. In the East harmony is the highest social value upon which the communal life is based. This is in contrast to Western society where the chief characteristic of social life is unidimensional change, progress. Toynbee states the principle positively, “It is one of the characteristics of civilizations in process of growth that all aspects and activities of their social life are coordinated into a single social whole, in which the economic, political, and cultural elements are kept in a nice adjustment with one another by an inner harmony of the growing body politic”*. Sri Aurobindo states the same principle negatively, “All problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony”**. The present problems facing society all over the world derive from the disturbance of the existing harmony and creation of imbalance.

This principle is illustrated positively by the example of Japan where harmony formed the very basis of traditional family and communal life. The transition from a traditional rural-based agrarian society into a modern industrial nation is usually marked by a disruption of family life and traditional values and their replacement by larger social institutions like the company which do not provide the sense of security and psychological satisfaction associated with the family. But in Japan the old harmony was preserved during rapid modernization by extending the same principles of family life to the new institutions, in effect making the company a larger version of the family offering the same sense of physical security and psychological identification. The result has been a far lower incidence of social disturbance than in other nations, even those at a much earlier level of industrialization which have destroyed the harmonious integrity of their traditional social existence.

This principle can be illustrated negatively by countless examples, in fact by nearly all contemporary social problems. For instance, the population explosion in India is largely the result of the unidimensional application of modern science in the field of medical and health care resulting in a dramatic reduction in the death rate and an increase in life expectancy. By itself it is a very great developmental achievement,but its very success has created a dis-equilibrium. All illiterate population which has not yet acquired modern education and development-oriented social values has been very slow to adjust its procreative tendencies to the new situation resulting in a continued high birth rate alongside a continuously falling death rate. The strategy adopted to restore the balance is a further application of modern medical technology to bring down the birth rate. This is the most viable strategy in the short run, but it is subject to the same limitation that caused the problem in the first place. A society which is unable to adjust its procreative behaviour to the introduction of the first new technology, i.e. public health care, is unlikely to respond more dramatically to the introduction of a second new technology, i.e. birth control devices. The long term solution lies rather in restoring the lost harmony between technology and social values at a higher level by extending modern education to the entire population.

The problems of pollution and ecological imbalance which afflict the advanced industrial nations are expressions of the same principle. Here too the strategy adopted is to counteract the imbalance caused by the impact of one new technology by the introduction of additional technology. This can provide only a partial and temporary solution. The elimination of every imbalance will be followed by the creation of several new ones, so long as society pursues unidimensional material development without proportionate growth in the social and psychological sphere. As the Commission to President Hoover found, the rapid proliferation of new technologies has destroyed the existing harmony between man and his environment, between his economic and social life, between his social, moral and psychological existence. The report states:

“Our capacity to produce goods changes faster than our capacity to purchase; employment does not keep pace with improvement in the machinery of production; inter-oceanic communication changes more quickly than the reorganization of international relations, the factory takes occupations away from the home before the home can adjust itself to the new conditions. The automobile affects the railroads, the family, the size of cities, the types of crimes, manners and morals”.

Ultimately the problem lies not in technology, but in our fragmented view of life; and the solution lies not in new technologies to counter old ones, but in the creation of a new harmony at a higher level of culture.

Processes of Development

The study of development has been severely hampered by the predominance of fragmentary unidimensional approaches to an integrated multidimensional social phenomenon. The process of development cannot be subdivided into its social, political, economic, cultural and psychological components without sacrificing a vision of the totality and losing the capacity for effective action. The same underlying processes govern change in all these fields and determine their interrelations and interdependence.

To cite an example, of the processes, all development proceeds through a hierarchy of steps from energy to skill, from skill to organization, and from organization to institutionalization. The basic requisite for development at any level is abundant and over-flowing energy in excess of what is required for existence at the present level. That energy must be awakened and released, then it must be converted into useful constructive skills. The skilled energy becomes effective only when it is organized in a systematic manner to achieve specific goals. The achievement becomes complete and permanent when institutions are created to embody these goals and channel the organized skilled energy into efficient activity.

For instance, the social energy which has made possible Indian development since 1947 was awakened and released by the freedom movement during a century long struggle to cast off foreign rule. That energy was fully liberated by Independence and subsequent social reforms. The new nation inherited a skilled administrative system and one of the most efficient civil service cadres in the world. But skills for government are insufficient to develop a nation. The population itself had to acquire knowledge and skills suited for modern industrial enterprise. This has been accomplished by a rapid expansion of the educational system at all levels and in all fields. The Indian National Congress which had organized itself during the freedom fight emerged to lead the country in its new fight against poverty. Over a hundred new institutions were created to embody the socialist goals of the new government. A central Planning Commission was established based on the Soviet model. The administrative apparatus was restructured and a new development administration was created from the national down to the local village level introducing the important element of coordination of departments that was previously lacking. New financial, industrial, educational and research organizations were created. Today Indian development is looked at as a model to imitate by many developing countries for the very fact that its achievements were not sporadic or accidental. They were made possible by the presence of all the essential ingredients, the very same factors which made possible the rise of modern Japan, the expansion of the British Empire, and the settlement of the American frontier. We acquire a true perspective of these events when they are viewed in their totality as processes of life, rather than merely economic, political or social processes.

Knowledge of Life Skills

Knowledge becomes effective in life only when it is expressed by the individual through his personality in his outer behaviour. The ability to express knowledge in life depends on the life skills and capacities which the individual possesses. In addition to imparting a knowledge of the principles and processes of life, a life-centered education should also impart a knowledge of the life skills and capacities necessary for translating knowledge into achievement. These skills are normally acquired subconsciously as an inheritance from the previous generation and through life experience, they are not taught in schools. The skill itself cannot be transferred through pure mental education, but a knowledge of the importance of these skills and their role in life can and should be taught.

There are many skills and capacities necessary for survival. The most important are the capacity for decision-making, a sense of responsibility for one’s own life, the capacity to organize, the capacity to convert resources (potentials) into benefits (actualities) in one’s own life, resourcefulness, patience, endurance, tolerance, accommodation, etc. As the student learns the importance of harmony and other life requirements for any lasting social achievement, he can learn the importance of essential human capacities. This aspect of life-centered education may be termed education of personality.

Development Education

Our immediate aim is to evolve a system of education that can contribute more substantially to the resolution of social problems by stimulating the further development of society in such a manner as to overcome present problems and establish a more harmonious process of change. We have identified three important components of such a system: it should impart a knowledge of the principles on which life functions, it should reveal the processes by which life develops, and it should teach the importance of human personality in this process. The actual emphasis placed on these different components may vary with the level and purpose of the education, but they would always constitute the basis for the curriculum.

These three components when studied in the actual living context of society will help the student understand the changes through which his own society is passing and the directions of future growth. They will help him discover the present opportunities and future potentials which he can tap for his own self-development and as a contribution to the development of his society. They will also instill in him a knowledge of the personality characteristics required for achievement which he should cultivate in himself and express in his future life work.

In practical terms, this Development Education will help remove many of the misconceptions and superstitions which discourage creative and innovative behaviour in life. It will counteract conservative security-oriented views and attitudes and impart a more dynamic, development-oriented perspective. It will replace the idea that development is something the government or somebody else does for you with a knowledge that all real development is self-initiated, self-propelled, self-achieving, self-development. In countries like India still emerging from the legacy of colonial rule, it will project the values of development-oriented entrepreneurship and self-employment as opposed to security-oriented salaried jobs.

Aim of Education

Education is not merely the acquisition of mental knowledge and physical skills. In the best sense of the word, the purpose of education is to make the higher ideals of the mind harmoniously and creatively express at the material level to enrich human life. When mental ideals and innovations are integrated with existence on the physical plane, life becomes comfortable, soft, cultured and rich. This is the highest goal which civilization can aim for.

Education is an instrument to pass on to the youth the knowledge of the past which society has acquired through many generations of life experience. It can also become an instrument to impart a knowledge of the future. To do so, it must shift its focus from a study of external forms which invariably become outmoded and must be discarded to a study of the essential wisdom of social life which these forms embody. The future should inherit the essence of the past which is wisdom, rather than the forms of the past which are traditional habits. This essence is a knowledge of the laws and processes which govern the development of society, civilization and culture. It constitutes the science of Life or the science of Development. The discovery of these fundamental principles and their application to integrate our mental ideals with physical reality in the plane of social life is the education which the world needs.

This process does occur of itself sporadically and subconsciously. The extension of the harmony of family life to the company in Japan is one example where the essence of the past wisdom was passed on to new forms. The Bolsheviks in Russia wanted to replace Czarist dictatorship with proletarian democracy, but in fact ended up with proletarian dictatorship instead; thereby preserving the essential character of the Russian system in a new form which has enabled it to survive and become the most powerful nation in the world. China did the same thing when it replaced the worship of the Emperor with the idolization of Chairman Mao.

Whereas in India and many other developing countries, the essence of the past has been cast aside along with the traditional forms resulting in all the social problems which afflict western society. A country of traditionally self-employed agriculturists and traders has abandoned this heritage. Vast numbers have given up the opportunities for lucrative self-employment in modern agriculture and industry to seek salaried jobs in overcrowded cities and have thus generated a crisis of educated unemployment. The essential character of the people has to be preserved and upgraded into new forms rather than abandoned. This is the aim of Development Education.

The harmony which a changing civilization must preserve between its past and future is the harmony of its social wisdom or the genius of its culture. The best way for a society to benefit by the changes that knock at its door is to accept the outer forms of beneficial changes and utilize them in the spirit and wisdom of its past. That way the outer forms cannot generate any disharmony in social life; rather the outer form will yield, as in Japan, far greater results than in the country of its origin.


Future Education Conference

A one-day conference on Future Education in India was organized at Anandha Inn, Pondicherry on January 28, 2018 to consider the changes needed in our schools and to examine successful strategies that are already being applied by schools in India and overseas. 

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