"Tagore's humanist philosophy of education and its relevance in the contemporary world"

“Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally,”- a South Asian Perspective

By Mousumi Mukherjee

PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne

Elected Co-Chair: CIES Education for Sustainable Development (SIG) 2014-2016

Founding Member & Secretary: CIES South Asia (SIG) 2009-2013

Congress Standing Committee Member; World Council of Comparative Education Societies

"The Bengali poet, writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) remains a unique, though still under-recognised genius. Tagore’s cultural production was vast, covering poetry, prose and plays; an astonishing volume of music which is played and sung throughout Bengal to this day (and includes the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh); internationally acclaimed and exhibited paintings; social, political and philosophical essays; agrarian reform; pioneering environmentalism; the creation of a school and a university. His philosophy of education may yet come to be seen as one of his most significant contributions.”

Michael Collins (2011) 

When I received the invitation from CIES President-Elect, Prof. N'Dri T. Assié-Lumumba and former President, Prof. Ratna Ghosh to write a response to 2015 CIES conference theme, I was glad to have this opportunity. I write the response with a heavy heart after the tragic events of the past few days in this month of December 2014 and the loss of so many innocent children and others in Peshawar (Pakistan) and during the Sydney siege in Australia. As this year draws to a close, the world still does not know what is happening to the 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by the “Boko Haram” (Western Education is Sinful) Muslim militant group in Nigeria, while postcolonial Hindu radical extremists continue reconverting the oppressed poor Muslims and Christians in India into Hinduism in the name of “Gharwapsi” (homecoming).

Around the world school children and social minorities are becoming targets of extremists who seek to decolonize their society from what they believe to be continuing Western imperialism, economic exploitation and domination through education. As globalization in recent years has increased cross-border mobility of people and ideas facilitated also by virtual mobility through the world wide web of the internet, such extremist ideas are no longer limited within the geopolitical boundary of a nation-state. Extremist ideas inhabit both the former colonial metropole as well as the postcolonial peripheries of this world. The rising “geographies of anger” are now global as Arjun Appadurai (2006) would argue. Should we then believe in Samuel Huntington’s (1996) “Clash of Civilizations” theory? Or, is there a way to think beyond Clash of Civilizations and is there any hope for reconciliation or compromise? Probably there is hope for reconciliation and ways to move beyond thinking about a clash of civilizations in the work of intellectuals from peripheral societies of this world (Connell 2007, 2009). Probably, it is time to study and reflect on the work of these intellectuals. 

Raweyn Connell (2007) had argued, “Debates among the colonised are ignored, the intellectuals of colonised societies are unreferenced, and social process is analysed in an ethnographic time-wrap.” (p.44) Much like Connell, Mignolo (1993, p.129-31) argued, “the Third World produces not only “cultures” to be studied by anthropologists and ethnohistorians but also intellectuals who generate theories and reflect on their own culture and history.”  Here, I would like to argue along with Michael Collins (2011) and other scholars who have studied Tagore’s work that, Tagore’s inclusive philosophy of education and strong environmental concerns embedded in his educational project during colonial India provide a way forward at least within the South Asian context to move beyond the clash of civilizations theory (Dasgupta 1998, 2009; O’Connell 2003, 2010; Nussbaum 2006, 2010; Bhattacharya 2009; Ghosh, Naseem, Vijh 2010 and Guha 2013). Tagore’s theoretical ideas about the need for social inclusion, environmental concerns and an alternative model of schooling as against the colonial “factory-model’ of schooling developed out of his own schooling experience and deep reflection on the colonial experience in South Asia. As Tagore wrote in his essay “My School”:

The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed.... we are made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates. He was born in the human world, but is banished into the world of living gramophones, to expiate for the original sin of being born in ignorance. Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.    - Rabindranath Tagore (1917)

Hence, in his school classrooms would be held outside in the garden beneath the trees rather than inside the brick-walled classroom. Building a relationship with Nature was as important for Tagore as building relationships with teachers and the peers in a school. The entire curriculum would be kept flexible around the ability and natural inclination of the child with a focus on intercultural learning through history, art and literature. As Collins (2011) argues, “Tagore’s vast corpus of writings and practice- which covered rural reconstruction and development at Sriniketan, the philosophy of education realised via his Bolepur school and Visva-Bharati University, ecology, science, aesthetics and literature- constitute concrete responses to the problematic posed by the advent of British imperialism in India, but equally to problems that had arisen in European metropoles in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and had become, via imperialism itself, global in nature.” (p.222)

Tagore’s relational inclusive theory of education was born out of this colonial nineteenth and twentieth century experience in India. Reflecting on his own experience of schooling as a school drop-out during colonial India, Tagore writes: “I know what it was to which this school owes its origin. It was not any new theory of education, but the memory of my school day" (Tagore, 1917, p.138) Much like in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the mass public schooling even in the colonies was a response to the industrial revolution in Europe to cater to the needs of the industrial economy in the colonial metrople and for colonial governance in the colonies. However, as Europe was industrializing rapidly during the nineteenth and twentieth century, colonial societies like India were still vastly agrarian based economies. English educational experience was often disconnected from the life worlds of the majority of Indian people at that time. Hence, Tagore sought for University-based models of rural development in the rural educational models in the United States and sent his own son Rathindranath Tagore and another student, Santosh Majumdar1, to study agricultural science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. As an organic intellectual he realized that the “factory-model” of schooling for colonial bureaucratic jobs was not the answer to the problems of education and development within the Indian context.

According to Tagore, relationships of domination were harmful for both the oppressor and the oppressed. “It is this theoretical position, as well as Tagore’s personal involvement in realising such goals, that makes him such a significant figure; both in terms of the intellectual history of colonialism and for the purposes of thinking about the relationship between East and West in the contemporary postcolonial period.” (Collins 2007, p.80) As a visionary thinker and a committed teacher for social inclusion and development of the indigenous people including women, Tagore sought reconciliation through education. Although he was from an upper class Bengali Zamindar (landed-gentry) family, his socially inclusive vision of education sought to bridge the ever-increasing class divide between the indigenous Indian society as well as racial, ethnic, religious and gender divide through education in his school. This inclusive philosophy of education was born out of Tagore’s “embodied” experience of living as a colonial subject under imperial Britain as well as on the periphery of dominant Hindu society. It is to be noted here that despite their family inheritance of wealth as landed-gentry, among the indigenous society the Tagore family and ancestors were actually socially ostracized as “Pirali Brahmins” by orthodox Hindu Brahmins, as one of their ancestors supposedly converted to Islam or eaten with a Muslim (Dutta & Robinson 1995).  

Hence, throughout his life Tagore was deeply concerned with relationships of domination and what domination does to the mind of people. In this respect Ghosh, Naseem, Vijh (2010) argue that Tagore’s thinking was very similar to French Algerian thinker, Franz Fannon. They further compare Tagore’s socially inclusive critical consciousness raising educational ideas and practice with Paulo Freire within the Brazilian context. However, unlike Freire, a strong environmental concern as well as consciousness about gender inequality was also embedded in Tagore’s pedagogic project in rural Bengal. Tagore’s concern about gender inequality is also well-embedded in his literary work. The following quote from his dance-drama- “Chitrangada”2 (a recreation of the character of an epic warrior Princess from the Indian epic, Mahabharata) is a good example in this regard:

"I am Chitrangada Neither goddess nor servant am I. If you let me stand by your side at your darkest hour, let me be the friend of your soul, let me share in your joys and sorrows, only then shall you know me.”        - Tagore                 

Through his various short stories, novels and dance dramas Tagore gave voice to dreams and desires of freedom loving powerful women characters, which also includes “Prakriti”3, a Hindu dalit (outcast) girl in his play “Chandalika” (Chaudhuri & Bhattacharya 2010)

Tagore’s ideas within the colonial context in India were far more radical than many freedom fighters, who sought freedom through territorial decolonization. While other freedom fighters sought territorial freedom from colonial rule, Tagore sought freedom of the mind from all kinds of parochial thinking through the pedagogic project in his school. He offered a sharp critique of the indigenous hierarchies and domination within the native Indian society, as well as a scathing critique of Imperial domination and colonial economic exploitation. As Dasgupta, (2013) argues, “Rabindranath was seeking a world which has moved on from nationalism, patriotism, statism, and also capitalism- capitalism, because of his insistence on the best technology for Viswa-Bharati without the greed of profit…Indeed, my research on a history of Shantiniketan-Sriniketan-Viswa Bharati has led me to believe that this education was a vision and an exercise in inclusion and variety, with its driving faith in the idea of a civilizational ‘meeting’ of the world’s races for an intercultural dialogue crafted through knowledge of history and the arts.” (p.280-281) 

Just as his educational work was born out of his own schooling experience during colonial India, his huge corpus of literary and artistic work could be interpreted as a direct response not only to violent repressive policies by the colonialists but also to cultural insults hurled by them like Lord Macaulay, who claimed in his infamous 1835 Minute on Indian Education , “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia4.” It is to be noted here that across the Indian subcontinent as well as in the Bengal region, a very high quality of literature flourished during this time in various indigenous languages. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, whose novels and stories are still remade into Bollywood blockbuster movies like Devdas in 2002 and Parineeta in 2005, was one of the many noted authors producing rich volumes of literature in nineteenth century Bengal, when Macaulay was writing his infamous statements based on gross cultural ignorance and misunderstandings. As against such colonial cultural insults we find Tagore writing in a reconciliatory tone for intercultural understanding through education: 

“The Minds of the children today are almost deliberately made incapable of understanding other people with different languages and customs. The result is that, later, they hurt one another out of ignorance and suffer the worst form of the blindness of the age...I have tried to save our children from such aberrations, and here the help of friends from the West, with their sympathetic hearts, has been of the greatest service”

Rabindranath Tagore (1929)

There have been many misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Tagore by both colonialists and nationalists. Collins (2013) argues that Tagore’s theoretical ideas were actually born out of his experience as an indigenous intellectual within the colonial context and also native Upanishadic ideals of “unity in diversity” and ancient mode of education in the midst of nature in “Tapovan” (schools set up in the middle of forests by the Sages of ancient India). The Upanishads are ancient Indian transcendentalist texts. There were more than 200 Upanishads orally composed and later written down at around 6th C BC. They present a unifying cosmology behind the apparent diversity of not just life on earth but the universe. Tagore adapted those ideas to suit the needs of his contemporary times during colonial India as he was deeply concerned with increasing socioeconomic inequality, environmental degradation and disharmony related to racial, religious and gender divides within the colonial Indian context: 

Nearly eight decades ago, Rabindranath Tagore worried about the growing concentration of economic power and the coming destruction of rural India.....In a compelling set of essays written between 1915 and 1940, Rabindranath Tagore articulated a social vision where exploitation would give way to a just, humane, collectively owned economy. At the core of his thought was the cooperative principle. This is an idea worth revisiting on the International Day of Cooperatives, which this year falls on July 2, and even more so during the lead-up to 2012, which is the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives.                                                                       - (Mukherjee (2011)

As an organic intellectual through his literary and educational work, Tagore was seeking to move beyond colonial capitalist exploitation and clash of civilizations bread through ignorance and cultural misunderstanding within the colonial context in the Indian subcontinent. The main purpose of his educational project was to free the minds of people from shackles of parochialism imposed by racial, religious, gender and even national divides, since the very concept of nation was alien to people of the Indian subcontinent prior to British colonialism. 

I agree with Purkayastha’s (2003) reading of Tagore as a “rooted- cosmopolitan” (in the sense in which Kwame Anthony Appiah (1996) described the term, as someone who was rooted in his own cultural identity as a Bengali son of Mother India, who also considered himself a citizen of the world following the ancient Sanskrit dictum- “Vasudhaiva kutumbikam” (the world is one family).  Tagore’s relational philosophy of education was a simple theory for social inclusion and ecological awareness about the interconnectivity of all living beings on earth. He believed that the child can get most effective social and emotional learning as well as environmental education only when the child is able to establish a relationship with people around and the surrounding environment, rather than any kind of bookish knowledge. Tagore’s short story “The Parrot’s Training”5 conveys this fact through a creative critique of the prevalent mode of education during those colonial times, which is still very prevalent as the mainstream system of education. Contrary to the system of parrot’s training, Tagore believed in the ancient Indian belief “sa vidya ya vimuktaye” (Education is that which Liberates the Mind), rather than education putting people in the cages like the parrot in the cage. (Ghosh & Naseem 2003) Hence, his ideas about cosmopolitanism and internationalism should not be equated to such ideas espoused by neoliberal capitalists in the twenty-first century. 

Therefore, in conclusion I would like to again borrow the words of Collins (2007) to state that: “A Tagorean Universalist humanism could not flourish in the era of nationalism and decolonisation, but neither has Tagore as thinker and activist been fully recognised and explored in the context of postcolonialism. My suggestion is that in the present era humanism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism may yet have some mileage, and perhaps prove more useful to our needs than the rigid divisions wrought by poststructuralism. If that is so, then it may be that Tagore’s life and thought are worth re-examination.” (p.82) However, much like terms such as “equity” and “inclusion”; humanism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism are all terms that have been interpreted variously by various political actors to the left and right of the political spectrum. Often, they work against the interest of the “subaltern” marginalised in societies around the world like the cosmopolitan ideals of the neoliberals and their policies, which are in effect increasing the socioeconomic divides around the world, as critiqued by many scholars in recent times like Thomas Picketty (2014). Therefore, it would be important to keep in mind the historical context of colonial domination, racial and religious disharmony, gender inequality, economic and environmental exploitation within which Tagore’s environmentalism, humanism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism developed. Tagore’s theoretical ideas and pedagogic work sought freedom of the people through freedom of the mind, rather than freedom of capital to enslave the people.

[1]{C} See: http://choices.cs.uiuc.edu/~ranganat/test/Cosmo/Archives/Connections/nlfal98/nlfal98h.html

[2]{C} See: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/rabindranath-tagores-legacy-lies-in-the-freedomseeking-women-of-his-fiction-2279473.html

{C}[3]{C} “Prakriti” in Bengali and Hindi actually means Nature.    

[4]{C} See: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html

[5] See: http://www.tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowContent.aspx?ct=Stories&bi=4A57AB73-A4A0-40D5-551D-9502E9CD11FD&ti=4A57AB73-A4A0-4FB5-251D-9502E9CD11FD

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