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rethinking education and development

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Worlds Apart:

Gandhiji's Nai Talim vs.

NCERT's National Curriculum Framework for School Education


Shilpa Jain

"What is the meaning of education? It simply means a knowledge of letters. It is merely an instrument, and an instrument may be well used or abused.  The same instrument that may be used to cure a patient may be used to take his life, and so may a knowledge of letters.  We daily observe that many men abuse it and very few make good use of it: and if this is a correct statement, we have proved that more harm has been done by it than good."

— M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, 1908

Although Gandhiji’s ‘official’ proposal for independent India’s education came out of the All-India National Educational Conference in Wardha in 1937, his vision and beliefs about education permeate all of his writings, from Hind Swaraj to articles appearing in multiple issues of the Harijan and Young India.  What is clear, therefore, from the beginning is that Gandhiji's ideas about education are not separate from living contexts or from larger political, social, economic, cultural and spiritual struggles.  In other words, to truly understand Gandhiji's major concepts of education, one must examine them in the larger framework of his ideas on social-economic-political transformation; his redefinition of progress, development, and human life; his regeneration of parampara; and his vision of Swaraj.  If not examined with these larger reference points in mind, there is a great risk that Gandhiji's proposal will  be misinterpreted as a ‘vocational education program,’ where the purpose of education is to only learn a skill so as to fuel the local economy.  Furthermore, understanding Gandhiji's Nai Talim requires that we see and internalize the relationship/congruence between ends and means. 

In contrast, the National Curriculum Framework for School Education prepared by the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) essentially views education as a method for affirming and expanding the status quo, the image of Development and Progress that dominates the world, or, put bluntly, the System.  The larger questions — What is education? How is it different from learning? What is a good human being? What things do we really value in life? What kind of world do we want to live in? — are not asked because it appears the document assumes the answers to such questions to be 'a given'. And, although Gandhiji is quoted frequently throughout the document, judging from rest of its content, very little of his ideas has been seen or internalized.  In this short essay, I endeavor to contrast Gandhiji's conception of education against what is described in NCERT's latest effort.

Gandhiji's vision of education can be seen to have stemmed from two distinct sources: (1) his critique of the British-style schooling system and (2) his conception of Swaraj.  Each helps to clarify the other, particularly in terms of the purpose of education, the nature of learning roles and relationships, and the processes of learning.  Although most of us know it well, I believe it is important to re-articulate Gandhiji's critique of the British model of education for two reasons.  First, the vast majority of it is as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago, since this model of education was fully adopted and enlarged by our political elites post-'Independence' and we see its manifestations/impacts all around us today.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, this critique reminds us of the key issues and questions around education that we were facing during the freedom struggle, and which we continue to face today under the guise of globalization, liberalization, techno-monopolization, etc.

Gandhiji's complete disgust with the British-model of education stemmed, most obviously, from his recognition of the plunder and devastation caused by British-model (now dominant model) of Development.  He expressed repeatedly that nothing good can come from a civilization bent on greed, domination, power, destruction, nor from Government schools that have “unmanned us, rendered us helpless and godless, [and] filled us with discontent.”[1]  Unfortunately, the products of these schools — the clerks, interpreters, and imitators — are even more dangerous.  As described in the opening quote, the ‘educated’ Indian further enslaves his fellow people: “hypocrisy and tyranny have increased and [educated] Indians have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into the people.”[2]  Most devastatingly, the system of education has either directly, or indirectly, dwarfed the minds, bodies, and souls of each and every Indian.[3] It has “broken the continuity of our [Indian] existence,” as children who go through schools, become contemptuous of their families, of their dharma, and of god/the divine itself.[4]  Yet, in the absence of such faith or rooted-ness, how is it possible for one to engage with the world in the larger struggle for Swaraj?

Gandhiji saw this struggle, in fact, as the main purpose of education: building Swaraj from the foundations.  Gandhiji, of course, defined Swaraj as the liberation or freedom from all servitude, and saw it from two angles: one, most obviously, as freedom from external domination, and the other, less recognized, liberation from our own artificial needs.[5]  Both angles form the crux of his understanding, and all other aspects of his approach to education derive from the concert between the two.  For example, from this belief stems another related purpose of education, the cultivation of character.  Character includes truthfulness, fearlessness, humility, non-possession, and other essential qualities and values of a human being that would give rise to Swaraj.[6]  Through the process of building character, education for Swaraj would dismantle hierarchies: of intellect over labor, of rich over poor, of urban over rural, of western over indigenous, of machine over man.  It would restore dignity to each of the latter spheres/beings by ending or greatly reducing the value given to the former.  Such education would facilitate the de-colonization of the Indian mind, particularly for the Indian elite, who as described above, were (are) busy wreaking havoc and disabling the entire process of Swaraj.  In this way, Gandhiji recognized that knowledge gained through education must be useful for the service of humankind; it must enable us to fight against injustice at all levels, including that which is present in ourselves, and it must grow out of our own cultures, lives, heritage, values, etc.

If Swaraj was the purpose of education, then clearly Swaraj must permeate the learning roles and relationships in Gandhiji’s vision of education.  Thus, between and among ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ a spirit of self-reliance and interdependence would prevail.  Teachers would not ‘teach’, in the conventional sense of the term; rather, they would support each child in his/her learning process. Teachers would strive to connect with the children’s hearts, to serve as loving guardians, and in this way, recognize that they too were in a process of learning and character-building. Similarly, children would have a great deal of ‘disciplined freedom,’ to openly think and act for themselves and simultaneously nurture a sense of humility and self-discipline.[7]  Ultimately, the relationships and roles of Gandhiji’s vision of education correspond to those of ashramic communities and families — to the very heart of democratic living and of Swaraj.  Learning, thus in part, meant living together in voluntary ‘poverty’, in a kind of simplicity that maximizes independence from the material (i.e. from our artificial needs) and that demonstrates the goodness and respect of a harmonious, unified living and being (i.e. no external domination). Notably, there was no role for the centralized state, nor its middlemen planners, in this vision of education for Swaraj.

Like the roles and relationships, the learning processes Gandhiji advocated organically grew from this goal of Swaraj.  Rediscovery and regeneration of the Self, both collectively and individually, was essential to Swaraj; indeed, without a rebirth of one’s own histories, languages, knowledges, values, which were unique to each locality in India, Swaraj would be completely unattainable.  Clearly, memorizing answers for exams based on textbook materials would not serve as an appropriate learning process. Instead, learning processes would emphasize two interrelated means.  The first, local languages, has to be understood more broadly than just English vs. Hindustani, or English vs. any Indian dialect.  Rather, drawing upon Gandhiji’s critique of English-medium schooling, it is clear that he viewed language as one of the most important means to rediscovery and regeneration for Swaraj.  True, English had served the role of robbing India of its originality and had placed an undue strain upon it.  But more importantly, it had stunted their growth and isolated them from their home. [8]  This vital lifeline between language and home, language and growth, or language and Self, was what struck Gandhi most in articulating the need for education through local languages. 

The second means critical to learning for Swaraj was work, a manual activity like khadi or craftwork. Obviously, such work frees one from external domination for the generated income increases the scope of one’s self-reliance.  But more strikingly, such work can also be considered a form of language, for it serves to connect people to each other across the boundaries of narrow identities.  In this way, it fulfills another precursor to Swaraj. When people are ‘speaking’ a common language, the language of the charkha or of the craft, when they are engaged in a common task/purpose, it builds a unity of whole purpose — instead of a division into artificial needs — which is essential for Swaraj.  Thus, work for Gandhiji never just meant ‘income-generation’; rather, it offers a path to the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and material fulfillment of Swaraj. It should be clear, however, that Gandhiji never advocated any work that was exploitative in nature.  Yet, he held this standard for everyone — not just for children — and sought to restore dignity to labor for all, including children.[9]  Work served a vital role in the overall learning processes of rediscovery and regeneration, both in terms of a sense of Self agency and in terms of a hope for Collective possibility.

Given this background, the contrast between Gandhiji’s vision of Nai Talim and NCERT’s National Curriculum Framework becomes abundantly clear.  The Framework neither offers a critique of the dominant model of schooling, nor does it expressly articulate a vision of Indian living and being grounded in Swaraj.  But it does certainly articulate a particular worldview, a particular perspective of reality, and a particular vision of Development.  This worldview is expressed in the first sentence of the first paragraph of page one: “…a human being is a positive asset and precious national resource, which needs to be cherished, nurtured, and developed with tenderness and care coupled with dynamism.”  Education is there to develop this human being as this ‘asset and resource’ for the good of the Nation. The terminology implies that the human being is little more than a piece of coal to be burned in order to fuel the motor in this Nation-State-Market-building process, to promote the good of the economy of the Nation. What a far cry from Swaraj (although, ironically, the whole argument is attributed to the “Indian way of thinking”)!

Unfortunately, despite a few minor slip-ups, the document does not come out and explicitly state that this is the purpose of its education system.  Instead, it couches its worldview behind extremely flowery and ‘good’ language — words that one just cannot hope to oppose, like ‘constructivist,’ ‘life-long learning,’ ‘aesthetic sensibility,’ ‘value education,’ ‘indigenous knowledge,’ ‘equality,’ and more.[10] But the readily apparent contradictions in the usage of these terms helps to elucidate how little this Framework has to do with individual and collective Swaraj and how much it has to do with the maintenance of the status quo.  Because the contradictions are innumerable, I will only focus on the most poignant and the most compelling when compared to Gandhiji’s vision of education. 

The stark contrast in learning roles and relationships is nowhere more obvious than in Section 5.  Whereas Gandhiji sought to remove education from the realm of the centralized State, from middlemen and planners, NCERT completely relies on a whole host of education acronyms, at all levels, to maintain the Education System.  To make sure this Framework functions and survives, NCERT, along the SCERTs, CBSE, ICSE, DIETs, SIEs, will prepare instructional packages and conduct teacher training. Ministries and Boards of Education, at the national, state, and district levels, will prepare and coordinate policies, carry out R&D evaluation and monitoring, ensure proper administration and implementation, and run examinations. Networks and Task Forces will be instituted for identifying infrastructures, using and allocating human and material resources, intervening in special problems, supervising and evaluating education, and for interfacing between the government and community.  In short, there will be absolutely no end or change to the present Education System, despite all the talk about decentralization.  Similarly, while the rhetoric of self-learning, collaboration with the local community are duly mentioned, it is clear that the teacher — as a government servant — will still make all decisions related to instruction, including content, program, schedule, etc.

The Framework is equally at odds with Gandhiji’s vision of learning processes. In terms of local languages, or more correctly, different meaning-making systems, NCERT again engages in double-talk.  On the one hand, it quotes Gandhiji for recognizing the alienation caused by English; on the other hand, it has mandated the teaching of English at the even earlier age of class III.[11]  Similarly, the document recommends a use of indigenous knowledge, but it only divides this knowledge into isolated facts, failing to recognize it as whole systems of meaning-making, of knowing, of living, and of being in the world.  More devastatingly, the document completely fails to mention indigenous knowledge at all in its curriculum, but rather once again puts Western Science on its pedestal of supremacy.  The Framework recommends that children learn to use the scientific worldview to “question and scrutinize our age old institutions and systems, related to our culture, religions, dogma, and ritual… to liberate our young generation from ignorance, prejudice, and superstition.”[12]  It fails to recognize the hegemony of science, nor does it see it as one meaning-making system among many, a knowledge system full of its own ignorance, prejudice, and superstition.

Just as it undermines Gandhiji’s ideas related to language, so does the NCERT document do serious damage to his concept of work.  For one, it ‘clubs together’ work education, arts, and health and physical education, and the sum total of the time allotted to the three is minimal in comparison to the rhetoric allotted to the three in the beginning of the document.  One feels that the Framework completely lacks a deeper understanding of the concept of work. It has superficially equated it with ‘vocational education’ or ‘career training’, as a way to provide ‘manpower’ and ‘increase productivity’ for India’s economic development.  In fact, even the words, ‘enhancing dignity of labor’ are couched in the language of economic growth, i.e. dignifying labor will result in ‘national development’ and ‘reduce unemployment’. [13] 

The contradictions continue even into the more ‘modern’ parlance of learning processes.  For example, with apparently no reservations, NCERT juxtaposes Minimum Levels of Learning (MLLs), exams, and a standard curriculum of language, math, science against concepts of creativity, multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence, social interaction, experiential-based education, and cognitive development. Yet, all of these concepts completely contradict the idea of MLLs, of exams, and of a standardized curriculum.  If one truly valued (and understood) the diverse processes of knowing, seeing, being, and meaning-making, then one could not propose to codify a “marshalling or sequencing of skills of learning outcomes” or to measure such codification in a national exam.[14] Nor would one urge that the skills of “good handwriting, correct spelling, and the right habit of silent reading” be developed in class I and II.[15]

The Framework also states that the curriculum could be contextualized through the use of textbooks, which again makes no sense if one understands the concept of contextualization.  Although this idea of standard textbooks is in complete congruence with the Framework’s statement that a “national system of school education has ensured levels uniformity and standards,” it totally contradicts the following page, which calls for a curriculum that stands on three pillars: equity, relevance, excellence.  Yet, presumably, as contexts differ, i.e. as values, traditions, beliefs, languages, climates, cultures, environments differ in a country as large and diverse as India, so would how these three pillars were defined and practiced from place to place. But neither textbooks nor a national system would genuinely allow for those differences.

Most telling is where the Framework temporarily breaks from its language and, in no uncertain terms, completely lends its loyalty to preserving the status quo, to promoting the rule of all the hierarchies that Gandhiji sought to dismantle.  Three such glaring examples exist in the text.  The first reaffirms the class-based social stratification, the hierarchy of elite over masses, rich over poor, ‘table-chair jobs’ over manual labor.  It states:

“While the top leadership will be provided by a small minority, to be groomed at the tertiary level, in every department of life, the second or intermediate level of leadership on a much wider scale would have to be provided by the products of the higher secondary stage… The wage employment in the organized section which is available to only about 15% at present is not likely to increase appreciably.  Hence, the products of this stage must be fully equipped with basic knowledge skills, attitudes and entrepreneurship so that they can qualify themselves for self-employment as well.”[16]

Similarly, the hierarchy of ‘success’ over ‘failure’, or of ‘educated’ over ‘uneducated’ is  maintained by the Framework.  In the course of their so-called continuous evaluation, teachers provide “differential treatments to different categories of learners,” so students may be readily diagnosed into ‘bright’, ‘average’ and ‘weak’ and be given proper ‘treatment.’[17] 

Thirdly, the document separates and strengthens the already powerful hierarchy of intellect over labor, by dividing children into the ‘academic stream’ vs. the ‘vocational stream’ in higher secondary.[18]  The ‘top leadership’ and the ‘intermediate leadership’ swim in the first stream; the remainder swims in the second (if they swim at all).  And, although the Framework tries to present these as ‘separate but equal’, it is clear that the academic stream is far ahead of the vocational in terms of the benefits/power that it will be given.  The academics should have the insight, knowledge, and creative thinking ability to “cope with changing demands of a society committed to use science, technology, and informatics to alleviate poverty and to raise quality of life of general masses.”[19] On the other hand, vocational education is there to “develop a spirit of self-help, self-reliance, enterprise, and entrepreneurship by preparing the youth for self-employment in addition to wage employment.”[20]  This disconnect between intellect and labor, where a small portion of the population thinks and creates, and the rest of the population works, is exactly what has produced the crises before us today.  For NCERT to continue to promote such a divide, where thinking and doing are not equally valued and meaningfully connected, and where the ‘thinkers’ have done far greater harm than the ‘doers,’ is not only catastrophic, it is unconscionable. 

In essence, the entire Framework grows out of (and expands) the massive privilege allotted to the formal schooling system — the very system that Gandhiji fought so categorically against. NCERT reaffirms the compartmentalization of the world into disciplines, into intellect vs. labor, into elite, middle, and lower classes, into uniformity and standardization, which, essentially, amounts to an affirmation of the entire Educational enterprise.  Most deplorably, NCERT fails to ask the real questions: What is our concept of development, progress, and success?  Where is space for people to define their own values, to understand their own context and provide the opportunities of living and learning to recover and regenerate it? What does the concept of ‘national identity’ mean against the prevalence of ethnic conflicts, of territory disputes, of Hindutva, etc.?  What is our hope and scope for individual and collective human potential?  The fact is that this document can quote Gandhiji nine times or 9,000 times. However, unless it opens itself to asking these kinds of questions, and forsaking the ‘flowery’ rhetoric to deal with the often ‘ugly’ truths, this Framework will only serve to recapitulate the tragedy that has been taking place since Lord Macaulay began this schooling system nearly 150 years ago.  For NCERT to continue to use Gandhiji’s name to achieve this end is nothing short of sacrilege.


Shilpa Jain <> is a learning activist for Shikshantar in Udaipur, India. Through her work at Shikshantar and previous experiences with international development organizations in Washington, DC, such as Creative Associates and the Academy for Educational Development, she has conducted research on several areas of education and development: democratic living, conflict transformation, creativity, Gram Sabhas and Panchayati Raj Institutions, the role of NGOs in civic participation, systemic reform, community participation, and equity education. Shilpa also loves learning from/with children and youth and has had extensive experience doing so around issues of self-esteem, creativity, collaboration, identity, and conflict resolution. She hopes to continue researching and activating the link between learning and social-political-economic transformation, and the role of children and youth in these learning processes. Shilpa has a B.A. magna cum laude in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Harvard University.

[1] Young India, June 1, 1921.

[2] Hind Swaraj, p.80.

[3] Young India, April 27, 1921.

[4] Young India, March 20, 1924.

[5] Harijan, March 10, 1946.

[6] Character and Nation-Building, 1946.

[7] Young India, June 3, 1926.

[8] With Gandhiji in Ceylon, p.106. emphasis mine.

[9] I make this point especially for those who read Nai Talim as a child labor scheme.  To do so illustrates a near-total ignorance of Gandhiji, not only for the ideas he described, but for the man he was.  Gandhiji lent work a dignity, a legitimacy, that most ‘child labor advocates’ fail to recognize.  Simultaneously, he was calling for an end to all forms of exploitation, whether children or adults were affected. 

[10] Terms appear at various points in National Curriculum Framework, p.6-20.

[11] National Curriculum Framework, p.36 and p.64.

[12] National Curriculum Framework, p.49.

[13] National Curriculum Framework, p.80.

[14] National Curriculum Framework, p.26.

[15] National Curriculum Framework, p.40.

[16] National Curriculum Framework, p.67. emphasis mine.

[17] National Curriculum Framework, p.90.

[18] National Curriculum Framework, p.72.

[19] National Curriculum Framework, p.72.

[20] National Curriculum Framework, p.80.