Nai Talim is Dead…Long Live Nai Talim

By B. Ramdas & Rama SastryonSep. 18, 2014in Perspectives
Another Funeral Oration or another Nayee Taleem?

What now, in 1987? After the “stagnation” described in the last chapter (of her book), do we celebrate the Jubilee of Nai Talim by preaching its Funeral Oration? Is there nothing left except to mourn its untimely death? Shall we resign ourselves to maintaining the vicinity of Gandhiji’s Ashram, with his cottage at its centre, as a museum and national memorial….

Twenty-five years have passed since those words by Marjorie Sykes, expressed in terrible anguish in the final pages of her book, ‘The Story of Nai Talim’, were written on the 50th anniversary of Nai Talim.

Today we are gathered here on this sacred ground where it all began, on the occasion of Nai Talim’s 75th year. Is there much cause for celebration? Has Nai Talim contributed anything that has made a dent in the educational scenario of this country? The answer would be a deafening No! And, yet, if we were to look at the myriad educational initiatives, mainly small, that have sprung up across this country inspired by Gandhiji, then there is hope and a new vision is surely emerging. Another Nayee Taleem! Only, all of us must learn to recognise it.

Again, in the same book Marjorie Sykes writes “Respect does not mean blind imitation, to respect the past is not to be enslaved by it, but to appreciate the wisdom and insight behind the tradition it has handed down to us.” It is in this context that I propose to present my thoughts on Nai Talim. To cull out the wisdom and insights of Gandhiji which he tried to bring out through his philosophy of education.

I do not want to go into the details of Gandhiji’s system of education as this is not the place for it but rather to look at what Gandhiji intended by ushering in such a system and how in its actual practice it would impact on the social system in India. Whether it would have brought about the changes he believed is another matter. It had to be tried out and it is here that it stumbled. Unfortunately for Gandhiji, soon after the he started the schools, the second world war broke out and the Quit India movement saw Gandhiji in jail and by the time he came out the Congress party and he had other matters of greater importance on their mind.

Too Revolutionary…..

Revolutions are disturbing and most people do not want to be disturbed. There were a few people of imagination and insight who welcomed Gandhiji’s educational revolution from the beginning, but most educationists voiced doubts”, says Marjorie Sykes. I too believe that Gandhiji’s concept of education was far too revolutionary for the ruling sections of India, even within the Gandhian fold. It would have disturbed the social fabric far too much.

Gandhiji did not use the term revolutionary. He preferred a mild term `NAI’. It was meant to be new, so very new, that it was to discard the old – lock, stock and barrel. He was not talking about reforming the existing system or tinkering with it or making some major or minor changes here and there. He was talking about throwing out the entire system and replacing it with a completely different one. This is why he called it a NEW system, in effect, a revolution was intended.

Looking beyond the words….

What was Gandhiji’s objective when he designed this system of education? Writing in Harijan in 1937 he makes it clear:

I am a firm believer in the principle of free and compulsory Primary Education for India. I also hold that we shall realise this only by teaching the children a useful vocation and utilising it as a means for cultivating their mental, physical and spiritual faculties. It will check the progressive decay of our villages and lay the foundation of a JUSTER SOCIAL ORDER in which there is no unnatural division between the `haves’ and the `have-nots’ and everybody is assured of a living wage and the RIGHTS OF FREEDOM” (emphasis mine).

In her book `Education in Search of Philosophy’, Marjorie Sykes quotes T.S. Eliot, who says “To know what we want in education we must know what we want in general” and in the lines above Gandhiji answers what he wants in general very clearly. Endorsed by Gandhiji, the 1939 Conference on Nai Talim elaborated on this : “A new ideology of education based on Justice, Cooperative endeavour, Productive work and respect for Human Individuality, is a most powerful guarantee of Peace, Justice and Humanity”.

It helps to ask why it was that Gandhiji and the leaders of the time thought it necessary to spell out these goals. Obviously because these did not exist. There was no peace at home or abroad, there was no justice with the imperial domination of India and what was worse was the domination of the lower caste by the upper castes,the poor by the rich, the peasants by their landlords. Gandhiji foresaw conflict of interests. He wanted that a new generation would grow up believing in equality, justice, humanity and non-violence. For this high purpose he designed an education where the means would be the ends – where peace could be practiced in every day life, where cooperation not competition could be a way of life, where productive labour enhances the skill, the mind and the spirit would be engendered and respect of all irrespective of caste, creed, religion, economic status would bring about a new humanity.

When he asked that ‘mother-tongue’ should be the medium of education he intended that English education which had created an elite of its own, catered to the colonial masters and had created a colonial mind-set, should be done away with. It would mean that there would be no more people who would serve the British as diligently and loyally as had happened in the past. This further meant that the elite could not access jobs in the colonial office and get the privileges that went with it. It was meant to put an end to a privileged class altogether.

Nai Talim’s process of instruction, according to Gandhiji, was handicraft. It was not to make items to cater to the tastes of tourists but rather it was to manually make such items that contribute to the village economy by participating in it. Unfortunately, it was reduced to “vocational training” for poor village children. In fact, today most people equate Nai Talim with vocational training, divorced of the educational processes that were to be intrinsic to it. This process had multiple ends from what one can see. One was that from a pedagogical angle it would make the whole learning experience interesting and meaningful. Secondly that it involved experiential learning which is what children are doing all the time. Thirdly, it would teach a skill which can be used by children at a later stage of their lives. Fourthly, it gave credence to the professions of the village by bringing all these crafts into the classroom. The old systems of learning from elders was dying out and the class room was alienating the new generation from the old. Here was a way of bridging that gap.

To me the most important goal was what it would do to the minds of the children. We know that the village was divided along caste-based professions. Here in his school every child would practice the work of every profession that was available in the village! It would remove the divisions of caste in these young minds. One can imagine the kind of turmoil this would create in the village let alone in the towns. In one swift sweep he intended to undermine and rip apart the age-old social fabric of the hierarchical caste-based system which had divided and oppressed our people. Not only the students, but the teachers too would practice these professions and learn them well. Here manual work was to be placed on a pedestal and given dignity. No profession was too low or too high to be practiced.

These schools were to be a microcosm of the society of the future. The children and teachers would practice everything they wanted in later life here, experiment with ideas, build models of living. The child would later try to recreate this world of values in the real world.

Nai Talim wanted that the schools be self-reliant and not dependent on state funding. Gandhiji rightly believed that once you took state funding you also had to cater to the state’s curriculum. The curriculum of the state he had already rejected en toto. Gandhiji believed that education of the child was too important a matter to be left to the state. For Gandhiji, Self-reliance was not a political slogan to be bandied about. It was his creed. He truly believed that if every village were to be self-reliant then no one could dominate them or subjugate them. He foresaw and feared exactly the happenings of today when the same subjugation process in more subtle forms enter not just our markets and villages but also our universities and schools.

Experiments with Truth….the new `Talimi’ Initiatives

Over the last few decades, while Nai Talim has lay dormant, the ideals of Gandhiji, have sparked off a large number of learning initiatives. Some may call themselves alternative schools, some centres of learning, some in cities and others in villages, some very small and others fairly large. These people who have been inspired by Gandhiji and started these models may not wear khadi or be vegetarians, but share with Gandhiji his values and goals. They work for Justice and Peace, Equality and Freedom. They work with some of the most marginalised communities and also with the rich children (they too are marginalised). Nai Talim must learn to embrace all such initiatives and help take the movement forward.

Today a wide variety of such alternative educational initiatives exist from school-based education to home-based education. Some of these learning initiatives or alternative educational processes have started off just to experiment with a different system of education. Some others attempted to reach out to marginalised communities and found that the existing methods of education did not work. In addition, they discovered that the existing systems were irrelevant and that these communities would not have anything to do with it. They, therefore, under compulsion, had to develop pedagogic approaches that could deliver. These have not been just innovative but also meaningful as it went along with the ethos of the people they worked with. These initiatives have been able to give the child intellectual stimulation, a humanistic approach, and a firm value-base.

A distinct quality that distinguishes educational alternatives from their mainstream counterparts is their diversity. Unlike private and public schools which are remarkably similar in many aspects to one another, most alternatives do not subscribe to a “one shoe fits all” approach. Each educational alternative attempts to create and maintain its own methods and approaches to learning and teaching. Practitioners aspire to realize that there are many ways of conceiving and understanding the needs of the whole child in balance with the needs of the community and society at large. Often alternative approaches to education will vary considerably from one cultural or geographic setting to another.

In conclusion…How true was Gandhiji’s vision ????.

There is a disturbing tendency for the followers of Gandhi to take a doctrinal approach, to follow the system word for word as written down 75 years ago, as if it were the Gospel truth and that no other truth exists. There has been little attempt to look beyond the words at the intention and thereby change with the times. This approach has had disastrous effects as one can see.

This is a fundamentalist approach. We have enough fundamentalists in the world, religious, linguistic, casteist, tribal, racist and so on. We do not need to add to this. Gandhiji himself was a man ready to change according to the times, look at the new and be challenged. Writing in Harijan in 1937 on the very subject of Nai Talim, he said that “he had no wish to impose his ideas on anyone and he invited free and frank criticism”!

Nai Talim has not inspired new and young blood into its fold. What began as a dynamic national movement across the country has faltered and `lost its way in the dreary desert sands of dead habit‘.

“In so far as it is a TRUE VISION, its time will come.” This is the last line of Marjorie Sykes’ book `The Story of Nai Talim’. What do we have to say today, 25 years later. I state emphatically that there are hundreds of educational initiatives sprinkled across this vast country, in its mountains and hills, its valleys and plains, in the remote deserts and in the deep jungles, in dusty villages and decadent slums, in shacks and huts and also in comfortable environments. There are day to day fights for equal opportunities, for water, for the girl child, the dalit, the adivasi, the minorities, the poor and the rich who see nothing of all this. The struggle to build small communities where respect for the individual is paramount irrespective of their background is growing. There are no labels to them. Nor is it necessary that they should all be stamped with the label of Nai Talim or of Gandhi. That would be disastrous in itself. The idea is not to have one kind of education or one kind of community. This nation has never been so. It has been a melting pot of every creed in the world. This has to find a place in our learning centres, if it is to be learnt at all.

Gandhiji’s vision was true. It is happening around us. Those that are blinkered may not see them. But its time has come. We need people who can see Gandhiji’s vision and make it their own. We need people who can galvanize the thousands who are struggling dispersed here, there and everywhere around this country. We need a new dynamic leadership which believes in the essence of Gandhiji’s teachings and above all in a real democratic approach. People, particularly young people who can debate, discuss, dialogue and challenge ideas and arrive at a synthesis with the ideal of building a new social order based on “Justice, Peace and Rights of Freedom”. Do we need to wait for another 75 years for this ? Or is the time Now!

  1. The Story of Nai Talim – Fifty Years of Education at Sevagram, Marjorie Sykes
  2. Education in search of Philosophy, Marjorie Sykes
  3. The India of My Dreams, M.K.Gandhi

(Paper presented at Nai Talim seminar at Sevagram Ashram, Wardha, 2012)

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