Dialogue  April-June 2008 , Volume 9 No. 4

The Vicissitudes of Education

Rabindra Nath Tagore

Human Beings cannot be content with the bare necessaries of life, and they are in fact partly chained to their needs and partly free. The average man is three and a half cubits tall, but he lives in a house that is much taller, and has plenty of room for the freedom of movement so essential for health and comfort. This applies equally to education. A boy should be allowed to read books of his own choice in addition to the prescribed text-books he must read for his school-work. His mental development is likely to be arrested if he is not allowed to do this, and he may grow into a man with the mind of a boy.

Unfortunately a boy in this country has very little time at his disposal. He must learn a foreign language, pass several examinations, and qualify himself for a job, in the shortest possible time. So, what can he do but cram up a few text-books with breathless speed? His parents and his teachers do not let him waste precious time by reading a book of entertainment, and they snatch it away from him the moment they see him with one.

An unkind fate has rules that the Bengalee boy shall subsist on the lean diet of grammar, lexicon, and geography. To see him in the class room, his thin legs dangling from his seat, is to see the most unfortunate child in the world. At an age when children of other countries are having all sorts of treats, he must digest his teacher’s cane with no other seasoning than the teacher’s abuse.

That sort of fare is sure to ruin anybody’s digestive organs, and there can be no doubt that for lack of nourishment and recreation the Bengalee boy grows up without fully developing his physical and mental powers. That explains why, although many of us take the highest university degrees and write many books, we as a people have minds that are neither virile nor mature. We cannot get a proper hold on anything, cannot make it stand firm, cannot build it up from bottom to top. We do not talk, think, or act like adults, and we try to cover up the poverty of our minds with overstatement, ostentation and swagger.

This is due mainly to the joyless education our boys receive from childhood onwards, learning a few prescribed text-books by heart, and acquiring a working knowledge of a few subjects instead of mastering them. Human beings need food, and not air, to satisfy their hunger, but they also need air properly to digest their food. Many books of entertainment are likewise necessary for a boy properly to digest one text-book. When a boy reads something for pleasure, his capacity for reading increases imperceptibly, and his powers of comprehension, assimilation and retention grow stronger in an easy and natural manner.

Language is our first difficulty. Because of the many grammatical and syntactical differences between English and our mother-tongue, English is very much a foreign language to us. Then there is the difficulty connected with the subject matter, which makes an English book doubly foreign to us. Utterly unfamiliar with the life it describes, all we can do is to get the text by rote without understanding it & with the same result as that of swallowing food without chewing it. Suppose a children’s Reader in English contains a story about haymaking and another about a quarrel that Charlie and Katie had when they were snowballing. These stories relate incidents familiar to English children, and interesting and enjoyable to them; but they rouse no memories in the minds of our children unfold no pictures before their eyes. Our children simply grope about in the dark when reading these books.

A further difficulty stems from the fact that the men who teach the lower forms of our schools are not adequately trained for their work. Some of them have only passed the Matriculation examination, some have not even done that, and all are lacking in adequate knowledge of English language and literature, English life and thought. Yet these are the teachers to whom we owe our introduction to English learning. They know neither good English nor good Bengali, and the only work they can do is misteaching.

Nor can we really blame the poor men. Suppose I have to put the sentence ‘The horse is a noble animal’ into Bengali. How shall I do it? How can I be true to two languages at the same time? Shall I say the horse is a ‘great’ animal, a ‘high class’ animal, a ‘very good’ animal’ or what? None of the Bengali words for ‘noble’ I can think of seem right, but in the end I shall probably resort to downright cheating. So I cannot really blame the teacher if in the end he resorts to a dodge.

The result is that the boy learns nothing. Had he been learning no other language than Bengali, he would at least have been able to read and appreciate the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Had he not been sent to school at all, he would have had all the time in the world to play games, climb trees, swim in rivers and ponds, pluck flowers, and do a thousand damages to fields and woods. He would thus have fully gratified his youthful nature and developed a cheerful mind and a healthy body. But as he struggles with his English, neither does he learn it, nor does he enjoy himself; neither does he acquire the ability to enter the imaginary world of literature, nor does he get the time to step into the real world of nature.

Man belongs to two worlds, one of which lies within him and the other outside. They give him life, health and strength and keep him ever-flowering by ceaselessly breaking upon him in waves of form, colour and smell, movement and music, and love and joy. Our children are banished form both these worlds, as from two native lands, and are kept chained in a foreign prison. God has filled the hearts of parents with love so that children can have their fill of it, and He has made the breasts of mothers soft so that children can rest on them. Children have small bodies, but all the empty spaces of the house do not give them enough room to play. And where do me make our sons and daughters spend their childhood? Among the grammars and lexicons of a foreign languages; and within the narrow confines of a schoolwork which is dull and cheerless, stale and unending.

A man’s years are like links in a chain, and it will be somewhat superfluous to state anew the well-known fact that childhood grows into manhood by degrees. Certain mental qualities are indispensable to a grown-up man who has just entered the world of action. But these qualities are not instantly available; they have to be developed. Like our hands and feet our mental qualities grow at every stage of our life in answer to the call that is made on them. They are not like ready-made articles which can be bought in shops whenever needed.

The power of thought and the power of imagination are indispensable to us for discharging the duties of life. We cannot do without those two powers if we want to live like real men. And unless we cultivate them in childhood we cannot have them when we are grown up.

Our present system of education, however, does not allow us to cultivate them. We have to spend many years of our childhood in learning a foreign language taught by men not qualified for the job. To learn the English languages is difficult enough, but to familiarize ourselves with English thought and feeling is even more difficult, and takes a long time during which our thinking capacity remains inactive for lack of an outlet.

To read without thinking is like accumulating building materials without building anything. After we have accumulated a mountainous pile of mortar, lime and sand, and of bricks, beams and rafters, we suddenly get an order from the University to do the roof of a three-storeyed house. So we instantly climb to the top of our pile and beat it down incessantly for two years, until it becomes level and somewhat resembles the flat roof of a house. But could this pile be called a house? Has it windows to let in air and light? Could a man make it his home for the whole of his life? Has it order, beauty, harmony?

There is no doubt that a great deal of material is now collected in our country for building the edifice of the mind, much greater than at any other time in its history. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that by learning to collect we have learnt to build. Good results follow only when accumulation and building are carried on, step by step, at the same time.

It follows, therefore, that if I want my son to grow up into a man, I should see that he grows up like a man right from his childhood. Otherwise he will always remain a child. He should be told not to rely entirely on memory, and be given plenty of opportunity to think for himself and use his imagination. To get a good crop it is necessary to water the field besides ploughing it and harrowing it, and rice in particular grows best on well-watered earth. Rain is essential to rice at a particular moment in its cultivation, and the crop will be ruined if there is no rain when it is needed most. When the moment is gone, even a lot of rain will not save the crop. Childhood and adolescence are the moments when the stimulus of literature is essential to the growth of a man. Quickened by that stimulus, the tender shoots of his mind and heart will come forth in the air and light, and continue to grow in health and strength. But they will remain undeveloped if the moment is wasted in studying dry and dusty grammars and lexicons. Even if the most vital truths, wonderful conceptions, and sublime thoughts of European literature are showered on the man for the rest of his life, he will never imbibe its inmost spirit.

In our lives that auspicious moment is wasted in joyless education. From childhood to adolescence, and again from adolescence to manhood, we are coolies of the goddess of learning, carrying loads of words on our folded backs. When at last we manage to enter the realm of English ideas, we find that we are not quite at home there. We find that although we can somehow understand those ideas, we cannot absorb them into our deepest nature: that although we can use them in our lectures and writing we cannot use them in the practical affairs of our lives.

So the first twenty or twenty-two years of our lives are spent in picking up ideas from English books. But at no time are those ideas chemically fused with our lives. The result is that our minds present a most bizarre look, some of those ideas sticking to them like pieces of gummed paper while others have been rubbed off in course of time. After smearing ourselves with a European learning which has no connection with our inner lives, we strut about as proudly as those savages who ruin the natural brightness and loveliness of their skin by painting and tattooing it. Savage chiefs do not realize how ridiculous they look when they put on European cloths and decorate themselves with cheap European glass beads. We too do not realize what unconscious figures of farce we become when we parade the cheap smartness of the English words we know, and ruin some of the greatest European ideas by completely misapplying them. If we see anyone laughing at us, we immediately try to justify ourselves by speaking even more impressively.

Since our education bears no relation to our life, the books we read paint no vivid pictures of our homes, extol no ideals of our society. The daily pursuits of our lives find no place in those pages, nor do we meet there anybody or anything we happily recognize as our friends and relatives, our sky and earth, our mornings and evenings, or our cornfields and rivers. Education and life can never become one in such circumstances, and are bound to remain separated by a barrier. Our education may be compared to rainfall on a spot that is a long way from our roots. Not enough moisture seeps through the intervening barrier of earth to quench our thirst.

The barrier that separates education from life is really impenetrable in this country, so that their union is hard to attain. A growing hostility between the two is most often the result. We begin to develop a fundamental dislike and distrust of what we learn at school and college, since we find it contradicted in every detail by the conditions of the life around us. We begin to think that we are learning untruths and that European civilization is wholly based on them; that Indian civilization is wholly based on truth and our education is directing us to a land of enchanting falsehood. The real reason why European learning often fails us is not to be sought in any defect in that learning, but in the unfavourable conditions of our life. Yet we say that European learning fails us because failure is inherent in its nature. The stronger our dislike of this learning, the fewer the benefits it confers on us. And so the feud between our education and our life sharpens. As they draw further apart, our days become a stage where they mock and revile each other like two characters in a farce.

How to effect the union of education and life is today our most pressing problem. That union can be achieved only by Bengali language and literature. We all know that Bankimchandra Chatterji’s periodical, Bangadarshan, appeared in the sky of Bengal like the dawn of a new day. Why was it that it gave the entire educated class such deep satisfaction? Did it publish any truth hitherto unknown to European history, philosophy or science? The answer is that Bangadarshan was the instrument with which a great genius broke down the barrier between our education and our life, and effected the joyous union of our head and heart. Until then, European culture had been an alien amongst us. As Bangadarshan brought it into our homes, we began to see ourselves in a new, revealing light. In the figures of Suryamukhi and Kamalmani, Bangadarshan showed our women as they really are; in the characters of Chandrasekhar and Pratap, it raised the ideal of Bengali manhood; and it cast a ray of glory on the petty affairs of our day-to-day life.

The pleasure we derived from Bangadarshan has had the effect of making educated Bengalees of today eager to write in their mother-tongue. They have realized that English can serve only their business, and not literary, purposes; and they have noticed that, in spite of the great care with which English is learnt in this country, the books that are likely to live a long time are all being written in Bengali. The main reason for this is that a Bengalee can never acquire so close and intimate a knowledge of English as to make it the medium of a spontaneous literary expression. Even if he were a master of the English language, he would not be able to make it a live instrument of Bengali thought and feeling. The uncommon beauties and memories that impel us to creative activity can never assume their true form in a foreign language. Nor can those inherited qualities, which through generations have cast our minds in a special mould.

I have already said that our childhood and adolescence are spent in learning a language without gaining access to the underlying thought. The situation is reversed when we are older; we then lack a language with which to express our thoughts. I have also said that the reason why we are never on intimate terms with English literature is to be found in the dissociation of language and thought that takes place in us early in life. It is also the reason why many of our latter-day intellectuals feel dissatisfied with English literature. Turning to these intellectuals, we find that their thought is dissociated not only from English, but from Bengali as well. They have in fact become strangers to Bengali and developed an aversion for it. They do not, of course, openly admit that they do not know it, and they cry it down as unsuitable for thoughtful work and unworthy of cultivated people like themselves. It is the story of sour grapes over again.

From whatever angle we consider the matter, we find that our life, our thought and our language are not harmonized. Because of this fundamental disunity, we can not stand on our two feet, cannot get what we want, cannot succeed in our efforts. I once read a story of a poor man who wanted to buy himself winter clothes for winter and summer clothes for summer. So he used to save up all the money he could get by begging. But he could not save up enough to buy summer clothes until summer was gone. This went on year after year until God, moved by pity, told the man that He would grant him a wish. “All I ask for,” the man said, “is this: let the vicissitudes of fortune end, so that I no longer get winter clothes in summer and summer clothes in winter.”

We too pray that God would end the vicissitudes of our education, and grant us winter clothes in winter and summer clothes in summer. God has put before us every- thing we need, but we cannot help ourselves to the right thing at the right moment. And that is why we live like that beggar in the story. So let us pray to God to give us food when we are hungry, and clothes when we are cold. Let us pray that He would unite our language with our thought and our education with our life.