Excerpts from Vinoba Bhave, Thoughts on Education. Rajghat, Varanasi: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1996 fourth edition.
SELF-RELIANCE AND FREEDOM
Boys are taught various bits of information in school nowadays, but they are not taught how to acquire knowledge independently for themselves.
Many people would agree about the importance of self-reliance in education. Self-reliance, for me, has a very profound meaning. It is not merely that the child should be taught some handicraft, some manual skill by which he may support himself. There must of course be manual labour, everyone must learn how to use his bands. If the whole population were to take up some kind of handicraft, it would bring all sorts of benefits—class divisions would be overcome, production would rise, prosperity and health would improve. So that, at the very least, this measure of self-sufficiency must form part of educational programme. But self-sufficiency as I understand it involves much more than that.
It seems to me that education must be of such a quality that it will train students in intellectual self-reliance and make them independent thinkers. If this were to become the chief aim of learning, the whole process of learning would be transformed. The present school syllabus contains a multiplicity of languages and subjects, and the student feels that in every one of these he needs the teacher’s help for years together. But a student should be so taught that he is capable of going forward and acquiring knowledge for himself. There is an infinite sum of knowledge in the world, and each one needs some finite portion of it for the conduct of his affairs. But it is a mistake to think that this life-knowledge can be had in any school. Life-knowledge can only be had from life. The task of the school is to awaken in its pupils the power to learn from life.
Most parents are anxious for their boys to complete the school course so that they can get a salaried job and lead an easy life. This however is a wrong way of looking at education. Learning has value in its own tight. The purpose of learning is freedom—and freedom is another word for what we have called Self-reliance.
Self-reliance means freedom from dependence on others, or on any external support. A man who has true learning is truly free and independent. The first and least part of this self-sufficiency is that the body must be educated and made skilled in a craft. A second, and a very important, part of it is the ability to acquire new knowledge for oneself. There is a third essential element in freedom, and this also is a part of education. Freedom implies not only independence of other people but also independence of one’s own moods and impulses. The man who is a slave to his senses and cannot keep his impulses under control is neither free nor self-sufficient. Temperance, vows and service therefore have their place in education, for it is by such means that this third aspect of freedom can be learned.
Self-sufficiency, then, has three meanings. The first is that one should not depend upon others for one’s daily bread. The second is that one should have developed the power to acquire knowledge for oneself. The third is that a man should be able to rule himself, to control his senses and his thoughts. Slavery of the body is wrong. The body falls into slavery for the sake of the belly; therefore a free man must know how to earn his living through handicraft. Slavery of the mind is wrong. If a man cannot think for himself and teach an independent judgment, his mind is enslaved; a free man must have acquired the power of independent thought. Slavery of the emotions and the senses is also wrong, and it is an essential part of education to overcome their tyranny.
Patents ought to keep these three principles in mind when thinking about their children’s education. The parents’ whole duty has not been done when the boys have got jobs and a marriage has been arranged. They will find their true satisfaction in seeing their children happy, skilled and respected by all their neighbours.
NAI TALIM A SEED THOUGHT, NOT A SYSTEM
It is about fourteen years now since our country was given the great idea of Nai Talim. In one sense it is not new at all, since no truth of experience is new. Truth is eternal,. and the seeds of this idea have existed for many centuries. But when some aspect of truth is lighted up for our own times, it seems to us that we have got hold of a new idea, and for us it is new. Its newness lies in this, that we draw inspiration from it. This idea of Nai Talim has been working steadfastly among us for many years ; it has been tried and tested; its reality, its strength, and its abiding truth have been established beyond doubt. The time has come for this Nai Talim to stand up and summon the nation like a trumpet call.
It puzzles and saddens me that three years should have gone by since we gained our independence, yet we have not found the courage to take a decision about this. What dearer proof could there be of our failure to understand the essentials, than that the very system of education. which was in use before independence as a means to keep people in subjection, should be allowed to continue after independence has been won? If you still feel that our new education is as yet in the experimental stage—it is still cooking, it is not ready to be eaten, and we will eat it only when it is properly cooked—if that is your idea, then I must ask whether we are to eat bricks and stones in the meanwhile? Are such things fit to eat, or fit to be thrown away? Where would have been the harm if you had thrown them away at once, and then said to us: “We have not yet considered what the new pattern of education should be. It will take us a few months to think this out, and for that time we will stop all schooling.. As it is urgently necessary to increase production, all the children will go out and work.” But we do not feel so keenly about our national education as we do about our national flag; that is what I mean by our failure to understand the essentials.
We have named this education “basic education,” but we do not understand the meaning of the word “basic.” We imagine that it mcans merely the first stage of children’s education. It means far more than that. It means that this is the found on, the base, upon which the whole of our education, from beginning to end, has to be built, whether you call it primary, or middle, or higher. It will not do to have one kind of education for the villages and another kind for the towns. It will not do to have one kind of education for the first four years of school life, and afterwards some other kind that is quite unrelated to it. It will not do to regard this as an experiment to be tried out on refugees while the rest of the country has something else. We have a right to use the word “basic” only if we are agreed that the whole education of the country should be built up on the foundation of Nai Talim. Many even of those who are engaged in educational experiment, when asked what plans they have made for the towns, reply that this education is not intended for the towns, but for the villages. Nothing, in my view, could be a greater mistake. This education is for all, and in it there is no distinction between town and village.
If we are content that the atmosphere, the mental attitudes, which now prevail in our towns should continue, India will have no peace. The town must interest itself in the service of the villages on whose support it stands, and must educate its children with this end in view. It will not do to bring up village children to serve their country while town children are brought up to loot their country! Such a thing cannot happen in this country because the nation has awakened, and a wide-awake nation will never allow differences of that kind to arise. This then is the meaning of Basic Education.
I wish now to utter a word of warning about some of the dangers which confront us. Many people nowadays think of Basic Education as a new kind of system, method or technique of teaching, on a par with the various other teaching “methods” which have had their vogue in the past. This is a mistaken view. I am very much afraid of systems, especially in educational work ; a system can make an end of all education. What a student receives from a Nai Talim centre such as Sevagram is not a system to be practised but a compass to show him the direction. He is given a suggestion which he may keep in mind and think over, but he must make his own independent judgments and try out his own independent experiments in his own place. Nai Talim is not a. system, it is a far-reaching educational idea, it is a seed-thought, like the Brahma-vichar which was formerly so widespread in India and in which so many different systems of thought—advait, dvait, visisht-advait and so on—were all rooted.
I was once talking with a friend, and exp1aining to him that it is a fault in the western system of education that it lays so little stress on learning great lines by heart. I said that children ought to learn plenty of well-chosen couplets, and I cited my own case as an example. I said that I had got much benefit from it, and that it had stood me in good stead at a number of critical periods of my life. It is good that the exalted experiences which are recorded in our literature should be stored in our minds. Our traditions in this matter differ from those of the west. The point of view of western scholars is analytical they break up the world into fragments and divide it into various “branches” for study; but we look upon the world as one, and study it as an integral whole. In this our approach differs from theirs, and for this reason there is in our tradition a place for the learning of great passages of literature. Other traditions give the foremost place to the intellect. The importance of the intellect is recognized by all, but one must not ignore the feelings and emotions. The heart of man needs nourishment no less than the mind, and it is right and necessary to provide it by storing the memory with thoughts of truth.
The friend to whom I was speaking agreed with me, but be at once had a question to ask. “The thing appeals to me very much,” he said, “but how can it be correlated with craft?” 1 said, “I too will ask you a question. Your children spend every night asleep in bed—what has this sleeping got to do with craft, I would like to know?” “It has this to do with it,” he replied, “that after they have slept they are fresh and ready for work, so that they come to the craft with the necessary eagerness.” “Very well,” I said, “look at it like this. Man has a soul, and it is only when the soul of man is strong that the nation can be strong. Strength is not merely of the body; a body without a soul is not a body but a corpse, and can be correlated with nothing but the burning-ghat. It is only when the body is informed by a soul that it has the strength for action. In my opinion, the learning of great passages of literature is a necessary aid to the maturing of the soul.”
I have described this incident because so many people are trying to turn Nai Talitn into a system ; and if this idea gets imprisoned in a system, it will be killed. If that should happen there will be no room for initiative, and people will spend their time contriving how this piece of knowledge can be correlated with that activity. We must steer clear of that kind of thing. Nai Talim is a philosophy of living, it is an attitude to life that we have to bring to all our work.
People talk of the growth of population in India, and there is no doubt that this is a serious problem and one that demands attention. But for my part I do not so much fear the growth of population as the growth of an unmanly population. If our people are manly, hard-working and skilful, I feel confident that this earth will be able to bear their weight. But because we lack the spirit of self-discipline, an unmanly and spiritless population is increasing in numbers. The books that are being written, the cinemas and so on, are tending completely to unman the spirit of India. In these conditions, education must take up the task of training boys from childhood in self-control, manliness and temperance. “Control of hands, control of feet, control of speech,” said the Lord Buddha. By all means let us strive for dexterity of hand, but let us also strive for the power of control. The power to use the sense must be matched by the power to control the senses. Skill without self-control can lead a man to disaster ; it cannot profit humanity. Strength by itself is vain ; skill by itself is vain; they have value only when they are used for human welfare. Not enough attention is being given to this aspect of education. When people discuss Basic Education, they simply recite this slogan of “education through craft” as if that one phrase described it completely. That is an entirely false idea.
Our plan for education is a plan for discipline ; its main-spring, that is to say, is not self-indulgence but self-control. Our chief aim should be that our children should learn from their earliest years to keep their senses, minds and. intellects under control. Their speech must be imbued with the spirit of truthfulness ; we must train them to express their thoughts clearly, and to choose words for their fitness, not for fashion. I would like to invite your attention to this difference between fitness and fashion.
I have one thing more to say. If we are to carry out this task of creating a spirit of discipline and self-control, basic education must be entrusted, so far as is possible, to women, and women must be trained for this work We ought to be keeping in touch with all organisations and institutions for women in India, and inducing them to come forward for this service. The education of little children should be entirely in the hands of women. As the Upanishad has it, “matruvan, pitruvan, acharyavan” — education is to be received first from the mother, then from the father, and lastly from the teacher. That is the true order of education.