Rabindranath Tagore’s School at Shantiniketan

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist, is regarded as one of the greatest of modern Indian writers, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Born into a wealthy Bengali family during the period of British rule, he became a friend of the founders of independent India, Nehru and Gandhi. Educated by private tutors, Tagore went to study law at University College, London, but dropped out after a year. He developed an intense dislike of conventional, Western education and put a great deal of energy into establishing a school and later a university at a place in the poor, rural hinterland of Bengal, Shantiniketan. When Maria Montessori visited the school in 1939, she declared that she was in complete sympathy with its founder’s philosophy of education.

In India, Rabindranath Tagore created a form of authentic education which he believed was more true to the needs children growing up in rural India than conventional, didactic schooling:

Children’s minds are sensitive to the influences of the world. Their subconscious minds are active, always imbibing some lesson, and realizing the joy of knowing. This sensitive receptivity allows them, without any strain, to master language, which is the most complex and difficult instrument of expression, full of indefinable ideas and abstract symbols … Because of this, their introduction to the world of reality is easy and joyful.

In this critical period, the child’s life is subjected to the education factory, lifeless, colourless, dissociated from the context of the universe, within bare white walls staring like eyeballs of the dead. We are born with that God-given gift of taking delight in the world, but such delightful activity is fettered and imprisoned, muted by a force called discipline which kills the sensitiveness of the child mind which is always on the alert, restless and eager to receive first-hand knowledge from mother nature. We sit inert, like dead specimens of some museum, while lessons are pelted on us from on high, like hail stones on flowers.

In childhood we learn our lessons with the aid of both body and mind, with all the senses active and eager. When we are sent to school, the doors of natural information are closed to us; our eyes see the letters, our ears the abstract lessons, but our mind misses the perpetual stream of ideas from nature, because the teachers, in their wisdom, think these bring distraction, and have no purpose behind them … [N]ature, the greatest or all teachers, is thwarted at every step by the human teacher who believes in machine-made lessons rather than life lessons, so the growth of the child’s mind is not only injured, but forcibly spoiled.

Children should be surrounded with the things of nature which have their own educational value. Their minds should be allowed to stumble upon and be surprised at everything that happens in today’s life …

The child learns so easily because he has a natural gift, but adults, because they are tyrants, ignore natural gifts and say that children should learn through the same process that they learned by. We insist upon forced mental feeding and our lessons become a form of torture. This is one of man’s most cruel and wasteful mistakes.

Because I underwent this process when I was young, and remember the torture of it, I tried to establish a school where boys might be free in spite of the school. Knowing something of the natural school which Nature supplies to all her creatures, I established my institution in a beautiful spot, far away from town, where the children had the greatest freedom possible …

[T]he schools in our country, far from being integrated to society, are imposed on it from the outside. The courses they teach are dull and dry, painful to learn, and useless when learnt. There is nothing in common between the lessons the pupils cram up from ten to four o’clock and the country where they live … It is clear, therefore, that although we might succeed in copying to perfection the externals of the European school … we shall only be burdening ourselves with tables and benches, rules and curricula … We must put the European model entirely out of our minds, if only for the reason that the European history and European society are different from our history and our society.

[In] the ancient India the school was where life itself was. There the students were brought up, not in the academic atmosphere of scholarship and learning, or in the maimed life of monastic seclusion, but in the atmosphere of living aspiration. They took the cattle to pasture, collected firewood, gathered fruit, cultivated kindness to all creatures and grew in their spirit with their teachers’ own spiritual growth …

That this traditional relationship of masters and disciples is not a mere romantic fiction is proved by the relic we still possess of the indigenous system of education which has preserved its independence for centuries to be about to succumb at last to the hand of foreign bureaucratic control. These chatus-pathis, which is the Sanskrit name for the university, have not the savour of the school about them. The students live in their master’s home like the children of the house, without having to pay for their board and lodging or tuition. The teacher prosecutes his own study, living a life of simplicity, and helping the students in their lessons as a part of his life and not his profession.

L.K. Elmhirst was an English agricultural scientist who became Tagore’s friend and took responsibility for the operation of Tagore’s school. Here he describes what the children in the school did:

[T]he following functions [are] treated as of primary educational importance:

Care and cleaning and construction of quarters.
Care and proper use of latrines; sanitary disposal of waste.

Cooking and serving of food; clothes washing and repair.

Personal hygiene and healthy habits.

Individual self-discipline; group self-government.

Policing and hospitality; fire drill and control.

In every one of these, there is some art to be mastered, some business or organizing capacity to be developed, some law of science to be recognised, and in all of theme there is a call for the recognition of the need for individual self-preservation as well as of the duties, responsibilities and privileges of family membership and citizenship.

Much of what is termed housecraft is in the nature of handicraft, but, from the earliest years, it is well to introduce to the children some special craft, easily grasped by small hands, which is of definite economic value. The product should be of real use in the home, or have a ready sale outside, and thus enable the child to realize his capacity for self-preservation through the trained experience of his hands.

Any of the following can be mastered in a few weeks:

  • Cotton wick, tape and band making; scarf weaving and belt making; cotton rug and duree making (the looms can easily be made by the children themselves, out of bamboo.)

Straw-sandal making. Straw-mat and mattress making.

Sewing; paper making; ink making.

Dyeing with simple vegetable dyes; cotton and calico printing with wood blocks.

Making sun-dried mud bricks …

There are few of the crafts mentioned above which are not in some way intimately bound up with the life of the country-folk. With each of them there is a grammar of procedure which has to be learned, but it is a grammar which is not detached from life …

Of all workshops the one provided by Nature herself is the most commodious and helpful. Under skilled stimulation and guidance there is out-of-doors an unlimited field for experiencing and experimenting with life. The schoolmaster here is an anachronism. He can no longer tower over his pupils from his rostrum and threaten them with his power to grant or withhold marks and certificates. He is forced to adopt his rightful place behind the student, ever on the watch, ever ready with a word of advice or encouragement, ever ready to be a student himself, but never in the way.

Tagore, Rabindranath. 1925 (1961). ‘Talks in China.’ in A Tagore Reader, edited by Amiya Chakravarty. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 213–215.

—. 1961 (1906). ‘The Problem of Education.’ in Towards Universal Man. London: Asia Publishing House. pp. 68–69.

—. 1917 (1961). ‘My School.’ in A Tagore Reader, edited by Amiya Chakravarty. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 222.

Elmhirst, L.K. 1961 (1925). ‘Siksha-Satra.’ in Rabindranath Tagore, Pioneer in Education: Essays and Exchanges between Rabindranath Tagore and L.K. Elmhirst, edited by Rabindranath Tagore and L.K. Elmhirst. London: John Murray. pp. 69–70, 71–72. || Amazon || WorldCat

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