Learning to Unlearn|Jun 11, 2008 9:36 AM| by:

The Teaching Profession: Ancient Indian Ideal & Modern Environment

The Mother always said that to be a successful teacher one must be both a yogi and a saint, because if you are to manage a group of students, you have first to learn to manage yourself. In other words, teachership is not a profession but a mission. This was so in the India of old but with the impact of the Western values, the system got eroded. A teacher was never looked upon as a professional member of the society. He was always an Acharya. An Acharya means one who sets up standards – standards of conduct, standards of living. And he had a very high standard in his personal life to follow. He was very strict with himself, judged himself very severely, but he was charitable in his dealings with others. It is no use now in lamenting that that age is over, modern society is different and we cannot revive the past system of education. All the present-day attempts to revive the Gurukul system of education have failed and rightly so. You cannot revive and apply systems which were relevant 1000 years ago to a technological society as of today with totally different horizons, different currents and cross-currents.

What is important is that the fundamental principles that based the ancient Indian educational systems have to be preserved, adapted and given a fresh lease of life in modern conditions. One of the first conditions of this approach which is special to the East is that the teacher must develop an individual relation with the student. His contact with the student should not be limited to the classroom. He takes on partially the responsibilities of a parent, as far as education is concerned. It is no use telling me that today we are over-populated, that the ratio of teachers to students in an average classroom is 1 to 100. We have to devise ways and means of ensuring that each teacher is related directly to a group of students in whom there should be a personal interest. In this I recognise that there are four parties to this situation in education. There is the student, there is the teacher, there is the parent and overall there is the authority which makes the resources available. In the olden days of my generation, the Government hardly came in the picture of the field of education. There were educational societies: Servants of India Society, the People’s Society, Karnataka Society. The cream of the society, leaders of culture, contributed, participated and the Government hardly came in. The Government came in only in some special type of institutions where aid was required, but everybody tried to avoid it because of the red tape, the bureaucratic control to which they would be subject.

But those days are gone. It has been a disease of Independent India that everywhere there has been politi­cisation. Even scientific research is influenced by political factors. This is a tragedy but we have to accept the situation as it is….

Another principle which the Mother dinned into our ears is that a successful teacher is also side by side a keen student. You do not cease to be a student the moment you become a teacher. You do not cease to progress in spiritual life the moment you become a guru. A guru has also to progress, otherwise he stagnates and forfeits the trust placed in him by the disciple. The moment one becomes a teacher, it is not that he has arrived. It is a fresh start, he opens a new page. He has much to learn. He is in a more advantageous position because he has opportunities to learn which other professional people do not have. He learns from everywhere. The first person from whom the teachers learns is from the student himself. It is the student who points out the lacunae, the chinks in the armour of the teacher. It is only when I begin to teach that I realise where I am weak, where I am unable to answer questions, where I have still to make up. When the students ask inconvenient questions, it is no use shutting them up, shirking them. If the teacher is sincere, he should say, I will explain to you next time. And he must take the pains to find out why he could not answer, he should be grateful to the student. This honesty, transparency, sincerity is an essential ingredient in the equipment of a teacher: a ceaseless desire to learn from all quarters, to recognise one’s limitations, to own one’s responsibilities to the students, to the parents of the students who have entrusted their children to him. There are certain concerns which need more attention than they have received so far.

When we speak of education, it has been a fashion, particularly in the British legacy, to limit education to instruction, instruction in academic subjects. Teaching subjects like physics, chemistry, literature, is only part of the job. In Tantra Shastra they speak of 8 or 10 types of teachers. A teacher shows the way; there is a teacher who guides; one who instructs; one who makes himself available to answer when he is asked and so on. In modern life all things are mixed up, the totality presents itself at every step. On the teacher lies the responsibility to influence the growth of the student, the growth of the child. His responsibility is not over in the classroom. It is only a peak period in the mental development. What about the moral development, the cultural, the physical development?

That is why the Mother speaks of four-fold or five-fold education. Physical education: attention to the body, rectification of the defects of the body, development of the muscles and powers of the body, the right nutrition, the right kind of sleep, the right kind of play. Then there is the vital education: discipline of the pranic apparatus, how the energies are to be cultivated, how spent, how to attune oneself to universal life-energy so that one is not tired, not fatigued. Then there is the mental education: development of the brain, development of the intellectual faculties; development of the emotions, the finer side of life, the aesthesis, the sense for beauty, the sense for harmony, all these. It is in childhood that this sense of aesthesis, beauty develops. And one who loves beauty, one who has a heart open to the call of beauty can never be violent, can never be cruel. That is why the Indian culture speaks of aesthesis. Ours is the only religion which speaks of God as Beauty, Sundara, Shyamasundara. Everywhere else they are afraid of God, that God will punish. It is only on this Indian soil that God is loved, adored as beauty, a beautiful person.

Sri Aurobindo observes in his book, a seminal book, “The National Value of Art”, how the Indian system has suffered a grievous loss in having ignored the aesthetic side of the human being: imagination, attunement to vibrations of music, harmony, perceiving beauty in nature, creating forms of beauty, not externally but those which bring out the soul values. The difference between a Western artist and an Indian artist is this: the Western artist tends to imitate nature, he creates a perfect form. If you see some of the Greek sculptures, you have a beautiful physical form; the emphasis is on structure, symmetry, physical appeal.

But the Indian artist always brings out the soul, the inner significance; the outer lines are only a means of expression. Each figure in the temple-architecture, for instance, has a great significance of perpetual relevance to the human mind. It was in recent times that the school of Abanindranath Tagore revived this approach, that it is not the external form but the inner being that rushes to the eyes that is important.

Now, do we pay attention to this aspect of life which has to be moulded in childhood, in student days? We have special schools like J.J. School of Arts, but how many go there? In a country like Japan, like China, old China, the student has to pass through a certain culture and discipline of aesthesis. We have so many monuments for the Indian architectural and aesthetic sense but they are deplorably neglected. In the Government House here there were certain pieces of sculpture. The French had the sense to leave them as they were, but after the merger took place and the Indian authorities took over, one of the first things that was done by the Public Works Department was to put a coat of paint on everything so as to make it uniform with the environment. Would this have happened if we had people trained in aesthetic culture?

The Mother was a great artist apart from other things. She had moved and worked with some of the prominent artists in France and Europe during the last century. And when she had occasion to go and stay in Japan for four years during the First World War, she noted how even the average housewife had an aesthetic sense in arranging flowers, in keeping furniture, in hanging paintings. Sri Aurobindo points out that a child’s mind is influenced more by what it sees than by what it hears. So if a child is accustomed to live in a house where things are thrown pell-mell, books heaped up, gaudy pictures, garish illustrations hung indiscriminately, the growing mind of the child is unconsciously influenced by that chaos. And chaos is offence to the aesthetic sense. If, however, care is taken by the teachers or the parents to hang beautiful things in a right manner to evoke response, to set the children thinking, automatically they form the habit of aesthetic governance of life. This is a side which has been very much neglected. And more than men, it is women who have a responsibility to promote this aesthetic sense in the children. Ultimately we have to accept that a child’s character is influenced and formed more at home than in the classroom. In the classroom a child spends hardly six hours but the remaining eighteen hours are at home. Character is built there, the culture forms there.

A teacher is also a parent, he has his own children; so there cannot be a clean demarcation between the job of a teacher and the job of a parent. A conscientious teacher carries his responsibilities as a parent even in the class- room, forges a personal relation, takes interest in the student and holds himself responsible for the extracurricular development of his wards. We have been trying certain experiments in our Centre of Education purely on a research model and we have reason to be satisfied in some directions. We have tried to form similar projects of education elsewhere in the country. All experiments in education depend for their success on the right type of teachers. The teachers have to undergo periodical orientation courses and they must take personal interest in it. Here we do not have the constrictions of outside systems, we do not hold examinations. We give a certain amount of freedom to the students. Up to the age of fourteen things are compulsory. After that the students are given freedom to choose their subjects, to choose their teachers. There is also provision for what is known as `free progress’. Free progress is where the teacher does not teach but holds himself in attendance and stimulates the interest of the children. They choose their projects and they consult the teacher. Not all students can benefit by this mode of education. So many have said, no, we cannot handle this, we would like the teacher-supported education and not free-progress. Some were honest enough and we learn many lessons from the students themselves, because here there are no compulsions or fear of being failed in an examination. Reports are maintained of the day-to-day progress. Periodical tests are held to help the student ascertain his rate of progress.

The responsibility of a teacher is more wide-ranged than normally recognised. I was speaking to some friends. There was mention of college professors and teachers and college education. But what is college education going to do if school education is not perfect. A college student can only be successful if he has a proper grounding and also he has got a sense of direction in the school. A school must be built into a place of enjoyment; children must learn to enjoy, not some place where they are compelled to go. You have to create such an atmosphere that the child must want to spend more and more time in the school. It should not be a place of terror. Corporeal punishment is out of question; today corporeal punishments are ruled out everywhere but there are a hundred ways of punishment. A teacher must be very careful in not hurting a child in any manner, commenting on appearance, his colour, his handicap, his caste etc., all those personal things for which the child is helpless. Many old-type teachers punish the children by hurting them in these sensitive areas. Now this is something to be taken care of. Nobody takes a cane and punishes a child these days, but the other side of hurt is still there because any teacher who indulges in this pastime is not fit to be a teacher.

Now we come to the potential in the student-teacher relationship, not only in the growth of the child-student but also for the all-round growth of the teacher. The teacher mellows, the teacher’s wisdom ripens. Knowledge is different from wisdom. A teacher becomes wiser, he has something to give when he is successful, not only to the student community but to the whole society. That way teachers in the olden days occupied a highly influential position. In the Indian society it can be still restored, reverence for the teacher is still there ingrained in our race. It is in our blood.

It is time that those who are in a position to direct the development of education should realise the immense nation-building value of this potential of properly trained teachers who are trained to realise their responsibilities and that education is not just a classroom affair but it spreads over in a hundred directions. We come back to the point that the whole life is a school and to live a meaningful life is the best education. Our education does not cease the moment we come out of the school or the university. It actually begins then, we are only equipped for the larger education. Life is the best teacher. It is our responsibility to prepare the student to benefit from the education offered by life.