Ethics, happiness, and mental health for education
I lost a friend in university; one of my closest friends. I remember going through a really hard time when I lost him. It was then that my CGPA dropped. Even then, I was privileged, because there were so many students around me going through much worse: the loss of a parent, the financial fight to make ends meet far away from home, a downward spiralling CGPA, and a general feeling of despair with nobody to turn to for support. All around us, life went on, through politics (external and internal), the rat race for good grades, and beyond. Sometimes, we all just seemed—to varying degrees—helpless and lost.
When I became a teacher, I realised that nothing had changed, and these feelings came back to haunt me. There was still no system in place to ensure students', or teachers', mental well-being. It seemed, as was the case in our time, that the establishment believed that mental health and well-being weren't very important in the greater scheme of things. All that mattered, all that was expected from us, was productivity. We were, after all, the "demographic dividend" of the country. We were the future, the promise, the hope. I guess we still are.
If we want our education and our educated to be representative of rightness, goodness, and kindness, we need to reform our approach to education, and consequently, our entire education system.
This is why I'd like to ask our policymakers and all those in positions of power: did you expect the demographic dividend to become productive, without factoring in whether they are happy or not? How can we expect our youth to be productive when we're not even sure that they're okay? Undeniably, being okay or being happy is a precursor of productivity. But we seemed to have expected that we could get by without asking each other how we are, by only focusing on pushing our youngsters towards high grades, salaries, and social status.
Times are even harder now. The world is more troubled than ever before and it is sometimes extremely difficult to function normally, let alone study and show up for exams. It is difficult to function, witnessing injustice all around us, seeing people who wrong others and cut corners achieving positions of power, and seeing people desperately cling to that power at the cost of ethics and morality. It is nearly impossible to be unaware of some part of the world burning, of people dying, of injustice happening often much closer to home, or even at home. Life selfishly goes on; classes and exams continue—as they must, for we cannot afford to stop. Such is the harsh practicality of life. What we can do, however, is care for each other.
For our education system, it is high time to portray stronger norms and practices around well-being and mental health. Our schools, colleges, and universities, besides our homes, need to be safe spaces too—for everyone, and not only for people of a particular ideology. It's high time to invest in employing strong mechanisms and institutions so that someone in pain—be it a student or a teacher—can reach out for help. Our educational institutions need to prioritise this, and we need to look out for every child, for every student.
When a student is in a place of despair, on the brink of taking their own life, what does one do as a teacher? We need to think about these things now more than ever. We need to prioritise well-being and mental health as much as we prioritise grades and productivity. They go hand-in-hand, and it's time we acknowledge that.
There are three overarchingly powerful concepts that we cannot disconnect from education: ethics, happiness, and mental well-being. They aren't directly linked to education, some may say, but I argue that they are. These three aspects are at the core of any education, especially a good education, and we need to start seriously framing our education narrative around these aspects, even if we have to start anew. There can be no proper education without bringing humanity into the equation. And undoubtedly, to be humane, one must be ethical, mentally well, and happy.
But do we even expect that education will lead to strong ethics, good mental health, and happiness? Are educated people more ethical? Are they happier? Sadly, we can't claim that being educated means that someone is ethical or that they're happy. On the contrary, it is too often the more educated that are astoundingly the most unethical. At the end of the day, the basic essence of ethics—of what is right, and what is wrong—is simple. It's not to harm anyone or anything, and to not take what is rightfully someone else's.
As my mother-in-law taught my husband and his siblings, it means to not take away anyone's "hok" (right). Taking away someone's right could include stealing a fallen fruit from somebody else's garden or bribing one's way into a position that rightfully belonged to somebody more qualified. It could mean using or misusing one's power to cut the line when there are people who had been queued up for hours before you. It means taking away people's right to vote. Should an "educated" person not find it more difficult to steal someone else's hok? Should an education not manifest the urge to resist temptations for higher gain, power, and money? The uneducated and unethical most likely never had the opportunities someone with an education had. So what is the excuse of the educated for being unethical? Why do the powerful, the educated, take the most bribes?
Education is meant to be an equaliser because ethics is an equaliser. When it comes to what's right, when it comes to a world where there are strong institutions in place, we are all equal. These institutions are the reason why corrupt CEOs get voted out of their companies by their boards, why people in power cannot do whatever they want to whenever they want to. And if they can, then there is something very wrong going on in that sphere. If we want our education and our educated to be representative of rightness, goodness, and kindness, we need to reform our approach to education, and consequently, our entire education system.
Though we celebrate the achievers, we forget to lift up others who fall behind. Be it Bangla medium, English medium, or Madrasah, if we send a happy, positive-spirited child into our education system, 15 to 20 years later, there's a good chance they'll come out the other side scarred and unhappy. Any curiosity that an individual harbours when entering university is usually squashed by pressure and unrealistic expectations.
We don't nurture passion; we don't feed curiosity. We don't prioritise well-being and happiness. We only demand brilliance, without realising that brilliance without either well-being or happiness, and without passion or curiosity, is often like a caged bird. It will brilliantly mimic what you teach it; but when it's let out of the cage, it won't be able to do what it was meant to do best. It won't be able to fly.
Rubaiya Murshed is a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
Follow The Daily Star Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions, commentaries and analyses by experts and professionals. To contribute your article or letter to The Daily Star Opinion, see our guidelines for submission.