On Education

by Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi teaching his followers; courtesy mkgandhi.org

Editor’s Preface: Gandhi highly valued education as an essential part of his nonviolence program, and insisted it be included in the daily life of the various ashrams that he founded. (1) If regular classes were held for children, adults were also asked to learn spinning, weaving, cloth making, and a host of other skills. It was not until 1909, however, that Gandhi began to systematize his thoughts, in the essay that follows. It is, in fact, Chapter 18 of one of his most important and influential works, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, presented as a series of questions and answers between the fictitious, if sometimes obtuse “Reader”, and answers by a knowing “Editor”, both of whom, needless to say are Gandhi. Hind Swaraj was written in a flurry of work between 13 and 22 November 1909 while Gandhi was on board the Kilnonan Castle sailing back from England to South Africa. Although he continued to write about education in Young India, Indian Opinion, and other of the periodicals he edited, the text that follows is recognized as his first attempt to outline the basics of a curriculum consisting of language, Indian civilization, and ethics. Please consult the notes at the end for further bibliographical information. JG

Reader: In the whole of our discussion, you have not demonstrated the necessity for education; we always complain of its absence among us. We notice a movement for compulsory education in our country. The Maharaja Gaekwar has introduced it in his territories. (2) Every eye is directed towards them. We bless the Maharaja for it. Is all this effort then of no use?

Editor: If we consider our civilization to be the highest, I have regretfully to say that much of the effort you have described is of no use. The motive of the Maharaja and other great leaders who have been working in this direction is perfectly pure. They, therefore, undoubtedly deserve great praise. But we cannot conceal from ourselves the result that is likely to flow from their effort. What is the meaning of education? It simply means knowledge of letters. It is merely an instrument, and an instrument may be well used or abused. The same instrument that may be used to cure a patient may be used to take his life, and so may knowledge of letters. We daily observe that many men abuse it and very few make good use of it; and if this is a correct statement, we have proved that more harm has been done by it than good. (3)

The ordinary meaning of education is knowledge of letters. To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? Do you wish to make him discontented with his cottage or his lot? And even if you want to do that, he will not need such an education. Carried away by the flood of western thought we came to the conclusion, without weighing pros and cons, that we should give this kind of education to the people.

Now let us take higher education. I have learned Geography, Astronomy, Algebra, Geometry, etc. What of that? In what way have I benefited myself or those around me? Why have I learned these things? Professor Huxley has thus defined education: “That man I think has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will and does with ease and pleasure all the work that as a mechanism it is capable of, whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine with all its parts of equal strength and in smooth working order … whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the fundamental truths of nature …. whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience … who has learnt to hate all vileness and to respect others as himself. Such a one and no other, I conceive, has had a liberal education, for he is in harmony with nature. He will make the best of her and she of him.” (4)

If this is true education, I must emphatically say that the sciences I have enumerated above I have never been able to use for controlling my senses. Therefore, whether you take elementary education or higher education, it is not required for the main thing. It does not make men of us. It does not enable us to do our duty.

Reader: If that is so. I shall have to ask you another question. What enables you to tell all these things to me? If you had not received higher education, how would you have been able to explain to me the things that you have?

Editor: You have spoken well. But my answer is simple: I do not for one moment believe that my life would have been wasted had I not received higher or lower education. Nor do I consider that I necessarily serve because I speak. But I do desire to serve and in endeavoring to fulfill that desire, I make use of the education I have received. And, if I am making good use of it, even then it is not for the millions, but I can use it only for such as you, and this supports my contention. Both you and I have come under the bane of what is mainly false education. I claim to have become free from its ill effect, and I am to giving you the benefit of my experience and in doing so, I am demonstrating the rottenness of this education.

Moreover, I have not run down knowledge of letters in all circumstances. All I have now shown is that we must not make of it a fetish. It is not our Kamadhuk. (5) In its place it can be of use and it has its place when we have brought our senses under subjection and put our ethics on a firm foundation. And then, if we feel inclined to receive that education, we may make good use of it. As an ornament it is likely to sit well on us. It now follows that it is not necessary to make this education compulsory. Our ancient school system is enough. Character building has the first place in it and that is primary education. A building erected on that foundation will last.

Reader: Do I then understand that you do not consider English education necessary for obtaining Home Rule?

Editor: My answer is yes and no. To give millions knowledge of English is to enslave them. The foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us. I do not suggest that he has any such intention, but that has been the result. Is it not a sad commentary that we should have to speak of Home Rule in a foreign tongue? (6)

And it is worthy of note that the systems which the Europeans have discarded are the systems in vogue among us. Their learned men continually make changes. We ignorantly adhere to their cast-off systems. They are trying each division to improve its own status. Wales is a small portion of England. Great efforts are being made to revive knowledge of Welsh among Welshmen. The English Chancellor, Mr. Lloyd George is taking a leading part in the movement to make Welsh children speak Welsh. And what is our condition? We write to each other in faulty English, and from this even our MA degree is not free; our best thoughts are expressed in English. The proceedings of our Congress are conducted in English; our best newspapers are printed in English. If this state of things continues for a long time, posterity will, it is my firm opinion, condemn, and curse us.

It is worth noting that, by receiving English education, we have enslaved the nation. Hypocrisy, tyranny, etc., have increased; English-knowing Indians have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into the people. Now, if we are doing anything for the people at all, we are paying only a portion of the debt due to them.

Is it not a painful thing that, if I want to go to a court of justice, I must employ the English language as a medium, that when I become a barrister I may not speak my mother tongue and that someone else should have to translate to me from my own language? Is not this absolutely absurd? Is it not a sign of slavery? Am I to blame the English for it or myself’? It is we, the English-knowing Indians that have enslaved India. The curse of the nation will rest not upon the English but upon us.

I have told you that my answer to your last question is both yes and no. I have explained to you why it is yes. I shall now, explain why it is no.

We are so much beset by the disease of civilization that we cannot altogether do without English-education. Those who have already received it may make good use of it wherever necessary. In our dealings with the English people, in our dealings with our own people, when we can only correspond with them through that language, and for the purpose of knowing how disgusted they (the English) have themselves become with their civilization, we may use or learn English, as the case may be. Those who have studied English will have to teach morality to their progeny through their mother tongue and to teach them another Indian language; but when they have grown up, they may learn English, the ultimate aim being that we should not need it. The object of making money thereby should be eschewed. Even in learning English to such a limited extent we shall have to consider what we should learn through it and what we should not. It will be necessary to know what sciences we should learn. A little thought should show you that immediately we cease to care for English degrees, the rulers will prick up their ears.

Reader: Then what education shall we give?

Editor: This has been somewhat considered above, but we will consider it a little more. I think that we have to improve all our languages. What subjects we should learn through them need not be elaborated here. Those English books, which are valuable, we should translate into the various Indian languages. We should abandon the pretension of learning many sciences. Religious, that is ethical education, will occupy the first place. Every cultured Indian will know in addition to his own provincial language, if a Hindu, Sanskrit: if a Mohammedan, Arabic; if a Parsee, Persian, and all, Hindi. Some Hindus should know Arabic and Persian; some Mohammedans and Parsees, Sanskrit. Several Northerners and Westerners should learn Tamil. A universal language for India should be Hindi, with the option of writing it in Persian or Nagari characters. In order that the Hindus and the Mohammedans may have closer relations, it is necessary to know both the characters. And, if we can do this, we can drive the English language out of the field in a short time. All this is necessary for us, slaves. Through our slavery the nation has been enslaved, and with our freedom it will be free.

Reader: The question of religious education is very difficult.

Editor: Yet we cannot do without it. India will never be godless. Rank atheism cannot flourish in this land. The task is indeed difficult. My head begins to turn as I think of religious education. Our religious teachers are hypocritical and selfish; they will have to be approached. The Mullahs the Dasturs and the Brahmins hold the key in their hands, but if they will not have the good sense, the energy that we have derived from English education will have to be devoted to religious education. This is not very difficult. Only the fringe of the ocean has been polluted and it is those who are within the fringe who alone need cleansing. We who come under this category can even cleanse ourselves because my remarks do not apply to the millions. In order to restore India to its pristine condition, we have to return to it. In our own civilization there will naturally be progress, retrogression, reforms, and reactions, but one effort is required, and that is to drive out Western civilization. All else will follow.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Gandhi established his first school in 1904, that is five years before composing Hind Swaraj; Phoenix School at Phoenix Ashram near Durban South Africa. There was not enough funding to keep it going, but in 1911 Gandhi tried again at his new community, Tolstoy Farm. There were 25 boys and girls of mixed castes, which proved controversial with some of his followers. As Anthony Parel writes, (see reference below) the curriculum at Tolstoy School included, “arithmetic, languages, Indian history and geography, religious instruction, manual labor and sandal-making.” (p. 98)

(2) Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda introduced compulsory education in the state of Baroda in 1905.

(3) Gandhi says elsewhere that education must include the training of mind, will, and desires. See, eg. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 9; p.208.

(4) The quote is from the essay “A Liberal Education: and Where to Find It”, in Thomas Huxley, Science and Education, London, 1893; p. 86.

(5) Kamadhuk in Hindu mythology is a sacred cow that fulfils all one’s wishes.

(6) The reference is to Thomas Macauley, “Minute on Education” published in 1835. But Gandhi may be referring specifically to Macauley’s call for public funding of English language studies, including of the Indian ruling class.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: The first publication of Hind Swaraj was in the Gujurati edition of a weekly newspaper that Gandhi edited, Indian Opinion, 11 and 19 December 1909. The English translation, by Gandhi, titled simply Indian Home Rule was published in book form by Gandhi’s press: Phoenix, Natal (South Africa): International Printing Press, 1910. The best contemporary English edition is, PAREL, Anthony J. (ed.) Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and other Writings. Centenary Edition, London: Cambridge University Press, 2010. We have used the standard Creative Commons text courtesy mkgandhi.org, although we have corrected some spelling and punctuation errors, and added Endnotes.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi