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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF EDUCATION

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Prologue

Chitra Naik

I have been listening with very great interest to the presentations that have been made, and I have found one common point in all of them: a deeply felt anxiety about what is not happening in education and a concern about what are the wrong things that are happening in education. It seems to me that this kind of discontent is essential if some action for change has to begin. In a way, therefore, this is a very good situation in which we should think about (a) how to bring about changes in education so that education gets related both to ecological problems and the culture of the people; (b) how education can become an instrument to ensure that man lives in peace with his environment and respects it for all that it has given; and (c) how man lives in real comradeship with other men, with other people.

These are very important matters that have to be culturally and ecologically examined so as to understand how we can evolve a faith in the basic philosophy of life which arose in India, in many Eastern countries and in many African cultures, that essentially there is no hostility, no adversary relationship, between man and man’s environment. Actually, man is part and parcel of the environment, just one creature among the innumerable beings in the total spread of nature. Therefore, if man does not recognise the symbiotic value of the environment for surviving and growing, then he brings destruction not only on the environment but upon himself as well. This perception, which was there in the philosophy developed in these countries — sometimes consciously, sometimes not so consciously — resulted in the value system of man not being an adversary of the environment. This is something that we have to remind ourselves of, again and again, in the interest of man and his environment.

The first question to be asked is : What happened to these values? Why have they been weakened? The answer is to be found in the accidents of history. Our cultures, our countries, came in contact with certain other cultures, other nations, which had entirely different value systems, born out of the climatically inhospitable areas in which they lived. Take the West, for instance. Wherever we go in India, or even to the darkest places in other countries, something grows all the year round. You can at least eat some leaves, flowers, fish, or whatever is available. There is some food for most of the year. But the northern countries were often totally devoid of the means of day-to-day sustenance. In harsh winters, food became a problem. It was probably because of these hardships that they became marauders and explored the South. In their own countries they fought with nature and tried to conquer it, because nature was inhospitable to them. They were adversaries. When it snows so deeply that not even a blade of grass can grow, you can get angry with nature. Then you go somewhere else to search for food, become violent so that you may attack any creature that comes along, kill it, and eat it. There obviously was a geographical reason. The question is why people from certain areas of the earth became violent and why an adversary relationship got established between man and nature, and even between man.

On the other hand, there was a fundamentally friendly relationship between man and nature in other cultures; although there were aberrations too. Therefore, cultural geography may be a point to be remembered and studied. In recent years, some of our historians, archaeologists, linguists and Indologists have been investigating the historical origins of Indian culture from a fresh standpoint. Many researchers are engaged in finding out how the Indian culture originated. What was the initial value system, what happened later, where did the Aryans come from, who were they, did they come as adversaries and conquerors or was there nothing of this kind, and whether battles between Aryans and non-Aryans were the figments of the imagination of Western scholars who tried to reconstruct Indian history.

The pity of the whole matter is that rarely did Indian scholars make any serious effort to construct their own history with the necessary intellectual rigour. Maybe they were happy with whatever knowledge and social system they had and did not think it worthwhile to research their own origins. But now our own researchers and those Western researchers who are without the blinkers of superiority and are more empathetic towards the Eastern people, are inclined to think that as far back as 6500 years before the Christian Era, the Rig- veda had given an interesting picture of the local culture. This culture seems friendly to man’s environment. Within that culture, everyone respected everyone and asked for cooperation and sharing. If you were duhita, a daughter whose duty it was to milk the cows, you took the milk to the Ganapati, who distributed it among the gana, i.e., everyone in the community. Community sharing was the custom and there was no competition. There was collaboration, cooperation, between human beings, between man and nature. Even today, some of our villages have contributory grain banks for emergencies. In some of the villages I have been studying, people collect grain during the harvest, store it, and if any family is in difficulty — if a woman is widowed, if a child is orphaned — sustenance is provided by the community. These are parts of our cultural history and its continuation.

Studies and travelogues tell us that the cultures in the East, in India in particular, have known little violence. They have not generally been aggressive. One cannot ignore the instances where kings and others have fought battles among themselves to gain brides or treasures or 1000 horses or cows. But these were aberrations. Wanton destruction was not the rule of life. In the West, there seems to have been an endorsement of violence as between man and nature, man and man. The Western philosophy of the ‘survival of the fittest’ implies the wiping out of the weak by the strong, a philosophy which celebrates aggression. But in the East, it is the duty of the community, of the family, of kin, to look after the weak. That is the basis of oriental cultures all over. Another point in these cultures is renunciation, the shedding of power and authority with readiness. A novel by Pearl Buck shows that as soon as the mother-in-law turns 40, she hands over the keys of her domain to her daughter-in-law. It is another version of the vanaprastha ashram tradition that India has. We trust the younger generation to take over. Therefore, we go on educating it from the moment of birth, telling it, as it were, "Look, at some stage or the other, you will have to shoulder these responsibilities of mine: therefore learn the ways of life your forefathers have followed".

Enculturation as education becomes very important in the East. This informal education for cultural commitment is totally ignored now because of the onslaught of the West on our cultures. We do not educate our children ourselves. We leave it to schools designed by the West. How to overcome this cultural aggression called modern education is our real problem. Our anxiety about this is great and it is absolutely right.

In this context, let me take you back to Gandhiji and to the book called The Beautiful Tree by Dharmpal. Another very interesting study of indigenous education in India made by Joseph Di Bona, titled One Teacher, One School, relates to the same subject, i.e., basic education in pre-British India. Our administrators now decry one-teacher schools, although we need them in this country in remote hamlets. The kind of one-teacher school we had once upon a time, i.e., till the British school system arrived, has never been comparatively studied. There is an example of a one-teacher school in Di Bona’s analytical account of indigenous schooling, where he has pointed out that in the indigenous school the teacher belongs to the community and the first rule was that he was not a bureaucrat appointed by an outside agency, a distant government. Why is it that now we hear complaints that the teachers do not go to teach? Obviously because they are aliens. They do not belong to the community, and they are not accountable to the community. They are accountable to a governmental structure and government rules and regulations which are distant from the people’s aspirations and customs. This distant government does not know what the teachers are doing. Now, in this indigenous one-teacher school described by Di Bona, the teacher was a local person and was very greatly respected. The community gave whatever the teacher required. The children brought him vegetables. The weaver’s child brought a dhoti or any other cloth he needed. The carpenter, the potter, the merchant — all gave something to the teacher. Some money was also collected for the school. Di Bona gives an example where the teacher received 32 rupees a month from the community. This was great wealth in those times, when you could get six maunds of wheat for one rupee. But what did the teacher do with this money? We are told that he kept some for himself but provided to the children writing materials and playthings, and soon even gave scholarships to poor children. The teacher was the manager of the finances of the school, and the community respected him because he kept very little for himself.

These teachers had a tenet from the Upanishads to guide them, to enable them to understand how man can become friendly with everyone. This tenet was ‘gyan, seva and tyag’. Gyan is knowledge. If you know the environment around you, if you fully know nature, then you become friends with nature, not an enemy. But how do you bring human beings together in a friendly relationship? It is through seva, through service. Service to others makes friends. And how do you get over the conflicts within your own mind, how do you prevent the battles within? By tyag, i.e., sacrifice. Thus knowledge, service and sacrifice formed the base on which the Indian teacher was expected to build up his work. We have instances of this in our educational history. But we have not been studying it properly. We have to go back to our own traditions, examine them, pick up the best in them and then mesh it with whatever else is desirable. Therefore, the best way for the merging of education, ecology and culture is to find and stabilise our value-base as indicated by the triple principle of ‘gyan, seva and tyag’.

For the pursuit of gyan, we must acquire scientific knowledge about our environment, about the universe. Scientific investigation of what is nature, what is the universe, what are we all, is the first base to reach. It leads you to the second base, namely, a philosophical as well as practical relationship between man and man. This can lead to understanding other people. This understanding leads to seva. It also leads to a very important principle, non-consumerism. The consumerism which has been brought into our Eastern cultures by the West has to be countered through seva. In the East, we were always inclined to be happy with limits to our wants and possessions. The Chinese mother-in-law, who handed over the keys at the age of 40 to her daughter-in-law, restricted her wants. She did not want personal power. People who adopted vanaprastha when they became old, shed power completely and handed it over to others. They did not desire anything after that except peace, contentment, time to meditate, time to look at their own lives, time to merge with nature. This was part and parcel of our culture.

The point is: What has happened to us? There has really been in the Eastern countries, and in African countries also, what you could call a destruction of our cultures. This happened because people came to us from entirely different cultures, cultures that tolerated and even glorified violence and greed. These cultures colonised us. Why could they do that so easily? Obviously we were a very simple people, welcoming and befriending everything that come to us. We are still very simple and ‘colonisable’. Take the television onslaught. However stupid might be the shows on television, we do not protest. People have come to us from various countries. People came from as far as Mongolia to settle in Assam. People from Iran came to the western coast and have settled in this country as Parsis. People came from Abyssinia. One can find their descendants in the Konkan villages, called Habshis and Siddis by the local communities. People came to India from everywhere and were welcomed with open arms because our culture did not make us hostile to anyone. We accepted people, we absorbed them. We all became one Indian society.

In the same fashion, we welcomed with open arms the white man who came here. But we did not realise that the white man did not wish to stay with us, mingle with us. He had come with certain intentions which were not favourable to us. He wanted to trade, to exploit, to take away our valuables. He simply wanted the wherewithal to improve his own condition and to satisfy his greed. Therefore, whether these alien culture went to Asia, or Africa, or China, or to any other part of the globe, they plundered and suppressed the indigenous ways of thinking and living. We, in our simplicity, not only allowed them to plunder, but whenever they appreciated an ornament or other beautiful object, we generously gave it to them, feeling happy that they liked it. When one visits some of the huge mansions of the ex-viceroys and ex-governors of India, one can see the places filled with priceless Indian artefacts. Brass and stone images, jewellery, beautiful Banaras sarees and Maharashtra’s paithanis used as curtains in their houses, all are evidence of plunder. But we cannot blame the plunderers. It is our fault that we did not make any effort to understand the difference between our cultures and theirs. When English was forced upon us as the medium of instruction, why did we not revolt? As a nation we are good linguists, we could have retained our languages as media and learnt English as well and some more foreign languages.

Some of our people naively thought that it was admirable to learn English and speak and write it better than an Englishman. Many of our scholars have done that. We thought that something new had come to us and we wished to master it. But gradually it mastered us, it mastered our minds. The cultural damage has been done. How is the damage to be controlled? Our schools and colleges have led to a complete splitting of our society into two. This has happened in other countries also, for instance in Africa. We have a class of people that speaks English but is in its thinking partially English and partially Indian or African. There are culturally split personalities among those who have been educated in the British, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Dutch patterns of education. Unfortunately, these split personalities have been created among the best of our intellectuals, and many of them do not know whether they are Indians, Americans, Europeans, or whatever else. This cultural confusion seems to be the reason why we cannot readily sort out problems and make up our minds to take some firm direction. I am not talking only about the direction in education but in development matters as a whole. This cultural split seems to be the major handicap of the Third World countries which had been under colonial rule. Our elites have acquired much from outside; but whatever they had in their minds indigenously, culturally, does not go away. Therefore, we have a situation of mental conflict.

It is a very simple psychological finding that mental conflict obstructs decision and action. We cannot fully absorb the market culture, nor can we return to our own culture of sharing and sacrifice. We are like flying fish, neither fish nor fowl. Therefore, unless we cleanse our minds sufficiently from the cultural impact from outside, we will not be able to think clearly. This does not mean that we should not study, appreciate and mix with other cultures. We must seriously study them. At the same time, we must study our own cultures scientifically, dispassionately, in order to understand ourselves. The perceptions that others have of us must be allowed, but we must similarly study other cultures. Our scholars, our researchers, need to study the cultures of Europe and the US with real scientific rigour. It would help us see ourselves in a broader perspective and promote indigenous scholarship. The violence and misery which mark many a culture today must be investigated by us as a third party. Our scholars need to do this. It is not healthy that we eat up ourselves and feed on ourselves for our research effort. Globally gathered intellectual food should be served by us for ourselves. If we start doing that, the question of education, culture, ecology, and everything that matters in life will start becoming clearer to us, because we will then be ourselves, which today we are not.

The question of medium of instruction is raised again and again in our country. There are numerous countries which use their own languages as media of instruction right up to the highest level of learning. Only certain ex-colonised still use the languages of the colonisers because they have lost their self-confidence and have been overwhelmed by the scholarship couched in that particular language. No doubt, such scholars as Wheeler, Max- M¥uller, William Jones made seminal and significant contributions to the study of archaeology, Sanskrit literature, Indian languages and so on. But we must ask why we did not build such critical scholarship ourselves. We knew our religions, languages, flora and fauna, sculpture, architecture, arts and crafts, politics, economics and all that makes up a cultural fabric. We are now told that Panini gave us a grammar which can be used for computerisation and that Sanskrit could be the best language for global communication. But that grammar was brought to light by Western scholarship. Of course, there is now a glimmering of realisation that we have neglected to study ourselves. A state of discontent has begun to take form on this score among our intellectuals. This is a good sign. We have started searching for our own cultures and their meaning for us in modern times. This search must be intensified. If the new awakening is to be sustained and enhanced, our educational perceptions must change.

Education has to be investigation, autonomous self-learning in collaboration with teachers and co-learners. This principle must be reflected in pre-schools, primary schools, and all along the line. We must also ask, what is a school? Is it only an arm of the bureaucracy? If so, how can it be changed into a stimulant of investigation, of self-learning, of change for the better? The people do not know what goes on inside the schools, particularly in the rural and tribal communities. They do not know what the curriculum is. The textbook has often become an instrument of conditioning the minds of people. Wherever an educational system is totally managed by government, it inevitably pressurises teachers, students, parents and the public to behave in a particular way, which is decided without consulting them. Although our educational system is not altogether totalitarian, the governmental concern for people’s participation is hardly evident in actual practice. In the rural areas, participation is construed as asking the villagers to give something or other to the schools. A School Improvement Programme is mounted by officers of the education departments and schoolrooms are constructed or equipment is collected by asking the villagers to give free labour or donate equipment or money to the school. Then the poor people do collect money and articles to be donated to the schools. But whose schools are these? Who owns them? Government owns them but does not take full responsibility to make them function properly. It then tells the people to please participate, help government, invest in the schools, although we own them and you do not.

What can this be called? Participation of the people or their exploitation? This is certainly not people’s mobilisation, because mobilisation is the means of empowerment. And what do we mean by empowerment of the people? The people are already culturally empowered since, over generations, they have learnt how to survive and how to look at life philosophically. But they are not empowered in managing new knowledge. They are powerless in the sense that they do not know what we know and with which we have improved our material condition. Of course, we too do not know what they know. This creates a cultural divide. How to build bridges over these chasms between the educated elite and the people, how to make education a concern of the people, how to enable them to own their schools? What would be the strategies of such planning?

Today there is a trend to send our scholars and officials abroad to learn the techniques of educational planning. Officials and researchers who are already removed from the people work out demographic data and certain educational systems they might prefer. How to gear educational planning for building bridges between the elite and the masses is our real challenge. In these exercises people are reduced to statistics. Then planners allocate funds to these statistical tables and not to the variety of people who require education of various kinds. The planners overlook the fact that not only funds but the people’s intelligence is a resource. Their capacity to solve their life’s problems, despite poverty, is a great resource. The older community members are a resource for looking after children and the women in each family are a resource for keeping the family properly managed within a small income. Our planners do not remember these resources since certain macro indicators mean much more to them and foreign economic models attract them more than the inherent resources of the people whose education they propose to plan. Therefore planning goes wrong.

If we are to do some meaningful planning, two things are necessary: first, we must educate ourselves afresh in order to understand our people and their cultural resources; second, we must honestly collaborate with the people in planning development as jointly perceived by them and by us. For instance, environmental destruction can be halted if we understand that the people’s cultural consciousness respects trees, water, flora and fauna, the hills and the valleys. They live with these but the exploitation comes from outside, from the commercial interests of the wider world which do not relate to the local cultures and their environments. As a result, the people are often made to do what they really do not wish to do. They do not wish to exhaust water resources and pollute the air. The money economy, which operates unknown to them and over which they have no control, upsets their culture, their livelihood. Neighbourliness disappears when the barter system is replaced by monetary transactions. However, some bartering of services, and of the wherewithal to live, does exist to some extent in our villages even now. This requires protection against the pressures of the money economy in all aspects of rural life.

This culture of sharing of services, of goods, has been a valuable parcel which children have learnt at home. This is excellent education. But when they go to school, there is no sharing. Every child must have an individual school bag, slate, books; a confidential examination is given individually, and so on and so forth. There is no sharing in the schools of the government although there is sharing in the children’s culture. As a consequence, the children get culturally confused. They do not understand why the school culture is different from community culture. We urgently need to look into this matter. Our education must be so redesigned as to prevent this splitting of personalities because of the clash of cultures.

It is necessary to welcome science and technology; but it does not mean the suppression of the innate conviviality of human beings. Science is universal and there is no science which belongs to any particular country. But while science is universal, cultures are specific to various communities in the world, based on their history, geography, and the resultant viewpoints on life, on human relationships and human purposes. Science and technology have to be accommodated within a given culture at the discretion of the people in general and not at the behest of a culturally alienated elite. Such adaptation of science and culture in a relevant fashion has to be woven into a strong social movement.

People have been talking of political will and of the government doing certain things. But governments are a part and parcel of society, and therefore it is society that must give a direction to government. It is the culture of the people that must assert itself in combination with the scientific, future-oriented outlook. It is necessary to arouse the social will to study our problems of education and ecology. If we can mobilise the people to building up a social will for change, or, in other words, for cultural adaptation, for a fusion of the old and new and not a weak compromise, we may find answers to our present educational and ecological predicaments. What we need is a clear philosophy, a value system which helps us (a) acquire such knowledge as might end the conflict between ourselves and nature, (b) strive to end the conflict between man and man, (c) emphasise sharing so as to remain free from greed, and (d) even to sacrifice so as to end the conflicts within our minds. If such a philosophy and concretised value system could be infused in the process of education, and if the people could ‘own’ the system to protect its cultural relevance, our educational and ecological problems could be properly dealt with. What we need is educational action on this basis, starting with mass education, primary education. Even small plans of innovative action all over the country could help us. We need not visualise, at this stage, any comprehensive national, state-level or district-level action. If we can have several experiments, alternatives, which come up with people-generated ideas and action from place to place, whether in India or Africa, or any country of the Old World, we would be able to put together our fragmented cultures and overcome the pressures from cultures totally alien to our own so as to prevent further fragmentation.

The views expressed in this paper are the personal views of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of the Planning Commission, Government of India, in which she is working.

 

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