The Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi's Educational Philosophy for the 21st Century


  This paper has two parts.  In the first part, I attempt a critical overview of Mahatma Gandhi’s educational philosophy and, very briefly, try to assess its actual implementation since it was first proposed.  In the second part, I shall try to apply the educational ideal of Gandhiji to what I perceive as the needs of the coming decades.


Most of Gandhi’s important writings on education have been compiled and edited by Bharatan Kumarappa in two slim books, Basic Education (1951) and Towards New Education (1953).  These writings are mostly miscellaneous, consisting of letters, speeches, extracts from books, and so on, but together they may be taken to constitute a coherent philosophy of education.  The most significant single document in all of Gandhi’s writings on education is probably the Inaugural Address that he delivered at the Wardha Conference of 1937. Perhaps, it is not accidental that we are meeting at the same venue sixty-two years later.  I shall come back to this Inaugural Address, in which Gandhi is reported to have spoken for 85 minutes (Varkey 4).  But first, let us try to understand, briefly, what this conference was about.

The Wardha conference was held under the auspices of the Marwari Education Society (later renamed as the Nava Bharat Vidyalaya) at Wardha on 22nd and 23rd October 1937.  Jamnalal Bajaj was the President of this Society, which held the conference to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the society and of the Marwari High School of Wardha.  The idea was to give Gandhi a national platform to launch his ideas of education. Gandhi was the President of the conference, which was attended by well-known educationists and ministers, including B. G. Kher, Premier of Bombay Presidency, Zakir Hussain, Principal of Jamia Millia, Delhi, P. Subbarayan, former Minister for Education, Madras, Viswanath Das, former Minister for Education, Orissa, Ravishankar Shukla, former Minister Educationa Minister, Central Provinces, Jamnalal Bajaj, J. C. Kumarappa, Kakasaheb Kalelkar, and a number of other eminent educationists and associates of Gandhi.

The Agenda, formulated by Gandhi, contained four propositions, which may be summarized as follows:  1. “The present system of education does not meet the requirements of the country....”  2.  “The course of primary education should be extended at least to seven years and should include the general knowledge gained up to the matriculation standard, less English and plus a substantial vocation.”  3.  “For the all-round development of boys and girls all training should as far as possible be given through a profit-yielding vocation.”   4.  “Higher education should be left to private enterprise and should be to meet national requirements whether in the various industries, technical arts, belles-letters or fine arts” (Varkay 3-4).

              At the conclusion of the conference, four Resolutions were adopted.  These had been proposed by a committee, which worked through the night, under the Chairmanship of Zakir Hussain.  The resolutions were:  1. “ and compulsory education be provided for seven years on a nation-wide scale.”  2 “That the medium of instruction be the mother-tongue.”  3.  “That ... the process of education  ... should centre around some form of manual and productive work....  4.  “That...this system of education ... be gradually able to cover the remuneration of the teachers” (ibid 5-6). Afterwards a committee was formed to design a suitable syllabus and to submit its report to Gandhi.  This report was submitted in December 1937.  Thereafter, a second Report was published in 1938, with detailed clarifications and replies to objections raised against the first Report.  This second Report contained detailed syllabi for three subjects, or crafts as Gandhi would have preferred to call them:  agriculture, spinning, and weaving.

              So, all these documents—Gandhi’s Inaugural Speech, the Agenda, the Resolutions, and the two Reports that followed, make up the kernel of Nai Talim or the New Education, that later became famous all over India.

              What I propose to do here is not to examine these texts in great detail, but focus instead on Gandhi’s underlying principles of education upon which they were based.  This will enable us to escape from an engagement with the nitty-gritty of the syllabus or of several other practical aspects of the scheme such as funding.  In fact, most the objections and criticisms were aimed at these aspects while very few questioned the basic philosophy behind them.  The latter is clearly voiced by Gandhi in his aforementioned Inaugural Address, to which we can now turn for a more detailed look.

Gandhi begins by explaining that his educational agenda includes both primary as well as higher or college education, but his emphasis is clearly on the former.  Also that his ideas are an outcome of his extensive travels through Indian villages and his experience of rural life in South Africa (see Varkey 19-20).  In other words, Gandhi’s educational philosophy was born out of his intense need to better the condition of rural India. As Kumarappa puts it, “Gandhiji saw that the only way of saving the nation at that juncture was to revive village economic life and to relate education to it.  Education ... was to be based on village occupations.  The child was to be trained to be a producer”  (“Editor’s Note” to Basic Education:  iii).

              The first major point Gandhi makes in the Inaugural Address is that the prevalent system of education is defective:  “I am convinced that the present system of primary education is not only wasteful but positively harmful” (Varkey 20).  I suppose, we can still assent to this basic truth that Gandhi observed.  His reasons for advancing such a claim are, however, equally important:  “Most of the boys are lost to the parents and to the occupation to which they are born.  They pick up evil habits, affect urban ways and get a smattering of something which may be anything but education” (ibid).  Gandhi goes on to ask, “What then should be the form of primary education?” and answers his own question with what is the quintessence of his educational philosophy:  “I think the remedy lies in educating them by means of vocational or manual training” (ibid).

              The rest of the speech goes on the elaborate upon and explain the salient features of this scheme.  First of all Gandhi tells that he came upon this method through his educational experiments in Tolstoy Farm, where he himself learned shoe making from his associate Kallenbach, who had been trained in a Trappist monastery (ibid).  After telling us about the source of this ideas, he then clarifies that what he advocates is “not the teaching of some handicrafts side by side with so-called liberal education.  I want that the whole of education should be imparted through some handicraft or industry” (ibid).  I think this is the key sentence to which we will have to turn our attention in the second part of this paper.  Gandhi believes that in the medieval ages, where education was craft-centred, there was little attempt to develop the intellect of the pupil (20-21).  He therefore advocates the “imparting of the whole art and science of a craft through practical training and there-through imparting the whole education” (21).  He give the example of takli-spinning, through which a student will not only garner knowledge of various varieties of cotton, but of different soil-types, of the ruin of native industries under colonialism, of the history of British rule in India, and of basic arithmetic (ibid).  We might add that the pupil would also learn hand-eye coordination, besides developing his or her skills in concentration, balance, and physical intelligence. So, clearly, what Gandhi had in mind was a sort of holistic or composite education structured around the learning of a craft.  Of course, the example of the takli is no accident.  Gandhi was convinced that spinning was the panacea for India’s woes:  “the takli is the only practical solution of our problem, considering the deplorable economic conditions prevailing in the country” (21).  Gandhi advocates that primary education itself should focus on the takli and he actually devices a syllabus to that effect.  But, mercifully, he also leaves it to the Congress Ministers to decide whether to accept or reject it (ibid).  Gandhi’s emphasis on spinning was not all that irrational or fanatical; he believed that students would earn as they learned if they spun regularly.  He thought that they could actually produce enough to support their teachers’ salaries!  Besides, the cloth that they manufactured could be consumed by the students themselves and by their families.  Gandhi envisaged a seven year course in primary education centred on spinning, which would culminate with lessons in weaving, dyeing, and designing (Varkey 22).  By the end of the process, the pupil would have trade that would support him or her for life.  At least that was the aim and the ideal.

              Gandhi also insisted that his scheme for primary education would include “the elementary principles of sanitation, hygiene, nutrition,”  besides “compulsory physical training through musical drill” (ibid). Gandhi refutes the charge that he is opposed to “literary training,” and rejects the accusation that his scheme would result in the exploitation of children.  “Is it burdening the child to save him from disaster?” he asks.  Besides, he argues, the takli is an effective toy, not just the source of livelihood (ibid).   Unlike the present system which is wasteful, unaffordable, and alienating, Gandhi argues that his scheme would make students strong, confident, and useful to their parents and their country.  Gandhi adds that his system would lead to communal harmony because it would be the same for all; it would this be “practical religion, the religion of self-help” (Varkey 23).  Gandhi believes that his “plan springs out of non-violence” (ibid).  It has the capacity to make students “true representatives of our culture, our civilization, of the true genius of our nation” (Varkey 23-24).   We are not to follow Europe, Russia, or America, Gandhi says, because their systems are founded on violence and exploitation (Varkey 24).

              When we examine the main ideas in this Inaugural Address, we find that they were in Gandhi’s mind for several decades. Though Nai Talim itself was launched in 1937 as we’ve just seen, Gandhi’s experiments with education, which began on the Tolstoy farm, were at least 30 years old.  Similarly, the basis of many of his later ideas can be found in Chapter XVIII of Hind Swaraj (1909), that bible of non-violent revolution, which also contains most of the essential elements of the entire Gandhian violent arsenal.   In this chapter, Gandhi clearly defines what he means by education.  It is not merely “a knowledge of letters” (87).  Quoting Huxley, Gandhi says that that person is properly educated  “whose body is the ready servant of his will...; whose intellect is clear...; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of fundamental truths of nature...; whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will...;” (88).  Gandhi is against the prevalent model of higher education because it alienates the student from society and stuffs him with largely irrelevant imported information.  He his totally against the widespread use of English as the medium of instruction:  “To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them.  ...  Is it not a sad commentary that we should have to speak of Home Rule in a foreign tongue?” (90).  Gandhi later reserved a more limited place for English as a language of international communication.  Gandhi also disapproved of “the pretension of learning many sciences” advocating instead “religious, that is ethical education” (92).  In brief, in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi considers “character-building,” what is today known as value-education, as the “foundation” of his idea of education.  And this foundation had to be built in primary education itself and ought to be compulsory.

Of course, we need to remember that Gandhi’s views were grounded in a larger perspective which might be termed anti-industrial, if not anti-modern.  As Kumarappa puts it, Gandhi “was convinced that machine civilization  ... brought enslavement and exploitation of vast sections of a nation and of industrially backward peoples” (Basic Education iv).  So education was one of the several planks of his larger civilizational agenda, in which the independence of India was the main thrust.  Gandhi’s educational ideals were thus meant to transform backward, illiterate, exploited, desperately poor peasants into self-confident and self-respecting citizens of a new community and nation.  In that sense, Gandhi was the least elitist and most practical of our major educational thinkers of this century.  Gandhi’s idea of culture can be summed up in his reply of to Rabindranath Tagore: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.  I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave,” Young India 1-6-21 (quoted in Towards New Education 9-10).

I think I would be useful to restate briefly the various facets of Gandhi’s educational philosophy as outlined above, reducing them to the following cardinal postulates:  1) Education means all round development; it is best obtained through action.   2) Education has to be through a craft, not merely through books and abstractions. 3)  The basis of true education is character building; an educated person should become an ideal citizen.  4)  Education should be self-supporting as far as possible and also equip the pupil to better his own economic conditions.  5)  Education should be based on non-violence and should work for communal harmony.  6)  The medium of instruction should be the mother-tongue, not English.  7) Primary education should be free and compulsory for all children and should last for at least seven years.  8)  All educational planning should be undertaken with the rural Indian masses in mind; in other words, education should not be elitist, but popular in its character.

              This is not the place to go into a detailed history of what happened to Nai Talim.  Several states adopted the scheme even before independence, when Congress governments came to power, and there were several schools set up specifically to carry it out.  And yet, today, Nai Talim is dead.  I don’t know of a single institution in India where we can find it in practice.  The reason is simple.  The school boards follow a totally different system in which bookish knowledge is paramount.  Therefore, no school, unless it wishes not to be affiliated to a recognized board, can afford to function purely on Gandhian lines.  Even schools founded on Gandhian ideals do not follow Nai Talim.  Instead, they have a superficial Gandhian veneer to them, found in such features as the all-religious prayer, the wearing of Khadi, the token insistence on manual labour, and the teaching of a supplementary craft such as spinning or carpentary.  There is not a single institution that I know of where the whole of education is imparted through a craft.  Similarly, far from being self-supporting, education has become almost the sole financial responsibility of the state.  Funds are always in short supply, with the result that we are hardly closer to achieving a decent standard of literacy than we were fifty years ago.  India has the largest number of illiterates in the world.  Higher education is a white elephant; elitist, state-funded institutions produce students who escape to greener pastures at the first opportunity.  It is with these facts in mind that we should approach the question of the relevance of Gandhi’s educational ideas in the coming millennium.



              From the foregoing discussion, it will be clear that certain fundamental principles are intrinsic to Gandhi’s educational philosophy.  These principles include equity, social justice, non-violence, human dignity, economic well being, and cultural self-respect.  All of these can be subsumed into the broader, umbrella term of Swaraj.  If we think of the coming decades from the point of view of Swaraj, we’ll see that there is much work to be done.  In our country, especially, it is obvious that we are very far from achieving the ideal of Swaraj.  There is tremendous inequality and injustice in our society.  There is also an unconscionable gap between the rich and the poor.  In addition to the old division of India and Bharat, we now have the third category of an international super class, resident in India, but living really in dollarized, global, air-conditioned habitat. Coming to education, each of these classes and sub-classes are marked by their own brand and type.  Of course, the vast under class of over 400 million souls has no access to any sort of proper education at all. For them, only a Gandhian model, which requires the least amount of capital outlay, may do.

              In other words, I would argue that the new century will be pretty much the same as the older ones for the poorest of the poor.  It will also be marked by exploitation, violence, insecurity, poverty, hunger, and disease.  For these, only a Gandhian model, or some modification thereof holds out some hope.  In recent times, the work of Swadhyaya, based as it is on a concept like Kriti-Bhakti, comes to mind as an example of what might work.  Pandurang Shastri Athavale, or Dada, told a small group of which I was a part, how the Collector of Rajkot approached him for his help in making Rajkot District 100% literate.  At first, Dada replied:  “This is not my job.”  But, later, after some persuasion, agreed to help.  Dada told the Collector:  “This is how we’ll do it.  Let’s divide the district into two parts.  You take the responsibility for one part, and I will take the responsibility for the other.  You make your half literate, I’ll make mine.  But I’ll adopt my own methods.  I’ll teach my wards shlokas, proverbs, stories, or whatever I think fit, but I’ll make them literate.  Let’s compare our results after one year.”  Anyone might have guessed what the outcome of that friendly competition was.  Dada’s half became literate in eight months time, while the Collector’s half has probably not yet achieved its target. This example serves to highlight the inadequacy of the state apparatus in achieving social goals.  Swadhyaya, which is based on a spiritual volunteerism, worked where paid government employees failed.  I consider the methods of Swadhyaya to be Gandhian in that they are based on an inner awakening of the agent and the target of change rather than on external blandishments or subsidies.

              Of course, coming back to the content of Nai Talim, it seems to me that the emphasis on learning through craft may be retained, but perhaps modified to suit the times.  Perhaps, computer education could be imparted on the Nai Talim model, as a revenue generating learning tool and toy for children, instead of the takli.  I know this idea would sound shocking, even blasphemous, to traditional Gandhians, but perhaps Gandhi might have been the first to take to some of revolutionary changes in communications technology that are impacting our world. Gandhi himself made extensive use of the telegraph, if not the telephone in his work.  Of course, Gandhian questions about the economic configuration and impact of any new technology would have to be taken into account.  Who has invented the technology?  Whose interests does it serve?  I am afraid, the answers to these questions will reveal how the powerful produce and deploy technology to maintain their positions.  And yet, the genetic structure of all technologies is not the same.  Some have the power to reduce inequality, while others are programmed to increase it. If the personal computer is seen as a tool which empowers individuals rather than corporations or governments, then I am sure we shall not miss its potential to make our world a better place.  Similarly, the internet has already created a borderless virtual world.  Once again, we see a battle by the commercial interests to take control of this new technology, but there is so much free information and free ware available that their designs will not be entirely successful.

              What I have been suggesting is that when we regard the onset of the new Millennium, we are confronted with at least two contrasting possibilities.  On the one hand the world order struggling to be born will be as bad as or worse than the one which controls our lives today.  We may even conjure up dystopias in which cloning, organ harvesting, and computers rule become realities.  On the other hand, we might be more hopeful and optimistic, praying for a healthier, happier, and more prosperous tomorrow, with less inequality and human misery, a world without wars and disease, without starvation and suffering.

              Gandhian educational ideas, founded as they are on certain eternal principles, will not lose their fundamental relevance in the years to come. Our planners will have to think of a self-supporting primary education, which will improve the lot of the poorest of the poor.  That such an education would be based on action, problem-solving, and practical activity, rather than mere book learning is also perfectly valid.  An integral education, which allows the whole being of a person to grow, an education which emphases character-building and cultural identity, is once again, obviously desirable.  It is equally clear that we have failed miserably in our state-sponsored schemes to provide free, compulsory primary education to all.  The Gandhian model, therefore, retains its relevance and attractiveness.  However, whether such an education can be imparted solely or primarily through the learning of a craft, and whether the potential beneficiaries or the state will accept it remains to be seen.  Finally, the Gandhian model needs, in my opinion, a built-in mechanism of absorbing or confronting the newer and newer technologies that are emerging each day.  As it stands, it seems to be somewhat backward looking, or at any rate, designed for a static societie in which stable ancestral occupations persist from generation to generation.  I think that the coming age will be one of phenomenal and unprecedented change.  But this does not mean that the perennial values that Gandhi lived by and advocated will lose their influence.  What this does mean is that we shall have to find newer and newer ways to interpret, understand, impart, and live them out.


Works Cited


Gandhi, M. K.  Basic Education.  Bharatan Kumarappa, ed.  Ahmedabad:  Navjivan,


-----. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule.  1909; Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1984.

-----.  Towards New Education. Bharatan Kumarappa, ed.  Ahmedabad:  Navjivan, 1953.

Varkey, C.J.  The Wardha Scheme of Education:  An Exposition and Examination.

Madras:  Oxford University Press, 1940.

  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape