The practicality of his educational philosophy…
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, a writer and philosopher who discoursed with Gandhi, Einstein, and other greats of his day, an ardent poet, artist, a religious leader and the author of India’s national anthem! We all know who this reference is to…
Many Indians recognize Rabindranath Tagore for all of the above. Despite his fame in the arenas mentioned above, Tagore’s progressive educational philosophy is fundamentally an ancient history today! Tagore’s experimental models pioneered in his schools, Santiniketan and Sri Niketan (West Bengal, 1901), remain sheer experiments. His ideals have not found their way into India’s schools – as rote-memorization seems to still be the predominant learning style in many schools.
Tagore’s views of education are not available in any single volume. It is appreciable in his various expressions. It may be gleaned from his addresses and may be read in his essays. It may also be obtained from his conversational poetry and art. Tagore’s ideas on education were derived mainly from his own experience. Tagore’s educational ideals have been shared by other educationists and many of its innovations had become a part of general educational practices, but somewhere have lost their purpose and direction. His special contribution lay in the emphasis on harmony, balance and total development of personality.
The following poem (every stanza), which outlines Tagore’s vision for an innovative approach to education, is today mindlessly recited in thousands of schools across the country – in ironic contrast to the vision it advocates.
Yet Tagore’s vision for education is one that modern India cannot afford to forget. Let us delve into the following closely to savour Tagore’s vision on education.
Mind Without Fear
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where the world is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the words came out from the depths of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits,
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom,
My father, let my country awake.”
“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”
An environment where students have the confidence to express their thoughts freely and believe in their own learning ability fosters learning in totality. Fear of making mistakes prevents an individual from being free to venture a new thought, to experiment, to ask questions, to be creative, and to innovate. Tagore opposed to any form of corporal punishment as means of discipline. In his school, he cultivated internal discipline based on intrinsic motivations like joy and pursuit of creative tasks.
However, some teachers even today believe that fear is a necessary condition for learning. Students’ mistakes are mercilessly and sometimes viciously punished, rather than being seen as a necessary part of the learning process.
The creative escalation of a child thus becomes stunted by an educational environment where he / she cannot learn without fear of a beating, or failure.
“And The Heart Is Held High”
Central to Tagore’s educational vision was the nurturing of students’ souls. For Tagore, the purpose of education was not just employment – but more importantly, personal fulfillment and self-improvement.
At Tagore’s school, Santiniketan, education was “infused with passion and delight because of the way in which education was combined with dance and song.” This joy and passion carried over to the rest of child’s studies, enabling him / her to perform well in examinations. Tagore believed in starting the learning process with those things close to a child’s heart, rather than beginning with a textbook. Through frequent excursions in nature, games, songs, drama, readings, celebrations, and spiritual teachings, he sought to develop the souls of his children.
Amartya, a former student, writes that at Santiniketan, the emphasis was on “self-motivation rather than on discipline, and on fostering intellectual curiosity rather than competitive excellence.” Lest one assume that Tagore’s focus on the arts disabled intellectual growth, this student grew up to become Harvard Economist and Nobel Memorial Prize winner Amartya Sen. Reflecting on his education, Sen marvels, “Tagore was concerned not only that there be wider opportunities for education across the country…but also that the schools themselves be more lively and enjoyable…”
“Where The World Is Not Broken Up Into Fragments By Narrow Domestic Walls”
A key concept in Tagore’s representation is that of promoting a ‘narrative imagination’ – the nurturing of creativity, empathy, and diversity. For Tagore, one of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to see things from multiple perspectives, an integral Life Skill advocated by the WHO years later.
The inability to empathize with others’ viewpoints is a key cause of apathy, oppression, racism and violence in today’s world. In his 1917 book, Personality, Tagore writes that “We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by empathy…”
The narrative imagination thus needs to be consciously cultivated in school curriculums. When we listen to another person’s story it touches our emotional and imaginative core, leading us to dwell in their perspective and experience their common humanity. A new conviction of the essential humanity of the “Other” changes “us” and “them” into “we”, and motivates us to act for the common good.
“Where Tireless Striving Stretches Its Arms Towards Perfection”
Tagore’s model prioritized education of the rural majority. He believed that a country’s education system must be intimately connected with the life of its people. Thus any education offered in India, whether at school or university level, must be connected with patterns of rural living and aimed at rejuvenating rural life. The major thrust of his program at Sri Niketan was to apply knowledge for the betterment of all aspects of rural life – including agriculture, education, health, and social issues. Moreover, Tagore placed strong emphasis on conducting early education in the child’s mother tongue, to give an equal opportunity to children from diverse backgrounds to learn well.
“Where The Clear Stream Of Reason Has Not Lost Its Way Into The Dreary Desert Sand Of Dead Habits”
Tagore emphasized on critical thinking. To passively accept what is dictated by textbooks without raising questions or disagreements hinders learning.
A system that fails to teach students to understand, question, critically reflect and act upon what they learn, produces adults who fail to understand, question, critically reflect and act upon their society. It creates a nation whose citizens are taught to submit rather than to question; to adapt to the world as it is, rather than actively trying to change it; to accept rather than be assertive.
In contrast, Tagore taught students to critically examine all beliefs, traditions, and statements, and to accept only those that stood the test of reason, rather than blindly accepting them on the basis of authority.
“Into That Heaven Of Freedom”
Promoting the freedom of the child is at the heart of Tagore’s philosophy. Believing that the limitless development of human potential is possible only in an environment free from any kind of burden, Tagore writes in his book, Personality, “I established my institution in a beautiful spot away from the town where the children had the greatest freedom possible under the shade of ancient trees.”
Tagore placed the child at the centre of the learning process. Likewise, many progressive learning theories today seek to draw from the child’s existing knowledge to create an engaging, relevant, and joyous learning process. Students should be given the freedom to explore, inquire, experiment, and discover things for themselves. Tagore wrote, “Not hammer strokes, but dance of the water, sings the pebbles into perfection.” Tagore did not believe in “hammering” information into children’s minds, imposing a single belief system or ideology on them, and forcing them into pre-determined moulds. Respecting the dignity of the child implies respecting the child’s curiosity, their freedom to question, to explore, to imagine, to be critical, even to disagree, and to make choices for themselves.
“Where The Mind Is Led Forward By Thee Into Ever Widening Thought And Action . . . My Father, Let My Country Awake”
Tagore rightly said, unless education reform efforts begin to address the deeper elements in our collective mindset that may be restricting change, reforms will remain piecemeal.
In his poem, Tagore not only lays out the ideal, but also proposes the way forward: “ever widening thought and action”. To bring about change, we must shift the way our society thinks about education: education that redefines success beyond a narrow preoccupation with marks; that encourages students not to passively memorize and accept but to think for themselves, form their own opinions, and act for the collective good.
Can we take the opportunity this Independence to resume Tagore’s educational heritage…For our students to progress as individuals who can think and speak boldly, whose souls are nurtured towards creativity and innovation, who embrace diversity through empathizing with others, who are committed to promoting a more just and inclusive society, who are able to think independently and freely and to persist the kind of education Rabindranath Tagore envisioned years back?