Ambedkar’s teacher

John Dewey saw education as foundation of democracy and social reform. It’s aim is to develop autonomous, thinking individuals


A file photo of B.R. Ambedkar. Photo: HT
A file photo of B.R. Ambedkar. Photo: HT

Babasaheb Ambedkar is believed to have said in 1952, “I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof. John Dewey”. It is likely that he did say this, or something very similar. There is enough in his published writing to validate this sentiment. For instance, in Annihilation of Caste, he wrote, “Prof. John Dewey who was my teacher and to whom I owe so much...”. Ambedkar has perhaps been our pre-eminent leader-intellectual, and his sentiments should, if nothing, pique our interest in John Dewey.

Many would need no introduction to Dewey, and even those who do, are likely to be familiar with the general thrust of his ideas, without knowing the man responsible. John Dewey (1859–1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and perhaps best known as a reformer of education. Dewey is one of the central figures associated with the philosophy of pragmatism, with functional psychology and with progressive education. He was a vocal public intellectual, advocating for social reform and liberalism. His prodigious written output has been collected in 37 volumes. Dewey was Ambedkar’s teacher at Columbia University, New York, from 1913 to 1916.

Any attempt at summarizing the gist of Dewey’s ideas would be foolhardy, so let’s just have a cursory glimpse of some of the more important ones, which are surely inadequately representative of his whole body of work. The overarching theme of Dewey’s work was democracy. For Dewey, democracy is about participation and not only about representation. This participation requires public reasoning and dialogue, within ever-expanding and self-critical communities of inquiry, constantly revising their beliefs based on new evidence. Dewey envisioned democracy as an ethical ideal and not merely a political arrangement, and so saw it extending from politics to the economy and society.

Dewey saw education as the foundation of democracy, and as the key process for social reform. The aim of education is to develop autonomous, thinking and engaged individuals, and help realize their capacities to the fullest potential, which should be put for the use of the greater good. Education is a social process and experience is central to learning. Effective education is possible only with the student as an active participant in the processes and in the curriculum, with adequate weightage for the content and the role of the teacher, and without tipping over into the extremism of child-centrism. Dewey saw the teacher as a professional, and central to the enterprise of education. His educational writing spans an extraordinary range, reflecting not only his great intellect, but also his personal experiences of running schools.

Today in education, we are all Deweyites; we may not even know it, but most of us are. His ideas are so deeply ingrained in education across the world that even those who would be considered antithetical to core Deweian ideas—votaries of primacy of vocational education, advocates of conservative education, among others—end up using his ideas simply because they are effective.

Considering what Ambedkar himself said, the extent of Dewey’s influence over him (and vice versa) needs to be studied seriously; not many attempts have been made. There is no doubt that more than most people, Ambedkar was his own man. His own searing personal experience, the depth and breadth of his social-political engagement, the well-known shining intellect, and more, shaped him. But the resonance between Dewey and Ambedkar is hard to miss, even if we had not known of their relationship: the commitment to democracy, not only political but social and economic, the emphasis on participation not merely representation, the importance of public reasoning, and the foundational role of education for democracy and equality.

Dewey was a philosopher, and Ambedkar the leader of a nation and its people. The teacher witnessed his most famous student converting their ideas into real institutional arrangements, for what was then and remains now, the worlds’ biggest democracy. No wonder that the Constitution of India is liberating, equalizing and humanizing. So is the curriculum of our schools. There is a deep resonance between our Constitution and education as we have envisioned it. So, in a sense, in education we are all Ambedkarites as much as being Deweyites.

The famous caution of Ambedkar about the Constitution eventually being only as effective as the people who implement it applies equally to education. The gulf between the India of our Constitution and the reality is as wide as the gulf between our curriculum and educational reality. However, this makes our liberating and progressive Constitution and curriculum even more relevant and important. India needs both, and their deep mutual resonance, to become the nation that we have promised ourselves.

Let me end by quoting Ambedkar quoting Dewey: “… Prof. Dewey said... Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse. As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to conserve and transmit the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as to make for a better future society. The school is its chief agency for the accomplishment of this end.”

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads
sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.
He writes every fortnight on issues of
ecology and education.

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