Election time in India—a time for our political parties to wheel out the image of Mahatma Gandhi and claim to be the one true upholder of his legacy. This year, we have had the saga of the auction of Gandhi’s spectacles and the usual jingoist cover-ups for our ingrained national insecurities.
Of course, none of the political parties adheres to any part of Gandhi’s philosophy, but this doesn’t stop our shameless politicians claiming him for their own, praising him, and as usual, pledging to be guided by his principles—something they have all singularly failed to do.
The politicians who clamoured almost daily to be associated with Gandhi’s spectacles are the ones who have entirely ignored Gandhi’s philosophy of education and actively promoted the system of education developed by the British.
From an early age, Gandhi had no interest in the education system forced upon us by the British. At school, he was a very poor student, failing at several points and not taking part in sports or social activities. As befitting an intelligent boy who grew to see the British system as one of indoctrination, not education, he was ignored by his anglicized school friends and led a solitary and lonely existence.
As he grew older he was strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi wanted to free education from government and state bureaucracy interference. The Mahatma valued self-sufficiency and autonomy, and the more financially independent the schools were, the more politically independent they could be.
He foresaw the financial limitations of universally developing the British system and argued that in a poor country such as India, schools should generate their own resources. They could do this by having saleable handicrafts at the centre of their curricula. This was also central to his philosophy of learning by doing.
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Gandhi believed in teachers having freedom in curriculum matters. He was against the idea of the teacher having a prescribed job based on what the authorities wanted the children to learn, and he was against prescribed textbooks because a teacher who taught from a textbook did not “impart originality to his pupils”. What teachers taught and what they did should not be influenced by the state, but by the village and their own intellect and conscience.
Gandhi wanted radical changes from what is common in education today. Though he was the product of Western education in English, he did not want education to be in English but in the vernacular, and he was very concerned with the influence that Western ideologies had over India. He argued that the materialistic values of the British had to be replaced with the values of ancient Indian civilization, with its perceived emphasis on village communities that were self-sufficient and self-governing.
He was of the opinion that many people had no idea what education truly is and that under the British we had been indoctrinated to seek “only such education as would enable the student to earn more”.
Long before today’s “consume all” society, Gandhi was arguing that education had been turned into a commodity and that we should not assess the value of education in the same manner as we assessed the value of land or stock market shares.
Later in his life, Gandhi was to declare that real freedom would come only when we freed ourselves from the domination of Western education, Western culture and Western way of living that have been ingrained in us.
The irony is that today, as India clings to its centralized, textbook-oriented, employment opportunity-driven education, Britain and the West have moved towards many of Gandhi’s teachings. China’s rural education system incorporates far more features in its structure that Gandhi would approve of, than anything promoted by our government.
Bangladesh has hundreds of non-government organizations delivering the “popular education” developed by philosopher Paulo Freire, similar to the teachings of Gandhi.
In the West there has been a major move towards teaching and learning in the vernacular—prescribed textbooks have been consigned to the dustbin; local authorities, schools, teachers, pupils and parents have been allowed to have more influence over what is taught, and education is not seen simply as a ticket for a career.
Much has been written about Gandhi’s lack of influence on the post-independence state and social violence. We can only imagine what Gandhi would have thought of a liquor baron giving $1.8 million (Rs9.18 crore) to a foreigner for a pair of spectacles and sandals. We do know that this amount of money could have introduced Gandhi’s education in a lot of village schools.
However, when it comes to putting Gandhi’s philosophy into practice even on a limited scale, our politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists are hard to find. In modern India, the father of the nation may be invoked as a vote catcher but the reality is that he is a leader with few followers.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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