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The Crisis of Conscience – Are Global Education Systems Failing?

G. Balasubramanian is a doyen of school education in India.

He has held several positions of leadership at CBSE, including Director Academics. He was the brain behind the introduction of several innovations at CBSE which included frontline curriculum, Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Information Technology, Alternatives to Homework, etc. He is also an author, poet and a sought-after speaker at education conferences world over.


“The man who has won millions at the cost of his conscience is a failure” says B.C. Forbes. In a world excessively haunted by materialism and consumerism, the words of Forbes appear to be very relevant. “Conscience is a man’s compass” says Vincent Van Gogh.

From time immemorial, the debate on the relevance of conscience to the humans’ social dynamics has been an on-going one. The battle between the ego and the conscience,

the former trying to dominate the world through powers of all kinds and the later trying to apply the brakes to ensure that the righteousness prevails over everything, has been a part of every aspect of history. For centuries, every human action including those relating to survival were always tested on the cornerstones of conscience.

It was the ultimate mirror of the truth of the individual or the ethical profile of the person. Conscience was considered the call of the divine in every living being to be fair to the self, with no harm, hurt or injuries to the physical, mental, emotional or the spiritual health of any other individual or for that matter, to any existential design. “There is no witness so terrible, no accuser so powerful as the conscience which dwells within us” said Sophocles in early fourth century B.C. Hence, the processes and practices that were in place for centuries with regard to the upliftment of the individuals, through education, addressed to nurturing the conscience, to keep it sensitive, responsive and clear free from all sub-systems so that the sovereignty of the conscience was celebrated.

The conscience of any individual has never been silent. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t lie. It never ditches the one who listens. But the voice of the conscience sometimes become so weak that either the arrogance of the ego or the power or the authority tames it to lie low. It is not the cowardice of the conscience, but a state of ‘learned helplessness’. It accepts that I am not being listened to. Yet, it goes on sending its messages. Says Mahatma Gandhi, “The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience.” Oftentimes, the continuous call of the conscience forces an individual to review, reconsider the opinion, the decision and the path in which he travels. He faces the crisis of conscience – the fight between the right and the wrong. The weak person succumbs to the power of authority, the power of ego and the power of external self.

Here raises the question, whether education could help to counter this situation?

The question has always remained -whether one’s conscience can ever be educated? Defining conscience, the Encyclopedia Britannica says “Conscience, a personal sense of the moral content of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character with regard to a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. Conscience, usually informed by acculturation and instruction, is thus generally understood to give intuitively authoritative judgments regarding the moral quality of single actions.” Being the personal moral content of one’s own conduct, it always comes in conflict with those of others, however taming itself to finetune on many fronts to evolve into a social conscience. At times of conflict, it does raise a question, as it happened to Martin Luther King Jr. who asked himself the question: “But, conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

The concept of righteousness, as advocated in Indian Philosophy through the chronicles of “Dharma” has been a part of study and practice, both at the informal and formal platforms of learning – either individually or collectively. The strong belief that the practice of Dharma is the sheet-anchor against any type of evil assault was integral to the Indian psyche. The idea “धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः” (The dharma protects the one, who protects dharma) was a part of the deep learning exercise of all Indian knowledge outfits. Adherence to Dharma, was therefore deemed as adherence to the social conscience.

In the last few decades of social transformation, the excessive focus on information, its retrieval, management, its economic value has shifted the paradigms of learning to a more materialistic and consumeristic style. The goal, objectives, purposes and processes address to building economic brands and that too at the earliest time. Excessive consumption even at the cost of negating what is due to others has become a display of sophistication. Concepts of equity, fairness, equality has given way to self-branding, marketing, advertisement and TRP requirements. Value propositions have been redefined to make life ‘worthy’ of living through attainment of standards rather than quality. Setting aside our conscience, we have played with the balance we have with our environment, mercilessly exploiting every aspect of it to demonstrate the human superiority and made several species extinct. All these tendencies have created conflicts with conscience both for the individual and society as a whole.

Righteousness and the call of conscience is being sacrificed to make ‘bigger’ or to seek ‘brighter’ prospects. Cutting-edge competitions for performances which can be demonstrated, proven, tangible or visible force sacrifice or mute the call of the conscience. Education, thus nurturing information appears to have defeated the purity of the intellect, insight and the inner self. The ‘joy of defeating others’ is celebrated over the pain of seeing others in sorrow and suffering. The human mind is willing to sacrifice the relationship with any other individual or groups of people just for the pleasure of celebrating the self. “Pleasure” finds better abodes and avenue, than “Peace.” The conscience is suppressed and muted whenever it makes a clarion call. There is, thus, a crisis of conscience both at the individual level as well as at the societal level.

Conscience is subjective in that it is about one reflecting inwards on how one might “feel” about certain things. Unfortunately, this need to ‘feel’ is considered the last priority, thus closing down the portals of empathy in the human heart. Humans, worldwide, are becoming less sensitive to community needs as well as global needs. “Survival” for today is considered more important than the “Possibilities” of tomorrow. The world is becoming poorer in human relationships and engagements, thanks to technology. One doesn’t know whether Mr. Information – is a friend or a foe? The question before educators is – are global education systems failing to resolve these conflicts of conscience?

“There is a higher court than all courts of justice; that is the court of conscience.” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is important for the world to rediscover itself in terms of its faith, conviction and need for righteousness. Righteousness is possibly the gateway to conscience. “There is no pillow as soft as the conscience.’ Says a French proverb. History is evidence to the fact from ancient times that in all battles where conscience was defeated, humans and societies have got defeated themselves.

But, the moot question is – have we come too far? Have we reached a stage of no return? Can the educators worldwide put their heads and hearts to address this issue? Will the political, religious, social and economic leaders desire a change or will let others bring about it? No one knows. We all live only in hope.

How do we address this issue? I am no pessimist. Lessons are always learnt by the individuals, societies, communities and nations – thanks to the Master Teacher, Nature – which has the power to shake the conscience of the people? But, should we wait?

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