As a young parent, a while ago, the education of my children became of paramount importance to me. What were they learning, why? To what end? I found in Gandhi a standard for all education that resonates.
Gandhi’s thinking towards education as with everything else was evolutionary. Caste and colonialism were two heavy oppressions of free thought in him. The role of colonialism in the hearts and minds of individuals that it oppresses, to prize, respect, defer and submit to their colonizers, is beyond our present understanding. It is undeniably true that Gandhi was deeply affected by the experience of colonialism. For years, it shaped and tailored his actions and thinking without his conscious awareness.
It was in South Africa, where he passed the meridian of his life span (from age 23, in 1893 to age 44, in 1915) that Gandhi’s entire outlook on education underwent a massive overhaul. He had been educated in English-style patterns while a youth, and having continued his studies in England, was firmly entrenched with a sense of moral `rightness’ in that style of education. When he became a lawyer, Gandhi had, in certain ways, achieved the final purpose of that system of education: a position of standing in the community, service to it, in line with the needs and desires of the authors of that education. He was trained to interpret the established system of law and economic justification to others. Social and environmental factors Gandhi encountered in South Africa forced him to question the purpose and conditioning of his own education and to evolve his educational philosophies for emancipating youth from a processing system that trained people to serve the interests of a few.
As he began clarifying his educational philosophy to himself, he began putting those ideals into practice in his home and the intentional communities he started there – Phoenix, and later, Tolstoy Farm. His ideals and means for education are of utmost relevance to today, as they were then. Once the ideal is clear, the ways and means suggest themselves as circumstances require and duty dictates.
The core of his educational philosophy was the ideal of service to God. This central pillar, the inculcation of a thirst for service, in all its forms, never changed for him. For Gandhi, God is all that we can see, behold, and be aware of in the manifested world. This means service to one another as people, as family, to the Creation. To support service, community was the real school. To impart such education, a vital teacher was the key.
Gandhi was clear that a child’s first school and first teachers were found in the family home. Early on, a young father in racially divisive South Africa with four sons, Gandhi sought to home-school his young children:
“There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to honest, virtuous parents.”i
“We labour under a sort of superstition that the child has nothing to learn during the first five years of its life. On the contrary the fact is that the child never learns in [later] life what it does in its first five years. The education of the child begins with conception. The physical and mental states of the parents at the moment of conception are reproduced in the baby. Then during the period of pregnancy it continues to be affected by the mother’s moods, desires and temperament, as also by her ways of life. After birth the child imitates the parents, and for a considerable number of years entirely depends upon them for its growth.”ii
He saw that the smattering of subjects in shallow depths, imparting information without context, interdependent connection, without response to immediate environmental, social and economic realities, found in most public educational norms globally today, was and is almost useless:
“Modern high school education is a dead weight on the villagers. Their children will never be able to get it, and thank God they will never miss it, if they have the training of a decent home.”iii
Establishing a newspaper, Indian Opinion, Gandhi sought to educate the South African public as to his ideals and the struggle to implement them in society. He paraphrased a retired headmaster of Eton boys school in the UK, Dr. Weir, to emphasize his understanding that education was much more that imparting, retaining, then releasing, information:
We hold that real education does not consist merely in acquainting oneself with ancient or modern books. It consists in the habits which one knowingly or unknowingly imbibes from the atmosphere, one’s surroundings and the company one keeps and above all in work…The primary function of teacher, is, therefore, not to teach the alphabet, but to inculcate humanity.iv
Against his own growing better-judgment, he sent his eldest son Harilal, along with his nephew, back to India to attend an elite residential school, yet called them back to South Africa after one semester. Later, Harilal was to break away from his father altogether. Of this painful aspect in his life, he said:
“I have always felt that the undesirable traits I see today in my eldest son are an echo of my own undisciplined and unformulated early life. I regard that time as a period of half-baked knowledge and indulgence. It coincided with the most impressionable years of my eldest son, and naturally he has refused to regard it as my time of indulgence and inexperience.”v
For a while, I too, home-schooled. The ability to be a sincerely vigilant parent, to protect and deepen a child’s moral integrity, occurs often in small and mundane moments. Yet economic realities of our advanced society reigned; to both work and school proved un-do-able. Through long conversations, developing critical thinking to an extent, I was able to help my children have a broader outlook on what they were being taught.
The public schools in Gandhi’s day, were sponsored by Church and State, both entirely foreign to the culture and ecology of India. Ultimately, all his sons felt the lack of exposure to English literature in their education, but Gandhi saw this as a relatively minor issue in the larger scope of life: the most important and self satisfying part of any person’s life and education, is their moral integrity:
“Nevertheless I am of opinion that, if I had insisted on their being educated somehow at public schools, they would have been deprived of the training that can be had only at the school of experience, or from constant contact with the parents. I should never have been free, as I am today, from anxiety on their score, and the artificial education that they could have had in England or South Africa, torn from me, would never have taught them the simplicity and the spirit of service that they show in their lives today, while their artificial ways of living might have been a serious handicap in my public work. Therefore, though I have not been able to give them a literary education either to their or to my satisfaction, I am not quite sure, as I look back on my past years, that I have not done my duty by them to the best of my capacity. Nor do I regret not having sent them to public schools.”vi
After he had returned to India (1915), Gandhi worked to establish a national form and system of education that would be able to address the horrendous social inequality, poverty, social sanitation, malnutrition, colonial mindset and numerous other ills India was burdened with. Then, as now, Gandhi saw that as long as capital, or financial power, could direct education, exploitation of labor and social injustice would be impossible to eradicate. Confronting the terrible beast of British colonialism – unbridled greed on a globally gluttonous spree – Gandhi knew that it was only through the process of building an truly educated public, not merely informed, starting through the family unit and small local communities, everywhere, taking responsibility for educating their youth, that parental and community mindsets could change, and the balance of power shift towards social justice and genuine welfare:
“By education I do not mean the mere rudiments of primary education, but a knowledge of our rights, and along with them of our responsibilities and our duties. It is not enough that such education is spread among a handful of us; it has to be spread amongst the crores [one crore = 10 million] of our people. How is this to be done? We cannot expect this education to be given to the masses by our rulers. For that we have ourselves to be ready and devote time to it.”vii
“All your education will be in vain if you do not learn the art of feeling one with the poorest in the land.”viii
Peace and contentment in family life begins with our personal integrity, extends into our social spheres, and subtly governs our community life. Responding to our duties to one another, through our personal genius, expresses our genuine individualism. The task is not impossible, the means are within our reach. The first field of endeavor: in our homes. These are the end-goals of Gandhi’s educational ideals.
“Everything will be well with a people who are disciplined and who value integrity of character. The young should be taught this while they are students.”ix
i Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (7 Volumes). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 4:43.
ii Gandhi, M.K. (2007). An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Navajivan, Ahmedabad, India: 188.
iii Tendulkar, D.G. (1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (7 Volumes). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi. 4:43.
iv Gandhi, M.K.(1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (CWMG), 93 Volumes. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 6: 484. “Indian Opinion” May 18, 1907. Age 37.
v Gandhi, M.K. (2007). An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Navajivan, Ahmedabad, India: 185.
vi Gandhi, M.K. (2007). An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Navajivan, Ahmedabad, India: 184.
vii Gandhi, M.K.(1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (CWMG), 93 Volumes. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. 6: 484. “Indian Opinion” December 16, 1905. Age 36.