Philosophy of education

In Bangladesh, we need to go a long way towards the implementation of such an education system that brings the soul and head together. Head without the soul is vicious and soul without the head is of no use in this world. The challenge is to break the hiatus between the soul and the head.

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WITHIN an institutional set-up, a person who achieves the highest level of degree is doctor of philosophy. Education thus lifts up a man to the level of a philosopher. The meaning of philosophy is ‘love of knowledge’. In the process of knowledge seeking from the initial level to the ultimate level, a person gradually transforms into a philosopher. Knowledge equips a person to be logical and to raise questions like what, how and why. Every man confronts these questions in everyday life. Without having a reasonable answer to these questions, a man cannot think of even surviving. People acquiring knowledge through the experience of everyday life are philosophers of a sort. Socrates said that it is not important to know answers, but it is pertinent to raise relevant questions. He also said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Life becomes meaningful if it becomes purposeful. To make life meaningful and worth living we need education.

What was the starting point of philosophy for Socrates? In his words, the answer was, ‘One thing I only know, and that is that I know nothing.’ Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt — particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, dogmas and axioms. This is how Will Durant describes the Socratic way of journey into the realm of knowledge. An educational process that begins with doubt about handed down beliefs and dogmas can only be the harbinger of desirable moral and material existence. Real philosophy begins with a transformation of mind and examines itself. Gnothi seauton, said Socrates: Know thyself. An ancient Sanskrit saying runs in a similar vein — Atmanam viddhi. Again meaning: ‘know thyself’. Is it not surprising that the two ancient civilisations of Greece and India converged on the meaning and beginning of philosophy. This compelling emphasis on knowing oneself in distantly lying civilisations gives us the clue to unraveling the philosophy of education that we shall try to present in a limited spectrum.

Ancient Indian tradition

IN ANCIENT, India religiosity was all-embracing. Religion was the culture of people. Education did not exist as a separate branch of human activity. Religion was considered a part of total life with its daily tasks, social contacts, rituals, and its belief about God, man, and the universe. This is the reason in ancient Indian culture, one does not find separate books on education. Educational philosophy of those times are to be extracted from sacred books.

Such sacred texts of the Indians include the Vedas and the Upanishads, which took shape in the first millennium BC, the Gitas, particularly the Bhagabad Gita which originated probably in the 4th century BC, and the Manusamhita, which was formulated around 500 AD. The sum and substance on education found in these books highlight the point that for the pious Hindus as well as for the Buddhists, ‘life in all its appearances is an effluence of Divine Essence.’

The juxtaposition of self-realization on the other worldliness has made old Indian education extremely metaphysical and devotional, yet not absolutely sacrificial. It demands joyful fulfillment of one’s specific destiny, duty, and mission, or one’s dharma. This fulfillment is achieved through the natural maturing of a person in different stages of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and the responsibility for the family and the community.

Without proving oneself worthy of different stages of life, one cannot become a saint. Because, saintliness is achieved through a graduated process and not through discrete jumps. The Brahmin achieves education so much so as a ‘science of life’ and equally as applied theology. The Brahman teacher, the ‘guru’ is not the school master, but the friend and the guide of mankind; he is the ‘destroyer of darkness.’ According to one of the Vedas, ‘gur’ means darkness and ‘ru’ means destroyer. Here the teacher or ‘guru’ appears in an ideal form.

The modern teacher should not be any different from ancient Indian ‘guru.’ One disturbing feature of ancient Indian philosophy can be discerned from the fact that human society is considered to be hierarchical and static. This is a reflection of the divine will and no attempt should be made to change this divinely ordained structure of society which continues to be a severe constraint on the progress of Indian society.

However, the belief is whenever the order of society is disturbed, order is restored by man’s return to divine sources of life. Change of mind polluted by deviation from truth is the only form of revolution. In modern times, Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ is reminiscent of the ancient Indian dictum. In this context a quotation from Lord Krishna is relevant.

Krishna says:

I told the blameless Lord! There be two paths

Shown to this world, two schools of wisdom. First

The Sankhya’s, which doth save in way of works

Prescribed by reason: next the Yog, which bids

Attain by meditation, spiritually:

Yet these are one! No man shall ‘scape from act

By shunning action; nay, and none shall come

By mere renouncement unto perfectness’

Nay, and no jot of time, at any time,

Rests any actionless; his nature’s law

Compels him, even unwilling, into act;

For thought is to act in fancy.

Ancient Chinese tradition

IN OLD Chinese thought on education, there is a difference in emphasis. This has continued throughout the whole course of the history of educational thought. The difference is discernible depending on the philosopher being studied. In this context we can name two early Chinese thinkers, Lao Tse (lived from the sixth century BC) and Confucius (c 500-478 BC). Lao Tse-type thinkers lay emphasis on mysticism while Confucius-type thinkers lay emphasis on institutions and morality.

Lao Tse considers education to be more contemplative in nature and for Confucius, education is primarily a means of preserving society. Confucius gave emphasis on learning and knowledge and Lao Tse emphasized a certain state of mind without which any external achievement would be useless. Confucius-type thinking lays stress on good citizens, the Lao Tse type on the spirit, which makes a good man.

Some sayings of Lao Tse

  • Without going outside his door, one understands all that takes place under the sky; without looking out from his window, one sees the Tao of Heaven. The further that one goes out from himself, the less he knows.
  • Therefore, the sages got their knowledge without travelling; gave their right names to things without seeing them; and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.
  • He who devotes himself to learning seeks from day to day to increase his knowledge; he who devotes himself to the Tao seeks from day to day to diminish his doing.
  • He diminishes it and diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing on purpose. Having arrived at this point of non-action there is nothing which he does not do.

Some sayings of Confucius

  • When a ruler is concerned that his measures should be in accordance with the law, and seeks for the assistance of the good and upright, this is sufficient to secure him a considerable reputation, but not to move the multitudes. When he cultivates the society of the worthy, and tries to embody the view of those who are removed from the court, this sufficient to move the multitudes, but not to transform the people. If he wish to transform the people and to perfect their manners and customs, must he not start from the lessons of the school?
  • The jade uncut will not form a vessel for use; and if men do not learn, they do not know the way in which they should go. On this account the ancient kings, when establishing states and governing the people, made instruction and schools a primary object; — as it is said in the Charge to Yueh, ‘The thoughts from the first to last should be fixed on learning.’
  • However fine the viands be, if one do not eat, he does not know their taste; however perfect the course may be, if one do not learn it, he does not know its goodness. Therefore, when he learns, one knows his deficiencies; when he teaches, he knows the difficulties of learning. After he knows the deficiencies, one is able to turn round and examine himself; after he knows the difficulties, he is able to stimulate himself to effort. Hence it is said, ‘Teaching and learning help each other’; as it is said in the Charge to Yueh, teaching is half the learning.

The philosophy of Al-Ghazali

ACCORDING to Al-Ghazali (AD 1058–1111), education should not be viewed merely as a process wherein the teacher teaches and the pupil may or may not absorb them, after which the teacher and the pupil part their ways. Rather it is an interactive process through which both teacher and pupil benefit equally. The teacher gains merit for imparting knowledge and the pupil cultivates himself through acquisition of knowledge.

Al-Ghazali considered teacher to be a model and example, not merely as the dispenser of knowledge. The duty of a teacher is not limited to teaching a particular subject, he should be able to shape all aspects of the personality and life of the pupil. On the other hand, the pupil should consider the teacher as father, to whom he owes obedience and respect.

Among the principles guiding the art of teaching, Al-Ghazali emphasizes the importance of link between concrete situations and teaching. He laid stress on various types of knowledge and skills. Particular knowledge or skill should be taught in a manner that it fulfils the need and be functional. He also stressed that learning becomes effective if it can be interlocked with practice. Learning should assist the pupil in inculcating correct habits rather than memorizing texts. Al-Ghazali came close to ‘proficiency learning’ when he recommended that teachers should not move from one subject to another without ensuring that the pupil has mastered the topic where from it is possible to move on to the next topic. He was conscious about complementarity of sciences, when advised the teachers on the interconnectedness among various branches.

Al-Ghazali represents the traditional Islamic approach in his insistence on the importance of scholars who are genuine inheritors of prophets in the society. Al-Ghazali is especially critical of the scholars of his time (and of himself) who had an inclination for wealth and influence and closeness with the ruling elites. He criticized their failure to abide by the tenets they have learnt and for interest in traditional sciences, which enable them to attain high office. He also criticized them for neglecting useful sciences like medicine. Al-Ghazali is concerned about two issues: the relation of the scholars with common masses and relation with rulers. The duty of the scholar is to seek truth and to disseminate it. Al-Ghazali is very close to the concept of ‘society of teachers and learners’. According to him, teaching is not the sole responsibility of teachers and scholars. Anybody who has learnt something has a duty to teach it.

For al-Ghazali, the purpose of society is to apply sharia. And the goal of man is happiness close to Allah. Therefore, the aim of education is to prepare man to abide by the teachings of religion. This will alone lead to salvation and eternal life hereafter. Other worldly pursuits like wealth, power and even knowledge are illusory since they relate transient existence in this world

Ibn Khaldun

IBN Khaldun (AD 1332-1406) thinks that the arts must necessarily be learnt from a master. A master is a very specialized person. When one master learns an art, it is very unlikely that he would develop mastery over another art. He does not conceive of technology as a body of knowledge independent of those who possess it. To Ibn Khaldun learning, means acquisition of habitus. He defines it as stable quality resulting from repeated action until its form has taken final shape. Habitus are like gradually formed ‘colours of the soul. Once the soul acquires a given aptitude it loses its primary simplicity, its readiness weakens and its capacity to assimilate a second aptitude diminishes.

According to Ibn Khaldun, men are entirely devoid of knowledge. At birth, a man is no more than ‘raw material’. From the stage of such ignorance, human beings gradually acquire knowledge through the use of organs. Khaldun distinguishes three forms of knowledge corresponding to as many degrees of thought. These are practical knowledge, the product of discerning intelligence allowing us to act in the world in a controlled manner; a knowledge of what we must or must not do relating good or evil; which we acquire through ‘empirical intelligence’ helping us to decide about our relations with our fellows and finally, theoretical knowledge of everything that exists in the world. Only this final form of knowledge, the subject of sciences, endows us the possibility of attaining the perfection of soul. The knowledge of science, though it may require prolonged time, can be learnt with the help of teachers. Their very development presupposes them to be communicated to others.

Ibn Khaldun’s pedagogical position on habitus applies to everybody, child or adult or learning of practical arts or sciences, moral or religious values. The aim of all pedagogical action is the formation in the soul of a stable disposition. Ibn Khaldun holds that all habits are necessarily corporal. To him habitus is something the soul can acquire through the senses, as opposed to another type of knowledge that is usually acquired by prophets and mystics by meditation and contemplation by the very fact of thinking. Since, soul has limited receptivity (isti dad), one cannot receive multiple types of knowledge. Training should start early in age as soul is virgin then. ‘Because the first thing to be imprinted into hearts are kike foundation for the habitus; and the building’s value is determined by that of its foundation’. Therefore, the choice of content in the earliest instruction is of tremendous importance.

As far as the formation of habitus is concerned, the question of authority is of tremendous importance. If a teacher adopts an overly severe attitude, it can be very harmful, especially for the young children. ‘Finally, habits can be either good or bad, they may take the form of either virtue or vice, good or evil, good taste and bad bad, refinement or crudeness, clarity and exactness or confusion. They also differ in degree, depending on the quality of teaching and of the models imitated and on the general level of development of the civilisation.’

Philosophy of education of Mohondas Karamchand  Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi)

TO UNDERSTAND Gandhi’s philosophy of education, we need to understand his philosophy of life. Gandhi’s philosophy of life has a deep spiritual mooring. Two pillars of his thought included satya and ahimsa, meaning truth and non-violence resulting in a happy combination of karmayoga and gyanyoga.

  • Realization of truth: Gandhi firmly believed that no religion is possible without truth. To him God is absolute truth. He said, ‘I have no God to serve but the truth.’
  • Non-violence (ahimsa): Gandhi thought that non-violence can lead to the ultimate destination of life. Satya and ahimsa are the two sides of a coin.
  • Realization of God: Gandhi believed in Ekeswarvad and believed that only through the medium of God, the manifestation of truth, love, life and knowledge is possible.
  • Sarvodaya society: Gandhi sought to have a spiritual society based on the foundation of freedom, justice, equality, love, peace and non-violence.
  • Combination of karmayoga and gyanyoga: Gandhian philosophy was a fine blending of gyan and karma. He said, ‘By education I mean an all round drawing out of the best in a child and man — body, mind, and spirit. The purpose of life, he said, is to acquire spiritual knowledge for self-control and activity.’

Gandhi’s ideas on education can be sifted out of his Wardha Scheme. Under this scheme, the concept of basic education was developed. The political programme of the Indian National Congress stressed the need for compulsory free primary education. Congress formed a government in seven provinces of India in 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935. In order to implement this programme, a huge amount of funds was necessary. But this fund could not be made available without further taxation.

Gandhi thought that this challenge could be met if crafts and skills could be combined with basic education. Craft activities and skills development by the students could solve the problem of financing education and livelihood requirements of the students. This scheme of education is based on the national culture and civilisation of India. It aims at making a child self-reliant by enabling him to use his acquired knowledge and skills in practical affairs of life. Gandhi thought mere literacy could not be the end, nor the beginning of education. He strongly advocated relating education with the environment.

Main characteristics or features of Mahatma Gandhi’s basic education

  • Free and compulsory education.
  • Education through craft to relieve the child from the tyranny of theoretical studies and to break the barriers between manual and intellectual labour.
  • Self-supporting education system.
  • Mother tongue to be the medium of instruction.
  • Ideal citizenship.
  • Flexible curriculum and free environment that included basic craft, mother tongue, mathematics, social studies, general science and domestic science.

Allama Iqbal’s philosophy of education

POET and philosopher Allama Iqbal thought that education should be ideologically oriented. It is a systematic journey towards a known destination. Education is a means to an end, not an end itself. Education is supposed to move towards the ideological goal and should be consistent with the cultural heritage of the people. Education, therefore, must instill those values and ideas for which the nation stands. Iqbal considered education to be a complete and comprehensive way of life which encompasses morality and all other dimensions of human activity. To elaborate the point Iqbal took recourse to the Qur’anic term ‘deen’. In a letter to KG Sayidian, he explained his point of view: ‘I have generally used the word “Knowledge” in the sense of the Knowledge based on senses. It gives man power which should be subordinate to religion. This knowledge is the first step to true knowledge.’

According to Iqbal, life is dynamic and full of desires. If life is enriched by ideals, then the intellect of a man can be enriched by these ideals. Any educational experiment should cater to the needs of these ideals. Iqbal undoubtedly wanted to give education an ideological orientation. Education that does not serve this purpose is satanic. Because this is not harmonious with religion. In his presidential address to the All India Muslim League conference at Allahabad in 1930, he said: ‘If today you focus your vision on Islam and seek inspiration from the ever vitalising ideas embodied in it, you will only reassemble your scattered your forces regaining your lost integrity, and thereby saving your self from total destruction.’

Making an analyses of the concept of religion and its pragmatic role in human life, Iqbal says: ‘Religion in this sense is known by the unfortunate name of mysticism, which is supposed to be a life-denying, fact avoiding attitude of mind directly opposed to the radically empirically outlook of our times. Yet higher religion, which is only a search for a larger life, is essentially experience and recognised the necessity of experience as its foundation long before science learned to do so. It is a genuine effort to clarify human consciousness, and is, as such, critical of its levels of experience as naturalism is of its own levels.’ According to Iqbal, it is only religion which has always elevated individuals and transformed whole society as historical experience demonstrates. Even today, religion can prepare modern man for shouldering the burden of great responsibility which is imposed by the advancement of modern science. This clearly shows that Iqbal’s ideals of education is radically different from what is generally understood. It is to be noted that he understands the role of religion in making man self-conscious and God-fearing, while religion is understood by common man to whom religion means performing near rituals and counting of bids.

In Iqbal’s scheme of education a student is to be inspired with a life of actions, keeping in view the development as sustenance and consolidation of his individuality as the prime aim of education. This is possible where there is an ideal. A thorough going spirit of an ideology encompassing the arena of education can achieve this objective. Iqbal, therefore, proposes total overhauling of the entire curricula and the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the achievement of this aim. Iqbal suggests that in imparting education to every student, especially in respect of social studies the viewpoint of religion should be explained to the students at every stage of education.

According to Iqbal, an ideology which is the end of education is only a means to establish a balance between individuality and collectivity. Though development of individuality lays a pivotal role in Iqbal’s scheme of education, the development of social sense and collective responsibility should not be ignored at all, opines Iqbal.

Rabindranath Tagore’s philosophy of education

IN JULY 1921, Rabindranath returned home after traveling Europe and America. That was the time of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Rabindranath strongly felt an urge to make his view public on this movement. There was a call for non-cooperation in the field of education. The education system introduced by the British is nothing but a system of slavery. This was the attitude. Therefore, it should be totally boycotted. Students started responding to this call. Rabindranath made his view clear on this tendency. Rabindranath never denied that the education system of India should contain Indianness. But that was not everything. Rabindranath emphasizes that education has an aspect of total humanity. Science is a kind of truth that applies to the whole of humanity. Science is neither oriental or occidental. There is no discrimination among nations and casts in science. Science education is apparently an occidental education, because it is practiced in the west. For this reason Indian education should absorb western education. Tomorrow’s truth means coming together of nations, and not alienation among nations. This truth should be established in the sphere of education.

Salient points of education Rabindranath Tagore’s view

  • World power is the form of a flawless world system. Power-controlled intellect understands this controlled power. To take control of this system in own hand is science. Science education is absent in India. Therefore, India is in chains, with and bereft of resources. The strength of science education has made the West powerful.
  • The knowledge that has enabled the west to conquer the world, that knowledge should not be given bad names. This will not reduce our woes. It will only increase our crime. This is because knowledge is truth.
  • The primary stage of education is science education. Spiritual education is the next stage. Without the first stage we can have only poverty and resourcefulness. Rabindranath says, ‘I do not support empty bags in the name of asceticism.’
  • One-sided spiritualism has made us bend with poverty and weakness. On the other hand one-sided practice of science has made humanism of the west devoid of meaning.
  • In a meaningful education system both are to be blended. Without this blend, the east is poverty-ridden and the west has become unhappy and resentful due to lack of peace.
  • Science has broken the barrier of geography. Nations have come closer. Nations are coming together, but they are not getting unified. This sadness has engulfed the whole world. The harbingers of the new age should get involved in the quest for unity.
  • Nationalism is obstructing this unity.
  • Due to temporal and spatial reasons, human beings get the truth within a limited sphere and therefore, they worship the limited sphere in stead of truth. The strength of truth has created nations in the world; but nationalism is not the truth. This is merely an instinct.
  • Education for getting liberated from the pride of patriotism is the principal form of education in contemporary periods. Because tomorrow’s history will start from the chapter of cooperation among all nations.
  • For this reason alone, our schools should be turned into houses of getting closer between the east and the west.

In the midst of the rage of nationalism, these ideas of Rabindranath created a lot of controversies. Rabindranath was accused of collaborating with the British, opposing Gandhiji and condemning nationalism. It was natural that he would become the target of attack. It was not surprising. Some 10 to 12 years ago, Rabindranath held a similar view as espoused by his countrymen during the non-cooperation movement but he had a change of views. His countrymen were in the captivity of time when he wrote the novel Gora but now Rabindranath is looking far ahead.

Concluding observations

IN A world which is highly interconnected, a study of educational philosophy can not remain limited within a continent. Ideas and experiments in one country influence the thought process in another country. Although, it is claimed that the ideas of the Asian thinkers have been surveyed, this survey is not even exhaustive for the Asian continent. Many important Asian thinkers have been left out. Inclusion of western thinkers would have extended the list to a huge variety.

Important western thinkers include Emerson (1803–1882), John Dewey (1859–1952), Franklin (1706–1790), Jefferson (1743–1826), Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Herbert (1776–1841), Froebel (1762–1852), AN Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozik and many more. Besides these modern thinkers, there are the Judaic tradition, Graeco-Roman tradition and the medieval church.

An attempt to cover the whole gamut of philosophy of education within a very short space could be a mis-starter. Asian educational thinkers wanted a happy blend between religious/spiritual hunger of man with the needs of this world. They have also encouraged the development of a logical mind and curiosity. They have also felt the need for maintaining independence of thinking. Some of them emphasized the need for maintaining a distance from the rulers by the scholars. Though Asia is known to be a land of spiritualism, the necessity of science education has never been ignored or denied. The substance of Asian educational philosophy may be articulated as moral and capable man for a moral society.

In Bangladesh, we need to go a long way towards the implementation of such an education system, which brings the soul and head together. Head without the soul is vicious and soul without the head is of no use in this world. The challenge is to break the hiatus between the soul and the head. The Asian tradition insists on immortality of the soul. But this soul has to be in this world for a transitory period. Should we deny this short sojourn in this world only in the name of a happier after-world? Our own religious tradition seeks happiness in this world and hereafter.

Dr. Mahbub Ullah
Dr. Mahbub Ullah is a former chairman and professor of the department of development studies in the University of Dhaka.


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