In the year of Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary, I heartily welcome the great deal of awareness that has been brought to bear on the Father of the Nation.
Much of this attention is directed towards Gandhiji's stewardship of our freedom movement or his consistent and firm insistence on cleanliness and sanitation.
At the same time, I firmly believe it shall be equally profitable for us to dwell a little on another important facet of the activities of Bapu. However, before I go any further, let me first preface my thoughts with the statement that Gandhiji made important and relevant contributions to several aspects of the world around us; in many ways he was way ahead of his time.
The other thing that I wish to emphasise is that the Mahatma was not given to opining on any theme or issue unless he had experimented on the matter in a deep and meaningful way and drawn clear inferences. No wonder his autobiography is titled The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Thus, in my humble opinion, it shall be useful for us to dwell at some length on Gandhiji's views and ideas on education.
I believe they are very relevant today and shall bring much benefit for our educators and policy makers if we pay a little attention to his ideas.
Let us first understand why Gandhiji was so eminently qualified to speak on education. His ideas on education evolved with his experiments when he first set up and ran a school in South Africa, then later set up a full-fledged university - the Gujarat Vidyapith - in Ahmedabad that functions till this day and, finally, he set up a polytechnic for women at Wardha on the governing body of which he appointed great Indian scientists such as CV Raman and JC Bose. Through such experiences and experiments, Gandhi came up with some very clear-cut mantras.
To begin with, Gandhiji's most important and prescriptive principle was to the effect that in education what you do with your hands will enter your heart. It is not that he claimed any proprietary ownership over this insight; this is an eternal principle that has been discovered and prescribed in cyclical fashion over the ages.
The earliest records in our own land such as the Upanishads espouse and endorse this in many ways. All we have to do is look at the historical story of Haridrumat and Satyakama. In fact, even our ancient Mimamsa School of Philosophy states this so clearly when it emphasises that knowledge without action is meaningless.
Study as practice
Take also the evidence of the superb mathematics that was discovered and embodied in those ancient texts, now known as the Sulba Sutras; written centuries before the time of the Christ. All the profound mathematics embodied in these texts was discovered through practical applications of ideas and for societal benefits. This precept is available in abundance in many other situations and in many other cultures and ages. I shall illustrate with just one example; that of Gregor Mendel, the founder of the world of genetics.
His fundamental discovery was made through the use of his hands since he was an adept gardener and could easily breed successive generations of pea plants to observe and store data that led to this great discovery of the laws of genetics.
Make learning fun
And pray what is it that we do in our schools and colleges? All knowledge is poured mindlessly at young minds in a voluminous manner through lecturing from rather dull books and through the blackboard. For instance, I have yet to come across a single CBSE school in Delhi that encourages or allows its pupils to experiment with the soil of its campus so as to let them discover the science and art of true salt analysis that could be of great practical value.
Instead, the same standard dozen odd salts, since at least my time, are prescribed and analysed in predetermined ways to kill all enthusiasm and curiosity in a student. Is it any wonder that our homemade discoveries in the sciences are generally not epoch making? The other precept that Gandhiji emphasised was to teach basic and minimal stuff to the very young; in fact, he talked of the three R's - read, write and arithmetic - as being the real key to setting off the young on their journey of education. Once again we are not surprised to note that we teach and we teach; it is almost endless. I have yet to see counting being ingrained through real-world kind of play situations. For instance, why can primary schools not introduce games like rudimentary versions of monopoly tailored to local geography and commerce? I have seen children get quite excited and take to counting in natural ways through such exercises.