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Pragmatic Poets: John Dewey & Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore’s philosophy of education drew its original inspiration from the “forest schools” of the Vedic period in which a small number of students studied all manners of life and culture from an intimate association with a teacher, or guru.

As the turbulent 20th century ended and the next millennium commenced, an analytical catharsis, stimulated by postmodern theories, catalyzed the field of curriculum and instruction. Traditional pedagogical methodologies were problematized and new ways of looking at old problems gave birth to an invigorated multi-perspective dynamic, contextualizing and critiquing educational practices. Ironically, the problems in today’s classrooms are not that different from the problems identified by educational philosophers of the Progressive movement in the USA, at the turn of the last century.

The deconstructive discourses of the late twentieth century, as revolutionary as they may seem, have their roots in post-Enlightenment rational-humanist schools of thought. These Neo-Hegelian philosophies influenced not only nineteenth century Europe and America but India, China, and Japan as well. Concurrent with the development of post-Enlightenment philosophies such as Utilitarianism, Idealism, Marxism, and Empiricism, grew the demand for and development of mass public education. Philosophers of various epistemological orientations on each continent applied their theories to the burgeoning field of curriculum and instruction. As education became compulsory, learning theories and instructional models became ubiquitous.

The education that emerged in the middle years of the 19th century, resulting from the mandate to educate the masses, “required new methods of teaching to replace the individualized or small group patterns of earlier centuries. Education in both Europe had for centuries been reserved as an elite privilege. After the Industrial Revolution, elites such as colonialists in India and aristocrats in England viewed the uneducated lower classes, as illiterate, irrational poor, a dangerous mass, and a possible threat to capitalist power relations. Education was considered necessary to ensure civil order and guarantee the rights of property. Due to colonial connections in India and North America, the style of education implemented in both places was based on the British system. Though the model for mass education was borrowed from the British the motivation that directed the growth of the US educational system “is rooted in the Puritan desire for wide-spread (male) literacy for Bible-reading purposes.”[1]

The demands for teaching large numbers of students simultaneously, shifted education away from the earlier models in which “teachers worked with individuals or small groups [and] schools [had] collections of texts [which] teachers would use . . . adventitiously to organize programs of instruction for individual students.”[2] Many educators and philosophers of the late nineteenth century soon became critical of the impersonal quality of this rigid system of mass education in which the curriculum was controlled and standardized, centered on a required textbook, usually outside the individual teacher’s power to decide. Inherent in textbook-directed education was the accompanying decline in the status of the teacher, and the related problems of classroom management. Textbook driven/centrally mandated models assume that the process of teaching is mechanical and that students are all the same. By definition, this presupposes that the subject can be encapsulated and thus taught by an arbitrary individual or untrained moderator.[3] Children were expected to act like little adults and unquestioningly imbibe all the information prescribed by the curriculum, the ultimate goal of education became the ability to pass a series of preordained tests.

Into that era of increasingly autocratic instructional techniques and top-down curriculum design[4], came two progressive philosophers of education, John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore. Born just two years apart[5] on opposite sides of the planet, both of these great thinkers left an indelible mark on twentieth century education. Dewey opened the Laboratory School–based on a child-centered/individualized instruction model–in Chicago in 1896. Just five years later, in 1901, Tagore opened Shantiniketan in West Bengal, founded on child-centered principles that respected the emotional and intellectual needs of students.

The parallel experiences and observations of these two philosophers led them to develop complementary curriculum models and instructional strategies, each responding to the particular needs of his own society. The congruencies of their convictions are of profound concern as the 21st century dawns, especially in light of the fact that many of the pressing problems these two educators worked to solve, such as student apathy and content relevance, are still among the greatest challenges facing contemporary education.

In today’s curriculum, in which multiculturalism and internationalism have come to play essential roles, a comparison of the ideas of these two reformers, East and West, is of timely interest. In this paper I will discuss events in the lives of Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewey which linked them in an international intellectual atmosphere at the beginning of the twentieth century. They not only shared formative influences, which led to many similarities in their perspectives of childhood and the learning process, but they also shared several intimate colleagues and associates. Based on the information at my disposal, Dewey and Tagore never physically met nor personally corresponded, though there are many connections between them.[6] Besides having mutual friends, they both traveled to China, Japan and Soviet Russia to lecture and study the educational systems in those countries. They both left behind a child-centered progressive legacy in their respective countries. This paper is not meant as a comparative analysis of the pedagogical ideas of John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore, but by briefly investigating their shared histories, is meant to serve as a starting point for such a comparative study.

Indigenous Roots and Progressive Paradigms

Tagore’s first writings on education appeared in 1892; by that time, Dewey had already published a book on psychology and several education articles.[7] As Mukherjee states in his book on the “educational thought and experiment” of Rabindranath Tagore,

“[B]efore John Dewey . . . had become . . . known [in India], Tagore [advocated] that education should be broad-based . . . that the educational institutions should be living organisms of the life of the community, and that no education can be complete unless the teachers and the students come to know the needs and problems of the common people intimately and correctly and go out to serve them in order to bring joy and enlightenment in their life.”[8]

Salkar states that even without any contact with the American educational movement, “Tagore was . . . in line with the Pragmatism of John Dewey and his theories of ‘learning by doing’.”[9]

Both philosophers drew inspiration for their intersecting viewpoints from a critique of eighteenth century rationalism evolving from the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that “the spontaneous impulses of children were healthy and should not be repressed by adult demands for emotional restraint, intellectual precision, and social conformity.”[10] Tagore and Dewey were separately and simultaneously influenced by the pioneering work of eighteenth century educators such as Pestalozzi,[11] Herbart[12] and Froebel.[13] Whether these two intellectuals were aware of each other’s’ work in the last years of the nineteenth century is difficult to ascertain. However, certainly they had heard of each other by the second decade of the twentieth century when each gained international attention. In 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his collection of poems, Gitanjali, (Song Offerings).[14] Dewey’s most famous book, Democracy and Education, was published in 1916, and brought him international recognition as the preeminent philosopher of the Progressive education movement. However, as Mukherjee points out, by the time Democracy and Education was published, “most of the fundamental aspects of Tagore’s educational philosophy had already taken definite shape.”[15]

Tagore’s philosophy of education drew its original inspiration from the “forest schools” of the Vedic period in which a small number of students studied all manners of life and culture from an intimate association with a teacher, or guru. In his study of Indian education, William Cenkner states,

“Tagore was impressed by the breadth and depth of Upanisadic thought and its capacity to hold at the same time multiple world views and diverse experiences. He absorbed the universalism and the tolerance so pervasive in these sacred Hindu scriptures, and in his own literature he was able to embrace multiple perceptions, an absence of dogmatism, and an all-pervasive divine presence in nature.”[16]

After the Nobel Prize brought him international fame, Tagore traveled extensively. He lectured in Europe and North America, as well as China and Japan, on the subject of the unity of humanity.[17] W.B. Yeats was very impressed with Tagore’s poetry and wrote the foreword to the first English edition of Gitanjali, as well, C. F. Andrews and Rabindranath began an intimate friendship that would span their lifetimes. In 1913, Europe was embroiled in nationalistic rivalries, gearing up for war. Tagore stressed the universality of cultures and sought to bring a message of peace and harmony from the East to a materialistic and militaristic West.[18]

Undoubtedly, John Dewey was aware of Tagore’s visits to the United States. Dewey was a professor at Columbia University from 1904 to 1930. Teachers College of Columbia University was an important center for the dissemination of progressive ideas. For several decades Dewey worked at Columbia with William Kilpatrick who developed the “project method” of education. Like Tagore, Kilpatrick hated rote learning; he claimed that textbooks reduce “man to mind and mind largely to memory.”[19] In 1926, while still a professor at Columbia and a colleague of Dewey’s, Kilpatrick visited Tagore in India at his school, Shantiniketan.[20]

During his lecture tours in the West, Tagore made an effort to study the educational institutions in the countries he visited. The dualism in his observations of Western learning and culture though seemingly paradoxical, in his penetrating analysis, were not contradictory. His travels abroad “made him a champion of science, of democracy and economic development.”[21] Tagore stated that, “The cultivation of science leads to the development of curiosity for knowledge, skill in observation and experimentation, and the power of accurate thinking, and with it all kinds of false notions and blind superstitions disappear instantly like mist at sun-rise.”[22] At the same time, Tagore conversely warned against the abuse of science for narrow selfish political and economic power. He argued that the scientific orientation of the West should be combined with the spiritual outlook of the East for the benefit of all mankind. Tagore insisted that his epistemological and educational ideas were not based on Western paradigms; though he was a voracious reader and readily welcomed ideas and influences from all quarters, he was very clear that his inspiration came from indigenous Hindu beliefs, scriptures and practices. He was particularly sensitive to the British form of education that had been established in India. Tagore repeatedly recalled his very negative experiences in missionary schools.

The colonial educational system was dramatically divorced from the realities of the Indian milieu. According to British colonial constructs, indigenous knowledge was seen as “deficient,” which had led to the “decline” of the Indian people from an ancient “golden age.” Orientalists and Indologists saw Indic civilization as the cradle or “childhood of Europe,” but, they surmised, the rise of “superstitious and irrational” practices had caused India to “stagnate and regress.”[23]  English style education was promoted by Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and his father James, who wanted to “raise up a class of persons who, having derived from an intimate acquaintance with European literature, the improved ideas and feelings which are derivable from that source, will make it their occupation to spread those ideas and feelings among their countrymen.”[24] Colonialists saw education not as a path to self-improvement and individual freedom, but as a means to train an inexpensive labor pool. English literature was the core of the colonial curriculum, learning in the vernacular languages was discouraged and science and mathematics were not generally offered.

Interestingly, the beginning of colonial education in India did not go unchallenged in England. Edmund Burke, among others of the British bourgeoisie, argued that the fierce American desire for independence would never have succeeded had it not “been led by a determined educated class.”[25] Inculcated in John Locke and post-Reformation Humanism, the Americans could not but rebel against their colonial masters. Many British feared the same from their Indian subjects, if provided with the tools of rationalism.[26] Such was their faith in the power of contemporary English education. Coincidentally, General Cornwallis, who had recently tasted defeat during the American Revolution took his next assignment as India’s Governor-General very seriously, determined to keep the empire in tack.

The first money allocated by the East India Company for the education of the colonial subjects was not provided until after 1835, following the now infamous statement of Thomas Macaulay[27] which promoted English education in India as a means of securing native administrators, or a “nation of clerks,” who would be Indian by race, but English in tastes, morals and intellect. To cultivate this appreciation of English culture and customs, the colonial curriculum stressed English law and literature. This curriculum was designed to create a cultured elite, steeped in Western values and loyal to the crown. It produced, as well, nationalist political leaders, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, who incorporated Western ideas into their own philosophical and political perspectives, and then used these critical skills against the imperialist system that had hoped to co-opt them. These intellectual leaders of Indian nationalism and revivalism also drew their ideas from indigenous sources. The evolution of education in India is inscribed with opposing tensions. The emphasis on elite English education, and its displacement from traditional instructional models, resulted in a consequential break with the everyday experiences of the illiterate masses, and thus reified the gap between the classes.[28] Tagore rebelled against this elitism as well as the artificial and academically stifling constraints of the British educational system. He detested the process of rote memorization that was the main pedagogical method. His negative experiences in the British colonial schools were a driving inspiration in his creation of alternative indigenous educational models.

Heralds of Unity: Tagore and Dewey in the Far East

Intellectual debate, cultural synthesis, social revolutions and revivalism were not confined to the Indian independence movement. In China intellectuals were hotly debating issues of nationalism, education, literature and Western ideological hegemony. There are several thorough and scholarly treatments of the evolution of the Chinese renaissance after the turn of the century.[29] Following the collapse of the Ch’ing dynasty in 1911, provincial fighting and civil strife lent urgency to the intellectual debates and political climate in Beijing. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was much conflict among political factions in China: Marxism was gaining popularity; political instability, social reform, student unrest and growing nationalism characterized the period.

Contributing to this intellectual atmosphere at the University of Peking[30] was the young Professor Hu Shih who had studied in the US between 1910 and 1917, first at Cornell and then at Columbia University.  Hu completed his Ph.D. at Columbia under the guidance of John Dewey in 1917. According to Stephen Hay, “Hu Shih best exemplifies the kind of thinker who has moved into the world of modern thought without completely surrendering the revivalist’s emotional attachment to the ancient traditions of his own people.”[31] In his Ph. D. dissertation, The Development of the Logical Mind, written under Dewey’s guidance, Hu Shih stated, “The revival of the non-Confucian schools is absolutely necessary because it is in these schools that we may hope to find the congenial soil in which to transplant the best products of occidental philosophy and science.” He felt that the scientific methods of the West were “not totally alien to the Chinese mind” but could be employed as “instruments by means of which and in the light of which much of the lost treasures of Chinese philosophy can be recovered.”[32]

Hu Shih sought to uncover and rejuvenate those Chinese traditions that would help to “best assimilate modern civilization in such a manner as to make it congenial and congruous and continuous with the civilization of our own making.”[33] Hu’s reformist agenda, embedded deeply in Chinese culture, embraced Pragmatism in occidental philosophy and practical, culturally adaptable applications of the scientific method. This articulation of the interface between tradition and modernity, in many ways mirrored the approach of Rabindranath Tagore in India who combined idealism with pragmatism. Both of them spoke of a “world philosophy” that would bring harmony to humankind through a synthesis of the material and the spiritual.

Hu Shih and his colleagues founded the Peking Lecture Association for the purpose of inviting leading foreign scholars to share ideas with Chinese intellectuals. John Dewey taught in Peking University for most of the 1919-1920 school year. He also promoted “future blending of Eastern and Western thought … an East-West synthesis.”[34] During Dewey’s stay in China, Hu Shih was more than glad to accompany his mentor and serve as his interpreter. Dewey’s ideas were well received by Chinese reformers who appreciated his appeal for progress through education. In a lecture at Peking University, Dewey said that, “Western philosophy one-sidedly studies nature while Oriental philosophy one-sidedly study human affairs.”[35]  Hu also served as interpreter for Bertrand Russell, the next scholar invited by the group. Russell, who taught in China between 1920 and 1921 also “expressed the hope that China would somehow absorb Western science and technology while retaining the ethical qualities and humanistic way of life at which China was superior.” He advocated this “East-West cultural blending as an ideal the Chinese should strive for.”[36] Hu was also eager to meet the Indian philosopher-poet who succeeded Dewey and Russell[37] when Tagore came to China on a lecture tour in the spring and summer of 1924.

Tagore also advocated an East-West cultural synthesis, though he spoke more disparagingly of Western imperialism. In a speech made at the beginning of his tour, Tagore presented the idea that the people of the West “had given up their faith in the spiritual perfection of life. Their doom is upon them, and when we in the East become enamored of their success, we must know that the terrific glow upon the western horizon is not the glow of sunrise, or a new birth-fire, but is the conflagration of passion.” He argued for a pan-Asian spiritual consciousness that “accepts truth when it comes from the West,” but has the conviction of its own traditions to counteract the negative aspects of western materialism.[38] His message of the essential unity of Asian cultures was not favorably received by Communist activists in China who accused him of being a relic and a fossil, a man bound by the traditions of an enslaved country. Among these activists were many atheists who envisioned that China’s future political and economic leadership would be accomplished through technological superiority. They proclaimed Marxist ideas and shunned traditional Taoist and Confucian philosophies.

Tagore, accustomed to a warm reception, was stung by the virulent nature of the criticism. Hu Shih sought to deflect some of the animosity directed toward Tagore by these political radicals. At Tagore’s sixty-third birthday on May 8, Hu wrote a poem for Tagore and spoke about the connection between a rejuvenated India and China.[39] In his subsequent China lectures, Tagore sought to clear up the misunderstandings that many Chinese revolutionaries held towards his ideas. He defended himself, citing the revolutionary activities of his family and he “launched a vigorous counterattack on his critics’ faith in material power and political organization.”[40] Tagore emphasized his message of unity of humanity when he said, “Education must aim to make every child a fulfillment of the spiritual ideal of the present age–which is sympathy, understanding and love between people.'”[41] Tagore, disappointed by the lack of receptivity to his pan-Asian ideas, left China for a brief visit to Japan before returning to India.

On previous visit to Japan in 1916, though warmly received by intellectuals as a literary figure, his ideas of pan-Asian consciousness and his criticism of hyper-nationalism and “the cult of patriotism” were not looked upon favorably by the Japanese government which was at that time actively pursuing its imperialist ambitions throughout the rest of Asia. That Tagore’s message advocating a rejection of Western ideological hegemony would be rejected by the Japanese elites, is not surprising. After the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, “the samurai statesmen who directed Japan’s emergence as a modern nation . . . looked not to China for new ideas but to the nations of the West.” The Meji Emperor said in 1868 “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.”[42] As Hay points out,

“New intellectual currents from the West acted both to reinforce and to oppose this conservative and nativist trend, German idealism, principally Kantian and Hegelian thought, helped to systematize both Confucian ethics and Buddhist metaphysics and also strengthened the absolutist philosophy of the national polity.”[43]

Tagore did not present himself to Japan’s intellectuals as a poet, but as a prophet calling for a revival of Japanese spirituality. One scholar, Tanaka Odo had studied with John Dewey in the US, 1890-1899. Tanaka was pragmatist and in his own words, described himself as a “romantic utilitarian” a defender of “modern civilization.”[44] As such he was critical of Tagore and thought him a mystic and a transcendentalist. Other scholars, such as Kuruma Takudo evaluated Tagore from a more favorable perspective: ‘[Tagore] has partially awakened the Japanese from the dream of worshipping the West. If this be so, then I am obliged to him for my country’s sake.”[45] During his 1921 Japan lecture tour, Dewey’s ideas were more widely appreciated than Tagore’s, just as they had been in China. The Japanese leaders were interested in finding practical information from the West that could help propel Japan in its quest for material progress and international recognition. Tagore’s message, which was based on an appraisal of the horrors and havoc perpetrated by European nations on each other and his experience of colonial exploitation, prompted him to carry a message to his Asian neighbors which warned them “against imitating the materialistic way of life of the West, but advised them to assimilate the scientific knowledge of the West while making their own unique contributions to the common pool of world culture.”[46]

Universal Experiences and Educational Experiments

Perhaps Dewey initially viewed Tagore through the same eyes with which much of the world first saw him after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was seen as a mystic poet, called a Universalist by his fans and a transcendentalist by his critics. His internationally renowned collection of poems, Gitanjali, was filled with the love of nature and metaphysical sentiments. His educational experiments and accomplishments were not as well known. In 1921 while lecturing at Cornell, Tagore met Leonard Elmhirst. After studying at Cambridge Elmhirst enlisted in the YMCA and traveled to India and the Middle east, “where he became acutely aware of rural poverty, and he decided to devote his life to finding a solution to this problem.”[47] Elmhirst enrolled in Cornell to study agricultural economics where he met Tagore in the spring of 1921. Elmhirst had also studied with John Dewey, who, however, was not in New York during this time, as he was lecturing in China. Tagore invited Elmhirst to come to Bengal to work with him on rural improvement by establishing a school for village children. Elmhirst said, “All through his life the introspective artist-mystic in Tagore had to try and make peace with the crusading philosopher-humanist.”

Elmhirst echoes both Dewey and Tagore when he states his ideas on education, “Could students be stirred and excited if they were just to sit in passive rows lapping up from their teachers’ predigested material, and then to memorize the bare facts out of which the label of a degree might be achieved but not an education of their own varied capacities.”[48] Elmhirst quickly completed his degree at Cornell and then followed Tagore to West Bengal to help set up a school for the village people and develop village improvement projects. Soon after his arrival, Tagore sent Elmhirst to China in order to make the arrangements for his coming visit there. Elmhirst accompanied him to China the following year.

Upon their return from China, Elmhirst worked with Tagore to establish the Siksha-Satra school, the agricultural extension of Shantiniketan as well as Vishva-Bharati, an international university created to develop Tagore’s ideas of the universality of humanity. Elmhirst’s aims were to offer an “experience in dealing with this over-flowing abundance of child-life, its charm and its simplicity, to provide the utmost liberty within surroundings that are filled with creative possibilities, with opportunities [based on] the reaping of a succession of novel experiences; to give the child that freedom of growth which the young tree demands for its tender shoot, that field for self-expansion in which all young life finds both training and happiness.” Elmhirst’s goals for Siksha-Satra, the village school, were “to ensure freedom of growth through freedom of experience and freedom of expression [and the] attainment of physical health, [and] ability to earn a living.”[49] Elmhirst, under Tagore’s consultation, established activity-centered education in which “learning was powerfully motivated by the actual needs of life of the pupils individually and of the community to which they belonged; ‘learning by doing’ [in which human] nature is thus transformed into the study of Nature in relation to life and the daily experiences of life.”

By this period of time, the ideas of Tagore had begun to take root in his native country which was struggling to disengage the tentacles of colonialism. Many observers came to Shantiniketan to study the methods of instruction practiced there. Tagore’s schools related education to life and society. They were run democratically with a flexibility in the curriculum, providing the students with the freedom to develop naturally according to individual interests and aptitudes. The teacher’s role was that of a guide, facilitating students’ learning by doing. Many people became intimately involved in Tagore’s educational experiments, including William Pearson, an English educator who observed that, “the number of teachers had to be . . . large in proportion to the number of students in order to ensure small classes and individual attention.”[50]

Shantiniketan was also an expression of the indigenous culture. Many nationalists sent their children to Tagore’s schools, including Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira who first attended Children’s Own School in Poona, which was a school that had been established “with the spiritual backing of Rabindranath Tagore. Self-help and cooperation were the main features of the Children’s Own School. The teaching was done by the Dalton Method.”[51] Indira Gandhi graduated in 1934 and then went to Vishva-Bharati, Tagore’s international university in West Bengal. Tagore’s educational system was rooted in the native soil. He felt that education “should draw inspiration from the genius and tradition of the land with regard to its aim, content, methods and organization. The atmosphere and activities of the educational institutions should reflect the cultural heritage of the nation as also the changing thoughts of the people in relation to the changing conditions and needs of the time.”[52]

Tagore is most famous for his poems, novels and dramas, however, much like Rousseau’s novel, Emile, Tagore’s ideas about education were often woven into his stories and plays. The book Totaa- kaahini, “The Tale of the Parrot” (January 1917) is an “allegorical story . . . of considerable educational significance” in which a bird is imprisoned in a beautiful gilded cage. The bird ultimately dies from the efforts of the learned men who try to domesticate and educate it. This story “bitterly satirizes the entire heartless process in the existing system of education to curb natural impulses through all manner of artificial devices.”[53]  From the time he was seventeen until he was seventy-three, Tagore made seventeen trips outside of India. “It was during these tours that he experienced the basic fact of oneness of mankind and the fundamental unity of cultures. . . . He did not believe in competition but cooperation among nations for the benefit of all.”[54] He applied these lessons to the educational institutions that he established along with his knowledge of traditional Hindu models. The schools he sponsored and the curriculum models he espoused, are built upon the same pedagogical premises that guided John Dewey, though they had arrived at them through different philosophical traditions.

Comparing Quotes of Two Contemporaries

In conclusion, I offer a selection of quotes from John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore that highlight the similarities between them.

Dewey Tagore
“Education, in its broadest sense, is the means of this social continuity of life.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

Light unites, darkness separates. Knowledge is the greatest factor in the unification of mankind.

(Mukherjee, pp.48)

“[A]ll thinking involves a risk. Certainty cannot be guaranteed in advance.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

The ideal institution would provide children with “constant occasions to explore one’s capacity through surprises of achievement.” (Mukherjee, pp 109)
“The educator’s part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner’s course. In the last analysis, all that the educator can do is modify stimuli so that response will as surely as is possible result in the formation of desirable intellectual and emotional dispositions.

(Democracy and Education Ch. 9)

“A specialty of our institution is that we want to bring up our pupils in inseparable association with Nature. We do not aim at the acute development of some particular faculties. Our aim is to bring about an all-round development of individual personality through harmonious union of the spirit with the environment.” (Mukherjee, pp 46, cited in a letter from Chicago March 3, 1913)
“Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, [a student] gradually acquires a mind of his own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account. (Democracy and Education Ch. 22) “I believe that children have their sub-conscious mind more active than their conscious intelligence. A vast quantity of the most important of our lessons has been taught to us through this. Experiences of countless generations have been instilled into our nature by its agency, not only without causing us any fatigue, but giving us joy. This sub-conscious faculty of knowledge is completely one with our life.” (Mukherjee, pp. 53 , from Personality, Macmillan 1917)
‘Curiosity is not an accidental isolated possession; it is a necessary consequence of the fact that an experience is a moving, changing thing, involving all kinds of connections with other things. Curiosity is but the tendency to make these conditions perceptible. It is the business of educators to supply an environment so that this reaching out of an experience may be fruitfully rewarded and kept continuously active” (Democracy and Education) “Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brains and runs rot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-making, assimilation of ideas.” (Salkar, pp. 127)
“Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching. Flexibility and initiative in dealing with problems are characteristic of any conception to which method is a way of managing material to develop a conclusion. Mechanical rigid woodenness is an inevitable corollary of any theory which separates mind from activity motivated by a purpose.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch 13)

“What is space? It is freedom, not emptiness. Through this freedom of space child life finds its own voice. Most people, and specially schoolmasters, forget this. They want to fill every moment with tasks, with discipline and rules. So this life becomes a single, solid thing, one hard lump of lessons without any space for the poor cramped mind to find its outlet of energy.”  (Mukherjee, pp 103, from the Child May, 1925 delivered at Kyoto Girl’s College in Japan)
“Experience has shown that when children have a chance at physical activities which bring their natural impulses into play, going to school is a joy, management is less of a burden, and learning is easier.”

)Democracy and Education Ch. 15)

“it is my firm conviction that there is a connection between the education of the body and the education of the mind, between the activeness of the body and the activeness of the mind. The rhythm of our life is broken, if a harmony is not produced between the two.”

(Mukherjee, pp. 105)

“Every individual has grown up, and always must grow up in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values.Through social intercourse, through sharing in the activities embodying beliefs, he gradually acquires a mind of his own. The conception of mind as a purely isolated possession of the self is at the very antipodes of the truth. The self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account.

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9))

“Man is born, born into Nature and the human society. Education, therefore, can attain Fullness and human life its wholeness, only when an educational institution for children is built by combining the two Education is not mere imparting of information; man has not been born to carry a load of information; the purpose at the root of life has to be realized. The aim of education is to realize fully through knowledge and action the entire purpose of human life.”

(Mukherjee, pp. 118)

“The ground of democratic ideas and practices is faith in the potentialities of individuals, faith in the capacity for positive developments if proper conditions are provided.”

(Time and Individuality, 1938)

“In short, the aim of our education is that students should in the fullest sense be true to their humanity, and in their thoughts, feelings and behavior express this truth.” (Mukherjee, pp. 121-22, from To the Students April 1935)
“All education which develops power to share effectively in social life is moral. It forms a character which not only does the particular deed socially necessary but one which is interested in that continuous readjustment which is essential to growth. Interest in learning from all the contacts is the essential moral interest.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

“Culture is many-sided; it refines the mind; it brings out its full luster out of the dullness of its primitive mineral conditions. Such culture has many branches; where the mind is healthy and strong, it spontaneously seeks the manifold inspiration of culture.”
“Any experience, however, trivial in its first appearance, is capable of assuming an indefinite richness of significance by extending its range of perceived connections.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

“I do not denounce the pursuit of any faculty of the human mind as frivolity or levity. We must respond from all sides to the myriad forces in the universe that attract man’s mind; we must be able to say, ‘Yes, I am awake’!” (Mukherjee, pp. 127)
“With every increase of ability to place our own doings in their time and space connections, our doings gain in significant content. We realize that we are citizens of no mean city in discovering the scene in space of which we are denizens, and the continuous manifestation of endeavor in time of which we are heirs and continuers. Thus our ordinary daily experiences cease to be things of the moment and gain enduring substance. (Democracy and Education) “The education of the present epoch, should be in harmony with the ideals and endeavors of the epoch. The most important education today is the education of mankind to give up national pride. For the history of tomorrow shall begin with the chapter of international co-operation. That is why the educational institutions of our country should become the meeting place of the East and West–this is my heart’s desire.” (Mukherjee, pp. 144)
“A narrow and moralistic view of morals is responsible for the failure to recognize that all the aims and values which are desirable in education are themselves moral. Discipline, natural development, culture, social efficiency, are moral traits–marks of a person who is a worthy member of that society which it is the business of education to further.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

“Education in all of its different forms and channels has its ultimate purpose in the evolving of a luminous sphere of human mind from the nebula that has been rushing round ages to find in itself an eternal centre of unity. We individuals, however small may be our power and whatever corner of the world we may belong to, have the claims upon us to add to the light of the consciousness that comprehends all humanity.” (Mukherjee, pp. 151, speech in Canada, Japan, Visva-Bharati Bulletin, #13)
“An unseen power controlling our destiny becomes the power of an ideal. All possibilities, are ideal in character. The artist, scientist, citizen, parent, as far as they are controlled by the spirit of their callings, are controlled by the unseen. For all endeavor for the better is moved by faith in what is possible, not by adherence to the actual.” (Common Faith, 1934) “[T]o see all things in the light of cosmic consciousness and to do everything under the inspiration of cosmic sentiment–this is the highest achievement of man, this is the true religion for mankind.”

(Mukherjee, pp. 261, quoted from Siksha)


“A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth. Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.”

(Democracy and Education, Ch 22)

“Self-rule has its basis upon the intelligent will and disciplined the mind of the people.” “The prosperity [of India] will be lasting to the extent to which its education is deep and lasting.”  “There is no magical remedy for it, no short cut to freedom. To achieve freedom, the first task was to create those conditions in which alone it can exist.”

(Mukherjee, pp. 301)

“A large part of the art of instruction lies in making the difficulty of new problems large enough to challenge thought, and small enough so that, in addition to the confusion naturally attending the novel elements, there shall be luminous familiar spots from which helpful suggestions may spring.

(Democracy and Education, Ch. 9)

“One should come out in the open with the pupils in the spirit of adventure. Education is living when we move on from the unknown to the known, experiencing ever-new surprises on the way.” Shiksha pp146

“Learning can become sound only when it proceeds from the near to the distant, from the familiar to the unfamiliar. If our learning continues to be based mainly on what does not exist all around and what is not present before us, then such knowledge must be feeble. If we can fully and properly grasp what is familiar, only then can we apperceive what is unseen and unfamiliar.”

(Mukherjee, pp. 360)


[1]Thanks to Dr. Lisa Goldstein, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Texas for this clarification.

[2]Westbury, Ian. “Textbooks, Textbook Publishers, and the Quality of Schooling,” Textbooks and Schooling in the United States– Eighty-ninth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education –Part I, edited by David L. Elliott and Arthur Woodward, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois: 1990, pp. 4.

[3] For an excellent treatment of these and other ideas, see: Gloria Gannaway. Transforming Mind –A Critical Cognitive Activity. Series in Language and Ideology, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, CT: 1994.

[4]Education was viewed as a teleological imperative focused on the civilizing project: the making of good citizens.

[5] Dewey was born in 1859 in Vermont and Tagore was born in 1861 in Calcutta, Bengal.

[6]To confirm this, I sent email queries to two scholars in West Bengal, asking if any such correspondence existed: Uma Das Gupta, who works with the Tagore archives in Calcutta, wrote in an email letter on December 2, 1996, “Unfortunately there is no correspondence between Dewey and Rabindranath. However Rabindranath’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, does mention that Rabindranath had visited Dewey’s ‘laboratory school’ during his first visit to America in 1912 and was impressed by it.” (On page 113 of Mukhopadhyaya’s book, he mentions that Tagore had delivered a lecture at the University of Chicago. He goes on to state that Tagore sent home many “books on methods and problems of education.”) Pulak Dutta, who lives at Shantiniketan, responded to my query in an email message, dated on November 23, that “Most probably no correspondence took place between them.”

[7]Dewey’s first book, published in 1887, was called Psychology. After his ideas were influenced by William James and Charles S. Pierce, Dewey wrote the article “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” in1896 which was a primary source of the functional psychology movement. In his first influential educational book, The School and Society, published in1899, he formulated the methods and curriculum of the school that placed the child’s growth as the central concern.

[8]Mukherjee, Himangshu Bhushan. Education for Fullness; A Study of the Educational Thought and Experiment of Rabindranath Tagore. Asia Publishing House, Bombay: 1962, pp. 321.

[9]Salkar, Kalyan R. Rabindranath Tagore: His Impact on Indian Education, Sterling Publishers Private, New Delhi: 1990, pp. 128.

[10] Academic American Encyclopedia (database on UTCAT PLUS system). Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing, September, 1996 update. Data (c) 1991, Grolier Electronic Publishing.

[11]A Swiss educator (b. 1746, d. 1827), who championed education for the poor and underprivileged and whose ideas laid the foundation for the reform of 19th-century mass public education. He criticized conventional education as excessively intellectual and inorganic which prevented the child’s development in accordance with nature. His revolutionary ideas advocated a loving and emotionally secure educational environment.

[12]A German educator and philosopher (b. 1776, d. 1841), was one of the founders of modern scientific pedagogy whose works had a substantial impact upon the theory and practice of teaching. Herbart saw the educator’s primary role as identifying the interests of the student and “relating them to the great store of human experience and culture in order to help the student become part of civilized life.” (Academic American Encyclopedia)

[13]Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel, (b. 1782, d. 1852), was a German educator who created and developed the kindergarten and was a major proponent of child-centered education. Froebel believed the “purpose of education is to help children understand the universal law of divine unity that permeates all life.” Like Tagore, he recognized the oneness of life which led him to “advocate the development of cooperation rather than competition in education, manual training to unite hand and brain, a thorough study of nature, and the use of play as an aid to the harmonious expression of all human faculties.” (Academic American Encyclopedia)

[14]First published in Bengali in1910 and translated by Tagore and brought with him on his visit to England in 1912.

[15]Mukherjee: 1962, pp. 423.

[16]Cenkner, William. The Hindu Personality in Education: Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Manohar Book Service, New Delhi: 1976, pp. 20.

[17]Ezra Pound on Tagore’s 1912-13 tour: “I speak with gravity when I say that world fellowship is nearer for the visit of Rabindranath Tagore to London.” (Mukhopadhyay: 320)

[18]Tagore was not the first Indian to find receptivity in the US. In 1892 Vivekananda’s ideas were warmly received when he preached a synthesis of Western materialism and Eastern spirituality. It should be noted that many thinkers in India, China, and Japan objected to this dichotomous model that portrayed Asia as the metaphysical “other” of occidental rationalism.

[19]Academic American Encyclopedia

[20]Kilpatrick (b. 1871, d. 1965), came to India to observe the educational methods Tagore had instituted. “He was much impressed by the ideals that Rabindranath had placed before the educational institutions and by the work that was being carried out according to these ideals.” Rabindranath Tagore, His Life and His Genius, Kala Akademi: 1986, (as per Salkar, pp. 128.)

[21]Cenkner: 1976, pp. 22.

[22]Mukherjee: 1962, pp. 394.

[23] Gyan Prakash, “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography,” Comparative Study of Society and History, 1990.

[24] Sir Thomas Raleigh, Lord Curzon of India, Macmillan, London: 1906, page 316.

[25]Chatterjee, Kalyan K., English Education in India, Issues and Opinions. Macmillan Company, India, New Delhi: 1976, pp. 1.

[26] “We had just lost America from our own folly in having allowed the establishment of schools and colleges and that it would not do for us to repeat the same act of folly in regard to India.” Attributed to a director of the East India Company, 1790, quoted from Parliamentary Papers, 1852-53, page 113. (as per Kalyan Chatterjee)

[27]Known as Macaulay’s Minute.

[28] In colonial India only two percent of the general population enjoyed the fruits of education, whereas as Dharmapal tell us in The Beautiful Tree, in pre-colonial India there was near universal literacy in all classes of students.

[29]See: Alitto, Guy The Last Confucian. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1986. Grieder, Jerome The Chinese Renaissance. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1970. Hay, Stephen N. Asian Ideas of East and West; Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China and India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1970. Spence, Jonathan D. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, The Viking Press, New York: 1981.

[30]At that time the name had not yet been changed to Beijing.

[31]Hay: 1970. pp. 215.

[32]ibid. pp. 216.

[33]ibid. pp. 137

[34]Alitto: 1979, pp. 76.

[35]ibid. pp. 111.

[36]ibid. pp.77.

[37]In the years between 1921 and 1924, several other European scholars were guests of the Peking Lecture Association.

[38]Hay, pp. 158.

[39]A few years later Hu Shih wrote an article that criticized Tagore’s dualism of the spiritual East and the material West. (Hay, pp. 217)

[40]Hay, pp. 168-69.

[41]ibid, pp. 111

[42]ibid, pp.83

[43]ibid, pp. 85

[44]ibid, pp. 108.

[45]ibid, pp. 97

[46]Mukherjee: 1962, pp. 79

[47]Elmhirst, Leonard Knight. A Rich Harvest: The Complete Tagore/Elmhirst Correspondence and Other Writings, Mauritius: Stanley, Rose-Hill, 1992. pp. (i).

[48] ibid. pp. 8.

[49]Mukherjee. pp. 217-220.

[50]ibid, pp. 70.

[51]Salkar, pp 141

[52]Mukherjee, pp. 303.

[53]Mukherjee, pp.53-54.

[54]Salkar, pp 138.

Pragmatic Poets- John Dewey & Rabindranath Tagore


Alitto, Guy. The Last Confucian, University of California Press, Berkeley: 1986.

Cenkner, William. The Hindu Personality in Education: Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo, New Delhi 1976

Chakrabarti, Mohit. Philosophy of Education of Rabindranath Tagore: A Critical Evaluation, New Delhi: 1988

Chakrabarti, Mohit. Tagore and Education for Social Change, New Delhi: 1993.

Chatterjee, Kalyan K., English Education in India, Issues and Opinions. Macmillan Company, India, New Delhi: 1976.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education, etc.

Elmhirst, L. K. (Leonard Knight). Poet and Plowman, Calcutta: 1975

Elmhirst, Leonard Knight. A Rich Harvest: The Complete Tagore/Elmhirst Correspondence and Other Writings, Stanley, Rose-Hill, Mauritius: 1992.

Ghosha, Santideba. Music and Dance in Rabindranath Tagore’s Education Philosophy, New Delhi: 1978.

Grieder, Jerome. The Chinese Renaissance, Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 1970.

Hay, Stephen N. Asian Ideas of East and West; Tagore and his Critics in Japan, China and India, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 1970.

Holl, Jack M.  Juvenile Reform in the Progressive Era : William R. George and the William R. George Movement, Ithaca: 1971.

Kumar, Krishna, Political Agenda of Education: a Study of Colonialist and Nationalist Ideas.  New Delhi: 1991.

Mukherjee, Mimangshu Bhushan. Education for Fulness: A Study of the Educational Thought and Experiment of Rabindranath Tagore, Asian Publishing House, Bombay: 1962.

Mukhopadhyaya, Prabhat Kumar. Life of Tagore, Thompson, Conn: 1975

Salkar, K. R. Rabindranath Tagore: His Impact on Indian Education, New Delhi: 1990

Spence, Jonathan D. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, New York: 1981

Viswanathan, Gauri, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: 1989.

Westbury, Ian. “Textbooks, Textbook Publishers, and the Quality of Schooling” in Textbooks and Schooling in the United States– Eighty-ninth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education –Part I, edited by David L. Elliott and Arthur Woodward, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois: 1990.

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