The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

And then there are the customary homilies to him. No one has to have listened to the Indian Prime Minister’s speeches this October 2nd to know that he would have exhorted the nation and especially school children to follow the example of Bapu.  School principals all over the country would have done the same, taking Gandhi as an example of someone who, as they believe, understood the value of education and was himself a product of a well-established educational system.  If there is one thing that “reasonable” and “sensible” people agree upon, even if they are not predisposed to a liberal point of view, it is that education is the sine qua non of the progress of individuals, communities, and nations.

Thus it behooves us to consider, howsoever briefly, what Gandhi thought of education. He had, on this subject as much as anything else that occupied his attention, strong, carefully reasoned, and wholly unconventional views.  Since nearly everything that he stood for has been consigned to oblivion in modern India–even, let it be clear, his views on “cleanliness”, notwithstanding the hullabaloo over the “Swachh Bharat” [Clean India] mission launched by the Prime Minister some years ago–it is scarcely surprising that his outlook on education has similarly been dismissed by Indians as hopelessly idealistic, old-fashioned, and utterly unworthy of their attention.  The Gandhians who have encapsulated his thinking under the term “Nai Taleem”—and it is quite irrelevant that Gandhi himself used the term—have not helped, given that the term is calculated to send middle class Indians into a panic.  Middle class Indians know that those who follow “Nai Taleem” [New Education] will never gain entrance to even a second-rate Indian university, much less St. Stephen’s College, JNU, Ashoka University, or the yet more exalted institutions of higher education in Britain and especially the United States.

The story of Gandhi’s radical skepticism about modern education is best told, in the first instance, through an anecdote from his life around 1927.   He was visited by an American clergyman by the name of Reverend John R. Mott, with whom Gandhi would have subsequent meetings in 1936 and 1938 as well.  Mott would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.  According to Mukulbhai Kalarthi [Anecdotes from Bapu’s Life, Navajivan Publishing House, 1960, p. 33], Mott and Gandhi engaged in extended conversations over the course of several days. Towards the end of his stay, seeking to crystallize their discussions into a few important insights, Rev. Mott posed two questions.  “Tell me, Mahatmaji”, he asked Gandhi, “what is it that, after nearly two decades of the freedom struggle, still gives you the greatest hope”?  Gandhi unhesitatingly replied, “What gives me the greatest hope is that the Indians masses, despite the grave provocation, do not abandon nonviolence [ahimsa].”  Rev. Mott then moved on to the next question:  “And what is it that fills you with the greatest fear and makes you exceedingly unhappy”?  Gandhi, we are told, paused and then said:  “The hardheartedness of the educated is a matter of the constant concern and sorrow to me.”

It is more than likely that today Gandhi would have had reason to question his faith in the adherence of his fellow Indians to ahimsa. But, on the question of education, it is rather remarkable that, at a time when the educated comprised a relatively tiny community, Gandhi already was deeply suspicions about the value and utility of formal education.  Some people have thought it hypocritical that, having availed of higher education in London, Gandhi was not inclined to let his two older sons pursue the same course of action. At a time when Gandhi and the Congress were championing swadeshi or indigenous institutions, he could ill afford to let his own children acquire higher education in England. But Gandhi wasn’t merely trying to look good or be, in contemporary jargon, “politically correct”. It is precisely his own experience with higher education that, in his view, conferred on him the moral authority to repudiate its alleged benefits.

Modern education, as Gandhi understood it, thrives on a number of disjunctions that are absolutely fatal to the development of a person’s moral faculty and thus to the conception of the person as a whole entity.  Such formal education, which begins as children start going to school and is amplified over the years, receiving its most pronounced expression in university education, aggravates the divide between the head and the heart, between mind and body, between intellectual work and the work of labor, between reason and emotion, indeed between thought and feeling. “I would develop in the child”, wrote Gandhi in Young India on 12 March 1925, “his hands, his brain and his soul. The hands have almost atrophied.  The soul has been altogether ignored.”

He spoke often of how education in India had to be “revolutionized.  The brain must be educated through the hand.  If I were a poet, I could write poetry on the possibilities of the five fingers” (Harijan, 18 February 1939).  Time and again, Gandhi wrote, and wrote insistently, passionately, and from the viewpoint of some whose certitude derives from a lifetime of thought and experience, in this vein.  “Now, I wish to say that whatever is taught to children, all of it should be taught necessarily through the medium of a trade or handicraft.”  So he said in his address to the Wardha Education Conference on 22 October 1937.  But Gandhi anticipates the objections of those who, pointing to its “irrelevance” in the modern world, might scorn at learning a “handicraft”, by arguing that “we aim at developing the intellect also with the aid of such trade or handicraft.”  The takli [spindle] shall also be the medium through which students “would be able to learn a substantial part of the history of cotton, Lancashire and the British empire.”

When Gandhi adverted to the hardheartedness of the educated, he also had in mind the view that modern educational systems are not designed to teach compassion or empathy for the poor and the wronged.  Education may inspire a well-meaning economist to draw up a model for the alleviation of poverty, but almost nothing in the economist’s education gives him or her a feel for the lives of the poor.  If anything, the economist’s model is much more likely to worsen the condition of the poor:  entranced by his own artful games, the economist overlooks the fact that most models rarely have any relationship to the reality that they purport to describe.  Their referential world is other models, and the work of other economists; and before the well-meaning economist knows it, the lives of the poor themselves get reduced to a series of numbers and abstractions.  In all this, the meaning of “poverty” itself never gets interrogated.  Perhaps the economist might begin fruitfully with some reflections on the sheer poverty of his discipline.

For all its failings, Gandhi did not give up on education.  One keeps on learning to the end of one’s life.  He regretted the “hardheartedness” of the educated, not their heartlessness—which is a rather different thing.  I very much doubt that Gandhi thought of anyone as ‘heartless’, and he would have agreed with the novelist E. M. Forster that the British had an “undeveloped heart”.  Education had hardened the British, too, and in his visit to Britain in 1931 he found that the warmest receptions he received were from the working class, particularly the mill workers of Lancashire who had suffered the most from the boycott of British textile manufactures that Gandhi had initiated in India.

There are many indices one can use to measure the shocking failures of education, even as it is conventionally understood, in India today. The stories of state-run schools that are in absolute shambles are legion, and have been documented by thousands of researchers, journalists, and social workers.  More than seventy years after independence, the effective countrywide literacy rate is less than 50%; in some districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, female literacy rates still hover at 10%.  The best public universities have been gutted; all that is left is a shambolic display of awards of “excellence”, a word as shorn of content as any.  In one instance the award has been to an institute of higher education that does not even exist.  Yet all this is far from what Gandhi had in mind when he pondered over the ruins of education and I wonder how he would have struggled to even comprehend the “hardheartedness” of the educated in India today. Let there be no mistake:  what really ails Indian education is the fact that at its center is the “undeveloped heart.”


(NB:  This is a revised version of the piece published on 13 October 2019 under the same title on the ABP Network, here.  A conversation between Gandhi and Mott reported in the December 19 and 26, 1938, issues of Harijan, another magazine founded and edited by Gandhi, seems to have gone over the same ground eleven years later. Gandhi was asked the same two questions, but described the “ignorance and poverty of the masses of India,” and the treatment meted out to the Harijans, as the matters of the greatest sorrow to him.  It may be that Mukulbhai Kalarthi was mistaken about the date of the conversation and reported it inaccurately; but it is just as likely, perhaps even more so, that Gandhi did speak about the hardheartedness of the educated, considering the highly critical views that he held about the state of Indian education.)

Also published in Hindi as भारतीय शिक्षा पर महात्मा गांधी के विचार here:

Translated into German by Dr. Maximillian Neumann, and available here:

10 thoughts on “The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

  1. An excellent piece, particularly the elaborations on the elevation of mental over physical labor. In the Indian context, I think we must view that distinction through the realm of caste as well, must we not? Indeed, it is those who are given the humiliating treatment of untouchability who have historically performed the labor, such as cleaning latrines, that is so vital for society to run. I recall from my studies of Gandhi that, much to the consternation of the orthodox upper castes, Gandhi insisted in his ashram that everyone take turns cleaning the latrines. What we have seen is the traditional caste hierarchies which denigrate certain menial tasks as “unfit” for the upper castes forming an unholy alliance with capitalism which itself places the labor of the mind higher than the labor of the body. Indeed, within the home, it is the women who are tasked with domestic labor. Perhaps what is most needed in India is for more Brahmins to clean latrines and more men to do the dishes.

    • HI Bikram, Your comments on the politics of labor, especially in view of caste, are spot on. At all his ashrams, Gandhi insisted that everyone was to share all the duties equally, without regard to caste or gender. In a lengthier piece, I would certainly extend the argument along the lines you’ve mentioned. Why we should assume, as we have in nearly every society known to us, that the labor of the mind is more noble than the labor of the body is itself worth probing. Perhaps we should invert pay structures: I am certain few who clean latrines, or pick up garbage or carcasses of animals from the street, “enjoy” their work; but those who are in the professions very often do. That enjoyment is itself part of their reward. Those who have to submit to degrading work should, as compensation, receive more. These are certainly questions that need to be posed, however utopian they may seen to some.

  2. A wonderful piece. There is no one more committed to achieving Gandhi’s vision of education than Narendra Modi who has been stressing importance of handicrafts and trades in education and his own humble background as a chai wallah. Through Modi’s governance we will not only see the fulfillment of Gandhian education but also his emphasis on cleanliness through swacch bharat and his emphasis on rural development. Finally we are seeing the birth of Gandhi’s India through the governance of his fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi. There is no one more committed to Gandhi’s vision of India.

  3. Pingback: Ekalavya and Drona shape collective expectations from a teacher and a student: Ekalavya branded residential schools in tribal areas | Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation

  4. What even is small scale nonviolence? In some ways does not our immune system commit grave acts of violence every time we catch a cold?

  5. This is a very thought provoking piece, particularly the discussion of the difference between heartlessness, hard-heartedness, and the underdeveloped heart, distinctions which are very important to keep in mind. This article resonates strongly with me as I have long been interested in the social role of education and find Gandhi’s assessment of it to be quite accurate and tragically overlooked in our discussions on education. I am in complete agreement with Gandhi’s views about the importance of developing a child’s brain, hands, and soul, the importance of teaching handicrafts. All three of these things, brain, hands, and soul, are not discrete and should be dealt with in an integrated way. It is important, for example, that one can find enrichment for the soul in the activities of the brain and hands, an idea which is simply non-existent in our society which places a much higher value on the mind than the hands and has pays no heed to the enrichment of the soul when it comes to either. Though the two individuals came from different cultural and intellectual milieus, bringing Marx’s theory of alienation into conversation with Gandhi’s idea of the abandonment of the soul could be fruitful. Education is our training ground for a capitalist workplace which subjects us to constant forms of alienation, as Marx enumerated: alienation of the worker from the product, alienation of the worker from the act of production, alienation of the worker from other workers, alienation from the “species-essence”, and so on. I agree that Gandhi would be appalled by the heardheartedness of the educated today. This hard-heartedndss is less surprising in light of the fact that the social role of education is to mould people to be useful mechanistic components in the machine that is capitalist society. I am not too optimistic about a change in how we think about education unless we also fundamentally change our society. Education is what we use to train children to become functioning “adults” in society, and in today’s world that means subjecting them to alienation from day one.

  6. Honesty was also crucial for Gandhi’s understanding of duty. In 1945, a historian asked Gandhi: “How can a historian best serve the country?” Gandhi answered: “He can serve by writing a true and original history of the people. If there is progress he will describe the progress; if he finds there is decline he will record the decline.”

    • Hi Ganesh, Thanks for this comment and for reminding me and my readers of the integral part of truth in Gandhi’s conception of ‘duty’. The person who posed the question to Gandhi to which you advert was a correspondent by the name of Gope Gurbuxani. What Gandhi said to K M Munshi in 1945 when the Gujarati writer presented him with a copy of his historical novel, “Prithvivallabh”, is just as interesting. He inquired from Munshi how it was possible to write a history of Gandhi without mentioning the Muslims.

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