Sunday, 29 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part IV

[In this section, we discuss the radical views on education of two non-Western thinkers Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire to see if their projects meets the demand for incorporating indigenous knowledge]

Education for fullness
Tagore was deeply troubled by the extreme elitism of the British-enforced education system that catered only to the children of the privileged. As is well known, he was also deeply critical of the kind of education that was imparted, the rote learning that Freire later identified as the ‘banking’ method. Instead, Tagore advocated an enlightened and elaborate version of education for fullness: sarbangin shiksha. This included not just the education of the intellect, combining the most universal aspects of Western and Eastern high culture, but also the education of feeling for the other that extended to feeling for nature and cosmos. In this sense, he criticised the one-sidedness of an education that only imparted bookish knowledge in a narrow pragmatic sense. His conception of education did not reject the ideals of Western enlightenment, but sought to embed it in a wider conception of learning that, he thought, embraced the whole human (Mukherjee 2013).
   There is no convincing evidence that the knowledge systems for ‘fullness’ that constituted Tagore’s conception of sarbangin shiksha included the knowledge systems of the unlettered even in its margins. So, his lament about the absence of the poor from the field of education may be viewed as a ‘humanitarian’ lament, not really a ‘humanistic’ one, to use a distinction suggested by Freire and to which I return.
In fact, there is evidence that Tagore viewed the poor and the marginalised as ignorant, dull and voiceless, to whom language needs to be imparted, and hope needs to be aroused in those broken hearts. And, the knowledge that is supposed to enlighten the poor is the highculture knowledge already imparted to the elite. Needless to say, this task of pulling the poor out of their misery through sarbangin shiksha required novel educational practices such as teaching in the mother tongue, using local flora and fauna as examples, active agency of the learner, the tapovana model of shunning bounded classrooms and holding learning sessions in the open air, etc. Yet, the knowledge that was so imparted consisted of the products of the elite high-culture, from the upanishads to modern science, via literature, art and sophisticated musical forms.
I think the point about the ultimately elitist character of Tagore’s otherwise enlightened conception of education can be strengthened with an example of the novel educational practice followed in Tagore’s school. I could not locate any official document for this, but I can recount this curious practice from my own experience as a student in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan. Every afternoon, children from Patha Bhavana were transported in the university bus in batches to Silpa Sadana at the rural setting of Sriniketan, the location for rural education and reconstruction. There, we sat down on the floor to learn about woodcraft, papier mâché, basket weaving, lac work, etc, from the ill-clad and impoverished, but highly skilled village artisans. During that period of active hands-on learning, some of the rural folk were our teachers. Our education, thus, included some of the knowledge systems of the unlettered, and a reversal of class roles. No wonder this novel education practice was soon abandoned due to logistical reasons.
Yet, the point remains that the appreciation and adoption of rural culture was restricted to the ‘crafts’ of a folk nature. Elite, high culture still formed the central ingredient for the development of sensitive intellect. Similarly, farmers are sometimes consulted about various agricultural practices such as variety of seeds, condition of soil, multiple cropping, organic fertilisers, etc. This is the traditional domain of the unlettered where knowledge is accumulated through sheer practice over centuries. Beyond this, rural culture (not to mention tribal culture)—except ‘folk art’—is not ascribed any enlightenment value. The tribals, the indigenous people, are not even in view. They are curiosities hiding in hills and forests.
Humanistic education
Several decades later, Paulo Freire, in his classic work, Pedagogy of theOppressed (1970/2005), addressed the issue of resistance to the ideologies and institutions of the elite more directly. The task for education, he felt, was to reverse the process of dehumanisation in which the oppressed found themselves:
The struggle for humanisation, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons ... is possible only because dehumanisation although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed (Freire 2005, 44).
Following George Lukacs, Freire elaborates that a revolutionary educational practice aims to ‘explain to the masses their own action,’ to clarify and illuminate that action, both regarding its relationship to the objective facts by which it was prompted, and regarding its purposes (53). The more the people unveil this challenging reality, which is to be the object of their transforming action, the more critically they enter that reality. In this way they are ‘consciously activating the subsequent development of their experiences’ (53). Freire insists this form of education to be essentially pre-revolutionary, such that the oppressed can proceed to a revolutionary overthrow of the unjust order. Freire, thus, goes beyond Tagore to view education not only as a humanitarian mode to include the oppressed, but as one which triggers humanisation of the oppressed by enabling them to erect the other side of the barricade. Let us call this mode of education the proletarian mode.
It is unclear if the envisaged overthrow of the unjust order will in fact enhance the prospects for the species as a whole. The humanised education achieved through the struggle of the working masses will no doubt usher in an era of proletarian freedom. But, will it ensure survival for all? The answer will depend on the content of the proletarian mode, the knowledge systems so advocated. Here, the prospects do not appear to be as revolutionary as the emancipation of a section of people.
There is little evidence that pre-revolutionary education practices among the masses, undertaken by revolutionary forces, address the issue raised here. In his writings, Freire makes frequent references to politico-educational work of Mao during the pre-revolutionary phase. Following these examples and their implementation during, say, the struggles in Yan’an and Vietnam, certain forms of educational practices have emerged. For example, following lessons from Vietnam, Maoists in India have organised Young Communist Mobile Schools (or, Basic Communist Training Schools), which host select groups of 25–30 tribal children in the age group of 12–15 years.
These children receive intensive training for six months in a curriculum consisting of basic concepts of Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, Hindi and English, mathematics, social science, different types of weapons, computers, etc (recall their age group). Needless to say, lessons are conducted in Gondi, and local song and dance forms are used to motivate the children. Beyond this, there is no evidence that the ancient knowledge systems of the tribals form any significant part of the curriculum, even though the pupils concerned consist entirely of tribal children. In fact, much of the curriculum, including lessons in modern science go directly against the foundations of tribal culture; especially, weapons training involving not bows and arrows, but automatic rifles, light machine guns, high-powered explosive devices, and the like (Mukherji 2012). While the children in mainstream India sit through modernist curriculum under the aegis of not-so-subtle capitalist propaganda, tribal children sit through roughly the same curriculum, even if they have been asked to wear Maoist lenses. Education is imparted in the proletarian mode, not in the indigenous mode. It is difficult to dispel the impression that modernist educational thinking has deeply penetrated even the most revolutionary minds.

(To be concluded)


  1. Do you think that tribal/indigenious people are non-educated since they were not educated through modern european method of learning/schooling ? I think, it will be better if you give them some space as well though your point larks around Tagore and Freire

  2. Just the opposite of what you ascribe to me. The main point is that, despite the radical features, educational thinking of both Tagore and Freire are in the liberal mode that has led to the near-extinction of the species. Incorporation of indigenous knowledge systems, which are historically isolated and segregated from the liberal mode, is the only option left for the survival of the species.