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Paradox of Education: A Keynote Speech to College Students

Good afternoon. I am here before you, ignorant of the cause of this honor -- or punishment -- but I am glad to be with you, because at my age and station, it is not frequently that I am in the midst of so many youthful people, full of life and opportunity, and willingness to combat challenges which lie in the path of accomplishments.

Actually, having you here must keep you from your interests and excitements, for what at best can be a boring, if not altogether painful, ritual. And therefore I feel that you have graced this place by your presence, and therefore, you are the real guests, while I am here because I have nothing better to do.

If pursuit of knowledge is education, man has been educating himself, one way or another, since the first milliseconds of the dawn of what we call our civilisation. In sharp contrast to the plethora of life and living organisms that surrounded him, man was driven by a single-minded inquisitiveness that quickly gave him awesome power -- not only power over the earth which he inherited, with its plants and animals and rivers and oceans and mountains and skies, but also, inevitably, the power to destroy himself.

One cannot think of knowledge without intelligence, or enquiry as root, or result of it. Now this leads to a fascinating, and often depressing paradox: Is intelligence endemic to existence? Amidst life as we know it, human beings, by far, have evolved most spectacularly. But we are also, in terms of evolution, among the most recently arrived creatures of our planet. And while we have many toys to show to our fellow creatures: like organised education, differing political systems and colliding ideologies, television to show, and be seen, missiles and submarines, life-saving and giving medicines, the ability to hold life or death through incredible feats of surgical procedures. We have automobiles, and spacecraft sending breathtaking pictures from the far reaches of space, we have the ubiquitous computer, the all-purpose slave who behaves like a master; and of course, for the extreme in sound and bedazzlement, nuclear fusion.

We can flaunt, with justifiable pride, our ability to measure the speed of light and define time as the ultimate dimension and thus explain the equation between the two, without which nothing, but nothing, could be meaningfully perceived or comprehended.

We are the only ones on our planet earth who can boast of being conscious of our own being. We are the only ones who are aware of ourselves -- our identity -- and capable of using language in many ways to communicate. Our technologies are making forays in every direction, so far-reaching, penetrating, that they are either beyond our grasp or beyond our control.

The result is that we have extended ourselves far beyond our needs; extended life and population, produced conflicting dogmas and stresses in all our systems which, with or without the aid of a terminal war machine, has brought not only us to the brink of annihilation, but thrown all other forms of life, and the very earth, in the gravest of perils.

The irony is that the earth's systems and longevity had a far greater chance under the inhabitancy of illiterate, unconscious, non-progressive life-forms which could live in perfect harmony and natural balance with other life-forms and objects, and forces of their environment, than in the hands of highly evolved man.

One may therefore ask: what was the intended purpose and function of life: to exist, without knowledge of itself or its environment, procreate, and intuitively support the balances which ensure its continuity; or, was it to gain consciousness, curiosity, organisation, to evolve unstoppably, and inevitably, to disturb and destabilise the forces and chemistry which eventually becomes a looming threat to itself.

The choice would be hopelessly inadequate: an unthinking, unfeeling but living vegetable existence, or knowing, feeling extinction.

Look at the other paradox: if one is ignorant, one cannot know that one is so; on the other hand, with knowledge gained, the awareness of ignorance comes into focus. Knowledge, thus, actually heightens the sense of ignorance.

Perhaps the answer lies in metaphysics: that in the infinite nature of things, neither is of any consequence. Life, as we know it, in the vastness and immensity of time and space, is abysmally inconsequential in any form, an unvoiced speech, an unheard sound.

We are blessed, or cursed, to witness the time of the threshold of our evolution: some of my generation, but certainly most of you, will witness the most epochal period of our civilisation, as, with the cumulative skills and wisdom of five thousand years, we can reshape it, to rejuvenate the depraded, over-populated, over-polluted earth and its elements to support our lives and give us another chance, renew our lease; or, as a result of inherent, inevitable pressures of contradictions in our system of evolution, fulminate the earth, air and water by continuing to take them for granted, and perish with them.

If what you do now, and later, and later, can demonstrate that you have learned enough of knowledge to understand the meaning of knowledge and its scope, but most importantly, its limits, you would then have redeemed your teachers and preceptors and earned well your medals and degrees. In the absence of evidence that the human situation is ultimately resolute in absolute terms, such comprehension alone is the ultimate and final education.

ramesh gandhi

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