Beyond Colonial Education: Why Revisit Tagore's Ideas?

Rabindranath Tagore got a Nobel for Literature in 1913 and became institutionalised as a poet and a mystic. His ideas about education remain largely unknown, outside the scholarly work that appears from time to time. True, his educational practise gets some prominence because of Viswabharati, the university he created, but the fact that this has since become a Central University subsumed in the bureaucracies like any other university obscures most of its foundational principles. Instead of being an expression of the creative and integrative spirit that Tagore wanted his institution to represent, the university today is little different from any other than the curiosities such as its open classrooms and its annual rituals.

The education in India, however, has come to a full circle. The doctrine of Higher Education in independent India did not draw much from Tagore's thinking, but rather depended on the technocratic ideals of the West and aimed at creating an elite who could assume leadership of a modern economy. India built great technical institutions and few elite universities, but failed to translate the success of this educated elite either into common well-being or advancement of the concept of India. Rather, as time progressed, Indian elite became a disconnected class, unresponsive and even dismissive of the plight of their own people, and effectively carried on the Colonial ideal of distinction between the ruling class and the ruled.

The recent adventures in mass Higher Education in India follow the same pattern. The recent developments in Indian Education focused on expanding higher education without any other agenda than to create a class of consumers to power on the modern economy, very much in line with the predominant neo-liberal thinking of the global elite. However, this, just like the colonial education system that went before it, goes without a theory of education: The educational enterprise today is devoid of a purpose, or at least has no greater purpose than the other instruments of consumer society, such as expansion of credit, for example, has. In this backdrop, Tagore may appear very relevant, not just for his educational practise, but rather more for his educational theory.

For me, a definitive starting point in Tagore's educational theory is a compendium published almost thirty years ago (and not reprinted again, to my knowledge) which put together selections of writing related to education from Tagore's massive oeuvre. Tagore scholarship has moved on significantly since the 80s, particularly in terms of collection and publication of his letters, and indeed, much has been published about Tagore's educational practise and the history of the institution he created. But, perhaps tellingly, research on his educational philosophy remains quite limited, promoting a somewhat unbalanced view that promotes the man as a creative and imaginative practitioner of education whose work may impact a special group of people in a particular setting, but not a consistent and insightful education theorist, who may have much to say about the whole system of education which may impact policy. Yet, as the consumer education as promoted in India increasingly pushes us towards a crisis of identity, a void that may increasingly thrust us to a ritualistic and unthinking allegiance to an imaginary past, it may be worthwhile to revisit Tagore as an education thinker.

In many ways, Tagore's position here is distinct both from the proponents of the Colonial education system and from its adversaries. He indeed shared the idealism of the Bengali enlightenment thinkers that a Western Education system might dispel some of the rituals and constraints of the backward looking and stagnant system that India had at the time of colonial takeover, and yet he saw colonial education for what it is - not a system of broadening the mind but an instrumentalist chore limited to production of obedient workers. He pointed out that this colonial system may have an objective - producing clerks - but no purpose: No one needed to ask what education was for if the goal was to create the workforce to keep the empire running.

Tagore's argument was that this could hardly form the basis of a viable national system of education. He conceded that there would always be instrumentalist goals that individual students may pursue in education, but disagreed that this should become the organising principle of an education system. As in colonial education, he saw an education system organised solely around instrumentalist goal would produce incomplete human beings, who might be technically capable but deficient in carrying out their lives, social commitments and civic responsibilities.

Instead, his conception of a viable national education system was built around three organising principles. 

First, any education should be constructed hand in hand with a theory of being, of what kind of people one is aiming to be. The starting point of an education is to adequately answer the question of purpose and motivation, and such purpose should go beyond just how much money one should earn at the end. Rather, it was about what kind of a person one should become, and what values such a personhood should represent.

Second, this system of education can not be constructed without taking into account the national ethos, the considerations of society around. Otherwise, all education remains shallow, a bucket to be filled, and will fail to transform the whole person, the fire that was to be lit. Education, for Tagore, isn't a cloak one wears, but something one becomes - and if this is something one does not easily fit into, this would cause alienation and disconnection.

Third, a viable system of education must be forward looking and celebrate the idea of human progress, engaging with the world with an open mind and seeking out new ideas. This is where Tagore's idea departs from the usual nationalistic rejection of anything Western, and finds common space perhaps with the pragmatists. 

This discussion, framed in the context, in fact in response, of the colonial education, may still have relevance in the face of the expansion of commercial system of education. The mere instrumentalist focus of our educational policies, aimed at making Engineers and Managers, come out in sharp relief against such frameworks: Its limitations quite starkly exposed when examined against the greater purposes of education pursued with conviction as in Tagore. I find a lot of common ground between Tagore and the pragmatists, who would reject grand theories including that of national pride but will maintain an unwavering commitment in progress. Pragmatists are enjoying a revival in America, as the social realities make their thinking more, and not less, relevant: My argument is that Tagore's educational ideals deserve a similar reassessment in India.


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