LISTENING TO GANDHI
By Krishna Kumar,
Excerpted from Seminar #436, December 1995
The field notes, on which this article is based, were collected by Snehlata Gupta and Malvika Rai under the auspices of a study assisted by the UNICEF Regional Office, Kathmandu.
As the world approaches the close of this century, many ideas practised and preached by Mahatma Gandhi are becoming increasingly relevant as guides to state policy. The most interesting, and understandably controversial, of his favourite ideas is that of local self-reliance.
In a world said to have become interdependent, local self-reliance seems irrelevant, indeed heretical. Yet the fact remains that the world is not really interdependent. Many countries of the South are caught in a debt-trap which forces them to part with a substantial portion of their national income to pay the interest they owe the North. This ghastly compulsion impoverishes
these countries further, rendering their labour force and natural resources steadily more vulnerable. In the so-called global village, the real village is dependent on the city for such essential needs of life as work and health care. Gandhi’s insistence on local self-reliance was precisely in such basic aspects of life. The world is armed today with sophisticated technological solutions to every human problem, yet the majority of people suffer from malnutrition,
unemployment and chronic illness. This obvious contradiction suggests that Gandhi’s plea for local self-reliance in the matter of basic needs deserves to be heard again.
A second salient feature of Gandhi’s legacy is the importance of imaginative action. If there is such a thing as a Gandhian theory, surely it is a theory of action which emphasizes role-playing with earnestness and imagination. All Gandhi’s major political and social battles, starting with his work in South Africa, illustrate this point. In retrospect, these battles look crafted to perfection as localized socio-dramas with a universal appeal. The salt satyagraha is probably the best known example of such a battle, but numerous smaller episodes occurred throughout Gandhi’s life. For
example, when the engine installed for running the press at Phoenix Farm in South Africa failed, Gandhi successfully mobilized his colleagues to run the press manually all night so that Indian Opinion would come out on time. This early event suggests two other aspects of Gandhi’s theory of action, apart from commitment to one’s role. One is his insistence on autonomy which translates into freedom from dependence on any single option. The other is persistence. If one looks at Gandhi’s life from a pedagogical perspective, one can aptly describe it as a long lesson in the value of the freedom of initiative and tenacity to the cause at hand.
Finally, Gandhi’s legacy must remind us of the significance of the spatial community and the family. Child welfare – indeed, all human welfare – has its locus in these two units of collective life in Gandhi’s picture of the world. Democracy, both as a system of governance and as a way of living, depends on the expression it finds in these two units. As Marjorie Sykes, probably the best commentator on Gandhi’s educational thought reminded a symposium a few years back, Gandhi’s idea of democratic living depends on the possibility of a face-to-face dialogue among the members of a community. This ideal is, of course, ancient, having been established by the Greek philosophers, but its meaning and potential are yet to be realised in our age even though our world
seems to have espoused democracy as the only worthwhile form of government.
In his last book, The Public and Its Problems (1927), John Dewey – whose educational theory meets Gandhi’s proposal on many crucial counts, talked about the difficulties that the 20th century was facing in letting the spatial community stay alive and relevant to human life. During the last decade or so, many nation-states have woken up to the damage modern planning of societies has done to local communities and the family, leaving the child to be cared for by the faceless state. As we plan redress, we can find an important resource of ideas and inspiration in Gandhi’s legacy.
The model of children’s education that flows from Gandhi’s vision of a desirable society strikingly matches the most important implications that one might draw from modern child psychology for organizing or reforming the system of education. These implications can be listed in the following manner:
* The child’s immediate milieu must serve as a resource for the re-discovery of accepted knowledge;
* Children must have the freedom to create their own models of knowledge about the world;
* Learning must provide for opportunities for children to be physically active;
* Classroom activities must resonate and extend the child’s life at home and in its surroundings.
Gandhi’s choice of the local as the appropriate context for the exercise of initiative and persistence suggests an obvious parallel to the concepts of exploration and reconstruction we find in Piaget’s psycho-philosophy of knowledge. Parallels can also be drawn between the links that Dewey
perceived between children’s learning of subject matter and their milieu on one hand, and Gandhi’s view of the school as an institutionalized forum of the community, on the other.
These parallels were reflected in the proposal Gandhi made in the specific context of education, but the proposal had another item which was related to his economics and his own early experience of teaching children at Phoenix and Tolstoy Farms in South Africa. This concerned the introduction of handicrafts as an organizing principle of the school curriculum. Much has been written on this aspect of Gandhi’s nai talim or ‘new education’ which is also known as ‘basic education’. In summary, the idea of traditional handicrafts providing an axis for the school’s daily curriculum had in it the following elements which formed its rationale:
* Bridging the school with the world of work;
* Imparting an activity orientation to the curriculum; and
* Inculcating a sense of self-reliance.
Historical documents concerning the attempt made between the late 30s and the late 50s to give a ‘basic’ orientation to India’s education system refer to several questions and problems that arose in the wake of Gandhi’s idea of using handicrafts as the organizing principle of the curriculum. Some of the questions might seem to have merely a historical value today, but they are nevertheless worth recording. The most controversial question was whether the introduction of handicrafts can make the school an economically productive institution.
Gandhi had, in fact, suggested that productive activity centred in traditional handicrafts could enable the school to sustain itself financially. A lot of hostility that basic education programmes had to face undoubtedly arose from this idea, its opponents arguing that productive schools would become factories of child labour. Historically, it would appear that Gandhi’s emphasis on making schools self-sustaining was related to his understandable repugnance towards the use of revenue earned from the sale of liquor for children’s education.
As time went by and experience showed both the practical difficulties and limitations of using children’s manual work to generate financial resources, the idea took the form of contribution towards school upkeep. Apparently, even this was not acceptable to many, as we can deduce from an official publication written by G Ramachandran, an eminent exponent of Basic Education. In a monograph published by the Government of’ India in 1957, he wrote that ‘the main object of productive work is education through such work and income is only a corollary.’ He also took pains to clarify that the productive work given to children ‘should be such that children can do it without any undue physical strain… Sweated child labour is the very negation of Basic education and will defeat it completely.’
This controversy over productive manual work need not divert our attention today from an aspect of Gandhi’s educational proposal which can be said to constitute its core. This was the idea of work as participative action. Gandhi believed in work as a means whereby human beings can realize not only their material requirements, but also their intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs. It is under conditions of social injustice and oppression that work becomes drudgery and a crude weapon directed against all that makes people human. Basic Education defined work in its broadest sense so as to make it a medium of socializing the child into a participative culture. Individual
autonomy and consent to participate in group responsibility were essential to this socializing agenda.
In this emphasis on participative action, Basic Education was consistent with modern pedagogical theory which suggests that children’s accomplishment in learning new skills and knowledge depends on their consent to learn, to value the teacher’s effort and to work in groups. Two eminent contemporaries of Gandhi, Tagore and Gijubhai, devoted themselves to building institutional
models where teaching with the child’s consent and participation would be the norm.
Our present system of education fails so often to achieve its aims because the institutional atmosphere, the curriculum, class size, and the methods of teaching ignore the role of the child in education. An erroneous belief commonly reflected in statements of intent is that teachers must make the child active. Such statements reveal our neglect, or rather ignorance, of the child’s nature which is to be active. All that schools need to do is to ensure that the child’s natural desire to be active is not curbed; rather, that this desire is given the opportunity and the means of enhancement through convivial action.
The idea that schools should provide children with the opportunity and the means to undertake skilled manual work was obviously to establish in the minds of children the dignity of work, and not just the intellectual work traditionally provided by schools. But manual work, especially in the
context of routine tasks related to school upkeep was also designed to inculcate initiative in place of indifference and reluctance to taking personal responsibility. Gandhi’s life, and not just his educational proposal, shows that his ultimate mission was to awaken in a colonized people the courage to have faith in choice and initiative. Once he had succeeded in arousing this faith in the context of colonial rule, Gandhi extended the scope of choice to include in it a change in the culturally defined antipathy towards manual work, especially when it meant cleaning.
Gandhi’s message is a refusal to cope with the given situation. It forms the first step towards taking personal responsibility for one’s work. Translated in terms of pedagogical theory, it would mean habituating children to feel responsible out of a personal urge rather than out of the need to comply with someone’s orders. Institutional ethos is the primary means of creating such a habit, but the curriculum must highlight this goal as a formal objective ranking higher than literacy or numeracy.
Giving Gandhi’s ‘new education’ a second hearing today would require that we look at autonomy and initiative from the teacher’s perspective as well. It can hardly be imagined that teachers who are themselves not used to exercising autonomy can encourage children to be autonomous. The ability to take independent decisions and the desire to take personal responsibility must figure as major objectives of teacher training. This, however, cannot be sufficient to ensure that training in such objectives will be actually put into practice. The physical conditions under which elementary teachers work, the rule-structures that govern their career and the culture of the offices to which
teachers are obliged to go in order to fulfil administrative routines – all of these constitute an important part of the legacy of colonial rule against which Gandhi had struggled.
The official routines and rules that govern lives and careers of teachers to this day almost prohibit independent thinking and ingenuity. Even in purely academic matters like shaping the curriculum and selecting pedagogical material, obsolete procedures and expectations continue to hold sway
even as new ideas are mouthed as being preferable. Young teachers often get a shock when they discover that an initiative taken by them was not welcomed. During the ‘50s when Basic Education was widely practised, inspectorial norms and procedures were found to be faulty and problematic
for pedagogical change. Teachers who attempted to switch from textbook-based instruction to organizing activities were often criticized for being over-enthusiastic. Even today, inspectorial expectations are tied to the old, syllabus-covering approach. More than teachers, it is often the monitoring officials who fail to realize that the two kinds of approaches are entirely different and cannot be evaluated on similar criteria.
While we prepare ourselves to rediscover Gandhi’s legacy and define it for our times, we can greatly benefit ourselves by drawing a few lessons from the past experience of Basic Education.
The abandoning of Basic Education in the early ‘60s in many parts of the country for its alleged failure need not be treated as a permanent stigma. The destiny of educational ideas, as indeed of all ideas, is shaped by historical circumstances. It would be foolish to disqualify an idea for a fresh trial just because the shape it took at a certain point in history proved unsatisfactory. In any case, the judgement that Basic Education failed in the first round is problematic. Many Basic Education institutions carried out excellent programmes in the hey-day of Gandhi’s idea, and some continue their battle against all possible odds to this day. In Gujarat, Basic Education is still a part of the official policy, and at Siksha Niketan in Burdwan district of West Bengal, a Basic school was started as recently as 1987 in the memory of Acharya Pramathanath Mukhopadhyay. In the context of teacher training, the programmes offered at Gandhi Vidyapith at Vedchchi and Lok Bharati at
Sanosara mark a considerable departure from the usual training available elsewhere in the country.
It is apparently as a ‘national’ system that Basic Education failed to live up to the expectations created by it in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. Such a feeling should inspire us to examine the nature of the expectations and the nature of the efforts that were made to fulfil them. The prime expectation was that Basic Education would bring about social transformation. For this kind of vast, rather amorphous hope to be fulfilled, one key condition would be a supportive socio-economic and political climate. A sustained trial for a long period is another major condition we can imagine. All evidence points to the fact that Basic Education had to face a hostile socio-economic climate, and
that the quality of political support it received varied from region to region. Indeed, the main reason why Basic Education could not be sustained for more than a decade or so after Independence was the ambivalence of political patronage.
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