Education: deliberate misunderstandings and the undermining of the underdogs


The broadside against India’s new minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani , re-opens a debate that is as old as the hills: What is Education? #SmritiIrani, her detractors have it, is someone without the requisite academic credentials to do full justice to a ministry that deals with the Education sector. Just turn the argument on its head: how many professors of, say, business schools, have managed a business at any point in their lives? As someone with deep interest in the area, I’m often baffled by the chutzpah with which academics – who are probably unaware that they seem rather wet behind their ears to grassroots investigators – impose their ideas on the policy-making exercise! One can only attribute their nerve to what the Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘the hazards of confidence’.  The debate over what is education also opens up memories of two outstanding visions of education by two exceptional individuals – M K Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari [Gandhiji and Rajaji] – which were rubbished and drowned in a volley of criticism.

In his #WardhaEducationScheme, in 1937, Gandhiji proposed that in the first seven years of schooling, education be carried on through a craft activity that would help the child relate the 3Rs and more to real life situations arising from the physical and social environment of the child. A holistic learning experience would go hand in hand with training in a vocation that the child could, perhaps, take up profitably in the absence of an aptitude towards scholarship of an academic nature. He was talking of ‘activity-based learning’ long before terms like ‘child-centred’ and ‘alternative education’ became fashionable and as a response to the prevalent system of formal education, which he castigated as ‘uninspired by any life-giving or creative ideal’. Criticised roundly as a ‘scheme of production with conscript labour’, Gandhi’s vision of basic education was dumped by those who were not as far-sighted as he.

In 1953, #Rajaji launched a crafts-based learning model in the primary schools of Madras province. Rather than ‘hammering down the curiosity of a child’, these schools would convert ‘drowsy and hazy children’ into eager members of ‘village polytechnics’. The plan was designed on the following lines: reduction of in-class hours, and use of the freed hours in learning crafts and arts from the families in the existing social milieu. The out-of-class programme would be supervised by craftsmen and farmers, and not the school’s teachers. The same set of school buildings would, therefore, become two kinds of learning environments and have two models of teaching all in a regular school day. The ‘polytechnic’ part of the education would draw on each village’s human resources and depend on their occupational profile.

Says #RajmohanGandhi, author of The Rajaji Story 1937-1972*, and grandson of both Rajaji and Gandhiji whose offspring were united in wedlock, ‘At the end of the year … in Madura, scene of sustained agitation against the scheme, admissions had gone up by 40 per cent.’ But, whereas Rajaji saw ‘relief and smiles on the faces of the Tamil boys, and dexterity coming to their fingers, … the fathers of some of them saw malice in C.R.’s heart. They were encouraged to do this by the fiery, bearded E.V.R., [Erode Venkata Ramaswamy Naicker]’. A majority began to see Rajaji’s scheme as a brahmin’s way to perpetuate the caste system, ‘to confine boys of the lower castes to their fathers’ occupations’. Rajaji would argue: ‘Was not learning by rote one of the country’s diseases? Did it not, in fact, favour the brahmins, who were good at memorizing? Following the reform, would not the children of illiterate artisans score over the other class of children? The reform would bring the castes together, not separate them.’ But people whose minds are made up are not swayed by good sense. A programme of educational reform that could have, at no extra cost to the exchequer, done wonders for improving literacy, getting and retaining children in school, preserving heritage and removing prejudice towards manual labour was dumped by a hostile opposition limited by its own interests and prejudices.

‘It is mistake to imagine that the school is within the walls,’ Rajaji proclaimed, ‘The whole village is the school. The village polytechnic is there, every branch of it: the potter, the dhobi, the wheelwright, the cobbler.’ But as the diatribe against Smriti Irani proves, we, as a society, are still limited by our boxed in idea of education – as something that happens within the four walls of an institution rather than in the rough and tumble of the real world.

*Acknowledgement: Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of Rajaji has been a source of inspiration, and I have drawn generously on the book’s rich content to write this piece.


2 thoughts on “Education: deliberate misunderstandings and the undermining of the underdogs

  1. I agree that educational qualifications are not an essential requisite for an effective education or HRD minister. Performance has to be judged based on actual delivery of services. But so far she is investing most of her energy for higher education sector. But the superstructure of quality higher education can be built only on the solid foundation of quality primary and secondary education and that factor seems to be out of focus. She must revise national prioritises.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response. There can be no doubt that a strong foundational education is of utmost importance. However, it is significant to note that the first educational policy initiative of Independent India was setting up of the higher education commission under Dr. Radhakrishnan in 1948.

    Being far more farsighted and eminent than our present policy-makers, I believe the stalwarts of our freedom movement took this step as they may have felt it is a great disservice and extremely demoralising for students to find that there aren’t sufficient avenues available for them to fully realise their potential and pursue their interests to the extent possible. Isn’t it important for a nation to ensure higher goals are available for pursuit by students who complete their secondary and higher secondary education – often surmounting hurdles like poverty, poor support systems at home and in school, and poor infrastructure including lack of power and transportation?

    As an independent researcher, I have visited several villages where students, having completed their 10th standard, were dispiritedly whiling away their time as there were few avenues available to them to study further or develop their skills and interests. Rural colleges, however, should be a far greater concern for our government than elite institutions of higher education. There was an insightful report on rural colleges by Shrimali, sometime in the 1950s. All these old reports of education committees and commissions must be dusted and brought out of oblivion. That would be a signal service to the nation. Don’t you agree?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s