“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.” – Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941)
Rabindranath Tagore’s views on anything are always a treat to read. He was an opinionated man and a passionate debater, unafraid to hold unpopular opinions and not hesitant to engage his ideological opposites in constructive debate (the most popular of whom was probably Mahatma Gandhi).
And while Asia’s first Nobel laureate was vocal about a wide range of issues, his main passion (besides literature, of course) was education. Tagore was a prominent critic of the education system of the day, which was centred around textbooks and formal schooling. This is the system of education that evolved less and harshened much over the decades to give us today’s imperfect education system.
Going through Tagore’s criticism of the education system in the early 20th century, it is easy to conclude that had he been alive today he would have passionately opposed even the education system we have in place in India today.
Tagore’s education model: an overview
From his early essays to his work in Santiniketan, Tagore’s contributions to educational thinking are immense. He envisioned a society where students would not be chained to textbooks and a predetermined syllabus; instead, they would be allowed to learn at their own pace, a practical nature-oriented approach that would combine the best of the West and the East and pursue any interest of their choice.
The Bard and formal education
The diversity and illustriousness of Tagore family inculcated a sense of curiosity, philosophy and deep appreciation of nature in young Rabindranath.
Tagore loathed formal education – his tenure at the local Presidency College spanned a single day. He often likened the educational institutions of his time to prisons and criticised them for stifling creativity and freedom.
He found his formal schooling to be inferior and boring and, after a brief exposure to several schools, he refused to attend school. He never got to completing any degree – the only degrees he got in life were the honorary ones bestowed upon him later.
While Tagore did not write a single work specifically on his education doctrine, his philosophy can be determined through his various other works.
Siksar Herpher (1892) was probably Tagore’s first elaborate criticism of the education system. It was the first piece of work that provided an insight into the Bard’s views on education. In Siksar Herpher, Tagore argues that the ultimate aim of education should be the all round development of an individual for harmonious adjustment to reality. It advocated the value and need of the mother tongue in providing all the necessary educational nourishment of the child.
Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay, Tagore’s biographer, has noted that Siksar Herpher “was the first really comprehensive and competent criticism of the educational system of the country at that time”.
Wholesome learning and the importance of teachers learning with the students
In an essay entitled “A Poet’s School”, Tagore emphasised the importance of an empathetic sense of interconnectedness with the surrounding world:
“We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. 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. From our very childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days. Thus the greatest of educations for which we came prepared is neglected, and 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…Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.” (Rabindranath Tagore, Personality,1917: 116-17)
Additionally, Tagore warned educators of the detrimental effects of applying the adult method of learning to children:
“It is like forcing upon the flower the mission of the fruit. The flower has to wait for its chances. It has to keep its heart open to the sunlight and to the breeze, to wait its opportunity for some insect to come seeking honey. The flower lives in a world of surprises, but the fruit must close its heart in order to ripen its seed. It must take a different course altogether. For the flower the chance coming of an insect is a great event, but for the fruit its intrusion means an injury.”
“[A] teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.”
“Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs. To explore the geography of their minds, a mysterious instinct, sympathetic to life, is the best of all guides.”
In general, Tagore was convinced that education “is not a matter of ‘teaching’, of methodology or of ‘educational equipment'” but was reliant on the personality of the teacher and the relationship between the teacher and the student.
Education under nature
He also saw nature as indispensable for the healthy growth of children’s body and soul and argued that without it, “children suffer, and in the young men is produced world-weariness.” A child, he argued, has an inborn desire for nature:
“But directly it is born with all its instincts ready for the next stage, which is the natural life, it is at once pounced upon by the society of cultivated habits to be snatched away from the open arms of the earth, water and the sky, from the sunlight and air. At first it struggles and bitterly cries, and then it gradually forgets that it had for its inheritance God’s creation; then it shuts its windows, pulls down its curtains, loses itself among meaningless miscellanies and feels proud of its accumulations at the cost of its world and possibly of its soul.”
He championed an educational model that was holistic, rural-centred and aimed at cultivating a sense of freedom and individualism in the students.
In the end, Tagore’s educational philosophy can be classified under the following broad themes:
- Freedom for the student
- Emphasis on nature
- Intellectual development
- Physical development
- Inculcation of humanism
- Teaching of the arts
- Mother tongue as medium of instruction
- Social development
- Moral and social development