Tagore on Education

In a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore likened his educational experiment at Santiniketan to a vessel carrying the cargo…

Tagore on Education

Representational image (Photo: Getty Images)

In a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore likened his educational experiment at Santiniketan to a vessel carrying the cargo of his “life’s best treasure.”

He spent forty years of his life establishing Visva-Bharati, which had wide influence in Europe, Japan and the United States. It was a unique educational institution, which emphasized the education of the whole person.

The poet was certainly one of the very few who had foreseen the emergence of a global community and the need to educate students in a manner where they not only learned to appreciate their own culture, but they would also be able to identify with people who were culturally different.


Tagore’s vision of educating the whole person with a global perspective has gained new interest in the West due to the influx of immigrants in several of these countries with vastly diverse cultural backgrounds, making it necessary to embrace an educational model that promotes inter-cultural understanding.

Sadly, in India today, his ideas about education are often neglected. Private educational institutions have sprung up everywhere; these are focused on profit, abandoning the whole idea of teaching students to help create a dialogic world that is based on sympathy, respect, and mutuality, which Tagore had so successfully educated to so many citizens of Indian democracy.

In an age that is defined by technology, many Indian academic institutions are engaged in providing skills-based education instead of education of the whole person. Hordes of students are graduating every year from these institutions ready to join the workforce without any kind of formal training to be an ethical citizen who appreciates the pluralistic nature of our universe. In this pursuit of skillsbased education, we seem to have forgotten the value of education that nurtures the “soul,” where one learns what it is to have our thoughts and imagination connecting us to our world in enormously rich, subtle and complex ways; about what it is to interact with another individual as a soul rather than as a means to an end; about what it is to have a dialogue as someone who has a soul with someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.

I use the word “soul” here to refer to the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human, transforming our relationships with others into rich ones rather than relationships that are merely for use and exploitation. For Tagore, real education helped unfold what the students already know by means of engaging in a genuine dialogue with them. Therefore, Tagore’s school pedagogy was primarily Socratic.

Teachers posed questions to students eliciting their responses rather than presenting information by way of lectures to be uncritically assimilated by students, which is a ubiquitous reality today. Students were encouraged to deliberate about their life decisions and to take the initiative in organizing meetings.

Tagore urged students to explore intellectual self-reliance and freedom. He believed that true freedom in the acquisition of knowledge and experience could not be gained by “possessing other people’s ideas but by forming one’s own standards of judgment and producing one’s own thoughts.”

Tagore argued for education that would help develop sensitivity in a student by directly experiencing nature. By fostering a close affinity with nature, students would be able to realize that there is no barrier between their lives and the life of nature. This feeling of oneness with nature would eventually help in developing sympathy and the ability to connect with the outside world.

As Tagore wrote, “We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all its existence.”

According to Tagore, real education prepared students who can think for themselves and for the welfare of others and who are not afraid of constantly challenging themselves to explore new ideas from other cultures and ways of life. Tagore believed that cultivation of feeling, which involves an expansion of sympathy for other beings, is at the heart of real education. Tagore’s idea of education was emancipatory.

The ultimate goal was to improve the conditions of people who are marginalized. Tagore was of the opinion that the primary role of education was transformative: changing the hearts and minds of students in order for them to relentlessly strive to create world communities that are founded on peace, universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

He believed that education should aim to inculcate the spirit of sympathy, service and self-sacrifice in the individual so that she could extend her/his “love far and wide across all barriers of caste and colour” and embrace the world and humanity in a spirit of oneness or Advitam, rising above egocentrism and ethnocentrism to a state of global consciousness. In a lecture entitled, “To Teachers,” delivered in China in 1924, Tagore explained: “Education must enable every child to understand and fulfill this purpose of the age, not defeat it by acquiring the habit of creating divisions and cherishing national prejudices.

There are of course natural differences in human races which should be preserved and respected, and the task of our education should be to realise unity in spite of them, to discover truth through the wildness of their contradictions.” In an interview in 1919, entitled “On Some Educational Questions”, Tagore further explained: “Education is, in a real sense, the breaking of the shackles of individual narrowness…the highest aim of education should be to help the realization of the unity, but not of uniformity. Uniformity is unnatural. A sound educational system should provide for the development of variety without losing the hold on the basic or spiritual unity.”

In both cases, Tagore underscored the need to create unity between people, but to do so without imposing uniformity. On the one hand, he regarded unity as something that helps to establish peace and harmony in society. On the other, he knew that uniformity robs the individual of her/his uniqueness, forcing the individual to be a herd mindlessly imitating the dominant patterns in society.

Tagore sought to transform the education system in ways, to quote William Cenkner (1979), that would “bring about a happy synthesis between the individual and society and help to realize the essential unity of the individual with the rest of humanity” (p. 62) In order to give the students a global outlook, Tagore’s VisvaBharati emphasized world history, comparative study of cultures, and in-depth study of the major world religions.

Tagore’s belief was that one should learn about the world from the starting point of early immersion in one’s own local language and culture. The Nobel Laureate economist and an alumnus of VisvaBharati, Amartya Sen, wrote: “There was something totally remarkable about the ease with which discussions in the school could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical western thought and to China, Japan and elsewhere.

The celebration of variety is also in sharp contrast with the cultural conversations and separatism that has tended to grip India from time to time…” (Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, 1997, p. xxiv).

It is indeed ironic that even though we have received Tagore’s rich legacy of education for the whole person, which has been picked up again in the West, many academic institutions in India have chosen to focus on producing profit-makers rather than ethically grounded, global citizens, which Tagore had envisioned.

Under pressure to reduce costs, these institutions often eliminate or cut back on arts and humanities, which are vital to a healthy society. As Tagore observed, such efforts to prune or eliminate arts and humanities are nothing but a suicide of the soul. If we continue to produce profit-makers with technical education, it is quite likely that we will have a nation full of technically trained people with limited imagination without the necessary intellectual wherewithal to critique authority.

The eminent American philosopher and renowned Tagore scholar, Martha Nussbaum (2010), warns us that when education is based purely on profitability, it has a strong possibility of “producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threatens the very life of democracy itself, and that certainly impedes the creation of a decent world culture” (p. 142). In order to avoid this dismal scenario, we may want to adopt Tagore’s innovative ideas by having carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities that will provide to every student the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with complex issues concerning gender, race, ethnicity, class, and inter-cultural understanding.

It’s only by ensuring a solid foundation in arts and humanities that we can succeed in producing future citizens who can take charge of their own reasoning, who can see the different and foreign not as a threat to be resisted, but as an invitation to explore, understand and possibly expand their minds and their capacity for global citizens.

(The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)