To Turn Mirrors Into Windows

The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. 

-Sydney J. Harris

If there was a new word I could invent, it would be ‘brainarian’. Add the suffix -arian to brain and we should get a word which means ‘a person who believes in the power of the human brain’. The human brain is fascinating. It is capable of ideas which can be humanely revolutionary or terribly frightening: be it fire, wheel, agriculture, printing press, steam engine, schools or nuclear bombs.

Humans have thirsted for knowledge since the beginning of time. It is our curiosity and unending quest for knowledge which has enabled us to live comfortable lives with modern amenities such as toilets, cars, cell phones, computers among others.

What has enabled the human brain to invent these magical objects?

Schools: one of the ingenious ideas of the human brain.

The right kind of education sharpens the human mind. It encourages students to think the unthinkable, make the unknowable knowable and do the undoable. It helps us build on our own ideas and also those of others to change lives.

What is the whole purpose of education?

To turn mirrors into windows.

But what makes windows better than mirrors?

Mirrors have a limited scope. One can only see oneself and one’s immediate surroundings in the mirror. Windows, on the other hand, do away with the blind spot of mirrors and enable us to look beyond ourselves. We look at the world beyond our four walls and appreciate the extent of human courage and ingenuity.

Through a mirror, we only see our own reflection. There is little scope for improvement if we can only see where we are and have no sense of where others are. Windows give us more perspective by allowing us to look at the big picture. When we look at the whole picture, we know where we stand with regard to others and can accordingly match our pace with those who have embarked on the path to greatness.

Windows give us mobility: to let our imagination take flight and think of ideas that belong to the mighty skies. Our ideas can be as deep as the deepest valleys or as high as the highest peaks. They can be limitless. Mirrors, however, give us a sense of immobility. We stay where we are, comfortable in our surroundings and complacent in our endeavours, all the while the achievers are rushing ahead.

Looking through windows liberates the mind such that it cannot rest easy unless it moves to other windows with better views and possibilities over time.

The right kind of education enables us to question ideas and not take them as the absolute truth. It teaches us to look beyond ourselves and empathize with the plight of the downtrodden. It instills compassion and turns us into leaders who empower the voiceless to raise their voices against the tyranny of their oppressive rulers.

World over, universities are a cradle of progressive thinking and protest: be it the Anti-Vietnam War movement in American universities or the FeesMustFall movement in South African universities. We need not look so far back into time to see how education has brought injustice to light. In our generation, Malala Yousafzai’s blog has exposed the cruelty of fundamental Islamists towards girls’ education.

It is no coincidence that voting rights are granted to us at the age of 18 years which is when most of us complete our school education. Schools turn us into responsible adults who will eventually go on to become Presidents or Prime Ministers and lead nations. Such is the power of disciplined education that the Duke of Wellington famously exclaimed, ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing grounds of Eton’.

Most character building happens through education: discipline, integrity, grit, team spirit.

It is through the company we keep and the books we read. Books open our minds to a world of infinite possibilities, a world where no idea is farfetched. A world without books is dull and uninspiring. Ray Bradbury’s book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ talks about a dystopian world where people only watch television and books are banned. The fictional government recognizes how books can inspire revolts against injustice and burns them to cinders.

According to UNESCO figures, 17% of the global adult population is illiterate. The fact that nearly 2 in every 7 people cannot read means that nearly 2 in every 7 people do not know that they need not live a life of indignity and oppression. It shows us how far we still need to go to ensure a life of respect for nearly 2 billion people in the world. It is for these 2 billion people that our educational institutions and those enrolled in them must realize that ‘The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.’


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