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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Vinoba Bhave's Thoughts on Education

In brief ...

I summarise some of Acharya Vinoba Bhave's thoughts on education (named Nai Talim). I find its strengths in education's well-grounded and practical nature and it being treated as an ennobling agent, both traits missing in any explicit terms in present day mainstream education. I however have doubts about the practicality of such a way. It results in a society which, though internally developed, is vulnerable to external attacks and desertion by its weaker and/or ambitious members. It also seems to undermine the importance of intense intellectual pursuits like abstract science, philosophy or arts. It is hard to imagine that something like Nai Talim (an abstract concept of significant intellect) itself could emerge from such a system.


Nai Talim

I recently came across a very interesting take on education while going through a compilation of Acharya Vinoba Bhave's thoughts on education. I purchased the book for Rs. 35 at Bapu Kuti in Sevagram. The concepts are given the name Nai Talim (new learning). The concept and the term originated from Mahatma Gandhi. In gist, here are a few points which come up repeatedly as salient:

  • It talks predominantly about rural education in India.
  • The education is craft-based.
  • Work and learning can't be separated. This is called integrated learning.
  • Obsessive pursuit of knowledge isn't advocated. A pragmatic approach is proposed where knowledge is used as a tool of improving life.
  • Distinction between intellectual work and labour work is discouraged.
  • Overall personality and character development is emphasised.

Tones of spiritualism, socialism and non-violence are mixed at all times in the explanation of the concept. The model of development seems to weigh self-reliance and organic growth over speed of development or modernisation.

Praise

In spirit, I find myself partial to this way of learning, living and developing. I find the following as the strengths:

Education as a Value Add to Life. Over-specialisation seems to be a bane of our current way of educating our children. Students spend all their learning years gaining an expertise which is useful in a setting which isn't native to him. For example, after more than 20 years of devoted effort, all I seem to know is to work on a computer. Through a series of technological world events, computers are now placed centrally in our lives. Yet, I don't see anything natural or fundamental in this situation. How well am I educated to continue leading a meaningful, satisfied and dignified life if some of the key material aspects of my work are altered, for example, say, computer disappear?

This has several implications. Firstly, it makes me vulnerable to social and technological changes on which I have no control, and which may be centred so far away from me that I have no way to feel connected to them. Secondly, it tends to drain away my faith in education. Most students struggle for all their academic years to identify practical motivations for the activity they spend most of their waking hours in: studying. Some keep an eye on the next examination. Some have the target of getting into a top university. Some vie for a high paying job. Some of a respectable degree. All these are extrinsic and artificial motivations for doing something we aren't convinced about the real use of. Most of our learning (training) happens for the service of a complex world we have no clue about.

I feel, in the least, my education must equip me to apply my thoughts to the improvement of my own life directly. My training should enable me to solve problems of physical, analytical, emotional, social, economic and ethical nature. Nai talim seems to address that.

Education as an Ennobler. Education, as we have it today, doesn't seem to ennoble anyone. It should. In fact, this objective should be given as much importance as, if not more than, intellectual development. More educated people aren't necessarily less selfish, less corrupt, more courageous or less violent. They should be. This is dealt with in the Nai Talim.

Critique

However, I also have some doubts which render the practicality of such a system like Nai Talim questionable.

1. Vulerability. Firstly, this concept seems to be in line with an age-old Indian tradition of learning. We all know of its merits. It rightly keeps our attention away from blind materialism and focuses on inner development of people, which is what development really is. The model results in a peaceful, harmonious, robust and sustainable society, at least in theory. In a world where all civilisations, nations and races are prepared to honour, if not follow, this way of living and learning, no problems will arise. However, in a world comprising of other methods of learning and development, this way appears very vulnerable. This vulnerability has more than one forms.

1.1 External Vulnerability. Consider yourself an educated and elevated society of people leading a peaceful life in harmony with their surroundings. Any expansion is done only when bidden by necessity. So, visible signs of modernisation and technology aren't many. The real development is of course in the people: they are nobler, less aggressive, and in general happier. All hunky-dory! In comes a bellicose element: an external invader, an imperialist, a mining magnate. He is spiritually bankrupt, but has made immense strides in material development. And to drive his world at its ever increasing pace, he needs all sorts of fuels: minerals, wood, cheap labour, sex workers. He gives a damn about your inner peace and spiritual elevation; he isn't educated to believe that such things can exist. All he cares about is your mines, forests, your healthy youth and your attractive women. How do you stop him? Your military capabilities never progressed, because you never needed them so far. So, he tramples on you, kills you, destroys your monuments, burns your scriptures, rules over you for centuries, turns your lot into an intellectual and cultural morgue. He even uses his influence to convince the world that this was the barbaric tribe he was here to civilise.

A method like Nai Talim doesn't provide any protection against this effect. And we know that this form of attact happens: colonialism, atrocities on tribal villages in India and, if you will allow my including a fictional case, invasion of humans on Pandora in the film Avatar.

1.2 Internal Vulnerability. Here's another form of the vulnerability. Whatever you might say, your spiritual way of living is a bit dull, a bit slow, even boring. To enjoy it itself requires certain degree of training and orientation. On the other hand, that bellicose invader, that imperialist, makes sure to flash before everyone every evidence that his people lead an exciting life, materially fulfilled, intellectually free. He erects billboards showing beautiful models loving men due to something they wear, or possess, even though, both the beautiful model and that man posed because they got paid for it; and probably they actually hate each other in their lives. He tells stories about his most brilliant scientists. The reality may be that the scientist invented his stuff because his government wanted to bomb another nation. The scientist may have been a parasite plagearising on others' work. Or he may have been a homosexual recluse who killed himself after leading a life of unbearable persecution. But the stories told would  be of their towering scientific accomplishments as if they were all a result of an irrepressible creative urge. For a society with statistically significant population, there is bound to be a section of the population which would be swayed by this propaganda. Some will leave because they think material and sexual fulfilment is more easily available elsewhere. Some will leave because they think it's more cool to design a nuclear bomb than to till the soil. Even if you have answers to the first form of vulnerability, it's this second form which deals a deathblow to the idea of a harmonious, self contained society, because it brings forth a very important and fundamental characteristic of large collection of humans: they can never all be the same.

1.3 Way Back to Aggressiveness. And if the state tries to intervene to mitigate any of the above vulnerabilities, either through protectionist acts, strong military or iron-fisted law and order, what we have is not a spiritual society, but an equally aggressive state which is a breeding ground of inefficiency, corruption and eventually revolution.

2. Contradiction. There's one final negative factor, which I wouldn't even call a vulnerability. It's something else, something more. It's that such a way of education seems to address a large majority of people for whom imposed knowledge is an unbearable burden. For them, connecting every piece of knowledge gained with a practical experience has the potential of phenomenally increasing the outreach of education. However, there's a minority which would pursue knowledge and learning out of sheer nature. A good many of these would probably be having only one healthy organ in their body: their brain. Restricting the domain on which they are supposed to apply their thoughts would probably be okay. But to declare that mere thinking or pursuit of knowledge is of no value if not accompanied by craft based activity would paralyse these people, because, by nature, these people are probably good in only that. And it's not just about rendering these intellectual lot useless. I don't care much about sophisticated technology. But abstract mathematics and philosophy, astronomy, art, ..., I am yet to see how dedicated, passionate pursuit of such subjects would ever develop in a Nai Talim like environment. I even say the Vinoba himself falls in this category. Not in the sense that he wasn't any good in any crafts, but in the sense that many of his visions are based on his ability (and keenness) to use abstractions which he didn't need to develop as a part of his craft.

In conclusion, dedicated intellectual work of the most abstract kind are integral to the development of any society, not just the aggressive and bellicose ones, but even those which Acharyaji envisioned. This is because the concept of a large society, as large as a nation, doesn't emerge naturally from a tribal outlook that something like Nai Talim seems to advocate, but from man's inherent ability and nature to create abstractions.

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2 comments:

Pritesh Ananth Krishnan said...

A very interesting analysis. I like how you are able to see the second perspective on Bhave's model education. I wouldn't have thought about that.

You are so right in pointing out that humans are not the same, so one glove won't fit all. But, at the same time, it may be a good idea to provide this method of education as a "choice", isn't it? After all, from your analysis, I realized that we need thinktanks as much as Military Generals. Let there be Nai Talim and NDA both, so that people really "choose" their path ahead.

That said, our education system (and elsewhere too) needs a serious overhauling. To move it away from its "marks" centredness to "learning" centredness. One of the things that will be pivotal in this shift is good quality teachers. We need "motivated" people to teach rather than people becoming teachers because they couldn't become a doctor, engineer, lawyer etc.

Ritesh Solanke said...

Very good Analysis of this wonderful book !