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100-year journey~I

Interestingly, in the 21st century, the publication of two books strongly advocating the need for liberal arts and humanities studies as essential curriculum in university courses, was a crusading call.

Sanjukta Dasgupta | New Delhi |

Ahundred years ago, in 1921, Rabindranath Tagore founded Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan, Bolpur, in undivided Bengal. Visva Bharati is often regarded as the first international university in modern India. Initially, the poet himself was the donor, fund-raiser and ombudsman of this unique institution where visiting scholars from many parts of the world worked as lecturers, instructors, researchers and performers. At that time Visva Bharati perhaps was the only university that ran courses in fine arts and performing arts.

This year, 2021, marks the centenary of Tagore’s dream project of setting up a university at Bolpur, with the primary objective of emphasizing the supreme importance of holistic learning. In his inimitable way, the poet translated his fond dream into reality. As far as I know, no other poet has ever set up a university which was largely self-funded. Tagore perceived that aid from the establishment, at that time, the British raj, would lead to interventions of all sorts, from administrative to political. A lot of water has flown down Bolpur’s river Khowai in the last ten decades. Intellectual discourse has swayed between timeless Tagore and dated Tagore.

While many regard Tagore as a messiah of universal humanism, there are also those who feel threatened by his advocacy of a fearless mind, free knowledge without boundaries and complete creative freedom. Though Tagore would have agreed that knowledge is power, he would have been vocal against controlled knowledge disseminated by repressive regulatory bodies for consolidating profit as power and use of pedagogical platitudes for enforcing mindless surrender of creative and critical thinking. The inclusive motto of the Visva Bharati University was this Vedic statement ~ “Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam” (where the world makes a home in a single nest). On 23 December 1921, Visva-Bharati became a registered public body which adopted a constitution of its own.

As stated in its prospectus, the aims and objects as set forth on the occasion have since then remained the objectives of VisvaBharati, till date, as far as I know. Furthermore, “Hindu philosophy, medieval mysticism, Islamic culture, Zoroastrian philosophy, Bengali literature and history, Hindustani literature, Vedic and Classical Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Persian, Arabic, German, Latin and Hindi formed its areas of study and research. Vidya-Bhavana was the manifestation of the ideal of the proposed centre of comprehensive studies in the cultures of the East and the West. The centre was viewed principally as a community of scholars, Indian as well as foreign, who would be engaged in creation and dissemination of systematized and philanthropic reasoning.

The concern was epistemological”. Also, the 1929 prospectus of Visva Bharati university stated, “College students are expected to become familiar with the working of existing institutions and new movements inaugurated in the different countries of the world for the amelioration of the social condition of the masses. They are also required to undertake a study of international organizations so that their outlook may become better adjusted to the needs of peace”. In the era of globalization, in 2021, how many of our universities have included in their prospectus such a paragraph on social outreach, global politics and the crucial importance of peace, as we find in the prospectus of Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati University almost 90 years ago, in colonial British administered India?

Significantly, the recent emphasis on skill development, entrepreneurship, start-ups, eliding the need for engagement in humanities and social sciences that enable breaking free from shibboleths and stereotypes, may not have found favour with Tagore who abhorred bondage of any sort, including mind-control, as manifest for example in his plays Raktakarabi (The Red Oleanders), Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards) and Muktadhara(The Waterfall), Interestingly, in the 21st century, the publication of two books strongly advocating the need for liberal arts and humanities studies as essential curriculum in university courses, was a crusading call.

Both the internationally acclaimed thinkers, writers and public intellectuals Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and Martha Nussbaum referred to the educational transformations that Tagore introduced and referred to his fictional narratives as illustrative texts. In her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum stated that a crisis was silently and steadily enveloping the institutionalized knowledge systems of the world. Describing this silent crisis as carcinogenic, she stated that there is an increasing systemic policy swing away from humanities and social science courses at universities.

She pointed out that job-oriented education, universities and industries being clubbed together as joint ventures primarily discourage critical thinking and freedom of configuring ideas and interfere with creative freedom. So, in unequivocal terms, Nussbaum observes, “Thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens, who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”

Nussbaum’s caveat about fragmented education with the objective of economic gain, is what more than a century ago tagore had repeatedly warned about in his numerous essays on the subject. However, the poet did not just sensitize people about the destructive objectives of fixed syllabi that encouraged rote learning. Tagore painstakingly raised funds for his dream project, setting up a unique model school and a university system that attracted attention of intellectuals and creative thinkers of the world. Tagore’s school system Patha Bhavan and eventually the founding of Visva Bharati University, were a unique paradigm shift, unprecedented in colonial Bengal.

The question therefore arises, is education producing nuts and bolts to keep the wheels of profit turning, or can education have a holistic objective that recognizes the multiple intersections of race, class, colour, caste, creed, religion, gender and sexuality that can construct a complete human being rather than an automaton? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 had clearly outlined the targets of holistic education by stating, “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”

Tagore’s educational goals for school students and university students were a phenomenal game changer. Sadly, however, despite such progressive formulations about generating an education free from indoctrination and the physical claustrophobia created by classrooms, tables, benches, chalks and dusters, Tagore’s roadmap, so clearly outlined, was considered impractical by government-funded educational institutions both in colonial India and post-independence India. Tagore’s path-breaking emphases on “critical thinking and empathetic imagining” was ignored and instead of an interdisciplinary liberal arts model, the traditional European model of single-subject specialization was preferred.

Further, Nussbaum comments categorically, “Socratic active learning and exploration through the arts have been rejected in favour of a pedagogy of force-feeding for standardized national education.” In a more direct awareness campaign regarding the absolute necessity of literature studies as an essential component of education, Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak refers to Gramsci’s essay “University without Conditions”, and thereafter refers to the therapeutic benefits of education and the comparatist’s skills of critiquing perspectives and contexts. She refers to the concepts of world literature configured by both Goethe and Marx, though their horizons were limited to Europe, rather than including epistemological and empirical representations in literature, beyond Europe.

In her Introduction to An Aesthetic Education In the Era of Globalization Spivak stated characteristically, “A disinterested episteme can allow and withstand the interruption of the ethical. Study humanism, said Gramsci, in somewhat the same spirit as some of us say deep language learning and literary textuality train the ethical reflex.” Spivak further elaborates the essential need for rootedness in ethics and aesthetics represented in literary texts that span the elite and the subalterns, explores and exposes the multiple divides that separates human civilizations, cultures and people. From the excerpts above, the emphases of Nussbaum and Spivak regarding the crucial need for incorporating humanities and social sciences courses, as complementary texts and contexts would immediately link itself to well-known educationists such as Rousseau, Nunn, Pestalozzi, John Dewey, Maria Montessori and their much discussed and sometimes implemented discourse on the objectives of chainless education.

They highlighted that the relationship between the texts and their recipients should not be coercive, but should entice a willing suspension of disbelief, thereby activating a complete state of meditative immersion in the style and content of the literary text. Tagore regarded the traditional institutionalized formal education of his times as ensuring the dissemination of fragmented knowledge. Tagore steadfastly believed that rote learning had a destructive impact on the intellectual curiosity and creative imagination of a young receptive mind.

(To be concluded)

(The writer is former Professor, Dept. of English, Calcutta University)