Gandhi, Education and Rural Reconstruction: An Abandoned Dream

Gandhi's vision of education is deeply intertwined with the idea of rural reconstruction, here is an article looking at this important issue.

Educating the children through some kind of craft not only to make education self-sufficient but also to ensure self-employment to children after they complete their education. (Sykes, 1988). Image credit - The Hindu Library

On January 29 1948, the day before his assassination, Gandhi in his speech before the daily prayer meeting said,

If I had my way our Governor –General would be a peasant; our Prime Minister would be a peasant. In my childhood I learnt a poem which says ‘O farmer, you are the king, the master of the whole world’.  What food would we eat if the peasant did not produce food? But today we have made him a Slave. What can a peasant do? Must he acquire academic degrees such as B.A and M.A.? If he does that he will be ruined. He will be no more good for wielding the pickaxe. If the man who produced food grain out of the earth becomes our Chief our Prime Minister the face of India will change.

He had already clarified the rationale for why he wanted a peasant- leader for India a decade earlier. On 28 January 1939 he wrote in Harijan,  

As soon as you talk to these Indian farmers and they start speaking to you, you will see that they are a storehouse of knowledge. You will see that behind their unfathomable outer form there is a deep lake of spiritual experience and knowledge. An age-old culture is hidden behind the outer covering of sloppiness in the Indian peasantry. If we remove this outer covering, remove their long-term poverty and illiteracy, then we will get a beautiful sample of a cultured, civilized and free citizen.

         The India of his dreams was village-based following a decentralized economic development model of a type that would create an egalitarian society free from poverty, exploitation and backwardness. At the heart of his economic philosophy, social imaginary and dream for the future was the last man be it the peasant, artisan, or any other common village dweller. Education according to him needed to be a tool for social reconstruction of such an equal society. Modernity and its techno-capitalist modes of production were antithetical to this dream of equality. This was possible only when educational developmental was rooted in the simple life and aspirations of ordinary people.  He had, in fact, presented his educational vision: proposing a revolutionary new scheme of education that came to be called Basic Education or Nai Talim, in a radical re-imagination of the aim of education. In 1937 he wrote in the Harijan,  

By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man-body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means whereby man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education. I would therefore begin the child’s education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins its training.

He was perceptive of the social, political and ethical dimensions of an education system as well as the psychological value of integration of work with the process of learning. His uniqueness lay in formalising these into an educational imagination envisaging education as a moral force to build a new society based on vitalisation of a rural economy. The self-reliant villages were the building blocks of India in which education was the tool to eradicate poverty, inequality and oppression as well as debunking a Maculayan-Brahmanical hegemony of what constitutes knowledge.

The All India Education Conference at Wardha on  22nd and 23rd October, 1937 passed the following four resolutions as the central tenets of the new nationalistic scheme. First free and compulsory education is to be provided for seven years to all the children all over the country. Second the medium of instruction will be the mother tongue alone. Third the process of education should be based on some form of manual  and productive work and ability should be developed to engage learners with  handicrafts prevalent in their  environment. Fourth the proposed system of education would be self-sustaining and generate  teacher salary from the basic school itself. 

The craft was imagined to be locale centred: agriculture, weaving, spinning, carpentry, masonry, pottery, shoe making or anything else that could connect to the child’s surroundings. This would bring the collectising influence of work, or, manual labour to the fore as opposed to the individualising effect of bookish knowledge. Craft was envisioned not just as another school subject but the centre for correlation around which all other school subjects: Mathematics, Science, Social Science and Language were to be taught. 

Gandhi completely rejected a literary, English education as inadequate as also unnecessary. He regarded the prevailing colonial education system as indifferent to the realities of rural India.  He writes in the edited work  Nai Talim

Of text books about which we hear so much I never felt the want. I do not even remember having made much use of the books that were available. I did not find it at all necessary to load the boys with quantities of books.  I always felt that the true textbook for the pupil is his teacher. I remember very little that my teacher’s talk me from books but I have even now a clear recollection of the things that taught me independently of books.

His educational thinking was embedded in his model of development that aimed at a decentralized rural self-reliant economy in a discrimination free India that resided in its villages his educational thinking was allied with his economic philosophy of Swadeshi and political aspirations of Swaraj. The pre- capitalist modes of production had already declined and Indian society was at the cusp of a new direction Gandhi’s Nai Talim was the way forward which suited the requirements of  requirements of building an inclusive society.

His educational ideas represented an alternative pedagogical, curricular and sociological conception of education in which productive manual work through craft which was given the status of legitimate school curriculum. This would legitimise the worldview of the oppressed sections of our society and accord their knowledge systems –educational status. This view also  aimed to break the dichotomy between the worlds of work and knowledge  both being treated as legitimate parts of the school curriculum.  The social and cultural capital abundant in the lives in so called lower classes and  tribals was now integrally related to a central chosen handicraft around which the environment of the child was to be understood

It is here that Gandhi was influenced by  two educational thinkers from other contexts.  The first was 18th century Swiss educator Johann  Heinrich Pestalozzi  who pioneered a farm school where agriculture was the main activity of the children’s daily routine.  He believed in an education of both the head and the heart that outreached mere intellectualism. Gandhi was also inspired by the educational theory of American educator John Dewey for whom experience was central to education. He defined education as the process of life itself arguing that practical activity of everyday life-processes should be the basis of school curriculum. He rejected the compartmentalisation of school  subjects in narrow disciplinary domains which is reflected in Gandhi’s proposal of keeping the craft as a centre of correlation around which all other school subjects were to be taught.  

The trajectory of educational policy development in independent India abandoned the nationalistic education while continuing in the direction of colonial education. There was lack of political will to implement Basic Education as well as academic critiques of the scheme that opposed it for turning schools into child labour factories. The idea has undergone a progressive distortion when it is euphemistically paid lip service at the policy level packaged as vocational education, or, SUPW  in the Kothari Commission’s report (1964-66). Similar imaginary is sought to be invoked in National Education Policy 2020 when it speaks of vocationalisation. This is not even remotely what Gandhi intended. Basic Education was not planned as a poor cousin of mainstream school system but the nation-wide system for all. In contemporary India school education has differentiated into multi-layered hierarchies of access. Gandhi’s dream of rural reconstruction through education for  equality, social justice and emancipation stands more abandoned today than ever before in the history of post-independent India.

Jyoti Raina teaches at the Department of Elementary Education, Gargi College, New Delhi. She is a member of the college’s Gandhi Study Circle.