Friday, May 09, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore and India's Education

As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.

Instead, I shall argue, he concentrated in education reform and education activism, which was his way of re-establishing his politics. His idea of India was represented within the model of education he envisioned, and gave shape to, in his school and university in Bolpur. To him, India faced an existential crisis because of its education, and the Independent India needed to rise on the firm foundation of an Indian education system rather than what it inherited from the British. Like his political ideas, his educational ideas also fell outside the mainstream. Indian state, at the time of independence, was built around the European nation-state model, and educational ideals such as Tagore's fell well outside the mainstream. And, despite its marginalisation - it is seen today as one of those marginal experiments rather than something that shaped modern India - the existential problem that Indian democracy faces today may be traced to the broken education Tagore so passionately argued against.

Tagore's key idea perhaps was the rejection of Western education without rejecting the Western enlightenment. By definition, this was a complex position, neither favoured by the moderniser nor the traditionalists. However, Tagore maintained that India needs its own educational ideals consistent with its tradition and values, and yet, this was not about rejecting the world and the new knowledge coming from the West. This was consistent with his idea of India, manifest in his various writings and speeches, a land that accepts everything and rejects nothing, a land of harmony and humanity. His educational ideal, therefore, walked the fine line between the rejection of English language as a medium of instruction, which he thought would divide India and come in the way of creation of a common culture, and acceptance of enlightenment science, which he thought was a great advancement of human knowledge which ought to be shared by everyone.

This was a political position. This was built on the rejection of Lord Macaulay's vision of education to create an intermediate class, who are 'Indian in colour but English in tastes', firmly and unequivocally. In a brilliant satirical skit called 'The Fable of A Parrot', where the tarot gets educated but his soul departs, he laid out his case. He correctly saw the problem that English education created in India.

First, it was education for clerkship: People were getting educated for the jobs in the British administration, but they were being excluded from the latest advances of science and thinking in the Western world. So, it was education in English without the benefits of an English education.

Second, it was dividing India. Education in English was alienating those people who had it from those who did not. It was coming in the way of a common culture, which the traditional education fostered. The English educated felt more at ease with the British, who indeed never treated those Indian Babus as one of their own, than their own.

Third, it was in direct conflict of what Tagore saw as Indian values of 'non-duality in the field of knowledge (seeing not the dialectical relationship of man and nature and man and man, but the harmony), friendship for all the field of feeling and fulfilment of one's duties without the obsession about the results'. Instead, he saw the English education creating division and conflict, a sense of entitlement among the elite and resentment among all others, and a culture of self-advancement without regard to the means.

Despite such well-articulated arguments against the British education, Tagore, however, never championed the Hindu science cult that is in ascendancy in India today. The view that everything was always written in Vedas was an anathema to him. His model of education was open and all embracing. In a memorable statement of Gandhi, who, at the time, was opposed to all things English, he would argue that if any light of knowledge was lit anywhere in the world, Indians ought to benefit from the same. His rejection of English education was neither traditionalist nor nationalist, but rather progressive and universalist.

In the black-and-white world of pre-Independence India, this position might have appeared too nuanced; even after the Independence, his fore-warning was forgotten and Indian policy-makers rushed to build a modern education system around the same English ideals handed down by the colonial administrators. Their vision of a modern India rested on a chain of world class institutions, embodied in the IITs, which was designed to create an elite technocratic class to move India forward. Elsewhere, English was seen as the tool of modernity, and promoted throughout the education system.

In the light of our recent experiences, we know the limits of this system and Tagore's warnings seem prescient. We saw India being divided in the middle, with the English-speaking India leaving the vast majority in deep despair. We saw the naked self-interest manifest eating away all values, and callousness even towards human life and dignity. We are now indifferent to rapes and riots, and more concerned about Sensex than sanity of people around us. This 'crisis of Indian civilisation' may be duly attributed to a failing of the education we built. And, indeed, that makes the case of rediscovering Tagore all over again.


Alok Baraya said...

We moved away from the old 'gurukul' system to blindly (and shoddily) copying the western system of education, in the process losing the basic and essential tenets of practical and application oriented education including 'value' education.
It would have been a different matter if we had adopted the best practices of both the systems, instead of discarding one for the other.
While I am quite in favour of IIT's, IIM's and other such institutions, where we have failed miserably is in the area of basic education, some thing that got replicated without properly looking at the cultural and contextual aspects.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...


Many thanks for your insightful comments.

About 40,000 IIT graduates live in the United States alone, which is about 20 years worth of all IIT output (about 2000 students a year in the expanded system). While most IITs are among the best in the world, it has contributed less in Indian development than we expected it to. I argue that is to be expected when we build a few elite institutions, following the Western model (where the elite institutions create a social elite for government and business leadership), but do not create adequate opportunities for those elite in the broader economy. We needed a democratic education to support democratic development, which we have perhaps failed to do.


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