The Intimate and the Ultimate

Lots of beautiful thoughts from Vinoba Bhave, including a powerful story on Only Teaching.

Excerpted from Hern, M. 1996. Deschooling Our Lives. Stony Creek, CT: New Society Publishers.

Vinoba Bhave was born in the Indian state of Maharashtra in 1895, to Brahman parents. Bhave founded the Bhoodan Yojna or land-gift movement in 1951, and walked to all corners of India, collecting gifts of five million acres of land which he distributed to the poor. Gandhi identified Bhave as his spiritual successor.

This selection of pieces, drawn from a larger collection of work by Bhave, is included because it offers a clear analysis of Western schooling ideals and a powerful vision of self-reliance and children working within community.

Self-reliance

MANY PEOPLE WOULD AGREE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-RELIANCE in education. Self-reliance has a very profound meaning. There must be economic self-reliance through manual labor. Everyone must learn to use his hands. If the whole population were to take up some kind of handicraft, it would bring all sorts of benefits; class divisions would be overcome, production would rise, prosperity and health would improve. So that, at the very least, this measure of self-sufficiency must form part of our educational program.

Education must be of such a quality that it will train students in intellectual self-reliance and make them independent thinkers. If this were to become the chief aim of learning, the whole process of learning would be transformed. The present school syllabus contains a multiplicity of languages and subjects, and the student feels that in every one of these he needs the teacher’s help for years together. But a student should be so taught that he is capable of going forward and acquiring knowledge for himself. There is an infinite sum of knowledge in the world, and each one needs some finite portion of it for the conduct of his affairs. But it is a mistake to think that this life-knowledge can only be had in any school Life-knowledge can only be had from life. The task of the school is to awaken in its pupils the wish to learn from life.

Most parents are anxious for their children to complete the school course so that they can get a salaried job and lead an easy life. This is the wrong way to look at education. Learning has value in its own right. The purpose of learning is freedom. Freedom implies not only independence of other people but also independence of one's own moods and impulses. The man who is a slave to his senses and cannot keep his impu1ses under control neither free nor se1f-sufficient.

The goal of education must be freedom from fear. In the Upanishads, when the guru is teaching his disciples he says to them: "O my students, whatever good conduct you find in me that follow; whatever you do not find good, that do not follow." That is to say, the guru gives students freedom. He tells them use their own judgment in deciding what is right and what wrong. They are not to think that whatever their guru says wholly right. It is certainly true that the guru is endeavoring to live by the truth, otherwise he would not be a guru; but he nevertheless cannot claim that his every action will be in harmony with truth. And so he tells his students to be alert, to use their intelligence and examine his conduct, and to disregard whatever seems to the wrong. And by this means he enables his students to grow in fearlessness.

Fearlessness means that we should neither fear anything, nor inflict fear on others. Both those things are parts of fearlessness. A tiger cannot be called fearless; it may not be afraid of any other animal, but it is afraid of a gun, and it also inspires fear in other creatures. True fearlessness neither enslaves another, nor does slavishly submit to another.

The only sufficient basis for such fearlessness is the knowledge of the self. This self-knowledge is the foundation of education. But the education which children get today is the direct opposite of this. If a child commits some fault we slap it, and it begins to obey us because it is afraid. But we have taught it nothing of truth our action. Until education is really based on fearlessness there is no hope of any change in society. We ought to teach children never to submit to those who bear and strike them.

No knowledge without action

The separation of learning from labor results also in social injustice. Some people do nothing but study and others nothing but hard labor, and as a result society is split in two. Those who earn their bread by manual labor form one social class and those who do only intellectual work form another. In India, manual laborers are paid one rupee a day, intellectual workers are paid twenty-five or thirty rupees. A very great injustice has been done by rating the value of manual and intellectual labor so differently. And it is the abolition of such injustice that must be the goal of our education.

Human lives are like trees, which cannot live if they are cut off from the soil, but at the same time the business of agriculture must be done so efficiently that the smallest possible number of people are tied entirely to the land. These two principles may seem to be mutually contradictory, but they are both parts of Basic Education. It is a basic need of humanity to be in touch with the earth, and any nation or civilization which is cut off from it slowly but surely loses its vigor and degenerates.

If a man’s house is full of medicine bottles, we infer that the man is probably ill. But if his house is full of books, we conclude that he is intelligent. Surely that is not right? The first rule of health is to take medicine only when it is absolutely necessary By the same token, the first rule of intelligence ought to be to avoid, so far as possible, burying one’s eyes in books. We consider medicine bottles to be a sign of a sick body; we ought to consider books, whether secular or religious, as the sign of a sick mind!

Student-teacher comradeship

An interesting light is cast on the Indian attitude to education by the fact that in all fourteen languages of India there is no root word corresponding to English "teach." We can learn, we can help others to learn, but we cannot "teach." The use of two distinct words, "teach" and "learn," suggests that these two processes may be thought of as independent of one another. But that is merely the professional vanity of the "teacher," and we shall not understand the nature of education unless we rid ourselves of that vanity. Our first task is to realize that an "uneducated" human being is nowhere to be found. But today, all too often, an ordinary schoolboy treats a first-class carpenter as if he were an ignorant boor. The carpenter may be a man of maturity and experience, a wise and skilled workman, who is of real service to his community. But simply because he cannot read or write, the "educated" boy treats him as an inferior.

Wherever two people live together in this kind of comradeship, giving and receiving mutual help, there real education is in progress. The place of books is, therefore, secondary. This idea troubles many people, who think that if the place assigned to books is reduced the students will be deprived of the most valuable tools of knowledge. Books do have a place as tools of knowledge, but it is a very minor place. The major need is for teacher and student to become work-partners, and this can happen only when the distinction between the teacher "teaching" and the student "learning" can be overcome.

In matters of knowledge, no orders can be given. Education does not "discipline" students, it gives them complete freedom. Whether or not society free from governments is ever built in the larger world, such a society must be found in the world of students. If there is one thing of supreme importance for students it is this freedom.

"Only teaching"

A young man said that he wished to do some good work for society.

"Tell me," I said, "what kind of work do you feel you could do well?"

"Only teaching, I think," replied the young man. "I can’t do anything else, I can only teach, but I am interested in it and I feel sure that I shall be able to do it well."

"Yes, yes, I do not doubt that, but what are you going to teach Spinning? Carding? Weaving? Could you teach any of these?"

"No, I can’t teach those."

"Then tailoring, or dyeing, or carpentry?"

"No, I know nothing about them."

"Perhaps you could teach cooking, grinding, and other household skills?"

"No, I have never done any work like that. I can only teach..."

"My dear friend, you answer ‘No’ to every question, and yet you keep saying you can only teach. What do you mean? Can you teach gardening?"

The would-be teacher said, rather angrily, "Why do you ask all this? I told you at the beginning, I can do nothing else. I can teach literature."

"Good! Good! I am beginning to understand now. You mean you can teach people to write books like Tagore and Shakespeare?"

This made the young man so angry that he began to splutter.

"Take it easy," I laughed. "Can you teach patience?"

That was too much.

"I know what you mean," I said. "You can teach reading, writing, history, and geography. Well, they are not entirely useless, there are times in life when they are needed. But they are not basic to life. Would you be willing to learn weaving?"

"I don’t want to learn anything new now. Besides I couldn’t learn to weave, I have never before done any kind of handwork."

"In that case it might, of course, take you longer to learn, but why should you be unable to learn it?"

"I don’t think I could ever learn it. But even supposing I could, it would mean a lot of hard work and a great deal of trouble. So please understand that I could not undertake it."

This conversation is quite enough to enable us to understand the psychology and characteristics of far too many of our "teachers." To be "only a teacher" means to be: completely ignorant of any kind of practical skill which might be useful in real life; incapable of learning anything new and indifferent towards any kind of craftsmanship; conceited; and buried in books. "Only teaching" means being a corpse cut off from life.

Government control of education is dangerous

Throughout the world education is under the control of governments. This is extremely dangerous. Governments ought to have no authority over education. The work of education should be in the hands of men of wisdom, but governments have got it in their grasp; every student in the country has to study whatever book is prescribed by the education department. If the government is fascist, students will be taught fascism; if it is communist, it will preach communism; if it is capitalist, it will proclaim the greatness of capitalism; if it believes in planning, the students will be taught all about planning. We in India used to hold to the principle that education should be completely free from state control. Kings exercised no authority over the gurus. The king had absolutely no power to control education. The consequence was that Sanskrit literature achieved a degree of freedom of thought such as can be seen nowhere else, so much so that no less than six mutually incompatible philosophies have arisen within the Hindu philosophy. This vigor is due to the freedom of education from state control.

The status of teachers has sunk so low that they feel themselves to have no authority at all. They must follow whatever path the government directs. They are under orders, the servants of authority. They may perhaps modify the government schemes by a comma here or a semi-colon there, but they cannot do more than that. Today there is an attempt to expand education, and the number of schools and of teachers is being increased, but the spirit of the true guru is not there. A good teacher means one who is a good servant; a bad teacher means a bad servant; good or bad, he remains a servant.

All this results from the fact that the education department is a government department, it is not independent. The judges of the high court are also appointed by the government, and they are bound by the laws which the government makes. Nevertheless, they are much more independent. They have power, within the bounds of law, to give a verdict against the government. The teacher ought to have a much greater freedom than the judge, yet today the education department is less independent than the department of justice.

The universities should demonstrate how every student, by his own labor, can gain food through knowledge and knowledge through food, nourishing his stomach with his two hands and his mind with his two eyes. They should show how the bread between knowledge and work can be closed. The students should have no fees to pay, there should be no hostel expenses and n salaries for the teachers. The workshop, the library and the laboratory should be provided by the government. There should be no need for holiday periods, for no one will feel any sense of confinement there.

The universities of today are not fitted for the poor, even though a few poor students may be admitted without fees as an act of grace. But the universities we envisage should be open to all. If the children of the rich cannot adjust themselves to such hard work, we may have to excuse them for an hour or two of labor as an act of grace.

Bought knowledge

If you ask someone what he is drinking he will answer "tea." There is sugar in it, but he never mentions the sugar, he never says he is drinking tea-and-sugar. The sweetness of the sugar permeates the tea, but the man drinks and says nothing about it. Education must be like the sugar, doing its work in secret. We can see the hands, nose, ears, eyes and tongue are active, but no one can see what the soul is doing. Our ears appear to be listening, our tongue appears to be talking. No matter what the appearance may beit is not only the tongue that talks. In spite of appearances, it is not only the ears that hear. That which speaks and hears is the spirit within. And the spirit is invisible. The best education is similarly invisible. The more it is seen, the more imperfect it is.

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