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.