Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mahatma Gandhi on Education

How relevant are Mahatma Gandhi's ideas today ?

Mahatma Gandhi made an interesting observation in Young India on 25 May 1931 : "There is nothing so ennobling or lasting as self-study. Schools and colleges make most of us mere receptacles for holding the superfluities of knowledge. Wheat is left and mere husk is taken in. I do not wish to decry schools and colleges as such. They have their use. But we are making altogether too much of them. They are but one of the many means of gaining knowledge. " (cited in Gandhi on Education, 1998, National Council of Teacher Education, India, p. 257)

We cannot miss the relevance of the above statement when our children are spending most of their waking hours going from school to one tuition to another and then in doing home-work. Do they have sufficient time for self-study, to explore and reflect on their own learning, to identify the inconsistencies in their learning, to strengthen their understanding, for meta-cognition ?

This situation appears to be the consequence of the narrow orientation that education has acquired. The common belief is that schooling implies transmission and acquisition of knowledge for examination performance to acquire more and higher qualifications and certificates to obtain lucrative jobs to secure a "better future"… and so on and so forth.

However, at some stage in this linear model we expect satisfaction, happiness. Instead, we notice frustration among many because they feel that they are not getting their due (whatever this means) even when they have hard acquired so many qualifications. This lamentation is of course unrelated to their capacity to deliver.

What is also alarming is that qualifications are being acquired to gain material benefits and in the process boost our artificial needs for material goods (bigger houses, bigger cars, …). It is not uncommon to see despair, discontent, anxiety, … resulting from the stress to satisfy the "needs" even among some of the highly qualified and well placed professionals.

One is reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's explanation of the meaning of the ancient aphorism, Sa Vidya Ya Vimuktaye or "the education is that which liberates". The education for liberation is not confined to spiritual knowledge or for liberation after death but aims to ascertain freedom from all servitude even in the present life. He explained, "servitude is of two kinds : slavery to domination from outside and to one's own artificial needs ". (ibid., p. 21)

The question is whether or not; the qualification acquisition model of education that we have adopted is further strengthening the bondage that one needs to be free from. It may appear that we are not able to assess the true value of education as Gandhiji most aptly remarked, "We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the students to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated." (ibid., p. 1)

Certainly, there is a need to rethink and redirect the focus in education. Here I would like to refer to the ancient Pancakosa theory of personality development which depicts the five hierarchical stages of personality development.

The first and the lowest stage is annamayakosa (the sheath of food). Our physiological need for food motivates our actions to reduce the need by searching and subsequently eating food. The second one is pranamayakosa (the sheath composed of vital air). The third stage is manomayakosa (the sheath composed of mind), the fourth is vijnanamayakosa (the sheath composed of intelligence) and the fifth and the final stage is the anandamayakosa (the sheath composed of spiritual self-fulfillment or bliss). (Source: Prof. R P Sharma's M.Ed. lecture notes, 1982).

These sheaths are similar to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, an individual must first satisfy the basic physiological needs, before he can be motivated to meet higher needs for safety and security, and so on, up the hierarchy from the need for belongingness and love, through the need for esteem, and ultimately to the need for self-actualization and transcendence.

At the same time, as is evident from the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and many great achievers, once one is at the higher levels of self-actualization and transcendence or anandmayakosa, the gratification of lower level needs becomes unimportant.

Gandhiji, the half naked fakir as Sir Winston Churchill called him, hardly wore anything, and had hardly any physical assets. Still, we remember him each 2nd October with reverence.

His perennial ideas on education provided useful directions towards the higher sheaths. These were neither off the cuff nor high sounding impractical solutions that can turn the teaching learning into a cumbersome process but were simple practical ones founded on his experiments and experiences with nayi talim (new education) or buniyaadi shiksha (basic education). They covered nearly all aspects of education. Unfortunately, not all of these were adopted in their true essence mainly because of our disdain for anything vocational and rural.

The models of education that became accepted, however guided our actions and behaviour away from the higher goals of self-actualisation and transcendence or anandmayakosa. Nevertheless, as the education for sustainable development or the development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Brundtland Commission, 1987), especially for an island state like ours becomes crucial, the need for a manpower that is capable of operating at higher conceptual levels cannot be overemphasised. The time is probably ripe to adapt Mahatma Gandhi's ideas on education.

This article was published in Le Mauricien of 11 October 2008.

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