Tagore The Educator: The Two Demons of 'Traditionalism' and 'Technological Attitude'

I was asked recently in a NDTV interview: What do you think Tagore would if he was alive today? My answer was that he would remain, first and foremost, a poet. That was indeed the safe answer, but I disappointed the interviewer. She was asking how Tagore would react to today's world - what life of action he might have chosen! Besides, Tagore the poet, however ubiquitous he may be in the life of the Bengalis, is less known: Most of the available translations are quite pedestrian, and his unique evocation of rural Bengal and his lyricism makes him somewhat out of time in our sceptical world. To imagine him as a poet in our day would involve imagining Tagore as a writer of blank verse and pop music, a leap of imagine that may not come very naturally.

However, my answer was flawed: Tagore perhaps wanted people to see him as a poet and a mystic, and to remember him as such, but he lived a life of action. His most cogent identity was that of an education reformer and an educator, founder of a great Indian University and an education philosophy that we may have somewhat lost sight of. My inaccurate reflexes during my two minutes before a TV camera clouded my thinking and the right answer indeed is that Tagore would have been an Educator if he was alive today.

This is, however, not an idle reflection on a missed opportunity, but rather an idea that I persistently talk about. Tagore's educational ideas have not been widely explored or discussed in India, and its application remained limited. The most surprising thing about this neglect is that this is not about the ideas remaining hidden in Bengali, but rather that they are most neglected in Bengal itself. In a sense, Bengalis like me have done two things to obscure Tagore the Educator: We promoted Tagore the Poet at every conceivable opportunity, neglecting all else; and we somewhat dismissed his educational ideas, innovative and relevant as they may be, perhaps by design.

It is a mistake that needs correcting, I shall argue. Tagore's educational ideas are more, not less, relevant today, and they present useful, actionable ideas for education innovation at the present time. Suitably for a person who lived through changing times and had been a practitioner, these ideas are complex, multifaceted, and worthy of extensive analysis and debate. And, while this should be urgently attended to, as widely and deeply as possible, my goal in the limited context of this post is rather narrow. All I want to do is to make good of my omission above and make my case about why Tagore the Educator takes a back-seat, and why his ideas are much more potent than what it is perceived to be - a poetic flight-of-fancy!

At the heart of Tagore's educational project, as I see it, is an attempt at a synthesis, of 'Western' ideas of science and progress, and 'Eastern' values of harmony and commitment to nature. I put these labels within quotes to indicate that these general categories may be only broadly accurate, and Tagore would have drawn his ideas from a wide variety of sources, Western and Eastern, to shape his worldview and his practise. And, this synthesis, despite being all-welcoming, was also a battle with two demons, as relevant in Tagore's days as they are today: The twin traps of 'traditionalism' and 'technological attitude'.

Tagore's school, and the subsequent university project, has traditionally been portrayed to have been formed in reaction to the Colonial English Language schooling system. However, this was very different from other similar projects undertaken at other parts of India, most notably in Benares and Annamalai, where the study of Sanskrit texts and preservation of Indian Heritage and Thought was the central objective. Tagore's worldview was deeply shaped by Upanishad, and he saw the limitations of colonial education in terms of neglect of the Indian culture and languages, and yet, his educational project was not to be a rejection of English ideas and return to tradition. In fact, 'Tradionalism' was his first demon to slay [Tagore was born and raised in a Brahma family, a reformist but conservative sect, and while he embraced the reformist spirit of it, he battled with its conservatism all his life]. At the core of his educational vision is an optimistic, forward-looking idea of the world, with science - Western Science as it happened to be - as the key to an understanding of the world.

At the same time, however, it is premised upon a complete rejection of 'technological attitude'. His rejection of the colonial system of education was not just about rejecting its limited nature of making clerks out of Indians, a point that he made forcefully (see my other post here),  but its unspoken assumption that the world exists for use of humans, something that Martin Heidegger would call 'technological attitude'. In a world where we are used twining Science and Technology, this is not an easy distinction to follow. It is, however, a crucial one, in our time as it was in his, to appreciate that a scientific approach can exist in perfect harmony with an attitude of 'Care', another Heidegger term, that posits human beings in its relation to nature and everything else. Tagore's approach, both in terms of conceptualising education beyond its limited goal of 'getting a job' and envisioning it for the development of the whole human being, and his commitment to imbibe a philosophy of living in relation of the nature and the universe, with all its beauty and possibilities, defined his educational ideas.

The reason why Tagore remained in the margin of educational thinking in India is precisely because the driving forces of modern Indian Education were the two very demons he wanted to battle at the same time. Indian Education debate since Independence has been shaped by the contest between 'Traditionalism' versus 'Technological Attitude', and Tagore remained a weak proponent and inveritable antagonist of both. The 'poet' label, therefore, suited him best: His ideas were affectionately ignored. And, Bengalis in particular, who mastered the colonial education system and revelled at professional success, both in Colonial India and thereafter, could never wholly come to terms with Tagore's conceptions of a broader education for development of human beings. While Tagore the Eastern thinker inspired some educational projects in India and elsewhere in Asia (and further afield, but I have no reliable knowledge of it), his educational ideas remained decidedly marginal in his native Kolkata, the ultimate city of professionals that powered the empire.

My case is that Tagore's educational ideas need a 'resurrection'. Its optimism and commitment to human progress represents all those good enlightenment values that got lost in the wars of the Twentieth century, but serve as powerful bulwork against the rising traditionalism and chauvinism. At the same time, his commitment to harmony with nature and rejection of 'technological attitude' is a helpful guide not just for our ecologically challenged time, but also for future development of technologies, when we must, for the sake the future of the human race as it seems, liberate it from being a tool for replacing human labour and seek out human-centered applications with a new goal of making lives better. Hypothetically speaking, if Tagore was alive today, he would have recognised that being an Educator, of progress and of care, is his greatest contribution to humanity.



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