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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF EDUCATION

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Introduction

Baidyanath Saraswati

We, the people of the ‘developing’ countries, are struck by the contrast between the present age of ‘modernity’ and the wisdom tradition of a past time. Yes, there are today extraordinary technology, ultra-rapid communications, remarkable information networking, and exciting and challenging changes in science itself. But where is the Man — the enlightened Buddha, the compassionate Christ, the loving Muhammad, the truthful Gandhi? With all the wonders of modern science and technology, where are we going? Are we not moving into the New Age with the burden of a new myth of materialism? Are we not suffering from the disease of machine mindedness? Most of us are asking such questions. Some say that these advances cannot bring into being a normal civilization. Others think that there is a profound way: cultivating wisdom from all the knowledge that mankind has gathered. Now, can we take on the responsibilities called for by the future of humanity?

In January 1995, a Unesco Chair in the field of cultural development was instituted at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. As a part of the Chair’s activities, four field studies were carried out on the trends and problems of primary education and the natural environment. A Conference on the Cultural Dimension of Education and Ecology was held in New Delhi on 13-16 October 1995 to pursue exploration in these fields. The sixteen essays collected here refer to the state of primary education in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Thailand. In particular, the experts have called attention to (a) evolving new perspectives in primary education; (b) developing Man the artist; (c) promoting a genuine culture of peace; (d) re-considering Gandhi’s basic education; and (e) re-examining national policies on education.

Evolving a New Perspective

All cultures do not share the same vision of life. The spirit of a ‘traditional’ culture, for instance, is not the spirit of ‘modern’ culture. This is clearly reflected in their conceptions and practice of education.

  • Traditional education aims at expanding the spheres of existence by social awareness (forming kinship with the entire world), cosmological awareness (expanding of being by self-transformation) and technological awareness (relating creativity to the ritual enforcement of life).

  • Modern education, in contrast, teaches a way of life limited by self-centred consumerism, allows man’s ego to establish itself as the conqueror of nature, and fragments people through competitive vocations and specialized technical professions.

How do we resolve this deep dilemma between traditional and modern systems of education? The authors of these essays provide a renewed sense of awareness. In most experiments, what is being evolved is the ‘Middle Path’: without one extreme, without two extremes.

Gedong Bagoes Oka, an Indonesian follower of Gandhi, is in sympathy with the holistic approach, a Gandhian experiment, which

  • draws from the noble Vedantic dictum tat twam asi the oneness of life;

  • aims to bring out and foster all the potentials in the child and help it express these through ahimsic (non-violent) channels; and

  • makes the school a happy adventure of discovery for the child.

Dwarko Sundarani, a Sarvodaya social worker based in Bodha Gaya, also stresses on

  • total development, i.e., physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual;

  • the correlation of education and manual work, leading to self-reliance for the basic necessities of life; and

  • a harmonious relationship with nature and society.

Shakuntala Bapat and Suman Karandikar, with research experience in the rural areas of Maharashtra, favour

  • indigenous basic education consisting of elements which are local and culture-friendly.

Baidyanath Saraswati, Shivashankar Dube and Ram Lakhan Maurya, who experiment with self-organizing educational systems in the ancient city of Varanasi, trust that a humanistic appreciation of tradition with a universal significance can be develoved through

  • swaraj (self-rule), swadeshi (homemade), and sarvodaya (enlightement for all) in and through primary education, without reference to government grants, with limited resources in men and money.

The perspective extensively introduced in these experiments, one would hardly deny, is ‘new’ in relation to the present enterprise of the modern system of education. It is not a new creation of thought or method: its newness lies in the restoration of a self-grounding tradition.

Developing Man the Artist

Modern cultures transform more readily and more rapidly than traditional cultures through ‘deterministic development’, which means making the technologically designed environmental schemes and politically governed social organizations a more or less workable fit. Traditional cultures, on the other hand, blossom by the sacred art, which always

  • implies transformation, a real understanding of aesthetic intuition;

  • captures the spirit of the invisible order of life (creativity);

  • illumines the organization of thought in terms of types of activity, and

  • advances in the realization of humanness.

How relevant is art in the age of science? To understand the relevance of art in every age, one has to perceive all of existence in the unity of thought and action, because as a method of gaining self-knowledge, art is an intellectual pursuit and as a creative work, it offers an aesthetic experience of beauty and goodness.

Haku Shah, a distinguished artist and a follower of Gandhi, gives art a natural place in education and points out that

  • the child has an innate capacity to express itself through available material and things, even the sand on the beach or in a desert.

Truly in the spirit of Coomaraswamy (who held the view that an artist is not a special kind of human being but every man is a special kind of artist, or else he is less than a human being), Haku Bhai cites the example.

  • An illiterate singer, his wife, and their children started painting the most unusual themes like themselves instantly upon a mere word of inspiration uttered by him.

D. Patnaik, another great artist and a good Gandhian, whose experiments in paintings and plays are widely recognized, narrates his experience.

  • Students of drawing and painting enjoy learning crafts such as carpentry, sewing, book-binding and image-making.

  • Ideas of character building in children can be generated by staging plays and writing poems.

  • A good teacher is always ready to take the risk of guiding elitist, mindless and directionless students.

Dinanath Pathy, a teacher of visual art, is of the view that

  • interlinkage between culture, education and ecology is the very essence of human life;

  • art in school should form a part of the total learning system to provide an aesthetic orientation to the child, whether it is in mathematics or in science, geography or literature;

  • art is not the negation of science, technology, and modern living; and

  • art is a rejuvenating tool.

Ravi Chopra, a young social worker who runs a photographic training institute for street and slum children, takes the position that

  • photography enhances the artistic bent of the children’s minds,

  • increases technical ability,

  • keeps children occupied with an avocation, and

  • contributes to their creative expression, self-confidence and employment potential.

N. Radhakrishnan, an eminent Gandhian scholar who recognizes and ‘sees’ the light in theatre-in-education, calls attention to the fact that it

  • helps children sustain interest in schooling;

  • develops self-sufficiency and leadership qualities; and

  • enables them imbibe values and attitudes which the formal education set-up does not offer.

Nita Mathur, a young student of anthropology who studied the transmission of the Bharatanatyam form of dance among the Tamil Brahmanas, arrives at the conclusion that the dance

  • unveils to children many channels through which emotions and states of mind are expressed;

  • leads to the cultivation of perseverance, reverence, and tolerance; and

  • develops a holistic life-style and perspective.

The artist-authors of these essays, deep in their experience and imagination, do not mention a definable methodology of art. Instead, they talk of character building, human dignity, and discovery of one’s own self. The introduction of dance into the lives of Tamil Brahmanas at the pre-natal stage is a case in point concerning the view that ‘Man is a special kind of artist’. It also tells us that the transformation process begins in the womb in a natural way.

Promoting a Culture of Peace

The present age of modernity carries within itself an internal necessity called ‘development’. Tradition is viewed as ‘anti-development’. The discourse on tradition versus modernity has one point of agreement: education as a factor in peace.

Pataraporn Sirikanchana, a Buddhist philosopher and historian of religion, highlights the contribution of developer monks to the Thai culture of peace by way of

  • making young people and children familiar with Buddhism;

  • inculcating moral discipline and cultural appreciation;

  • teaching young people and children a way of life that follows Buddhist principles; and

  • training young people and children to work for public welfare.

Experiments at the Bose Foundation School (Saraswati et al.) have shown that there is an echo of positive change in the multi-religious environment of non-literate communities, to the extent that

  • Muslim girls fettered by convention to profit by new educational systems now stand first in all the seven classes and first in the school.

  • Their customs forbade them in the strongest manner never to go outside their houses wihout the veil, but they now come to the school unveiled and excel in public performances in the arts.

  • Children of this school have learnt to restrain communal passion and their guardians, especially mothers, have realized the value of schooling.

  • Those who had rejected the Foundation’s vision of cross-cultural education now see a culture of higher things evolving.

  • Those who once used to throw stones at the Foundation School are now the most frequent spectators at their children’s performances.

  • Finally, in their direct experience of working, the organizers and teachers find the flowering of their service, the feeling of heart, the hope of resilience, the harmony of the rhythms of life and knowledge, and a noble culture of peace evolving.

Nita Mathur makes a reference to the contribution of art to the culture of peace, particularly in that

  • dance performs the cathartic function of releasing pent-up emotions and drives.

War and peace are both real. Quite evidently it depends on what one wills: war or peace. Hence the importance of producing the actors of peace. Peace through a spiritual vision of shared responsibility is more enduring than the political economics of peace. The educational system has its own unique process of establishing peace and concord.

Reconsidering Gandhi’s Basic Education

Emerging from the European colonial context and influenced by techno-political expediency, there has been a great ferment in educational thought in India. Many reject the colonial form of education offered to them. M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore gave us an alternative system. Both emphasized the education of the self through creative activity.

Devi Prasad, a famous ceramic artist who had joined Gandhi’s nayee talim (new education) or basic education, characterizes the new system in terms of

  • mother tongue, or the language of the area, as the medium of instruction;

  • top priority given to society’s relationship with Nature;

  • emphasis on creative activity as a vocation for livelihood and a way of gaining knowledge;

  • drawing out of the best in child and man;

  • education being self-supporting;

  • education covering the whole of life from the moment of conception to the moment of death;

  • education as the only method for the true development of the mind;

  • making cleanliness a science as well as an art;

  • equality of all religions; and

  • self-evaluation, along with evaluation by teachers, as a method of judging the all-round progress of a student.

Parthasarathi Banerjee, a scientist, comes out with a theoretical formulation.

  • Basic education is not primary.

  • It aims at skill formation, attitude development, conducting a good practical life, and imparting a vidya (virtue of the good).

  • It can cater to any age group or to anyone having the desire to conduct a practical and pragmatic life.

  • The Indian practice of basic education puts great emphasis on a source of injunction (the guru), an injunction (on what not to take), a causal description in the form of a theory, a set of names of the terms for which an action has been undertaken, and a set of rule-based integrated practices or action-orientation.

  • The distinctive features of the institution of basic education are that : (a) it does not segment education in a hierarchy but divides knowledge and discourse epistemologically and therefore non-hierarchically; (b) it is not based on a divide between theory and practice and does not reduce science to a set of items of information; (c) it brings knowledge to the common people; and (d) science no longer remains in isolation but is created anew skilfully, while the discourse with abstract theories of science continues through narration, description, and an attitude of truth.

Here the artist and the scientist have exhibited with an equivalent intensity of conviction that Gandhi’s scheme of ‘basic education’ is a dynamic concept which has the potential for the total development of man. Undoubtedly, this scheme is the most epoch-making event in the history of education in modern India. Its uniqueness lies in its

  • comprehending a development process, the true meaning of education, not limited by age, not graded in terms of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’; and in its

  • considering the whole period of human existence, hence — education as culture.

Re-examining National Policy on Education

With the end of British rule on 15 August,1947 began the preparation of plans for a comprehensive educational reconstruction in India. The idea of planning and administering education nationally is a 20th-century concept. The post-Independence national policy on education is understandably in a state of flux. The picture is unclear, but the narrow national concern is evident in India’s national policy, which aims at

  • promoting national progress;

  • creating a sense of common citizenship and culture;

  • strengthening national integration; and

  • giving greater attention to Western science and technology.

K. Gopalan, a retired education officer of the Government of India, narrates India’s strategies to achieve the universalization of elementary education (UEE), which has three aspects, namely, universal access and enrolment, universal retention up to 14 years of age, and a substantial improvement in the quality of education. Admitting that UEE is still an elusive goal, he highlights some of its major initiatives and strategies that have led to

  • disaggregated target setting and decentralized microplanning;

  • strengthening alternative channels of schooling such as non-formal education;

  • introducing minimal levels of learning;

  • improving school facilities by revamping the scheme of Operation Blackboard;

  • establishing linkages between programmes of early childhood care and education, primary education, literacy, and UEE;

  • addressing the more difficult aspects of access, particularly to girls, disadvantaged groups and out-of-school children;

  • restructuring teacher training in view of the changed strategies and programmes;

  • availing of external financial support for basic education; and

  • launching the National Elementary Education Mission.

Neeru Nanda, an educational administrator in the Government of India, writes a critique of the prevailing school system which shows that

  • free India has no will to fulfil Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of reviving the ancient tradition of the village;

  • instead, the government educates the masses through a vast centralized machinery and superstructure of staff, infrastructure and resources;

  • universalization of primary education, the adult literacy campaign, and the investment thrust on primary education to produce the literate child, carry within themselves the logic that the goal is unattainable;

  • in the public perception the system of mass government-sponsored education appears to have failed to deliver the goods, increasing expansion having led apparently to decreasing quality;

  • by initiating the expensive Navodaya Vidyalaya Scheme for rural children, the government simply brought the process of handling contradictions inherent within the systems to its logical climax; and

  • the search for alternatives by the government and non-governmental organizations suffers from all the general weaknesses of the state system.

A.M. Sharafuddin, an education officer in the Government of Bangladesh, gives an account of the many innovative programmes in primary education launched both by government and by non-governmental agencies, whose major characteristics are that they should

  • be based on direct experience and practice;

  • be cost effective;

  • show easily verifiable results;

  • have interdependence within subsystems;

  • have in-built mechanisms for measuring achievement;

  • have simple but effective management; and

  • create a strong team spirit among their members.

On the role of non-governmental organizations introducing non-formal education programmes in Bangladesh, it has been pointed out that there are some obvious limitations such as the issue of replicability of the programme and the lack of resource materials. The overall impression of the Bangladesh NGOs is that they have been successful in their mission. NGOs in India are generally in favour of hasty expansion. So is the Government of India. Should quality have a prior claim over quantity, the national policy on education will have to follow a different path.

The Unanswered Questions

  • Must we make the nation above and beyond culture?

  • Must a nation model the minds of its people?

  • Are people bound to a nation by an unending chain of dependencies?

  • Are national policies on education a ‘new’ beginnings (restoration, imitation, creation)?

  • Must we allow the individual man to be fragmented by opposing forces, powers and politics?

  • Must the intellectual universe be brought to a sterile uniformity?

  • Can a single system of education serve best for thinking and for knowing and experiencing the multilayered and multidimensional reality?

  • Can the orderliness of a culture come from the language (mother of reality) of another culture?

  • Is ‘modern’ education emancipatory or corrupt?

  • Is the written word the real ‘human’, ‘social’ world?

  • To what extent is man the creator of knowledge?

  • To what extent is technology the paradigm of human life?

 

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