Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Culture and Development SeriesThe Cultural Dimension of Education

know about Janapada Sampada 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

Development of Skills and Attitudes in Basic Education

Parthasarathi Banerjee

Popular basic education is becoming more and more elusive. This unattainability is reflected in its failure to encompass the mass of people, in its inability to offer a meaningful pedagogy and in its inability to offer to the people a satisfying instrument. It is amazing that not only a populous country such as India, or a less populous but perhaps poorer country as one would find in Africa, have failed in providing for education; but also the richer countries that boast of statistics of ‘literate’ populace sadly lack an educated mass of people. As a result the edifice of ‘public space’, built up through literacy or informative institutions of popular education and on which the pillars of democracy were mounted, is now crumbling. Ironically, neither ‘science’ nor ‘democracy’ appears to be in a position to confront this fear of death.

Naturally, for some proponents of science, it is time to redefine and rechart their enterprise. It is equally so for the proponents of democracy or of the ‘public sphere’. Such a strategy may pay some dividends to those who want to save their own houses. However, it is unlikely to better the lives of the millions.

Surely our central inquiry cannot set aside the question of conducting a good life — a life that can satisfy its desires through undertaking enlightened actions. If this is our concern, how the millions can be enabled to live a good life, then surely the other concerns regarding democracy, science, theory or literacy will have to abide by this centrality or will have to be given up. Is it not legitimate to pay central attention to this question of basic education, how the people can be enabled to conduct a life which assures satisfaction?

Let us begin by asking the simple question, what is primary education for? Is it in order to inculcate the ‘spirit’ or ‘ideology’ of a civilisation (compare with the bildung concept), or to empower with liberationist ideals, or to make each child ‘literate’? May we, in contrast, conceive of primary education as the inculcation of an attitude (of truth) and the drilling of the student through an engagement with a productive skill? Our exploration is of this latter kind.

In basic education we argue for two basic elements. The first is drilling in a productive engagement, following authoritative rules, such that the student may acquire a skill. Second is the inculcation of an attitude of aesthetics or of truth so that the student may engage with the world later in life, fearlessly, in order to know and enjoy and also in order to secure the good for which she/he has acted. We also argue that the characteristic feature of basic education is that it is non-theoretical. The goal of non-theoretical basic education is to enable the student to undertake independent action.

This summary statement regarding basic education is derived from two sources. The first is the tradition of imparting basic education in India. The second is some distinctive features of the Indian theoretical tradition that provide the ground and the content of basic education. This tradition of conducting basic education is rather old. We shall, however, not refer to the history of this business. We shall instead refer mostly to some necessary elements of the theoretical tradition.

Divides in Education

What is the legitimate and appropriate basis of divisions in education? A ‘primary’ education is normally defined as the first tier of a segmented educational system. A segmented educational system is not only the result of historical evolution in Western Europe, but also cannot be defined either on grounds of epistemology or on grounds of practical reasoning or pragmatic concerns. As a result, ‘primary’ education, as existing in this segmented system of education, can neither lead the student to higher and more abstract levels of epistemic concerns nor can it lead the student to practical concerns of achieving the good in life.

There is now a likelihood of dividing the educational system in terms of its exposure to information and its ability to process information. The primary aim of this approach, it appears, is to replace skill and knowledge with an allegedly ‘objective’ status describable in terms of information. With the advent of new technologies of handling information, and also with the growing disintegration of society, this informational basis of education is gaining ground. As of now, the educational system cannot be divided on this ground; however, there remains a distinct trend in that direction.

Contemporary slogans around literacy are largely reducible to such a classification. Exposure to information and logical operations on that constitute the basis of divisions. Instead of going into debates, it may be briefly pointed out that a load of information is not knowledge; neither is a skill information processing capacity. Moreover, non-numeric information has to be described or literally narrated. Finally, a wish or a desire cannot be reduced to information. As a result, primary education cannot be defined on the basis of its exposure to information. Sadly, however, the latest pedagogy is being reduced to the provision of structured information. Organised money, a politics of hegemony and a group of opportunist ideologues are doing their best to enforce on the child this information-derived pedagogy, which cannot be justified on grounds of rationality and aesthetics.

This first tier of education can also not be defined by the primacy of a set of certain text-books. Proponents of such a view define segmentation in terms of interpretive capability. In fact, the literacy view of education also proposes this iconic relevance of textual signs. ‘Texts’ and ‘text-books’ assume a major significance. ‘Connotations of civilisation’ (bildung), ‘conscience’ and morality too are attached to this view. However, by being limited to interpretation, education here limits its capacity for inferential reasoning, its materiality and its activities on transforming the material. Moreover, such a view attaches undue importance to teleology and culture. Hence this basis of education and educational segmentation is also not acceptable.

Significantly, Indian educational practice is very different from these groups. However, in contemporary India, especially in urban areas, we have a significant presence of the institutions of these three above groups. Governmental activities are largely reducible to these practices. In contrast, the history of educational practice in India and the debates and practices on education since the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of this one, especially the practice and thinking of Gandhi, Tagore, Bankim, Vinoba and others do provide a strikingly different alternative. In fact, in this essay, what we argue about is a summary only of this alternative Indian practice.

Facets of Indian Practice

Knowledge, according to Indian theorists, must have its characteristic concept and a characteristic good that is realisable. This concept must specify not only what it is but also what it is not. This unambiguity in the concept would not allow it to get mixed up with another concept. Separations are inviolable and are due to distinct epistemological depar-tures. Corresponding to four types of epistemology there are four distinct knowledge-depar-tures or systems (prasthan). We are concerned here with two knowledge-departures, viz., the knowledge-system pertaining to politics (arthashastra), which is distinct from the know-ledge-system pertaining to wealth, economics and society (vartashastra). The other character-istic of any knowledge-system is the good that one may realise upon practising its concepts.

Each knowledge-departure must have its characteristic good. There are, however, pluralities of good and practices, most of which cannot be immediately recognised as belonging to the good of some particular knowledge-system. These practices therefore give rise to arts and skills (vidya, a subdivision or a particular practice). The concepts of any knowledge-system, according to the theorists, must engage in dialogues with the vidya practices, in order first, that the concept acquires its validating example from the common practice of vidya, and second, that the vidya in turn receives its conceptual or theoretical backing. This dialogue therefore is the first basis of the institution of acquiring knowledge and skill. The second basis of this institution is provided by the dialogues between the contending concepts of a knowledge-departure. A group of such concepts, logically coherent and cosmologically meaningful, is called a shastra (a pedagogy).

The second type of dialogue is conducted between competing pedagogues. The third basis of the knowledge-institution is provided by a third type of dialogue, conducted between the teacher and the student. The teacher answers the queries of the student. These dialogues are held in a medium of attitude. This attitude relates to aesthetics — the state of truth. Life, queries and practices of knowledge-seeking, defending or refuting must correspond to this attitude of truth.

Knowledge is required in order to resolve doubts and thus in order to act meaningfully. Indian theorists argue for a common knowledge that is distinguishable from common sense beliefs. Such knowledge is obtained through iterated fruitful actions, through the authority of sentences (or words). Therefore the actions in a commonly led daily life are both meaningful and knowledge-driven. We argue for four sources of validation, viz., sentence, inference, direct perception and analogy. Moreover, as argued above, knowledge is entailed not by way of justification as such, but by the realisation of good or fruit-ladenness of meaning and actions or iterated actions.

We summarise the arguments put forth by Indian theoreticians on the subject of the description and divisions of knowledge as follows. Knowledge cannot be described by descriptions (or descriptive sentences) alone. Hence an attempt to describe or limit knowledge by theories — where theories are nothing but descriptive sentences, is incomplete. The folk or common experience of doing things successfully is an equal partner of knowledge. Knowledge is also described by naming and achieved through iterated practice. Moreover, such a complete picture of knowledge is always derivable through an injunction. Such an injunction may not always be clearly visible or discernible, but it can surely be inferred. Indian theoreticians thus argue for a different scheme of knowledge division. The argued positions always refer to a source of injunction, an injunction, a theory as a description, a set of names, and an iterated practice or action orientation. Theoretical or descriptive knowledge must therefore relate itself to the examples of realised good in common life through dialogue with common people.

These theorists argue that even an art or practice or skill may have a theory or may be theoretical. This set of four sentences or four types of knowledge describe knowledge in its entirety. An art, while being performing or iterative, would also require injunctions in order to delimit the performance and to remain correct. Similarly a theory would require, apart from the descriptive propositions, an injunction to limit the iterated performance (for example, the experiment seeking evidences) on the nominal (the characteristic name, for example, of the biological organism, on which the experimental performance is being carried out), through an iterated or algorithmic procedure, etc. However, while a theory pays strict attention to the descriptive propositions, an art or skill may pay stricter attention to the procedure or to the injunction or even to the characteristics that are nominal.

A vidya is defined differently. It is defined by virtue of the good that is entailed to the performer. Vidya is classified according to the destination. Some treatises define sixty-four, others define sixteen types of vidya, according to the particular good that it allows the performer to attain by way of exercising or performing through the concepts as laid out in that particular pedagogy. This classification tacitly assumes multiple forms of good, and defines a pedagogy according to the variabilities of good sought. Necessarily, concepts in this vidya are laid out in any of the four types of sentences described above. A pedagogy is defined in terms of a good in a such way that any performance on the pedagogic skill would necessarily involve the performer, the object of performance, the good to be attained, and above all a social milieu where the pedagogy, the concepts and the good are to be either defended or the opponent’s views and performances are to be refuted, through entering into a discourse, dialogue or debate.

Basic Education is not Primary

In this tradition of educational practice, education is divided according to whether it is theoretical or non-theoretical. Since such a division does not refer to a hierarchy, Gandhi and Tagore preferred the use of the term basic education. A non-theoretical education is basic. The goal of a basic education is to enable a student to acquire the desired fruit through his or her own actions. Basic education not only enables a person, by imparting a skill, to undertake the right action, but also provides for the meaning or the acquisition of the fruit of that action. Moreover, in case the skill fails the person’s reasoning, basic education provides for the inculcation of an attitude of truth.

Non-basic or higher education is primarily theoretical. Its emphases are on inferencing, theory-defending and theory-refuting. This emphasis on theory is due to the presence of a situation of discourse. The goal of higher education is conceptualisation, defending one’s own concept and refuting the opponent’s concept. The instrument of these activities is theory. Basic education, in contrast, is not engaged in building, defending or refuting theories. It is therefore not in a situation of discourse.

The defining characteristic of basic education is skill formation and attitude development in a non-discourse situation. This education is aimed at the conducting of a good practical life. It is thus not primary. It can be provided to any age group or to anyone having the desire to conduct a practical and pragmatic life.

Basic education too is describable in four sentences. In basic education too we require a source of injunction (the guru), an injunction (on what not to undertake), a causal description in the form of a theory, a set of names of the terms for which the action has been undertaken, and a set of rule-based integrated practices or action orientation. Indian practice in basic education puts great emphasis on some of these four types. Basic education has the goal of imparting a vidya. A vidya offers a realisable good. It is attained and maintained in a non-discourse environment.

Skill in Object Transformation

The conducting of a good practical life requires skill in material transformation. Acquiring such a skill is the primary goal of basic education. It must be recognised that this formulation of our preceptors, including Gandhi and Tagore, is not only practical and meant for the good of the broadest mass of people, but is also rational. Justification of this formulation is possible on grounds of politics as well as rationality.

We may consider the charkha and pottery as examples of productive engagement. Such an engagement provides the student with (a) a concrete material at hand, which is the basis for later empirical investigation or action, (b) meanings associated with the following of authoritative injunctions and optative statements or even rules, (c) iterated practice that provides the skill — a cognitive and bodily endowment not reducible to information, and (d) knowledge of the particular.

In fact the objective of engaging a child in a productive engagement is not the development of a productive skill. The development of a productive skill is undertaken at an age when the child may enter the profession as a probationer. The child’s encounter with the material nominal through an engagement with the productive set-up, such as in the preparation of clay or in the mastering of turning the potter’s wheel, lays the foundation for a bodily and cognitive endowment. Such an endowment alone can provide the child-student with (a) those spheres of feeling that provide for the cognitive reckoning of shapes, directions, number, etc.; (b) those spheres of transformation that provide for the bodily reckoning of the transformability of material, iterated actions, etc.; (c) those spheres of reasoning that provide for inference, causal descriptions, etc.; (d) those spheres of search that look for validation, if not in inference then at least in the cosmology or in the conducts laid out in the itihasa; and (e) the relationship between desire, meaning and action, such that the child can associate action with the realisation of a good, the satisfaction of desire, providing not only a valid meaning but also the grounds of rationality in action.

In short, the child-student’s productive engagement with the material nominal provides the rational basis for action. A skilled action is the next state. Basic education provides the foundation for the development of skill. Basic education in the first few years may or may not impart a specific skill. It should, however, give the student the necessary rigorous drilling — continuous and iterated action, often following rules or authoritative prescriptions. A specific productive skill may be imparted to the grown-up student either at the premises of the school or at the premises of a production set-up. The first few years of basic education provide the foundation for this skill-building. The goal of basic education is to attain a vidya describable in terms of a realisable good.

Skill Institutions and Public Space

Vartashastra, we may recall from our earlier discussion, is about those concepts that deal with wealth generation, trade and commerce, manufacturing, social exchanges — in short, much of the contemporary disciplines that are devoted to the sciences of nature and life, engineering and technology, economics and sociology. This pedagogy, as we have argued above, is after those goods which by being related to wealth, commerce, economy, etc., offer rules, algorithms, etc. for the practice of the arts and skills in such a way as to secure a validation following the performance of the vidya. Therefore, the realisable good being known, the vidya would ensure a valid concept only following the undertaking of the performance. Hence the institutional features should ensure the inculcation of a theoretical or algorithmic underpinning. Second, the vidyas, not being in need of prior validation, would not require a generalised epistemic or ‘scientific’, i.e., abstract, conceptual background. Third, these vidyas should be primarily either descriptive or algorithmic, hence value or normativeness should not be of much concern. Fourth, these vidyas would not require, in general, dialogues in refutation, but would mostly depend on authority and dialogue for knowledge — hence apprenticeship. Fifth, as a result and since the good of the practical life is known, these vidyas would not require ‘specialists’ and ‘theoreticians’ to sermonise on the normative. Sixth, these vidyas are designed as though to cope with the vicissitudes of uncertainty, plausibility and multiplicity of values.

It has been conjectured, for example by Bankim, that social and pedagogic institutions in India of the pre-British period were harmonious, and therefore even in its lived worlds the theme of that harmony could be accepted institutionally, at least insofar as the authority of the sovereign was willing to achieve that. Therefore pathshalas were not just ‘elementary’ schools but primarily instructional institutions in the practice of the vidyas of the vartashastra. Such instructional schools were in close cooperation with the apprenticeship of the students in parts of the lived-in world, such as forging shops or agriculture or trade. Colonisation brought an end to this state of affairs, and by about the 1830s pathshalas were reduced to only elementary schools. By the middle of the nineteenth century the rural population had lost the knowledge of rules and algorithms. What remained at the turn of the century were a greatly impoverished rural people with no public space left for the attaining of good in practical life or for conducting a knowledgeable dialogue. Daily life in villages had become vicious. Many sensitive minds wrote about the deplorable state of rural Bengal.

Public spaces impregnated with knowledge used to be the norm. The practical life led by the vidyas of the vartashastra, as it was limited to the descriptive, could find cosmological and thematised expression through the rather regular narratives of the narrators (kathak), delivered as aesthetically as possible. By about the 1850s, slowly the narrators too were to leave the scene. Bankimchandra lamented this in his essay on public education (Bankim 1952: 377), and surely could see that newspapers were not an alternative. The other mode of public space, that had become largely restricted by the eighteenth century, and was to vanish by the third quarter of the nineteenth century, was the institution of public dialogue in refutation (vichar sabha) on the concepts and resolutions of the pedagogues. Quite importantly, it was not only the esoteric and the abstract reasoning of the contending pedagogues that used to draw the attention of learned minds; often such dialogues were conducted on important social and ethical problems. In fact the extent to which Rammohun Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati or Vidyasagar could draw the attention of both English learned minds and traditional scholars in debates on the relevance of monism or of the Veda or regarding widow remarriage, etc., was possible only because of the remaining impressions of the earlier institutions of a knowledgeable public sphere. With the demise of the tol, this institution too first lost its importance and then ceased to exist.

Some Events from Recent History

Rabindranath was one to understand early the limits of the ‘nationalistic’ approach to education. Aurobindo defined the nation as dharma (disposition of acting under injunctions and knowledge); Tilak defined it through the space of action; Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayananda defined the national awakening through disenchanted actions and through action-performance (yajna) for the achievement of a real; Bankimchandra defined it through devotional practice and Bepinchandra too through such devotional practice (Rabindranath 1961; Bankimchandra 1954; Bepin 1954a; Bepin 1954b, 1957; Vivekananda 1981). Rabindranath rejected the Western notion of the nation and declared categorically the meaninglessness of a ‘national’ approach to the reconstruction of India. To each of them, importance was to be attached to the power of the self acquired through practice. Rabindranath, in a series of essays, dwelt on the power of the self and that of the collective, and rejected any emphasis on the latter. The collective, he argued, was to be attained through the attainment of the good of the self. The good of the self is in knowledge, as much of it is in the seeking of the universal so much of it is in the reality of life — in its particularities and in its movement towards a better and enlightened life.

This was the period when Rabindranath went to the villages in order to examine the extent and causes of poverty, paucity of drinking water, ignorance and ill health. He came closest to the traditional understanding and realised the necessity of the institutions, depicted above in the last section, that would bridge, through knowledge and practice, the existing gap between pure and common knowledge. The former he conceptualised as the Vishva-Bharati (the abode of universal knowledge) and the latter as the Sri-Niketan (the beautiful dwelling). In this experiment, life in the dwelling is in tune with the quest for the knowledge beyond, and the knowledge of the beyond gets its form in the practical performances of the dwelling. Sri-Niketan was thus for the common villagers. It was to bring advanced agricultural engineering and practices, irrigation and potable water, craft skills and healthy practical life, and above all education (even through evening classes for adults) to them. Vishva-Bharati was virtually in the same village. It was the centre of higher learning. It was not to follow, logically, curricula and contoured content as laid down by a discipline. The dialogue in knowledge, as its motto, was to be conducted in the open, not barred from the public. The other dialogue, with the common and the practical life, was to be necessarily in the open — in the public space, through such congregations as a mela (fair).

Rabindranath was not alone. Many, young and old, gathered around him. More important was the spread of the idea. Schools or centres came up, or existing institutions were transformed, in Assam, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu. The sources of the idea were many and the nature of experiments too was varied. Kaka Kalelkar and Satish Dasgupta were surely to be considered exemplary.

For many practitioners the other profound fountainhead was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s insistence was on the conducting of a healthy practical life as the first and abiding minimum of any education.

Charkha and the removal of untouchability are two of the most essential ingredients of our education. (Gandhi 1962:96)

Every teacher must learn, if he has not already learnt, spinning, carding, ginning and determining the kind and quality of yarn . . . . Just as we all eat and know how to put on clothes, even so we must know spinning, etc. . . . . We want to put some flesh on the human skeletons to be found [in] our villages throughout India. (ibid., p. 97)


Charkha is the symbol of labour. When it is firmly established in its place, carpentry and smithy, etc., will come in automatically. (ibid., p.114)

Skilled living is the language of life. Gandhi therefore brought to skilled living and the employment of the mother tongue an eminence in the entire scheme of learning.

We have paid dearly for having all these years learnt everything through the medium of English. We have strayed from the path of duty. Then take the teaching of economics. The present system obtaining in government institutions is vicious. Each country has its own economics. German textbooks are different from the English. Free trade may be England’s salvation. It spells our ruin. We have yet to formulate a system of Indian economics. The same about history. Here . . ., therefore, there is a vast field for you and your teachers for original research. . . . Then we are putting a special emphasis on manual and industrial training. . . . It is not by making our brains a storehouse for cramming facts that our understanding is opened. An intelligent approach to an industrial training is often a more valuable aid to the intellect than an indifferent reading of literature (ibid., pp.145-46).

It is thus important to understand that each vidya, for Gandhi and for a very large number of other Indians, was to be defined by the characteristic good and also by characteristic concepts. Gandhi had said quite categorically,

I am not opposed to education even of the highest type attainable in the world. The state must pay for it wherever it has definite use for it. I am opposed to all Higher Education being paid for from the general revenue. It is my firm conviction that the vast amount of the so-called education in arts given in our colleges is sheer waste. The medium of a foreign language through which Higher Education has been imparted in India has caused incalculable intellectual and moral injury to the nation. (ibid., p.55)

He and others such as Vinoba Bhave argued that education had to be self-sustaining. The crucial point meant by this is that education has to be for a realisable good alone. He said,

There is no insurmountable barrier between what is called intellectual education and the crafts . . . . Training in arts and crafts offers full scope for the development of the intellect. And I venture to claim that without it the development of intellect is impossible. (ibid., p.159)

The famed Wardha Educational Conference of 1937 had the following among other resolutions:

Higher Education should be left to private enterprise and for meeting national requirements whether in the various industries, technical arts, belles-lettres or fine arts. The State Universities should be purely examining bodies, self-supporting . . . . Universities will look after the whole of the field of education and will prepare and approve courses of studies in the various departments of education . . . . University charters should be given liberally to any body of persons of proved worth and integrity . . . . (ibid., p. 297)

The signatories to the Wardha Declaration included Zakir Hussain, Aryanayakam, Vinoba Bhave, Kakasaheb Kalelkar and K.T. Shah.

This was a remarkable scheme. It was very close to what the Indian epistemic or validational approach to divisions of pedagogies, development of vidyas and their institutionalisation would have called for in a contemporary setting. The modernity of this approach was in its deliberate attempt at creating a public space for dialogue in knowledge. Quite remarkably, such a space was not to be institutionalised around the university. It was meant to be popular and to be outside arbitration by the state. Equally important it was that the pedagogies were considered in such a way as to obtain their evidential base from common, contemporary practical life and also, inter alia, to sustain the transformation of the art of the practical life into a vidya by way of enriched feedback from an evidentially enriched pedagogy. This was therefore the second dimension of public space sustained through the interactions between the pedagogies and the vidyas. Pedagogies, for their finer enrichment, were to be primarily supported privately, and only in cases of national requirement would the state’s endorsement be considered necessary. Hence a ‘disciplinisation’ through the enforcement of disciplines was entirely rejected. Finally, as his comments about economics show, he was convinced that each vidya and pedagogy was meant to secure a good of its own. This good, if it was to be part of the vartashastra, was surely to respond to the contemporary state of affairs in the world. Perhaps the only aspect that he did not specifically speak upon was the validational and epistemic departures of pedagogies.

There were others, however, especially from among scholars in Sanskrit, who categorically emphasised this point. In Bengal alone three great scholars responded. Mm. Phanibhusan Tarkavagis brought out in Bengali a detailed commentary along with the commentaries of Vatsyayana or the Nyaya aphorisms. Mm. Yogendranath Bagchi brought out several texts, often along with commentaries on the validational-epistemological basis of knowledge, as well as the necessary conditionality on the knowledge to have its own good. Pt. Pancanan Tarkaratna brought out annotated Puranas and other commentaries on such texts as would relate to good-pleasure, norms and ought, etc.

The emphasis they brought was both far-sighted and of contemporary concern, because they wanted the debate to take place around the pedagogical division of knowledge and its relation of sustenance to various vidyas, the relation of vidyas to practical life and good, the crucial importance of dialogues of various types, etc. Similar efforts were noticeable also at other places in India, notably at Banaras. Some other scholars and political leaders too joined this debate. Amongst the first would be such philosophers as Krishnachandra Bhattacharya (he contributed a remarkable prose on ‘Swaraj in Ideas’); or Radhakrishnan, or the sociologist Radhakamal Mukherjee, or the sociologist-economist Benoy Kumar Sarkar. Amongst the political leaders Bepin Pal (for example, through reinterpreting Bengal Vaishnavism in 1933) or Aurobindo Ghosh (through several writings) were surely not alone.

This was a debate of importance. What is noteworthy is that the debate was reconstructed variously by the state machineries, the media and political parties in such a way as to disregard the theoretical dialogues of the Sanskrit scholars. The obvious result was that Gandhi (and also Rabindranath, although he had differences with Gandhi) could be reduced to allegedly non-modern positions, and the debate could be shifted to a wrongly posed question about modernity (understood as contemporaneity, or positive to the West) vis-a-vis its antinomy. The constructors of this false reading of the debate finally reaped the advantage by pushing away not only the aspirations of Sanskrit scholars but also those of Gandhi and Rabindranath. The advantages were reflected in the further spread of universities and colleges, strict enforcement of ‘disciplines’ and discipline-based professionalisation, through urbanisation and deepening of the dependency on English in especially higher education, decimation of the knowledgeable public and pedagogical dialogues, especially from small towns and villages, conversion of dialogues into media popularisation of ‘issues’, near-total dependency on Anglo-American universities for higher learning, etc. They were reduced to this virtual antinomian position to Gandhi who had spoken, in contrast, about a broader base of higher education and research in such areas as sciences, engineering, economics, other social and cultural studies.

The names of Benoy Sarkar and Srinivasa Sastri are worth mentioning in this regard. Sarkar had a creative engagement with education: since 1907 he was one of the architects of national education. Early in his life he established about a dozen national schools in the districts of Malda and Dacca, joined the N.C.E. of Calcutta as a professor, wrote on the science of education and on economics, sociology, history. He was perhaps one of the most able organisers and a gifted writer. In 1940 he published one of his public lectures in the Calcutta Review (June 1940) under the title ‘Sociology of creative disequilibrium in education’. He said:

Discontent, disharmony, disequilibrium and so forth in matters educational as in other spheres have to be accepted as the eternal and universal items in the individual psyche as well as in inter-human or societal relations. Every so-called synthesis is in reality a condition of conflict or disequilibrium. And virtually in every instance this disequilibrium is creative and evocative of fresh values. Not to be prepared for such evolutive discontent or creative disequilibrium should be treated as the worst disqualification for educational statesmanship or cultural patriotism . . . .

Sarkar’s thesis was thus in clear opposition to the views of both Gandhi and even partially of Rabindranath. Sarkar also had argued, in the same essay, not to look to state aid in the first instance or in the second instance, but to energize independently and strive individually as often and as long as possible without support from the governmental authorities. Presumably, to Sarkar Gandhi’s Wardha scheme was pedagogically unsound as based on an incomplete and inadequate recognition of the diverse demands of the individual personality and the full-blooded ‘creativity’ of human beings (Chaudhury 1940: 24).

Sarkar’s opposition to Gandhi was thus based on creative disequilibriation in each individual; swaraj or autonomy of the literary, scientific, and aesthetic; no vidya or kala is so singularly fundamental that other vidyas can be sustained by that alone. It is important to recognise that these differences are based on arguments that are deep indeed; many contemporary European critics are also trying to reformulate the scheme of knowledge-division similarly. Sarkar at the same time knew and agreed with Gandhi’s pragmatism. He argued that for educating the overwhelming majority of the Indian population the Wardha scheme could be trusted.

Social Consent and Object Transformation

The above provides the rational basis of action to the student as an individual. Does the same education also generate a sense of social obligation? In fact, this basic education on productive and skilling engagement provides twin bases of social cooperation.

The first base is owing to the teacher-student relationship. This is a relation of initiator-initiated or instructor-instructed. The statements of an initiator are action sentences. Such sentences should not be vitiated by any self-interest on the part of the instructor. Understandably a basic instructor is more likely to qualify for such an attitude compared with an instructor meant for on-the-job training to grown-up students. The instructional utterances of a basic instructor initiate the child student. The child student clearly recognises the importance of this authoritative source, which can issue injunctional or optative utterances preferably not vitiated by self-interest. This gives rise to the recognition of an authority.

The instruction of the instructor is often in the form of a rule, recalled from memory or from tradition. The child-student clearly recognises not only the continuity of a lineage but also the endowment bequeathed by heritage. It is a debt, therefore, that has to be necessarily met. Basic education and the action of the child necessarily should give recognition to this debt and one’s own obligation to satisfy it.

It is perhaps even more important that the student is taught the importance of the consent of others to the action being undertaken by him. Any action, with its goal, must be declared by the undertaker, and consent to this undertaking be sought beforehand. Such consent, it may be argued, is better than that based on such principles as the principle of no-harm. This is also non-normative. Consent-seeking, being clearly non-moral, seeks to arrive at a judgement on the future. This is a superior principle of social action. However, it does not provide the bases for collaborative action. Action-orientation is one of the primary goals of a basic education. This orientation, according to Tagore, Gandhi or the other preceptors, is individualistic. The objective of basic education is to orient the individual student to undertake one’s own action. In order to undertake and prior to commencing one’s own action, the student must fulfil his or her debt obligation and seek consent.

The Question of Attitude

Basic education is not limited to productive engagement. It has two more elements. First is the fabulous historical or descriptive narratives (the itihasa), and the second is responsible cooperative social engagement. These together provide for the inculcation of the attitude of truth. Such an attitude alone can lead the student from the knowledge of a particular to that of numerous particulars.

Narratives are fascinating. While iterated practice on, say, the charkha gives shape to the mind or forms the mind, the narratives provide this formed mind with both a memory of the lineages and a future of the imagination. Mind-formation or skilling takes place through the engagement of the senses with the particular material (e.g., clay or cotton). Narration disengages the mind from senses and action. It takes the mind to the beyond-sense of lineages, memory, or the future.

These historical narratives and those on lineages or on cosmology, largely replace the role of theoretical discourse in non-basic education with fabulous narrations. Skilled practice and the transformation of objects are but little known theoretically. Basic education need not theorise on this transformational practice; neither does it need to be defended against an alternative practice. In fact value-pluralities and rule-pluralities are welcomed in basic education. The good of a vidya is unique, while action peculiarities are non-unique or plural. Basic education nurtures a respect and a dignity for the plural. However, what basic education requires is an attitude towards useful action in an unknown domain. Such an attitude, needing imagination and memory, is provided by the fabulous narratives.

Responsible social cooperation again is the admission that the young student has a duty. The Gandhi-Tagore ideas and practice on duty are derived not from moral penance nor from an authority, but from an attitude towards obligation and towards the consent of others. This obligation cannot be reasoned out, and hence the student is to look to tradition. Moreover, the student is supposed to get the consent of others prior to undertaking an action. The student develops an attitude towards cooperative work through seeking the consent of others.

One source of knowledge about one’s obligations is the conduct of the preceptors. In its absence, cosmological or historical narrations on conduct appear significant. Therefore basic education does not put an emphasis on moral teaching or on the ‘conscientisation’ of the pupil. In contrast, it offers a pragmatic ground, through the lived life of the preceptors, to the attitude towards obligation.

Most important, perhaps, is the significance of abhinaya and nataka (close equivalents are perhaps playing and drama) in basic education. We cannot, however, elaborate on this theme here.

The aesthetic elements here are derived from a taste of the performances that one has undertaken. This aesthetic is not derived from the goal of the action; on the contrary it is derived from the taste of the performance. Interestingly the student learns that life, roles in life and conduct in life are not damningly serious. The consternation that one faces in a contemporary school, where the children are shown a life of deadening commitment, is indeed to be laughed at. Indian basic education is based on playfulness and an aesthetic of tasting the performances. Knowledge, according to Indian theory, is not based on the intersubjective world. The intersubjective world is either for a discourse or for abhinaya. Such a world has to be lived in aesthetically, i.e., with an attitude and through playing. Since basic education provides a non-discourse environment, it puts great emphasis on the aesthetic and the playfulness of abhinaya and nataka. Rabindranath designed basic education on this line. Bankim theoretically argued for it, and Gandhi thought that it was inseparable from basic education.

Cooperative work is based on cooperation between a few role-performances. A minimum of four roles are conceived. The first role is to issue authoritative instruction, based primarily on rules of performance. The second role is to describe or delineate the causal connectives, to infer, etc. The third role is to make use of narratives and to imagine. The fourth role is to put together these three and act.

The descriptive parts of the narration trains the student to understand causal relations. Such training gives the mind a capacity to investigate and enquire, to infer and to lay bare causal associations. Much of this is known as science in contemporary jargon.

Recalling the student’s engagement with the charkha (or cotton), from whence he acquires the bodily-cognitive skill, we may now understand that the causal description and the fabulous history enable him to undertake independent action. This is the goal of non-theoretical basic education. The goal is to enable the student to acquire skill and to undertake action independently that is perhaps partly known to him descriptively (or scientifically) and partly known to him as narration from memory or tradition. This unknowable, or the unknown, can be acted upon by the student only if he/she has an attitude of truth and the consent of others. Such a consensual situation does not allow the student to initiate action that could be harmful to living organisms and to the tradition.

This provides us with a pedagogy and the goal of basic education, which form the summary of experience in conducting a variety of experimental basic schools by our preceptors. These schools have followed the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore and of tradition. Our attempt is to re-emphasise the importance of productive engagement and of attitude in non-theoretical basic education.

Debates on Attitude

Radhakrishnan said in 1961 to teachers:

We in our country look upon teachers as gurus, acharyas. What do these words indicate? Acharya is one whose achar or conduct is exemplary, is good. He who is able to remove that kind of spiritual blindness is called guru . . . (Radhakrishnan 1963:166)

The way to develop a civilized community is by developing understanding and compassion. Inward wisdom and outward compassion. If you become merely a saksara — a literate man — and you do not have the moral principles and you do not cultivate wisdom. you will become a raksasa . . . mad with power, intoxicated with might, trying not to build up a world but to wreck the world. (ibid., pp.168-69)

He thought that the university was unity — unity between the mundane and the universal, people with learning, between contending concepts, between knowledge and the vidyas. Beginning with Rabindranath and Gandhi, this idea flowed past: the Kothari Commission of 1964 too spoke upon the social nature of the university, the vocation of art-skill (vidya), the difference between literacy and education.

The attitude of truth (tarka) is indispensable to an inference. Gandhi, Rabindranath, Aurobindo or Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule — to all, attitude and conduct constituted a necessity. A contemporary democracy cannot run on mere popular opinion; it requires to be suffused with a knowledgeable public dialogue. And given the fact that contemporary India had lost its own earlier institutions, it was Gandhi’s or Bepin Pal’s task to impregnate the public space with an attitude without which no knowledge could have been accepted. Attitude (vritti) is amongst the oldest conceptual tools in Indian thought. A particular knowledge attained is an attitude, and one traditional approach is to conceive of the ultimate knowledge attainable as consisting of sixty-four vrittis.

Bankimchandra, one of the most influential thinkers of India, analysed education as vritti only. In his argument, a good too is defined similarly. Bankimchandra thought of three classes of attitudes, first for knowledge, second for performance and third for the aesthetic. Humanity can flourish in the fulfilment of the three classes of attitudes. He argued that the objective of education (cultivation) is to empower by way of allowing attitudes to flourish as well as by acquiring knowledge. Moreover, cultivation of attitudes of knowledge needs to be accompanied by the cultivation of the other classes of attitudes. The set of attitudes, in turn, seeks fulfilment in the virtues of compassion, friendliness, joyousness and indifference to others’ frailty. This is also dharma. Love for others and a sense of duty to the community and to the country are derived from this compassion — the ultimate confluence in which all the attitudes are synthesised. Bankimchandra therefore imagined Krishna as the ideal, since it is in him alone that one can see all the attitudes, knowledge, performance, aesthetic, compassion. The ideal, according to him, is in the ultimate fulfilment of humanity. It can and ought to be pursued through iterated practice.

Attitude is also therefore an index of power, a power which is not aggrandising. This is the position adopted by almost all Indian thinkers in the period we are concerned with. Such power is a-causal, as a sovereign or an authority is a-causal. This is what the Indian theory of sovereignty of state claims. The attitude therefore rules. Indian thinkers were organising the spectrum of knowledge in terms of an institution where power of attitude would rule the pedagogy, the vidyas, the tantras. The pathshala, the university of their conception, was to be in dialogue with the common and was not to be bounded by four walls and by the enforcement of disciplines.

The Institution of Basic Education

We may note a few distinctive features in the history of Indian education. Primary education was widespread even as late as the early nineteenth century. Often nearly every village would have a school, to which children would come from nearly all the population groups proportionately. Second, the curricula were the result of long practice as well as of its engagement with productive activities. There was neither any state financial support nor any control over curricula. Third, the public space of popular life and institutions was often constituted around (a) dialogue with theoretical education through varieties of institutions and fabulous historical narrations; (b) dialogue with productive activities; and (c) an attitude that was non-normative but one of forbearance, aesthetic and truth.

These unique features did not provide for a segmentation of education. The British colonial attempt was to replace this with segmented educational institutions and segmented educational content. Such attempts were resisted. Contemporary Indian education bespeaks this confrontation.

In this institution there are therefore two basic elements. First is a drilling in a productive engagement such that the student may acquire skill. Second is the inculcation of an attitude of aesthetic, of truth, so that the student can engage with the world later in life, fearlessly, in order to know and enjoy the realised good.

It is important also to recognise the institutional aspects of this approach. The distinctive features of the institution 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 information — it brings knowledge to the common people; (c) 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.

As a result, skilled practice receives its nourishment from advances in science. The student trainee becomes responsible to others in society. In short, this approach leads to an enlightened society. What is relevant socially and politically is that education becomes widespread, nourished by the material availability in its locale; it is maintained and nurtured by the local people, trained by local skill masters. It must be mentioned that this is most environment friendly as well. Such a basic education does not ideologise young minds into a civilisational mould, nor does it moralise (through freeing the conscience) or simply inform and attempt only to make students literate. In contrast, this basic non-theoretical education skills the population, nurtures aesthetic and an attitude of truth and of cooperative work.


Bagchi, Yogendranatha, 1947, The theories of state in early India (in Bengali). Calcutta: Pracyabani.

———, 1974, Theory of validation according to early nyaya and early mimamsa. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar.

Banerjee, Parthasarathi, 1995, "Induction of ‘social-sciences’ as the disciplinary triplet: themes from Indian response". New Delhi: NISTADS (mimeo).

Bankimchandra, c.1952/1954, Bankim rachanavali, vol.II. Ed. by J.C Bagal (in Bengali). Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad.

Chandra, Bipan, 1966, The rise and growth of economic nationalism in India. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Gandhi, M.K., 1962, The problem of education. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Pal, Bepin C., 1954a, Writings and speeches. vol.I, parts I & II. Calcutta: Yugayatri Prakashak Ltd.

———, 1954b, Swadeshi & Swaraj. Calcutta: Yugayatri Prakashak Ltd.

———, 1957 Character sketches. Calcutta: Yugayatri Prakashak Ltd.

Radhakrishnan, S., 1963, Occasional speeches and writings. New Delhi:Publications Division.

Rai, Lajpat, 1928, Unhappy India. Calcutta: Bauna Publishing Company.

Sahajananda Saraswati, 1985, My life story (in Hindi). New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Tagore, Rabindranath, 1961, Collected works. vols. XII & XIII (in Bengali). Calcutta: West Bengal Government.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi