Reinterpreting Rousseau—decolonizing education and designing an education for the ecological age

By Jayalakshmi Jayaraman onJul. 05, 2018in Perspectives

Rousseau identified a paradox at the core of education: a national education system can either aim to create a citizen or a human being; it cannot aim to create both. This paradox is largely dismissed as fanciful by western philosophers. Nevertheless, Nataraja Guru, a renowned Indian philosopher of the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian philosophy, acknowledges Rousseau’s paradoxical approach as one which has been known to Vedanta philosophers in India for millennia. Indeed, Guru resolves Rousseau’s paradox in education. For Guru, the solution lies in an educational system which attempts to create a world citizen. This resolution lays the philosophical foundation for the creation of a post-colonial education system for the ecological age of the future; an age in which humanity will face increasing environmental challenges. This article explains Guru’s position with respect to Rousseau’s paradox and goes on to show why his work highlights the need to bring educational focus back to the human elements in education, namely, the student and the teacher.


Nataraja Guru perceived the current education system as a colonial system harmful to the world (Guru, 1996), a view held by many alternative educators (Akomalafe & Jain, 2016; Sunderasan, 2016; Schooling the World, 2010). The main accusation against modern mass education is that it is an industrial-model of education (Dede & Rose, 2012) that does not educate the hearts and minds of students or foster creativity (Ea, 2016; Tolle, et al., 2015; Robinson, 2006), and seeks to create an American monoculture in the world (Jain, 2013; Norberg-Hodge, 2009 & 2011; Schooling the World, 2010). For this reason, many prominent thinkers have spoken out against the current education system (Ea, 2016; Tolle, et al., 2015; Eisenstein, 2013; Jain, 2013; Schooling the World, 2010; Robinson, 2006) with some predicting the end of industrial-model education (Dede & Rose, 2012). Guru’s interpretation of Rousseau’s educational philosophy presents a way to de-colonise modern education and design an educational system for the ecological age of the future—when humanity will face increasing threats from the environment.

Resolving Rousseau’s paradox

Rousseau identified a paradox at the core of education: a national education system can either aim to create a citizen or a human being; an education that aims to create both a citizen and a good human being will fail on both counts (Rousseau, 1979). For instance, a well-educated citizen has moral justification for killing the citizens of another country perceived as the enemy, but a person educated to be a good human being will wrestle with the moral implications of taking a human life—even the life of a citizen of another country (Guru, 1996). However, in Guru’s view, this paradox may be resolved by an educational system which attempts to create world citizens (Guru, 1996).

Guru (1996) discusses the differences between the life of a person in a warm country and that of a person in a colder country. Generally speaking, a person living in a cold country needs to use more energy to stay alive. With national carbon emission levels a matter of international concern (McGrath, 2016; Worland, 2016; Plumer, 2014), Guru sees a central role for education here. A person living in Canada needs to live a lifestyle that involves more carbon emissions compared to a person who lives in India, who does not need heating to keep him or her alive. Guru argues that it is only education as a world citizen that can cause a person living in India who has concern for the effect his or her lifestyle has on the planet to voluntarily give up the right to emit as much carbon as a person living in Canada. Rousseau (1984) makes the same point in his Discourses on Inequality—it is only when citizens voluntarily give up their freedom for the sake of their country or common good that the social contract between an individual and his or her country can be deemed a contract between a free person, entered into out of his or her own free will, and the state. Thus, education is central to a democracy because only education can truly preserve a democracy.

Nataraja Guru’s educational reform

Guru’s suggestions for education reform involve placing humanities, not sciences, at the core of education and a scientific approach to the teacher-student relationship. In his D.Litt thesis, ‘The Personal Factor in the Educative Process’ (completed at the Sorbonne), Guru worked out a scientific basis for such a student-teacher relationship (Padmanabhan, 1932). Guru’s scheme of education does not exclude developing the scientific spirit or concerns of employability, but it addresses these concerns along with concern for larger aspects of an individual’s existence involving global welfare that the current education model does not address.

The educational reforms Nataraja Guru suggests are based on the first principles of Indian philosophy—that children are born with a good nature—and result in a ‘negative’ scheme of education for children; one that existed as gurukula education in precolonial India for centuries. Western philosophers since the Enlightenment have debated whether man is born good or bad and modern philosophers often debate whether human beings have a human nature at all. Modern education is based on the concept of “tabula rasa” or the blank slate, a doctrine that also appears to underpin the current secular theory of human nature. However, recent advances in genetics, psychology, and evolution are challenging this doctrine. Pinker (2003), argues that the tabula rasa doctrine is flawed on many levels and the debate on human nature was settled in favour of comfort with respect to political considerations of equality rather than a genuine conclusion about human nature. Current developments in genetics suggest that human beings are born with certain predispositions and are not really blank slates  (Molenaar, et al., 2015;  Shanea & Nicolaou, 2015;  Pluess, 2015). This article is a call for re-engagement with debates which are often treated as settled in western academia through the inclusion of non-western indigenous values and science that are now being validated by new developments in mainstream scientific research.

Bringing the focus back to the human elements in education

The origins of modern education arose from the most progressive and liberal cultural and social movements of the West. But education today is increasingly dominated by stress connected with assessment. Technology and school curricula have been the major areas for educational reform worldwide, but they have not been successful in addressing the human problems in education: depression—a survey by the Asian Journal of Psychiatry found 55% of youth in India suffering from depression (National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB], 2014; Kumar, et al., 2017); suicide—40,000 children in India have lost their lives to suicide since 2011 (NCRB, 2014; Mukunth, 2014; Shaikh, Z., 2014; Hindustan Times, 2017); boredom—Harvard University  reports half of students do not like the time they spend in schools (Jason, 2017; Ryan, 2016); and increasing attention deficit disorders and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Studies have linked student boredom to student stress (Sparks, 2012). And reports suggest that even teachers now say that academic skills are not the primary key to success for their students (Anderson, 2017).

Employment, employability, and skill development are major preoccupations of the industrial-model of education, perhaps mirroring at the individual level the aspirations for wealth that were the goals of the colonial empire the education system catered to at the macro level. Today, we are living in a world where the parameters of living are changing rapidly. The era of steady, life-long employment and safe retirement is already behind us. But the fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab, 2015) is not the only revolution educators need to anticipate — climate change, natural catastrophes, rapid social change, rapidly evolving job markets, new health and social issues—the number of challenges for which modern educators must prepare students keeps increasing.

 Nataraja Guru conceives of the teacher-student relationship as a lifelong contract entered into by the teacher and student (Padmanabhan, 1932). The purpose of education here is the reconstruction of the personality of the student on scientific lines that is possible for the teacher because of his close, everyday relationship with the student. Education is conceived of as a preparation for life as well as a lifelong process. Guru suggests four different types of education for a lifetime; 1) the Negative education of Rousseau upto 14 years; 2) Naturalistic education of Herbert Spencer between 15-20 years; 3) Pragmatic Education of John Dewey between 20-45 years; 4) Idealistic Education (which covers spiritual disciplines including Yoga) post 45 years. All  other aspects of education that are the main focus of our current educational process—pedagogy, curriculum, technology, skill development, etc.—find a secondary place to the creation of a world citizen aware of the impact of his or her choices on the planet. Since the teacher and student are in a lifetime relationship, the curriculum can be personalised and meaningful. There is more freedom within lessons and, by incorporating aspects of homeschooling and an absense of frequent deadlines, the system removes the excessive stress that has become the hallmark of modern education and  modern life.

The result of Guru’s approach to education is purported to be a world citizen, whose education has developed a harmonious unification between his/her nature (predispositions or tendencies) and the world. This is perhaps not as radical as it might seem. For example, the UK Department for Education (2016) defines education as a preparation for life that promotes the physical, mental, cultural, moral, and spiritual development of students at the school and of society. And, in recent years, meditation and mindfulness are gradually entering the mainstream across the world as a response to increasing levels of stress, depression, and disease in modern life. Indeed, mainstream universities may soon offer degrees in subjects such as life coaching (Yore, 2016). Developments which may prompt us to wonder whether this kind of human development is not what teachers and schools are supposed to do in the first place.

Rose (2016) advocates moving beyond using group averages and equal access to standardised learning experiences in education to developing a new science of the individual. Guru’s educational approach provides us with an approach to overcome the drawbacks of modern, one-size-fits-all education. It takes into account individuality, variability (Hough, 2015), and the uniqueness of each student to create an education that provides equal opportunity in the real sense— as an equal fit between indiviuals and their environment(s)  (Hough, 2015).

Individualism versus collectivism in the ecological age

Eisenstein (2013) perceives the western concept of individualism as involving separation and isolation from the universe and finds this to be a major problem with education and society today. He maintains that the only purpose of life defined by such a concept of individualism is to maximize rational self interest, and, since everyone is separate from each other; self interest of one individual is likely to be at the cost of another. Eisenstein relates the sociological and ecological crises of our times to this idea of individualism. Yoga Sutras and Buddhist texts have specific terminology to explain this phenomenon: prthak-jana, where prthak translates as “apart” (Sharma, 2000; Miller & Feurstein, 1998).   

In contrast, individualism appropriate for a citizen of the future ecological age should involve responsibility with respect to our natural surroundings. A recent trend has seen some countries passing laws which acknowledge the rights of land and rivers on par with human rights and which make it mandatory for human actions on the natural world to consider the health of the land and other living creatures that inhabit the planet (Vidal, 2011; The Guardian, 2016; Roy, 2017). Guru’s resolution of Rousseau’s paradox opens up a way to explore how education can play a role in preserving and caring for the environment which is prior to this kind of legislation, in effect creating an education system that is the opposite of colonial—one that brings within its ambit the preservation and caring for the natural world and all life on our planet.


Disruption has become a buzzword in every arena of public life. Accordingly, modern educators want to identify the disruptive idea that will help reform and rid education of a variety of problems that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore or explain away. Perhaps disruption in education, which has existed since humanity has existed, can come from the understanding and knowledge of ancient people corroborated by modern science. Certainly, the results such a system promises might tempt us to find out. Nataraja Guru promises that a radical reform via the redefining of the student-teacher relationship and based on the educational philosophy of Rousseau will yield better results than our current system of universal education. And a scientific conclusion to the debate on human nature in education that incorporates indigenous world views seems to be urgently called for.

Nataraja Guru’s educational thought brings the focus back on the human elements in education —the teacher and the student. This may better serve the individual needs of students and society, as well as addressing many other drawbacks of the current education system. Guru’s reinterpretation of Rousseau’s philosophical approach bridges Eastern and Western educational philosophy, mainstream and alternative educational thought and contains within it elements that modern educators can use to design an education for the ecological age of the future.


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