Learning to Unlearn|Apr 20, 2013 4:02 AM| by:

Educating the Individual

(Rabindranath Tagore tried to give a new orientation to Indian education and tried to stem the tide unleashed by Macaulay in 1835. Starting with Tapovana school and ending with Santiniketan he tried to inculcate a new spirit amongst the educated Indian.

Reproduced below is his address, delivered on 18 February 1935, at the seventeenth convocation of the Benaras Hindu University; he was seventy-four at the time.)

The invitation that has led to this platform today, though imperative in its demand is, I must confess, foreign to my temperament. It speaks of a responsibility which I am compelled to acknowledge owing to my previous karma that has identified me with a vocation specially belonging to that beneficent section of community which surely is not mine. Believe me, at one time when I was young, in fact, younger than most of you, and in that early dawn of the mind’s first urge of expansion I instinctively chose my own true path which, I believe, was to give rhythmic expression to life on a colourful background of imagination. Pursuing the lure of dreams I spent my young days in a reckless adventure – forcing verses through a rigid barricade of literary conventions. Such foolhardiness met with serious disapproval of the severally sober among the overripe minds of that epoch. If I had persisted exclusively in this inconsequential career of a versifier, you would not have ventured to ask such an unadulterated poet to take a conspicuous part in this solemn occasion where a great university has gathered her scholars to remind them of the high obligations associated with their success in college examinations.

In modern India centres of education have been established in large towns where the best part of energy and interest of the country is attracted. The constant stimulation working upon our mind from its cosmic environment is denied to those who are bred in towns. A great deal of the fundamental objects of knowledge which nature provides us free of cost is banished into printed pages and a spontaneous communication of sympathy with the great world which is intimately ours, is barricaded against. I, who belong to the tribe of the born exiles, having been artificially nourished by ‘the stony hearted stepmother’ – a modern city, keenly felt the torture of it when young and thus realized, when opportunity was given me, the utmost necessity of nature’s own bounties for the proper development of a child’s mind. It helps me to imagine the main tragedy that I believe had overshadowed the life of the poet Kalidasa. Fortunately for the scholars, he has left behind no clear indication of his birthplace, and thus they have a subject that oblivious time has left amply vacant for an endless variety of disagreement. My scholarship does not pretend to go deep, but I remember having read somewhere that he was born in Kashmir. Since then I have left off reading discussions about his birthplace for the fear of meeting with some learned contradiction equally convincing. Anyhow it was perfectly in the fitness of things that Kalidasa should be born in Kashmir—and I envy him, for I was born in Calcutta. He was compelled to suffer an honourable banishment from there to a city in the plains. His poem Meghaduta reverberates with the music of sorrow that had its crown of suffering ‘in remembering happier things’.

I wish to impress upon you the fact that one of the noblest functions of education is to reconcile our human mind with the world of nature through perfect knowledge and enjoyment. The great universe surrounding us with endless aspects of the eternal in varied rhythms of colours, sounds, and movements constantly mitigates the pressure upon us of our small self. Education must have for its completeness an environment of a detached mind like the aerial atmosphere which envelops the earth opening for her a path of communication with the infinite. The mantram which I have accepted for my own purpose of life, and which carries within it in a concentrated form, the true ideal of education is infinite peace, infinite wellbeing, the infinite one. Peace there is in the depth of the universe, the peace which is not of inertia, but for the constant reconciliation of contrary forces, the peace that reigns in the sphere of the stars among gigantic whirlpools of clashing flames: This spirit of a mighty peace we must win in our life through the training of self-control and balance of mind.

The human spirit whose highest aim is to realize itself in the supreme spirit, in its progress towards finality is enjoined by our scriptures to choose for its initial stage brahmacharya, the stage of self-discipline. This is in order that it can be established in the heart of shantam (spirit of peace), in the infinity of detachment. The basis of education has to be acquired in this shantam, the harmony of the soul in its unobstructed sense of the eternal. The idea of pilgrimage that prevails in India has the same educational meaning. Its sites have been specially selected where nature reveals overwhelming magnanimity in its aspect of the beautiful and the grand. There at the touch of the ineffable our worldly experiences lose their tenacious grip of immediacy and life’s truth is rescued into the light from the density of entanglements.

There is another pilgrimage for us which is in the world of knowledge. This journey in the open road gives us emancipation not only from illusions of appearance and peremptoriness of the prevalent unreason, but also from wrong valuations of reality, from all kinds of bias that obscures our vision of truth, from the enchainment in the narrow cage of provincialism. It is a strenuous walk, every step of which has to be carefully taken with a solemn eagerness for the truth which is to be its goal. There was a time when the university had its origin in man’s faith, in the ultimate value of culture which he pursued for its own sake. Unfortunately, in modern days, greed has found its easy access into the sacred shrine dedicated to the cause of the mind’s fulfilment. The sordid spirit of success has allowed educational institutions to be annexed to the busy market where vidya is bought and sold according to the standards of worldly profit, where cheap facilities are offered for acquiring, in place of true education, its make-believe substitute. It is fully worthwhile to emphasize the truth that the ultimate purpose of education is to enable us to live a complete life which can be realised through our complete unity with existence, a part of which consists of the physical nature and the other part that of the human community. It has been said in our scriptures that avidya or ignorance is the root cause of all evils, which blinds us to the truth of the unity of our self with the not-self. Shantam, the spirit of peace, which can be attained through the realisation of truth, is not the whole object of education; it needs for its finality shivam, goodness, through the training of moral perfection, for the sake of the perfect harmony with the human world.

The greatness which man has reached in the expansion of the physical and intellectual possibilities shows no doubt, a great advancement in the course of his evolution. Yet in its lopsided emphasis it carriers the course of avidya, the mother of all sufferings and futility, avidya which obscures the warning for him that his individual self when isolated from all other selves misses its reality and therefore suffers unhappiness, just as his physical body is thwarted in its function when out of harmony with the physical world. With the modern facilities of communication, not merely a limited number of individuals but all the races of men have come closer to each other. If they fail to unite in truth then humanity will flounder at the bottom of a surging sea of mutual hatred and suspicion. Things today have already assumed an angry temper of a growling beastliness ready for an enormous catastrophe. Most problems today have become international problems and yet an international mind has not been formed, the modern teachers’ conscience not having taken its responsibility in helping to invoke it. Like the position of the earth in the course of its diurnal and annual motions, man’s life at any time, must be the reconciliation of its two movements, one around the centre of its own personality, and another whose centre is in a luminous ideal comprehending the entire human world. The international endeavour of a people must carry the movement of the people’s own personality round the great spirit of man. The inspiration must be its own, which is to help it in its aspiration towards fulfilment. Otherwise, mere cosmopolitanism but drifts on the waves, buffeted by wind from all quarters, in an imbecility of movement which has no progress.

As a people we must be fully conscious of what we are. It is a truism to say that the consciousness of the unity of a people implies the knowledge of its parts as well of its whole. But, most of us not only do not have such a knowledge of India, they do not even have an eager desire to cultivate it. By asserting our national unity with vehemence in our political propaganda, we assure ourselves that we possess it, and thus continue to live in a make-believe world of political daydreams. The fact is, we have a feeble human interest in our own country. We love to talk about politics and economics; we are ready to soar into the thin air of academic abstractions, or roam in the dusk of pedantic wildernesses; but we never care to cross our social boundaries and come personally to the doors of our neighbouring communities, to enquire how they think and feel and express themselves, and how they fashion their lives. The mind of India, on the other hand, is divided and scattered; there is no one common pathway along which we can reach it. We cannot but look with regret at the feebleness of stimulation in our academic training for the forming of our mind which in cooperation with knowledge and sympathy may comprehend the larger mind of the country. The most important object of our educational institutions is to help each student to realize his personality, as an individual representing his people, in such broad spirit, that he may know how it is the most important fact of his life for him to have been born to the great world of man.

The activity represented in human education is a worldwide one, it is a great movement of universal cooperation interlinked by different ages and countries. And India, though defeated in her political destiny, has her responsibility to hold up the cause of truth, even to cry in the wilderness, and offer her lessons to the world in the best gifts which she can produce.

We are new converts to Western ideals. In other words, the ideals belonging to the scientific view of life and the world. It is great and foolish to belittle its importance by wrongly describing it as materialism.

For truth is spiritual in itself, and truly materialistic is the mind of the animal which is unscientific and therefore unable to cross the dark screen of appearance, of accidents, and reach the deeper region of universal laws. Science means intellectual probity in our dealings with the material world. This conscientiousness of the mind is spiritual, for it never judges its results by the standards of external profits.

Rabindranath Tagore

(Sourced from Benaras Hindu University Magazine, New Series Vo1.35, No. October December 1934. p.267-79.)