Wednesday, March 20, 2019 | ePaper

Tagore on literacy and education

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Md Anisur Rahman :
Tagore had a deep concern for universal literacy. He saw this, first and foremost, as a means of uniting people by giving them a means of linking with each other transcending physical distance. In Tagore’s view, one major benefit from this would be that the ordinary people would then know that their own deprivation is not only theirs but is part of the general deprivation of people like them. If they knew this then their pain would not remain just a personal problem but would become a problem for the society, which would then call for a collective solution. He observed that what and how much one would actually learn was a question for a later stage; but by being literate one would learn of others’ conditions and would communicate to others one’s own, and would see in oneself the image of greater humanity - this was his first consideration in wanting to see literacy for all. He went on to observe that in Europe literacy had not made everyone all that learned, but by learning to read and write ordinary persons in Europe had found a road to reach each other, thus eliminating a major obstacle to an exchange of hearts and to developing mutual solidarity transcending physical distance.
Tagore went on to say that in India the common villagers were being kept dependent on the pity of zamindars, mahajans (money lenders) and kings - the domestic servants could be easily abused physically, the subjects of the estates could be ill-treated, the illiterate peasant of meager means could be easily cheated. The answer to these abuses and injustices lay in empowering these people by giving them a means of uniting with each other - it is literacy for all that constitutes this means of collective empowerment.
As Tagore said: “I am saying this at a most elementary level - only to be able to read and write. This is not that much of a gain; this is only a road - and that also the mud road of the village. For the time being this is enough, because without this road people are shut to themselves in their own corners.” (Tagore 1914: 930)
Tagore initiated in Shantiniketan his own models of higher education, from school to university, with junior level classes in the open in interaction with nature, and student participation in rural development initiatives in his pioneering experiment in Sriniketan - The Institute for Rural Reconstruction. The initiation of such programmes also reflected Tagore's philosophy of education that wanted to see social education organically linked with India's own social life rather than resting on foreign social knowledge that is, as he observed, organically linked with foreign social life and hence not relevant for understanding and serving Indian society (Tagore 1906a : 682). In discussing this question he made elaborate reference to the British seeking to recast the Irish in the mould of the Saxons by banning the learning of Irish indigenous language, stopping the teaching of Irish indigenous history etc., imposing upon them an altogether alien knowledge system. Such knowledge, he observed, can only be learnt by rote without assimilation in one’s thinking process that alone can nourish one’s intellect. (Tagore 1906a: 673-4).
Unfortunately, however, Tagore’s experiments with education in Shantiniketan in organic interaction with social life as well as nature remained rather isolated and did not have any noteworthy effect on education elsewhere in Bengal that remained firmly entrenched in the western tradition. Nor could his university attract in sufficient numbers frontline Indian/Bengali scholars to make a career here. As long as Tagore himself lived his experiments attracted a few idealists from different parts of the world as teachers and extension workers. But this flow was not sustained after the poet’s departure. And the professional elite of Kolkata steeped in different values and oriented to the pursuit of foreign-generated knowledge had little more than “a patronizing smile at a poet's impractical fantasy” (Dutta and Robinson 1995: 136).
Tagore’s experiment to initiate cooperative development in villages under Sriniketan was also not very successful in terms of Tagore's own dreams. By this experiment Tagore wanted, in his own words, to “free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance ... (so that) an ideal for the whole of India would be established.” (Dutta and Robinson op cit.: 242). But this dream of Tagore did not materialize, despite heroic effort by the first Director of the project, Leonard Elmhirst, through what Elmhirst called the four ‘m’s -  ‘malaria, monkeys, and mutual mistrust’ (Dutta and Robinson op cit : 242). Of these, the last one was perhaps decisive. Tagore himself in his Letters from Russia added another reason for its failure, i.e. the staff of the institution were used to mechanical thinking received from the stale education system they had graduated from (so that they could not respond to the challenge of highly creative interaction with villagers that the project called for). n
(Social and Environmental Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore in the light of
Post-Tagorian World Development)

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