War is too serious a business to be left to the Generals, said Georges Clemenceau in 1917, the then French Prime Minister who led his country during the First World War. What he meant was that the Generals in their compartmentalised, militaristic thought processes often missed out on looking at the bigger picture of the ravages of a war on a nation and its people.
Just over a 100 years later, that statement can perhaps be paraphrased to say much the same thing in the context of our New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 drafted by venerated academicians and educationists. Education, as we know it today, is almost exclusively the single-minded pursuit of degrees and marks, with little or no emphasis on gaining knowledge and acquirng life skills and life lessons. Lessons, which if properly seeded in our budding citizens, could shape the India of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, education in our country has currently degenerated into a lucrative business that thrives on mass-producing bookish graduates who cram during exams. They acquire knowledge that fetches skyrocketing grades and percentages, which guarantees a career and a job, but equips them with little else in terms of skills to meet the challenges of the workplace, and of life itself.
Much has been said about the NEP across a variety of forums—about its flexibility and multidisciplinary focus, student-centric experiential learning approach and upskilling and upgrading of educators and institutions, all of which are extremely laudable initiatives. But it is amazing how little has been said about the possible use of sports for shaping young minds and building personalities. Probably because the NEP 2020 does not envisage it at all.
Education is often confused with the process of imparting academic knowledge alone, overlooking its wider purpose of imparting a holistic ‘learning for life,’ with focus on life skills, inculcating the ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ and working out logical strategies to deal with day-to-day life situations.
The NEP overlooks the profound importance of empowering students with these key skills through the wonderful medium of sports and making them their own best educators. It misses out on using sports as a vehicle to foster team spirit, empathy and compassion in the young minds that it seeks to enlighten and make them look beyond the restrictive confines of narrow self-interest.
All these objectives are deeply ingrained in sports education which is why sports training should automatically form an integral part of the NEP and be used as a learning and character-building tool, especially in the formative years at school.
Everyone thinks of sports as a mere physical expression of human prowess without realising that it is so much more than that, in the way it moulds personalities and shapes thought processes. And yet, there is no mention in the NEP of this crucial usage, or any insistence on compulsory mass participation in sport, which should have been a must, at least in the primary stages of schooling.
It’s time we recognise that education for life does not happen only in classrooms, nor is it imbibed from textbooks alone, but comes from experiencing real life situations and through the confidence derived from coping with them. This is why experiential learning has been such a big word in recent times. What could be more experiential than sports?
The NEP, however, chooses to relegate sports to a mere subject, much like Physical Education is at this time and to a minor vocation, perhaps that of a sports teacher or so. In doing so, it completely misses out on tapping into its value as a way of life and a medium of instruction.
We need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of education and why do people need to study? Is it only to learn academic concepts and acquire degrees so that people obtain employment and earn a living? Should educating young students for life not be a parallel and crucial priority of any education policy? Should it not aim at producing citizens who can make the right decisions at the right times and do the right things when faced with the choices and challenges that life throws up at various points?
Along with the knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, literature and the arts, should we also not be teaching compassion and empathy, physical and moral courage, team spirit and the ability to work towards common goals, coping with failure and defeat and emerging stronger from them?
Sport does all of this effortlessly. It teaches young players to set and achieve goals in work and in life; to work with teammates, build partnerships, communicate constantly; to think on their own and adapt quickly to changing situations. It teaches them to handle pressure and stress, and most importantly, their own emotions at such times.
Disappointment is often a constant companion on the sports field, but it makes a sportsperson mentally tough and in doing so, prepares him for the game of life. At the highest levels, one only needs to think of the commitment and work ethic of a Virat Kohli, a Rahul Dravid or a Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu. Even at the recreational or semi-professional levels of sport, the same values, the same passion and commitment are the norm.
However, to derive these physical and character-shaping benefits, young children in their formative years need to play sport a lot more frequently than the physical education classes that most schools currently allow. There is a crying need to transform these classes into sports sessions under trained coaches instead of the mindless physical education that is imparted now.This is something that countries like Finland with their strong, value-based educational systems have done, with enviable success.
We must endeavour to make our young children fall in love with sport, rather than see it as a burden. There is a need for graded progression pathways from primary school to university, from the play for fun stage to the serious participation stage, to facilitate this.
That much-looked forward game of cricket or football or tennis on the weekend would then become something that brings lifelong enjoyment and meaning into monotonous, workaday lives and enhance quality of life.
If we were to make sports training compulsory for everyone in the first eight years of primary education and get trained coaches involved, facilitate proper coaching at sports academies outside school hours at places where sports coaches, grounds and infrastructure are a constraint, we would be well on our way to inculcate these values in young children while simultaneously creating employment for sports coaches.
Over time, as the sports participation base increases, we would have a bigger talent pool to choose our state and national teams from, which would then not only translate into more participation and more medals at international events, but also help build a just and forward looking society in the years to come.
The introduction of sports as a subject after the primary education stage could similarly translate into a professional pathway, involving the study of sports sciences and sports management, producing the trained sports professionals that our country so desperately lacks today. It would be a great way to bite into the USD 756 billion global sports industry pie and generate more employment and revenue for the country. It would also ensure much higher levels of professionalism in our national sporting ecosystem and be the true vocational form of sports that the NEP envisages.
The foundation to all this could be laid by the New Education Policy if only it were to recognise the limitless possibilities and opportunities that sports presents as a learning and teaching tool.
It is time our educationists woke up to the realisation that their view of education as a stern intellectual discipline may need some course correction. Only then would traditional mindsets change and the benefits from all educational streams accrue in equal measure to our future generations and create a new and vibrant India.
(The writer, a retired Wing Commander, served in the Indian Air Force and played Ranji Trophy for the Services team. Views are personal)