Twenty-five years ago in a workshop exercise on prejudice, I matched de-contextualised ‘statements’ to names of famous persons including Martin Luther King, Mandela, Gandhi, Mussolini and Hitler. On hindsight it’s not surprising, that I found that what I ascribed to the ‘father of our nation’ was actually said by Mussolini, and what I was sure must have been said by Hitler was actually said by Gandhi.
Since that epiphany, all historical figures became, to my mind, ordinary people who did extraordinary things. All of them had been ‘good’ for some people and ‘bad’ for others. All of them had acted with seemingly unshakeable conviction that they were right, even when and if racked by doubt or fear. All of them had persuaded others and won followers. They were all leaders. I could learn from each one of them. From some, I could learn how to act in a way that I could be the change; from others, how to be careful that I did not delude myself.
Of them all, Gandhi has seemed to me the most frail in his human-ness – perhaps because he opened himself to scrutiny as he reflected publicly on his own thoughts, actions and influence. Was that a narcissistic or generous act? Is any self-disclosure devoid of being both? His writings provide a window into the mind of a human being in difficult circumstances who discovered he had the power to do extraordinary things simply because he was willing to fail.
Gandhi had the courage to do what others did not do. He did have a sort of moral right to say ‘be the change you want to see’. His approach was strategic, having studied the ‘enemy’ at close quarters. He knew how to fight on an intellectual battlefield and how to show up the colonial mindset in a miserable light in its home-country. He could think of out of the box Dandi marches, fasts and slogans that fired the imagination of the people. He stated his values upfront and lived them equally dramatically. Cleaning toilets, wearing a dhoti, spinning the charkha – all proclaimed his disdain for convention, tradition and his trade. It was remarkably independent thinking. It gave a ring of authenticity to his need for self-rule.
This is the man who then put together his framework for education called Nai Talim or comprehensive basic education. He conceptualised a self-sustaining school in which students learned a craft that contributed to the school’s economic freedom. This in turn became the curriculum through which they would learn accountability to the community, nurturing each other and the environment as socially useful problem solvers. Their learning was to be driven by what they themselves identified as their own needs.
Ironically this seems to be where the schools of the future appear to be going. Today knowledge is free – freer certainly than any country. In the years leading to the 21st century, the world wide web heralded a quantum change in the way knowledge and learning were to be perceived. Children of the 21st century are known as digital natives. 560 years after the printing press made the publication of textbooks possible for school children to suffer, the internet threatens to set them free of both school and teacher.
The question though is: free to learn what? Those of us who live in highly populated zones on this planet are well aware of the communities to which we belong. For some caste is a community, for others it is family and for a few it is an organisation to which they feel the sense of belonging. The school was conceptualised as the heart of a community since it was an incubator of the community’s future. According to Gandhi, a self-realised commune or village would be one that valued self-sufficiency.
If every village were able to look after its basic needs and no one went hungry or unclothed, Gandhi’s vision of ‘ram rajya’ or a just and ideal world, could be realised. Equity was to be available at village level – not just in a school. Work was not caste based in this view of egalitarian India. How could it be? As a victim of ‘brown skin’ discrimination Gandhi was all for a world in which merit, ability and talent were promoted irrespective of colour or background, including for ‘white skins’, many of whom were part of his intimate circle of friends and compatriots.
Fair trade, frugal living, and the simple pleasures of community life sound an impossibility in today’s complex city-centred economies. The difference in Gandhian thought is that it processed current issues and then found solutions in individual and collective action. In schools today across India, we see evidence of Gandhian thinking during a school review, when the hierarchy between the school’s leaders and the lowest paid workers does not interfere with them sitting together at the same table to celebrate strengths and discuss the challenges faced by the school. Given our DNA of hierarchy, it is new for a school leader to do, and most difficult for the worker.
Enabling students to travel across India is another great leveller. Gandhi’s insistence on living in villages to experience first hand the difficulties of the ‘common person’ is a perfect example of people who ‘find out for themselves’. India has legends of leaders who mingled incognito in market places and discovered for themselves the difficulties of the people they wished to lead. School leaders have ample opportunity when faced with thinking that is hierarchical or communal, in the staff and parents, to influence them to think in an egalitarian or humane way.
The expectation from school leadership is immense – to understand the vision of the Indian constitution and then to create the environment in schools that enables this vision to be seen, felt, smelt and touched. I see many people who brave the discouragement of families and friends, take their chances and tread the less familiar path. As in Gandhi’s case, sometimes it is the right thing at the right time and sometimes not. It would be interesting to imagine the history of India without his larger than life personality that looms over all of us and reminds us how anything is possible.
Kavita Anand is Executive Director of Adhyayan, a social enterprise growing an education movement of Indian and international educators, dedicated to improving the quality of leadership and learning in schools to achieve the universal vision of ‘a good school for every student’. Kavita is based in Mumbai and was recently awarded the international Ashoka Fellowship.