Learning to Unlearn|Nov 9, 2012 4:00 AM| by:

The Foundations of Education

Many must have heard the name of Georges Carpentier, the famous sportsman of France. In spite of his being young in age, he was without a peer in boxing only till the other day. It is in his last encounter that he suffered his only defeat at the hands of Dempsey of America. But it does not seem to us that his greatness has in any way been tarnished even after this defeat, because Dempsey defeated him not through skill but through sheer weight. If a man beats a retreat from dashing against a mass of rock, he need not feel particularly humiliated. However, that is not the subject of our discussion; it is the advice given by Carpentier on physical exercise that is our subject. We value deeply what this talented sportsman said out of his own education and experience as to how the body should be built up. We have found it so interes­ting that we cannot resist the temptation of quoting in toto an extract from it:

“I have always made it a point to shun all exercises that are merely violent, for that which is physically hard to do, hurts and tires; it is harmful. For instance, of the prolonged swinging of Indian clubs or dumb-bells or muscle-making exercises, I do not approve. A man who claims perfect physical fitness because his body is bunched with muscle, I would not pass as the ideal or a perfectly trained athlete. The severely muscular man is strong only in a given test of strength; he may lift a tremendous dead­weight, he is imposing to look at, but he lacks elasticity, quick-footedness; oftener than not he has an indifferent carriage; he has made no special study of deportment. …I attach the utmost importance to ‘how to walk”.

Perfect carriage – the knowledge that you posses a full share of that poetry of movement which we call deport­ment has a wonderful effect upon the mind, and as I hold that it is absolutely necessary in the striving after physi­cal fitness, first to have a regard for your mentality, I would put deportment down as the beginning of the alphabet of physical culture. Having learned to walk correctly, you have mastered one of the hardest and most exacting lessons of your athletic curriculum. You then know all about poise, balance; and awkwardness will not seize hold of you. … Training as training – a species of mechanics I would call it – is as appalling as it is monotonous and soul-destroying. … It is not uncommon to find the average trainer insisting upon his man working full steam until the very eve of a fight. There is nothing in my opinion more harmful to drill into a pugilist that he is just a fighting machine to be wound up and set working at will.”

These words are plain and simple, but very rich in content. All those who deal with educational matters of a country should pay special attention to these words. Carpentier says that in order to build the body one must above all learn ‘how to walk correctly’. Only that person who has learnt how to walk correctly and whose bodily deportment is perfect can have a solid physical foundation. He need not try to master anything else that may be required for the body. To know how to walk means to save the knowledge of its rhythm, measure and pitch. All the limbs of the person who can walk correctly manifest a sort of melody, harmony, light and yet a compact look. If this is attained, then health, strength and beauty come very easily to the body. But we do not build our body in rhythm with the open sky and the air and the light in a simple and easy manner. We only torment our body subjecting it to rigorous rules and restrictions, to strenuous physical exercises, for we wish to become experts by enlarging certain muscles or by making certain limbs robust and strong. That is why Carpentier does not want to invest this capital of energy in some such arduous exercises like dumb-bells and clubs, don and baithak. He says that the body can be made fleshy and muscular by this means, that some limbs can no doubt store immense amount of strength, but, what is the gain in it? Man may become successful in this manner in certain tests of strength – one may have an elephant on one’s chest, one may lift a boulder weighing ten or twenty pounds, one may even become wonder-struck at the sight of someone’s body marvellously sculptured, but we do not get here an all-round growth, an even distribution of power, a well-arranged, well-integrated strength, a beauty of rhythm in the whole body.

We shall not dwell any more on physical education, but on mental education. However, whatever Carpentier has said about the body is wholly applicable to the mind also. The education prevalent in our country and all over the world aims at preparing a severely muscular mind and brain as has been observed by Carpentier. What do we do in the existing system of education? We exert ourselves following some faculties of the mind or relying only on certain parts of the brain. We want to make the mind, the brain of the student expert and ingenious in certain branches of knowledge, that is, in certain tricks. As Ramamurthy inflating his chest snaps the chain rolled around it, so also our expert philosopher aims at solving the world-problems convincingly through the power of reasoning. As Tarabai can lift a huge and heavy boulder tied to her plaits, so also some of us can, with the help of a powerful memory, keep telling fluently the dates of all the events of the world in minutest details. Or as the body of Sando looks beautiful to our eyes, thanks to his bulging muscles, so also are there amongst us one or two erudite scholars or pundits who are a mobile storehouse filled with loads of learning. Our system of education is trying to produce specialists, but more often than not, we find that a specialist is rather ignorant, incapable or else indifferent to subjects other than his own – even in ordinary matters of our day-to-day life. The archaeo­logist is void of any literary taste, the chemist is at logger­heads with philosophy, the linguist is one in whose head science does not get an easy access. Let me cite an instance; it is not a story, but an absolute factual truth.

One of our friends, an M.A. examinee in philosophy, was asked in the course of a conversation whether Mohammad preceded the Buddha or vice versa. Scratching his head, reflecting and re-searching a lot on the question, he answered that probably it was Mohammad! Terribly embarrassed, he at last offered this lame excuse that he was a student of philosophy and that history was not there in his syllabus. I do not know whether this example is common or not, but a friend of mine, a professor, assures me that it is not so – that the matter is very common; but there is no mistaking the fact that the specialists of this type are being produced by our system of education. Of late, in some quarters, however, it is being said and we are compelled to feel clearly that various domains of knowledge are somewhat inter-related, that one should not remain a frog in the well, confined exclusively within a particular subject; we have begun to observe also that the more one has mastery over a variety of subjects, the more is he capable of unfolding the inner significance of his own particular subject and the more deeply and elaborately is he capable of expressing and elucidating it. We have begun to acknowledge these days that all knowledge is partial knowledge; it simply observes a certain portion separately cutting it from the whole. Hence, from the point of view of integrality, if we see partial knowledge in the light of other branches of knowledge, then and then only can we see it completely and recover fully its secrets. But by this method also we are giving more emphasis on specialization: the main thing is the study of a specialised subject and other subjects are to be studied as optional ones only in order to focus their light on the specialised subject alone. Moreover, if we cultivate all branches of knowledge in equal measure, without any discrimination, even then it will be like the muscle-making exercises as observed by Carpentier; this may make the mind and the brain ornate with learning, but it is not possible to find in this way the entire mind and brain – the real man.

In fact, the defect of this muscle-making system of education about which we have just spoken is that here the attention has been focused on the outer, on a part – the inner, the whole has not at all been taken into consideration. We shall try to elucidate a bit more as to how it has come about. There are three levels or streams of education. Firstly, mastery over subjects; secondly, cultivation of various faculties; and thirdly, determina­tion of the mould of mind, augmentation of its capacity. On the first level, it is to acquire proficiency in a few selected subjects, to know and discover as many relevant theories and information as possible. On the second level, it is to make certain faculties of mind sharp and solid through repeated practice and training – faculties such as the power of memory, the power of reasoning and discrimination, or the power of presenting something in a methodical and cohesive manner. And on the third level, it is not to become learned or well-versed in a particular subject or excellent in a particular faculty but to make the roots of the mind, the whole brain charged and strong. The existing system of education is preoccupied with the first level only, that is to say, it has made the inferior part of education, its lowest and the most superficial level all in all. If we find in this system the second level which is relatively inner, we find it rather as a secondary thing. And we do not keep at all any track of the third one which is the innermost. In integral education all these three parts are mandatory, but its method must not be an attempt to go inside from outside but rather to come outside from inside – in a manner quite contrary to the present method. If you go on putting pressure from outside without keeping any trace of things within, the inner either gets withered or takes a distorted unnatural orientation. If the acquisition of knowledge on a particular subject alone becomes overwhelmingly important, the mental faculty, laden with the excessive weight of the subject, not only finds the way towards natural blossoming blocked but also fails to acquire adequate knowledge on the subject. This is because the mental faculty is forced to swallow the things coming from outside, it does not get the time and the capacity needed to digest them. Even cultivating the faculties is not the basic thing. It is necessary to enhance the power of memory, therefore, make efforts to memorize, consult the text repeatedly and learn it by heart. Or it is necessary to make the power of analysis keen, therefore, get down to the practice of applying your in­telligence, exerting your brain in conformity with logic.

It is very doubtful if it is thus possible to develop a faculty or to gain mastery over a subject to the fullest extent possible. Even if it succeeds, we get nothing more than an expertise in a particular faculty or in a particular subject. We can produce by this process a good number of persons capable of retaining whatever they hear or a certain number of persons well-versed in hair-splitting argumentation or an individual as good as a mobile dictionary, but they all become like a machine – you put certain things in it, it will disgorge finished products of special kinds. But it is difficult to have, by this means, a simple normal man endowed with a vibrant and strong mind. Not only that, the mind which is in this way cast and hammered to shape from outside, becomes in nine cases out of ten only a receptacle of something, it can receive what can be received like a machine; a creative mind, the mind that can offer, the mind that is capable of appreciation, cannot be obtained by this means. To create does not mean an accumulation of material things or placing them in order; creation is manifestation, a bringing forth from inside to outside, a burgeoning of the blissful Self through rhythm and melody and life. It is such a mind that not only knows but discovers its own strength, its own living being which it has at first obtained and experienced within; it is such a mind that becomes perfectly nourished and perfectly beautiful. As it gains mastery over a certain subject, over a certain faculty in a natural and vigorous way, so it acquires a natural talent which can deal effortlessly with any subject or with any faculty whenever it is necessary. Such an energy is stored at the root of the thought-force that in whatever way it may move, it can bring in there a feeling of verdant and vigorous creation. If the thought-force of the mind attains this source, then a thing, whatever it may be, which used to be acquired before with great difficulty, with a lot of force and effort, exuding a good deal of sweat, now becomes its own by virtue of some innate power.

If we take into consideration the three levels of education which we have just discussed, then education may be compared with a sword. The purpose of a sword is to cut an object; similarly, the purpose of education is to acquire mastery over subjects. But what is needed first and foremost is to whet the sword, to sharpen it; like­wise, in education too it is necessary to cultivate faculties. If you begin to cut something with a blunt sword, it may gather some amount of sharpness while cutting, but it cannot cut many things, the edge breaks, and there’s even a possibility of spoiling the sword altogether. Hence, it is necessary, before everything else, to cast the sword properly with wrought iron; similarly, in education also what is needed even before the cultivation of faculties is to give a strong, powerful and well-formed shape to the mind, to the brain.

For the development of the body what is of primary necessity is not rigorous physical exercises, but a good health, a general capacity, that is to say, the vitality and the rhythm of the vital-force which have been described by Carpentier as the poetry of movement. This elemental force cannot be obtained by physical exercises, they are merely an application or a technique of application of this life-force; to obtain it you need things of a different nature. In the case of education too, you need at the very beginning this kind of health, general capacity of the mind, the vitality or the life-force of the mind as well. The life-force of the mind is the power of thinking or the intellect, the thought-power or the brain-power. The current system of education has overlooked totally the idea of sustaining and improving this intellect and the brain­power. It is spending all its energies on the gymnastics of thinking and not on the specific application and on the simple and powerful rhythm of thinking. Not only that the existing system of education is not helping at all in the unfoldment of brain-power and intellect, it is also wholly obstructing it. It is superfluous to say that that education which stands for finishing a selected number of books within a few specified months, thrusting into the brain a fixed number of ideas within a fixed period of time and unloading them as and when needed, cannot but to a large extent be a kind of torture and oppression on the free power of thinking.

It is not the skill in applying the mind or the brain, but the manner in which its innate capacity, its rhythm of formation can be brought out effortlessly – that is the basic problem of education. Carpentier says that the first and foremost thing in the physical culture is a natural flowering of the body, a graceful movement in all its limbs and a free but firm physical discipline. We will add that to make the mind also refined and cultured, it too requires at the outset a similar kind of lucidity, a large and spontaneous movement, a concentrated power like that of the taut bowstring or the strings of a harp. To achieve this for the body, Carpentier wants us to learn to walk; similarly, to achieve this for the mind, our advice is to learn to think. What is ‘walking’ for the body is ‘thinking’ for the mind. Instances of the fact that the people of our country do not even know how to walk properly are seen everywhere. No wonder then that they do not know how to think—not deeply but in a general way—in other words, they do not know how to make their ‘mind walk’. At the mental level too we move about sometimes crookedly, sometimes with a bad limp, some­times by leaps and bounds, sometimes pantingly or drowsily. We do not know how to walk in an easy manner – many parts of our mind too have become distorted owing to innumerable mannerisms. Sometimes we do not think at all and we move about like a flock of sheep with a mind vacant and blind; sometimes, however, goaded by necessity we do a little bit of thinking required for the moment only. At times driven by emotional excitement we think erratically and at other times afflicted by others’ thoughts we suffer. And with such a sick, neurotic and impotent mind we practise strenuous physical exercises and hope to become experts!

The first thing needed is, therefore, to learn to think, to master the art of thinking spontaneously, – there is no need to put stress on the subjects we are dealing with, the faculties we are cultivating. Whatever may be the subject at the faculty, we will have to activate the entire mind making the former only a pretext. When a child plays, his play does not depend on the playthings he uses; each thing supplies him the joy of playing. Likewise, in education too, the joy of thinking is the food for the mind. Hence, the mind must first be freed and allowed to move freely. Then and only then the mind will be getting the joy of thinking and the rhythm and the strength of movement. A child is by nature curious, that is to say, inquisitive and desirous to know; he must be allowed freedom to move and at the same time be guided to proceed on the path of enquiry. Nevertheless, he should not confine himself only to the queries that come spontaneously from within, new and newer queries also have to be inculcated gradually into the minds of the child. Unknown and unfamiliar things must be held before his mind’s eye, they have to be made delightful, beautiful and captivating for drawing the attention of the learner. The child should be encouraged to give a free play to his speculation and imagination about these things. The extent and the depth of the mind of a child or a learner are not much, hence the teacher has to offer him new and newer topics and supply him with stimulus for new experiences; but this should be done without applying any force, that is, play­fully, through stories or through unrelated things. One must spread the bait, drop the hook to entice the fish and sit down patiently to see whether the fish nibbles at it or not. If it nibbles, well and good, one must then bring the fish completely under the control of the fishing-rod by playing with it slowly and gently. If it does not nibble, one should not be in a hurry or be impatient.

Time and again, at every possible opportunity things must be offered at the mind’s door of the learner, one must see whether he gets any interest in them or not, whether any latent string resonates or not – should the learner possess any talent it will be detected, it will come to light by these means alone. Furthermore, as there is no order in the child’s mind, he leaps from one subject to another, all on a sudden, without caring for anything else. To follow a subject step by step in order to reach its logical conclusion is the characteristic of a mature intellect – it is not proper to expect it from an infant learner. Now he discusses the colours of a bird and now he starts blabbing a poem, and, keeping it incomplete, suddenly he asks perhaps what becomes of man after death. The teacher must with infinite patience follow the caprices of the learner, he must, little by little, in a half-finished manner, provide interest of various kinds. It is by this means that the mind awakens spontaneously, accumulates an invigorating strength and a dynamism bursts forth in rhythm and harmony, and neither can inertia affect the thinking nor can rust contaminate the intellect.

This free will of the learner to move according to his own will is the basic thing in education. However, if this alone were all, the problem of education would have been much simpler, there is no doubt about it; unfortunately it is not so. In education, there is a special role for discipline; it is this discipline that brings in all sorts of complications. The child must be acquainted with books, he must learn to read and write correctly. Though the way it is done now can be made more joyful, more interesting, yet in actual practice, a sort of pressure comes invariably at a certain stage. The fact is that whatever is or can be taught orally and playfully is in consonance with the rhythm of the child’s normal life. But the moment the child starts getting introduced to alphabet or reading books or even writing and drawing, a pressure comes upon his mind to rise and take his stand in a different kind of world. However smooth you may make this stage, however straight you may make this bend, the child is bound to feel a jerk. Why only for the child, for any learner it is always true that – since education signifies progress or gradual ascension, however beautifully, interestingly or charmingly it may be imparted—there takes place invariably somewhere in the mind a bit of tugging and tightening. If the reins of the mind of the learner are let loose altogether, then a state of indiscipline takes birth there. The mind may become vigorous but there reigns also a sort of rashness, immaturity and a lack of control over oneself. Our fault is that we make this discipline and control, this bridling and restraining as the be-all and end-all of our endeavour; but this is not the primary thing. The primary thing is to bring forth that which has to be disciplined and controlled, bridled and restrained. Moreover, the lesser the imposition of rules from outside, the better it is; we will have to see that the learner gets the inspiration and technique to acquire self-discipline. But all these things will come to fruition only when we will have at the base a powerful mind, a vibrant brain and a creative power of thinking.

Whether this thing can be prepared in any school system or not is also an important question. We think that it is not possible or at least it is very difficult to prepare it. A school invariably means drawing the learner away from his natural surroundings at every moment and confining him within the classroom, creating a gap between his life and his education. However, a school can be made very open, very liberal and broad in outlook. Instead of having the classes in the classroom, we can very well arrange them under the shade of a tree, on the bank of a river or in the lap of a field or we can make the school a residential building for the students – but all that will not be a natural life for them, it will only be a simulation of life. All this means only a superficial change while the basic character of the school remains more or less unchanged by this means. When we try to tear out of their appropriate places the things which represent spontaneous manifestation of life, which are connected and united with a thousand and one things of life and arrange to place and embellish them in the midst of a particular institution, many a time we do not get the real and the living thing – we get only a fake image. Hence, it seems to us that even the schools run by the most modern method of education (as for instance, those of Montessori or Tagore) are not the virgin forests of life but merely some decorated gardens copied from them. In olden days, there was no educational institution in our country, there was only the house of the Guru. The learner used to be included in the Guru’s family. It is by staying there, participating in its various activities, tending the cows of the Guru that he used to get his education. We do feel that if we can turn the family into an educational institution – the family where the child is born, grows up, scatters and links himself with hundreds of relations, only then it will become a living institution. For this, however, a lot of rectification and reorganisation of the family is necessary. The social reformers have been mulling over this problem from the standpoint of morality, economics and even politics. We deem it imperative to put special stress on the fact that the family also can be viewed from the standpoint of educational policy, that the family also can become an ideal place for education. However, we have not sat down now to solve the question as to how the family should be reformed for the purpose of education. The long and short of what we want to say is that education will be ideal then and only then when the family will be considered as the living school, when the education of the learner will continue integrating him to social life – in other words, when education will be a living manifestation of a vibrant life.

The purport of narrating all this is that the moment we disassociate learning from life, education becomes a laborious exercise and the mind losing its vigour becomes an artificial instrument. The mind remains spirited, its power develops through the sap of life: life from below will keep supporting the mind, the mind too will keep infusing its light into life – mutually helping each other by such free exchange both will attain the supreme good –

parasparam bhavayantah
sreyah paramavapsyatha
(Fostering each other, you shall attain to the supreme good).

There has been a lesion between these two levels of our education. Consequently, our mind has become artificial and our life sick. Not only does the mind acquire freshness and strength, but its mode of thinking and perceiving also becomes right and straight when this mind—this thought and perception—gets nourished and mobilised at the very outset by the experiences, feelings and questions of life and life only. The foundations of education, we repeat, are therefore the two powers of the mind – the brain-power or the retentive power of the mind and the intellect or the formative power of the mind. A mind with brain-power is that which can retain without effort whatever pressure you put on it, which, having become broad, multifaceted and profound can pour itself out at its own will; the mind of the thinker is that which is endowed with a movement global and harmonious, with a living and infallible order of Truth. If one leaves out these two things as something innate or gifted by nature, then one leaves out the very fundamental problem of education. If one is satisfied with the available foundations and if one directs the whole or one’s endeavour in shaping the superstructure, then education turns out to be top-heavy, crippled or only eye-catching. We shall conclude citing here an old familiar analogy that if you want to see a tree rich in leaves, branches, flowers and fruits, then it would be of no avail if you simply wait for them avidly; what is needed is to find out the root of the tree, clear it from the weeds, water and manure it.

(Nolini Kanta Gupta was a revolutionary, linguist, scholar, critic, poet, philosopher and a man of deep spiritual realisation. Author of nearly 60 books he was a Trustee of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.)

(Written originally in Bengali and published in 1926, the collection of essays titled ‘Shikkha O Dikkha’/Education and Initiation, is as relevant today.)