Exploring Gandhi’s Nai Talim

The following post is the second one based on my talk at the India Center in Charleston, WV for Gandhi Day 2015. Please read Part 1 here.

What can we learn from Gandhi’s ideas about Nai Talim (new education) and how can we apply them to our context now?

How can (must) education be a part of the solution to the current challenges of our society, such as eliminating violence of all kinds?

Before we begin to answer those questions, perhaps we need to ask another question: what is the relationship between nonviolence and education? Where does education fit in Gandhi’s nonviolence?

Gandhi’s conception of nonviolence includes satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, and constructive program, which involves building institutions and structures for a better world.

Nonviolent resistance is obstructive in nature and involves stopping, or not cooperating with, systems of violence, and also involves exposing the violence inherent to these systems. Constructive program involves creatively building the replacement institutions and structures for a nonviolent, peaceful world. Gandhi’s constructive program had 18 different project areas, and nai talim, or new education, was one. Education is constructive by nature, and in a way, affects all of the other systems because of how it impacts citizens’ worldviews and how they think, the knowledge and skills they learn, and the values they hold. If you affect the educational system, you have the potential to affect everything else.

Related to this, in Metta’s Roadmap tool, education is situated in the New Story Creation wedge, which we see as the key to the whole picture of building a nonviolent future. The new story emerges from modern science and ancient wisdom affirming a higher vision of who we really are as human beings and who we have the potential to become. The new story replaces the distorted worldview that humans are only inherently violent and competitive, and that happiness and fulfillment can be found outside of ourselves through our role as consumers (Buy more stuff! the ads tell us). The new story reminds us that we have a compassionate, loving nature, we are deeply interconnected to each other and the Earth, and that we can only find fulfillment through looking deep within ourselves and through meaningful relationships and service. Education, along with media (which is a form of informal education) and research, has an integral role to play in developing and dispersing the new story far and wide. The story we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works deeply affects the world we create every day, and the story we tell is greatly impacted by the way we are educated.

child learning outsideAnother part of the relationship between nonviolence and education, almost implied but worth pointing out, is that nonviolence can be learned.

As the UNESCO charter states, “[s]ince war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” If war begins in our minds, then education can play an important role in eradicating war and building peace (though it’s worth noting that this is not purely intellectual, which we’ll get into more below). A student in peace educator Colman McCarthy’s class wrote a 13-word essay succinctly explaining this point: “Why are we violent but not illiterate? Because we are taught to read.” Granted, it’s not as simple as just memorizing a few facts or principles – learning nonviolence truly is a practice, one that takes a significant amount of effort, discipline and training. But education can play an important role in fostering and understanding of nonviolence and providing grounds for practice and training.

Next, we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of education? What is it for? The word education comes from the Latin root educare, which means to draw out or draw forth, so we can think about the goal of education as drawing forth or uncovering the full potential of the human being. Next we can ask ourselves, is our current educational system meeting this purpose? And is this, in fact, the purpose of our current education system?

As Sir Ken Robinson discusses in his popular RSA animate, the current education system was built on the needs of the industrial revolution, and it is hard if not impossible to meet the needs of the present or future with a system that is built on the needs of the past. Which, of course, isn’t to say we can’t learn from the past! (That’s exactly what we’re exploring here, after all!). But an educational system that was designed for a different time may need an update, which is where we find ourselves today. I imagine many people might define the purpose of heart based learningeducation today as preparing youth for the workforce, and of course, meeting our basic needs through earning a living is a crucial part of education. At the same time, isn’t it limiting our potential to look at education exclusively as a means get a job? As Zoe Weil asks in her TED talk, aren’t our children so much more than that?

Gandhi said that education should respond to society’s needs; we should ask ourselves what society needs and direct our education towards that.

This raises the question: what does American society in 2015 (the context in which I am writing) need, and does our education system address those needs? It is clear that we need to deal with the culture of violence we have created, and our current education system is not sufficiently addressing this, and may even be contributing to it (see school-to-prison pipeline below).

One of the core principles of nai talim is that we are mind, body and spirit, and need to educate as such. In our current system of education, there is almost total emphasis on the mind, with little to no emphasis put on the body and spirit. Even in terms of the mind, we need to look at how and what students are learning intellectually. They are most likely not learning about nonviolence! Nor are they often learning constructive and creative ways to resolve conflict and build peace, which, if we are trying to address our society’s need of reducing violence, are crucial skills.

In terms of the body, it is hardly given attention at all, with gym classes and recess being cut left and right, and childhood obesity on the rise. In the new story, we are aware of the interconnectedness of the mind and body, and modern science is confirming this almost daily with new studies showing how physical exercise improves mental functioning. In Gandhi’s nai talim, the body was not just strengthened through exercise but also physical labor. This could also involve teaching students skills for how to make things, bringing in the interdisciplinary nature of new education. In learning how to make things, students learn practical skills for the basic needs of living and self-sufficiency, important qualities of nonviolence. School gardens are one example of how this could be applied today – and is being applied in many schools across the country. Our needs don’t get much more basic than the food that we eat! Through gardening and farming, students get physical exercise, can learn many disciplines from biology to math, and will develop a deep appreciation for the natural world and our interdependence with all of life.

Educating the spirit may sound tricky given the separation of church and state, but educating for the spirit does not have to be religious. Gandhi emphasized studying all the world’s religions and core texts so that students could see the similar messages of all faith traditions and develop respect and understanding. A world where students learn the core messages of all religions could lead to greater tolerance and reduced fear and misunderstanding.

Gandhi said the essence of educating the spirit was a student-teacher relationship based on love, and the student could only really get “exercise of the spirit” through the “living touch” of the teacher. He also said that teachers were the “true textbook for the pupil,” emphasizing the great responsibility that comes with this role. In today’s US education system, teachers are largely overworked and undervalued. If the teacher is the true textbook for the pupil, shouldn’t we be investing more in them? 

Other principles of nai talim include:

  • Character education – all education should be character-building
  • Localization – education should be relevant to the local context in which it is taking place and the real lives of the students
  • Native language – education should be conducted in the native language of the students
  • Arts and music – should be an important part of education and integrated throughout
  • Schools should be financially self-supporting – in Gandhi’s time, schools were funded through a liquor tax, and he made clear the connection between encouraging alcohol consumption and school funding. In the US today, we have a similar issue of schools receiving funding through gambling via state lotteries. This point may be worth revisiting!
  • Needless to say but worth repeating, nonviolence should be integrated throughout all aspects of school life, including content, structure, and form.

The last point reminds us that nonviolence is not just a subject, but the very structure of our schools would need to change in many ways to be aligned with nonviolent principles. For example, one of the major challenges facing not just the school system but society as a whole is the school-to-prison pipeline, and the way that the school system is feeding into the criminal “justice” system at alarming rates, and disproportionately impacting students of color. A promising development in this area is the movement for restorative justice and practices in schools, which change not only the way conflicts and disciplinary issues are handled in the environment, but have the potential to impact the whole culture of the school. When we shift our thinking from “Who broke the rules and needs to be punished?” to “What harm was done and how can we repair relationships?”, we’re onto a new story!

This is really just the tip of the iceberg of what we can begin to learn from Gandhi’s ideas of nai talim. What do you think? What would a nonviolent education system look like? And better yet – what would the world look like as a result of this new education? The possibilities are truly limitless if we let our imaginations run free, and when we embrace the new story of the higher image of who we human beings can be!