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A Gandhian Agenda For Universal Education

By Swachid K. Rangan

The tragic event in a school in South India where 94 children under the age of ten perished in a fire sent shock waves around the world. The fire was caused by the collapse of a burning thatched roof, made of bamboo and dry coconut leaves, on 130 children packed in a shed. This incident points to the woefully inadequate facilities available in countries like India where the growth of population far exceeds the provision of basic needs.

Infrastructure for education is a basic need but the governments are unable to cope with the ever-increasing demand for classrooms and equipment. One teacher for 20 children and 9 sq. ft for each student is the prescribed international norm. This is not possible in countries such as India where the procreation activity is barely controlled and child population increases in multiple progression.

Classes are run in makeshift sheds. Schools that do not have drinking water or toilet facility are quite common even in government-run public schools. Private schools offer better facilities but the fees are heavy, affordable only by the affluent. The craze for English medium education has led to mushrooming of teaching shops that draw children from middle-class families. These schools such as the one in Kumbakonam town where the incident occurred on July 16, 2004, flout all regulations concerning safety and teaching standards. Inspection is lax because of official corruption.

The Indian government has declared that education would be compulsory up to eighth grade for all eligible children and it would be free. As an added incentive the noon meal would be served free of cost. About 40 per cent of the estimated 100 million children between the age of 5 and 12 do not go to any school. Dropouts are also heavy. By making attendance compulsory the pressure on space for classrooms and new buildings would also be heavy. The government's financial situation is already stretched to the limit.

The objective of universal education cannot be realized unless the education system is radically restructured.

A solution lies in the Gandhian approach to basic education. Mahatma Gandhi in a speech delivered in London in 1931, had criticized severely the British education system that was being thrust on the people of India. The objective, he said, was to cut at the root of the traditional gurukula system in India where the village schoolmaster supported by the community took care of child education. It didn’t need any building or classrooms or furniture as it did in the British system. The English education ignored the mother-tongue of the natives and sought to change the cultural base of the traditional Indian system. Education became expensive and the curriculum was tailored to suit the needs of the British administration. Though the British rulers left India in 1947, their enslaving education regime is still being vigorously pursued.

Gandhi had evolved an informal system of education in his ashrams in South Africa. Children lived with their parents in the ashram where tilling and handicraft were the means of livelihood. Elders taught the children the three ‘R’s. That was good enough for the children who could pursue their studies in regular schools or colleges later. Gandhi insisted teaching should be in their own language and that children must also work in the fields and learn skills. The system that provided inexpensive and personalized education is ideal for the people of India. Yet, Gandhi’s ideas were ignored.

Crowding in schools can be avoided if coaching is made the responsibility of individuals for 10 or more children. To regulate the system the government would make the registration of the students and the teacher compulsory in a local public school. Attendance is not compulsory but there will be a term test at the level of fifth grade according to government prescribed syllabus as recommended by Gandhi. A cash incentive will be given to each of the students passing the examination and also to the teacher.

Home schools in the United States and Canada have provided a good alternative to the public school system. Because of poor standard of teaching and indiscipline among students many parents do not want to send their young children to public schools for primary education. Private schools are expensive. Housewives collect the neighborhood children and tutor them informally. Where needed trained teachers are hired. Educational aids are available in the form of books and websites. The government initially discouraged home schools declaring them as illegal but has now recognized their value and approved the system. Home schools are inexpensive and safe. Children need not travel long distances and carry heavy loads of papers. Students can join any school or collage after finishing home school.

If this system is adopted in countries like India universal education is an attainable goal. A lot of money is saved in paraphernalia—buildings, equipment and teaching staff. Children would also be liberated from the suffocating atmosphere of crowded classrooms, which have increasingly become ‘dens of slavery’ as Gandhi termed it.