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Imagination Is (Almost) Everything

A Pedagogue's Romance: Reflections on Schooling by Krishna Kumar;


rendered it more iniquitous. A system pre-

Imagination Is (Almost) Everything

vails where knowledge is now synonymous with information while learning and knowledge are farther apart than ever before. But Anu Kumar then one must ask if the colonial set-up alone

Pippa looked in disbelief at the computer, a present from her father. ‘What does it do?’ she asked. ‘Oh everything and more... and it is twice as fast as you can ever be,’ was the reply. ‘Everything?’ ‘Everything.’ ‘Aha, there’s one thing it cannot do,’ said Pippa, holding up one wise wagging finger. Now it was her father’s turn to look puzzled. ‘It can’t imagine,’ said Pippa triumphantly, ‘now that’s something a computer can never do.’ (with apologies to Astrid Lindgren).

ippa, the eponymous heroine who appears in three novels written for children by the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, is a wonder girl. She can do most things with ease and has gifts that are virtually second nature to her. Krishna Kumar in his essay collection reviewed here cites the Pippa trilogy as essential reading for any child, especially those in the pre-teen years. Pippa can teach children a thing or two about breaking away from the shackles of routine, and give them much needed lessons on dreaming free and dreaming big, about doing away with fears imposed by a world that demands conformity and a particular kind of excellence. In a world where the need for communication is stressed but little understood, Pippa will invariably assist in the quest to reinvent childhood, much as she did when the books were first written in the 1940s.

The essays in this collection differ in theme and tone, and all of them engage passionately with the idea of education, the forgotten quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake that should rightly be the goal of all education as also the insistence on the imagination, that vital, least emphasised tool for any learning to be self-directed.

But to begin at the beginning and with the book’s title: it is intriguing, in that it deliberately sidesteps using the word education, moreover it appears an oxymoron. The common dictionary meaning of a pedagogue refers to a teacher, a strict or a pedantic one. A pedagogue, to emphasise, is someone who teaches in a dogmatic or pedantic manner. So what romance, the hesitant

A Pedagogue’s Romance: Reflections on Schooling by Krishna Kumar; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008; pp xiv+136, Rs 450.

reader would be quite right in asking, is a pedagogue capable of? Quite a lot, and passion too, if one goes by the essays in the book and by looking up the meaning of pedagogy, the derivative word that has to do with the theory of teaching. A pedagogue then is someone who has engaged with the theory of teaching, consistently and considerably so, to make it a romantic endeavour.

Moulded in the Colonial Period

The system of education as has come to be conventionally accepted in India, denotes the formalised system of schooling that was moulded in the colonial period. And the drive towards completion of the 10+2+3 system (with some variations) has given short shrift to what schooling must also be all about – the need to be aware, to become democratically conscious citizens. Concomitant with this, is the need to develop the faculty of imagination; to learn not merely the dignity associated with mental agility but that associated with labour and the menial work. Education has also the task of interpreting and coping with modernity and to be aware of the tacit role of culture that also shapes learning.

As the history of post-independent India continues to be debated, there must be space for the debate over education. At what turn did post-independent India throw in its decisive lot in favour of the conventional, colonially decided format of education, leaving alternative educational proposals such as Shantiniketan, Gandhi’s ‘nai taleem’, as just that alternatives – eccentricities, of little use in the rote-learning based, market-oriented, technology-friendly system that has come to stay. Indeed, little has changed since the early 19th century when the introduction of English education also led to the widely held belief that it would encourage students to cram and that it was only a ticket to a government job. The advent of the market in recent decades has only tweaked the education system in places, is to be blamed for present-day ills; does this not ignore and condone the pre-colonial systems where caste and even ethnic rigidities decided who should be educated and who should labour; the system of rote-learning enshrined in ‘gurukuls’ and ‘pathshalas’ with its insistence on the use of memory also led to, arguably, a scheme of things where the written text came off second best.

An Unnecessary Adjunct

Education, learning, knowledge and schooling exist more or less in exclusive spheres of their own; imagination exists but as an unnecessary adjunct, and it is perhaps this that explains in part the air of gentle tragedy that also suffuses Krishna Kumar’s essays here. While being diverse in range and scope, some essays in this collection may also appear old-fashioned but there are some invariable truths that appear off and on.

The emphasis on education that goes beyond the mere routine and the conventional and the stress on the power of imagining. Linked to this, is the argument for education in the crafts that teaches dignity, and also how to deal with the practical and the living and the non-living world. But craft education is an experiment, Krishna Kumar says that has been all too short-lived, or isolated as Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, and Gandhi’s advocacy of the ‘nai taleem’ show.

For democracy to thrive, education is essential and then democracy needs democrats to sustain it. The decline of universities and the simultaneous politicisation of education has been the bane of higher education. Coupled with this is the submission of the governing classes to World Bank dictums that accord primacy more to primary and secondary education.

Also related is the fact that the pattern of education that was a creation of a “national culture” could have helped build the edifice of secularism. Gandhi and Tagore had worked on education models that emphasised the tacit aspect of learning but in post-independent India the Kothari Commission (1964-66) did away with both. The commission favoured the book-centred approach to school teaching that soon came to be widely

september 6, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


followed. Not just Tagore and Gandhi, other philosophical resources like Aurobindo and Krishnamurti have been ignored.

The Essays

The essays begin in an irreverent tone, by describing a ubiquitous sight in most Indian cities: Of people (and these are mostly men) spitting on the streets, walls and a city’s pavements. But in the autumn of 1994, this sight became a rarity; Delhi’s civic officials went into overdrive spraying disinfectant in the air. The scare of plague for a short while stopped all potential spitters dead in their tracks, but matters soon reverted to the usual. Banning the act of spitting as was attempted by the Goa government has had little effect on curbing this very Indian of habits. Of all Indian leaders, it was Gandhi who saw its “virtues” in his humorous, astute way. If 300 million Indian spat at the same time, the British would soon be drowned, he had advised. But spitting continues because the “spitter” is unable to imagine the plight of the person who witnesses it, or walks behind him (her). And there is no discouraging ethos either.

A second essay in this section called ‘Colours and Shades’ that explores the many dimensions of teaching and learning, has a teacher (Kumar) delving into the reasons for the habitual unpunctuality of two of his students. The process of dialogue helps the teacher and students develop a new understanding, insight and also a sense of community. A teacher’s job, undermined over the years, is to inculcate insight, to enable her students develop the quality of self-awareness. Kumar does this by his dialogic exploration, assisted by his students, on (un) punctuality.

Earthworms have been missing in our fields in recent decades. Their absence is a single detail missed in all the miracles claimed by the green revolution. The rampant use of fertilisers encouraged by the Green Revolution has been the bane of all earthworms. The earthworm by its painstaking act of rolling the earth over, sifting each grain with its every move helps in natural aeration of the soil – a fact unmentioned in most school textbooks, most of which over the years has attributed little emphasis to the act of observation and watching. Dissection of frogs for example, is now optional for biology students. Play

Economic & Political Weekly

september 6, 2008

as an act of learning and developing social skills is increasingly frowned on and knowledge is largely computer derived.

The bleakness that is characteristic of much of the education system is often squarely blamed on the teacher, especially those in government schools and in schools located in rural areas. But the pitiable state of teacher training institutes tells their own story. Also teaching is a profession no longer considered dignified for various reasons – the politicisation of teachers’ associations, the absence of any incentives whatsoever, and even the debasing of the liberal arts as subjects to be pursued and learnt. For all that has been invested in educational programmes, over the decades, a bypassing of the ground realities, the nitty-gritty that would eventually enable the programmes to work and succeed, is far too common a practice. Policy formulation happens with little thought to the details. As Krishna Kumar describes, plastic globes, for instance, handed out as part of Operation Blackboard, were soon found flattened, crumpled and left neglected in the village school cupboards whereas the more hardy wooden globes would have served a better purpose. But there is hope too – in the message brought out by the all women Mahila Samakhya schools in Uttar Pradesh. As long as politics does not interfere in the running of such schools, the programme has a chance of succeeding.

The film Iqbal that tells the tale of a hearing impaired boy in a rural school making it to the national cricket team is in many ways a fairy tale. For village schools that have little or no infrastructure, where teachers, if they are present, run simultaneous classes, hold out little hope for a child growing up in the periphery. Children moreover, are encouraged to conform, to excel in a certain way, and thus single-minded pursuit of a dream is labelled an eccentricity. But then government schools are not all without hope. In a competition organised by the Centre for Science and Environment for the most “green school” it was a government school in Ropar that beat other fancied private schools to secure first prize. Its innovation was the creative recycling of water to meet the school’s needs.

Two longer pieces would appear largely inaccessible to the general reader. The obituary on Paulo Freire, the noted educationist who died in March 1997, is an exposition on Freire’s educational philosophy and also seeks to explain why in the end there were so few takers for it. Freire was an unconventional socialist thinker, who refused to adhere to any dogmatic system of belief. The process of “conscientisation” that Freire vouched for, is fraught with contradictions: Who decides for those who have to be made aware, which is the goal of education. Freire implicitly believed that knowledge can be promoted through “dialogue” in the sense expounded by the philosopher Martin Buber, when the person recognises the personhood of the other.

The essay on ‘The New Politics of Education’ analyses recent judicial pronouncements relating to minority run institutions. The constitutional guarantees of freedoms to the country’s citizens were interpreted by the judicial bench (2002) to enable such institutions to function. Yet, the entry of the private sector in higher education has now come to be seen as synonymous with quality even as the government, especially in the last two decades, has been withdrawing from the provision of vital services, such as education and health.

These essays would be of interest to any one concerned with education, and the many ramifications that follow from a “good” education system. Alternative schooling practices exist in places and Krishna Kumar does cite a few examples such as those put forward by Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo and J Krishnamurti. These essays, however, do not explain why alternative schooling options remain alternatives at best, as parallel isolated initiatives. Educational experiments at least in the early decades of the 20th century, formed a vital adjunct of the national struggle against colonialism but memory of this is limited, and needs sustained study. Alternative schooling is now a fashionable, private initiative – why this should be so is just one of the many questions that remain to be answered.

But then the task of these essays is not to provide answers. As an educationist, a pedagogue and a teacher, Krishna Kumar chooses to ask the questions that matter, sometimes uncomfortable ones. And these essays based on everyday experiences cover a wide gamut. Reading them calls for reflection, thinking and also imagining – a better education system, a better India, and a better world.


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