Crisis in Civilization, and a Poet’s Alternatives:
Education as one alternative weapon

Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Paper presented at an International Seminar on Tagore’s Philosophy of Education, organized by Chicago University Law School, at Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata on 29 March 2006

Under the present circumstances it may not sound like an old fashioned romantic cliché if someone declares today, that the aim of all education is to seek a world where mankind can co-exist with nature in an atmosphere of fearless warmth, trust and freedom.

A poet may naturally claim that finding joy in the simple things of life, and compassion for our fellow creatures are the basic values upon which small children’s education should be founded, as these happen to hold the secret of creative energy. It dose not sound far fetched because joy and compassion are also the ultimate end of civilization.

What we are doing to ourselves today throughout the world, is driving this planet towards the final moment, where all creation ends, and destruction takes over. Creativity is god’s gift to mankind, it cannot grow freely when it is used as a tool for hatred, as creativity is by definition contrary to destruction. Awareness of the responsibilities of being human and of our human failures is the foundation upon which creativity rests.

I am trying to examine how far a poet can foresee a crisis that a civilization might face, of which education is an important component, and how, as a sensitive, creative, responsible human being he can think of possible alternatives to counteract the dangers. A poet has positive dreams for this universe. He is also practical and pragmatic, because he cares for this universe. With his knowledge rooted in reality and his instinct and imagination flying into the distant future, he has a shrewd understanding of the course that human history is about to take and is pained and worried about the future of mankind that his poet’s vision can foresee.

Our poet used his visionary imagination to predict and to solve the dangers that western civilization was creating for itself and for the rest of the world, because the east was emulating its ways partly by choice, and partly by choice, and partly through values imposed by colonial educational policies.

The so-called mystic saint could very clearly see the logical, practical conclusions of a dangerous process that had already begun its course. And he tried to offer practical solutions, tried to change the course of history as far as he could by spreading his anxious thoughts far and wide and by actively working with the people. Rabindranath was very much of an educational activist as we understand the term today. He saw education as a holistic device which prepared a complete human being for the betterment of the world. It was expected to build a child’s values right from the beginning.

An incorrigible pacifist, the poet protested against all war and violence, denounced terrorism even when the young men were risking their lives fighting to free his own country. In those emotionally charged days of nationalist movement he wrote very strongly against the very concept of nationalism, as a divisive element created by western technology that disturbed peaceful coexistence, and encouraged hostility among countries by fanning self-pride. So he talked about connectivity, and internationalism. He wanted his students to imbibe all these values, and possess an inner eye, in order to build a better world based not on separatism and self-pride but on togetherness and mutual trust.

Rabindranath was one of the earliest environmentalists in today’s world, who began the act of afforestation to protect the land from erosion, wrote powerful songs about it to spread the message, and had made planting of trees into an annual festival in his school more than seventy five years ago.

A secular educationist per se, he created secular festivities in his school which could be shared by students of all religions. Realising the social and educational significance of sharing rituals and of enjoying festivals together, he invented secular festivals for the old and the young.

There were festivities in his school to celebrate the coming of every season. Barsho Shesh and Naba barsho for summer, Barshaa Mangal for monsoon, Sharadotsab for Autumn, Basantotsab for Spring. And he encouraged Paush Mela, the winter fair introduced by his father Maharshi Debendranath which celebrated the harvest time and brought the rural and the urban together, by making the interchange of culture and commerce possible between the two.
All these were integral parts of Tagore’s educational policy, which stretched well beyond the limits of his school, to ways of building future citizens of the world.

Just as introducing the cooperative system in the rural areas was his way of educating the rural poor to function together, in order to earn a livelihood. Taking his lessons from the European farmers, he began a cooperative movement for the adivasis in the rural areas, the samabaayika, a cooperative banking system for the rural areas.

Disgusted by the flawed colonial education system that was imposed upon Indian children, he offered an alternative schooling system. The western mode of education, he felt, was more harmful than helpful for us, it steamrolled the children into artificial discipline, taught textbooks that were meant for children of an unfamiliar culture, an unfamiliar climate, forced them to learn too many things by rote without touching base. It did not reflect the reality of the students’ lives. The foreign dress code, for example, was unsuitable for a warm climate, it also kept them away from being in touch with nature and their natural surroundings. So, in his experimental school the students wore comfortable Indian clothes, walked barefoot, to feel the ground beneath their feet, and classes were held in the open air under the shade of trees. The students were encouraged to be creative, to sing, draw, paint, sculpt, dance, act, tell stories, write poetry, cherish open spaces, as well as enjoy a huge playground and a well furnished library. So much for their body and their mind. The prayer meetings in the morning took care of their spirits.
Education could not be complete without knowing your own cultural roots.

Though not a trained anthropologist, but a sensitive and farsighted man, Rabindranath was instinctively aware of the value of preserving tribal culture. Therefore while trying to solve the dire economic needs of the adivasis, and educating them in health, agriculture, savings and other modern day practical ways of survival, he encouraged undisturbed preservation of their own tribal culture without interfering with their basic lifestyle.

Tagore wanted a system of education that would bring his people the best of both worlds, the East and the West, the rural and the urban, the ancient and the contemporary. Yes, a poet can cherish such a dream, and take on its responsibilities, and more.

Tagore was rubbishing the concept of the Nation as a selfish product of western technology that harmed peace by promoting difference. Instead of spreading cooperation, communication and consideration, it promoted suspicion, competition and coercion, and instigated violent passions and hostilities. Like nation, the concepts of race, religion and ethnicity, also divide mankind into warring groups and we urgently need a loose, broad state structure, the concept of “No–Nation,” to accommodate all in their own space. Any civilization that rests upon dividing up people, carries the seed of its own destruction within itself. Proper education within the right value system would open the inner eye and make people see the truth.

And political power, he wrote, was dependent on economic power and could not be separated from it. Tagore warned us of a world where “the greed to possess more and more things” (the term ‘consumerism’ was not yet known) and a demand and supply policy that creates artificial demand among people to possess more and more material goods will bring about a day when technology will destroy the earth. He could foresee a time when western civilization would lead itself and the rest of the world to destruction.

If our education had its roots in Indian culture, he genuinely believed, it could teach mankind how to rise above these misleading divisive notions, and peacefully co-exist.

Rabindranath felt that in India the colonial education system was imposed form above, the strong discipline in the schools was based on fear, not on sympathy. The mechanically imposed system did not take account of the individual students’ state of mind or body, it forced its rules upon them, ultimately killing their souls.

Tota kahini “The Parrot’s Tale” is a shattering piece on the abuse of student by an inhuman education system. It is a powerful satire expressing his disapproval of the heartless notion of forced formal education as it was applied in India. An alienated system that took a cruel pride in self and did not care for the other’s reality.

Instead of liberating and enriching the mind, mindless colonial education chained it, separated it form its natural surroundings, stole its joy of life and killed its soul, thus ultimately defeating the sole purpose of education.

In fact he saw western civilization itself as a civilization based on war and fear and not on empathy. Education system was an integral part of it. He predicted in the voice of a seer, about war, long before fascism and ethnic murder appeared in Europe—“Those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and the intolerance of aliens will be eliminated.” he wrote (Nationalism p. 97). A situation had been created when “a watchful attitude of animosity against Others was taken as a solution to their problems.”

Tagore knew in his heart, that this was no permanent solution to human problems. “We are confronted with two alternatives,” he wrote, “it will be interminable competition, or cooperation.” (p. 101). And competition was what Western education system pampered, not cooperation.

Worried about the connected sources of power in the western civilization, industry, commerce, and military, Tagore called the system “the gigantic organization for hurting others and for warding off their blows”
(and poor man had no idea then in 1916 how many billions of dollars would be spent in the world for the purpose of Defense, in another 50 years time.)

“Only those people have survived and achieved civilization”, he wrote, “who have the spirit of cooperation strong in them.” (p. 99-100)

The goal of all education, he felt, was to create this spirit of cooperation in human mind. To connect people, to protect and promote human civilization.

The western notion of education, he was afraid, installed wrong values in children. It fanned their sense of separateness, whereas India, he firmly believed, had a better alternative to offer its students, “the spirit of co-operation.” which was at the root of human civilization.

Forever our contemporary, Rabindranath had worried about Globalization as well. Addressed by his countrymen as Bishwa Kabi, a World Poet, he had always perceived human consciousness as one. A sense of the wholeness of the world rules his heart as well as his mind.

Tagore had commented (as early as in 1916) that although the western civilization stressed separateness, rather than unity, nevertheless, science and technology were bringing the world together. “The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political.” (p. 99).

This basis he felt, had to be a moral power which alone could hold the center together for mankind. By moral power he meant “the higher instincts of sympathy and mutual help.” (p. 99) Education was meant to develop this moral power of sympathy in mankind.

But was western education system achieving this end? The first world war had started, when Tagore wrote, “The people who are lacking in this higher moral power, and who therefore cannot combine in fellowship with one another, must perish or live in a state of degradation” (p.99)

Nearly a century later, needless to say, we are living upon this planet in a state of perpetual, pitiful degradation, because the world has not succeeded in “combining in fellowship” as the poet wanted.

The keyword to solve the crisis in human civilization, for Rabindranath, perhaps, was transparency. Openness was all. No secret spying outfits, no shutting out of aliens through strict immigration laws, no secret societies for political activists, even if it is for human rights and the independence of a country. Open up your heart, and have an open mind, you’ll solve most of your problems. Open up all your doors and windows, in your mind, in your politics, in your trade, in your culture. Let ideas freely flow through the peoples of the world, let us all be in touch, and exchange thoughts. This was the ultimate aim of education.

Education should allow us to welcome fresh air into our closed spaces, and break down artificial barriers, because, he felt, real differences among mankind should be recognized not glossed over, nor bulldozed into oneness, yet an overall unity does exist and should be respected.

It needs emotional and intellectual sympathy and cooperation. And this, the poet believed was the whole object of human civilization. Without intellectual sympathy one race can never understand the problems of another. The British system of education in India, lacked emotional as well as intellectual sympathy. Tota Kahini is a picture of that terrible lacunae that leads to the failure of the system.

In this context Rabindranath juxtaposed two basic concepts that guide us today, competition and cooperation. One leads to war and the other leads to peace. The western education system was one that encouraged competition. Tagore wanted to create a fresh education system which will emphasize cooperation.

The course that human history has taken in the 20th century would have pained Rabindranath no doubt but would not have taken him by surprise. Although he had not heard the words that we live with, like the holocaust, or Hiroshima, the My Lai, or Bosnia, the Green House Effect, or 9/11, and he did not live to see his country divided into three nations, knew neither Khomeini nor Laden, neither Bush nor Modi, --- yet he knew exactly which route history was taking, and had tried to warn the world. And to protect this from self-destruction.

Tagore knew the deadly effects of suspicion, fear and hatred among nations, as well as communities, of fundamentalism, and ethnic pride. The heating of the planet through thoughtless deforestation, and poisoning of the earth, water and sky through technology, all this he had known through his visionary’s eyes. Imagining the uncertain future of a shortsighted, self-defeating mankind, he had nightmares which were expressed in his last speech, Crisis in Civilization.

And all his life Rabindranath had searched for and found a million ways to offer us positive alternatives to counter them. Creating a new system of education was only one of them.

In Bangla storytelling formula, a tale begins, Ek je chhilo raja, (“There was a king”). In one of his last pieces written in 1941, just before his death, he begins his tale with this formulaic expression Ek je achhe manush (“There is a man”). He makes two enormously important changes in the formula, he changes its tense from the past to the present, and changes its subject from a king to a common man. Instead of “there was” he writes “there is", and instead of “a king” he writes “a man”, meaning a human being.

These were the alternatives he offered to mankind, to grapple with the crisis our civilization had created for itself, and the world was passing through in 1941. The focus was to be shifted from the past to the present, not the present moment but the continuous presence, bartaman, indicating the eternal presence of mankind upon this planet. And also a shift from the royalty to the common man, from the source of political power, to the source of moral strength.

Not freedom from history, nor submission to it, but continuous adjustment to its needs, trying to mould its course, is what we need for the survival of the human spirit.

And that, Tagore believed, was what real education ought to prepare us for.

Published in Parabaas May 7, 2007.

Illustration by Amitabha Sen

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