“Hewers of Texts, Drawers of Book-learning”

That’s Life!!!

exam behind bars , exam burden

Ashoak Upadhyay

We rob the child of his Earth to teach him Geography; of language to teach him Grammar…” Rabindranath Tagore

Teaching from top to bottom…is little else than a phrase- factory.” Remy de Gourmont

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, this nullity imagines it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” Max Weber


commercial doing the rounds on national TV channels these days for ball-point pens has co-opted the phrase “exam warriors” to show a child using its product to beat the ‘enemy’ with. The ad plays on two metaphors that inadvertently are mixed up: the exam as war and the pen as a weapon mightier than the sword. This is a benevolent but sly marketing twist to the metaphorical ‘warrior’ that the Prime Minister uses in his avuncular gift to the citizens of tomorrow, the phrase “exam warriors” crystallizes the depth of the Prime Minister’s views on education as a hostile territory, the exam as confrontation and the children as, well, what else? Warriors!  In these times of pump-primed threats to our ‘national sovereignty’ from enemies within and without, the use of the metaphor of war sends a frisson of excitement through our overwrought nerves. War and its associative resonances flutter constantly in our consciousness like clarion calls to bravery, urging it to articulate endorsements of aggression on ‘enemy’ territory in that country we love to hate, that defines our self-hood as self-righteous and wronged Hindus. And what better time to train the next generation than right now! Churchillian echoes reverberate in our ears: We shall fight in the air; we shall fight in the valleys. And, we shall start off in the examination halls!!. Exam Warriors! Bharat Mata ki Jai! To War!

A little over a decade ago, Avijit Pathak began a meditative journey to recall the “forgotten”. He foregrounded it with a set of questions he felt needed to be asked, questions that have exercised philosophers from across time and space in search of the Human:  “…the relationship between the individual and society; man’s own inner struggle resulting from the dialectic of power and love, egotism and altruism, and desire and austerity; and…the mode of human engagement with nature.”

Pathak’s engagement was not with the human condition; as an educationist he was concerned in his work, “Recalling the Forgotten” with education. At first glance this may seem a conflation of a tall order, or, conversely, an unwarranted reductionism. However to assume that questions that have bugged the likes of Marx, Nietzsche Freud Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo could be engaged with within educational institutions did open up possibilities that would appear improbable, if not laughable  given the state of the educational system we live with today. But that was the point of his meditation. For Pathak, (leastways that is how a reader could construe his meditation), the three ethical principles were necessary for a “deeper understanding” of education both in terms of its failings and its potential. What Pathak was saying was this: the three ethical principles both contextualize the formal education system and feed off it.

His recent edit page essay “Exam and Peace” in The Indian Express grounds the current educational system in an absence; the dialectic of the context and subject is missing: current educational pedagogy operates in a void as a joyless, pathological exercise for “exam warriors.” Pathak laments the impact of our formal education on children without beating about the bush: “the pattern of education we have normalized is inherently pathological” whose “latent function” is to create a “violent/hierarchical/schooled consciousness.”

This is happening in the land of Tagore, Aurobindo  J. Krishnamurthi and their formidable body of wisdom that could liberate pedagogy from its pathological outcomes. But we dislike “experimentation” and stick to superficial distinctions between “pragmatism” and “idealism”. ‘Success’ is glorified and ‘failure’ calls for coaching classes, psychiatric counselling —or for training manuals from the Prime Minister on strategies to confront hostilities perpetrated by teachers in the form of the exam.

The idea of hierarchizing formal study into “success” subjects such as Science and Economics is not new. It was routine for high school students back in the 1960s to be segregated into Science or Arts streams from the ninth standard on based of their ‘aptitudes’ for ‘scientific and mathematical capabilities.  Along with a few others I was shunted out rather dismissively into the Arts stream because I failed the aptitude tests and loved Shakespeare only because the Jesuit priest teaching us English Literature glossed over all the romantic parts of Twelfth Night and an elderly Goan imbued us with a love for Guy de Maupassant by making us read aloud those stories …in French. You couldn’t learn Physics and Maupassant or about oxbow lakes together. The Arts section students were the ‘failures’ condemned to a life of aimlessness.

And the schismatic hierarchies in education it go back even further to the debates between Sir Jadunath Sarkar and Rabindranath Tagore over Vishwa-Bharati University’s purpose and to the differences between Gandhi and Nehru on post-Independence India’s future. The epistemological outcomes of these debates or conversations were to decide the fate of our education system and pedagogy in favour of science/technology over the humanities.

More than anywhere else, in Indian educational pedagogy by and large, the ghost of Thomas Gradgrind of DickensHard Times would continue to hover and his admonitions to the schoolmaster echo down to the present: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else root out everything else.”

It was not long before the dissemination of facts, of knowledge itself became marketized, deepening the schism, the contempt for anything to do with what was considered ‘airy-fairy.’ Knowledge was segued into the needs of capitalism as it evolved over the post war decades into newer forms of imperialism with their accompanying discourses.

Macaulay underwent a face-lift to suit modern and post-modern forms of global capitalist exploitation. The periphery would now no longer supply ‘hard-labour’ coolies and babus for colonial plantations and secretariats but high-tech ‘coolies.’ Mythologised as STEM products, the accent has always been on the Technology-instrumental knowledge segments of Science with countries like India providing newer post-modernist forms of indentured labour. And that form of servitude is valorized by “thought leaders” as part of the new global division of labour, the neo-liberal rubric of ‘competitive advantage’ assigned to legitimise the inequitable flow of brain power from the outposts to the center. And local power elites in the peripheries lapped it up: politicians cannot think beyond  ratcheting up the screws on an already pathologically market- driven and hopelessly hollowed-out system of bankrupt “black education” pedagogy to keep churning out more drones—less those that cop-out or take their own lives, whichever comes first.

For Pathak, the pathological outcomes of a hollowed out education pedagogy and system has origins in three causes. The system “closes the mind of the young learner and abhors the desirability of making meaningful choices relating to academic quest and vocation.” Knowledge traditions have been hierarchized. Second there is a valorization of quantification of knowledge so that instead of thinking creatively the student is forced to count bits of information; education becomes an accountant’s skill. You can’t rank creativity but correct counting gets you marks. As Gradgrind reminds the schoolmaster, two plus two makes four and nothing else though a creative mind might conjure up other possibilities. And third, “as the lifeworld gets increasingly colonized by the market, ‘success’ is equated with a purely instrumental orientation to life.”

Is it possible that these three reasons are not causes so much as part of the pathological outcomes themselves? They describe the system of a hollowed out education functioning in a moral and creative void; they do not explain its evolution.

It would be tempting to locate the underlying causes of the crisis that our education system generates among the young—the sense of hopelessness, the ‘class’ hierarchies within knowledge acquisition based on a fierce ranking scale of performance and the institutions themselves, the joylessness of the learning process and now, the exhortation to become ‘warriors’– on the structural foundations of an economic order that has over the years become increasingly ruthless in its demands for valuing everything by its utility to capitalism.

That economic order in post-Independence India has had many variations, tortuous twists and turns, with half-remembered and increasingly reluctant curtsies to the welfare/distributive aspects of its discourse. The latest one was the neo-liberal dispensation set in motion in 1991 under the euphemism of ‘economic reforms.’ It has been happily embraced as the logical location of human efficiency and peddled as such through the graduate programmes in Economics—precisely the way the founders of the neo-liberal order meant it to be viewed.

At its very root the neo-liberal discourse with its accent on market-led reforms and resource allocation may have gathered pace since 1991. But it has remained the same as the ‘development’ discourse set in motion soon after the first five year plan. The discourse was based on a modernity that was narrowly defined in terms of scientific temper and secularism.

Both were accepted as articles of faith by a burgeoning middle class eager to set aside, to shrug off what it took to be ‘traditional’. The chase for modernity had set in and would result not before long in the atomization of the individual.

In retrospect the pursuit of a modernity, of development hinging on a scientific temper and a secular order in which faith, morality were identified with the religious and therefore unsecular and antediluvian sowed the seeds of a materially driven idea of progress.  Perhaps, our history as a colonized people, our Orientalist self-perception demanded nothing less: heavy industrialisation, the rupture of town and country the growth of a local, our own, capitalist class; progress-as-modernity, our own chance to tame and exploit Nature as the West was doing. We yearned for the materiality of the West tempered by some Soviet-inspired regulations but capitalism nonetheless.

The post-Independence economic order, the development model whose current variation has been inflected with a prominent techno-authoritarian push found easy passage into a nascent national consciousness through epistemic discourses that underlined the necessity and inevitability of modernity’s rationality, utility and, control.

Max Weber’s ‘iron cage’ was being built, in democratic socialist drag till 1991, but the grid had been set to train the parrots.


Two such discourses, mediated through a debate and a conversation helped shape a national consciousness searching for an identity on the basis of an inchoate ambition for a ‘modern’ India.

The debate between Sir Jadunath Sarkar and Rabindranath Tagore was historic on various counts: it expressed differences between them on the nature of education, the character of pedagogy at Vishwa-Bharati University. Rosinka Chaudhari’s essay  “Only What does not Fit In Can be True’( EPW)’ offers a glimpse into that quarrel that also delineated differences between them on the nature of knowledge itself. But equally, the debate shaped, elliptically but profoundly the epistemic discourse on the ‘scientific temper’ and modernity as the pivots for both the developmental model and the system of education as an instrument of its driving impulses.

In 1922, Sarkar turned down Tagore’s invitation to join the governing body of the newly-formed university at Shantiniketan. Apart from personal reasons—the distance from Darjeeling where he planned to retire was too great—Sarkar felt the new university lacked a grounding in: “intellectual discipline and exact knowledge.”(Chaudhuri)  A university unlike the school at Visva-Bharati needed to put students through the “grind” as Sarkar stressed in English.

At the school he continued, students are taught to despise “exact knowledge” looking down on those with “intellectual discipline” as “fake pundits” “dry and heartless enemies of the complete man.” The silver aeroplane in the sky may be poetic  to look at but it was not created in joy, he reminded Tagore; it was the result of hard work, research, exact knowledge.

The rebuttal of joy, as Chaudhuri points out, was a pointed reference to a foundational principle of education, indeed of life (and Tagore identified one with the other): Ananda the celebration of delight; Tagore had turned,, says Chaudhuri, the Upanishadic anandam  into “the secular and poetic ananda. Central to Tagore’s philosophy, it was hardly surprising that Ananda would inflect learning at the school as well: Tagore wanted his students–at the proposed University as well–not just to be well- trained but to think imaginatively not to “try to drown the natural spontaneity of their expression under some stagnant formalism.” The culture of the West, he asserted, should nourish not burden us with “sufferance as hewers of texts and drawers of book-learning

The differences between the two, the historian urging the rule of the “head” and the poet the “heart” one calling for “exact knowledge” the other for natural spontaneity and Ananda lay at the heart of the debates over the professionalisation of the university that had begun in Victorian England and Europe and had made its way to India, to Calcutta University where Tagore found a “stagnant formalism”. Equally, they inflected an incipient debate over the road that India was to take; in retrospect it was Sarkar’s insistence on “exact knowledge” the certitudes of intellectual discipline that would form a sort of preamble to the foundational articles of scientific temper and secularism. Joy, humour, the celebration of learning imaginatively were on their way out. The hierarchical structure of the subject matter of learning and the division of the Sciences, “exact knowledge” and the Humanities would soon enter middle class consciousness and be set in stone.

Tagore’s words in hindsight sound apocalyptical: “We rob the child of his Earth to teach him geography; of language to teach him grammar; his hunger is for the epic. But he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates.”

And wisdom of the future: “In education, the most inspiring atmosphere of creative activity is important. Primary function of the institution must be constructive; scope must be for all kinds of intellectual exploration. Teaching must be one with culture, spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic, economic and social. True education is to realize at every step how our training and knowledge have an organic connection with our surroundings

“The Village of My Dreams”

The epistolary conversation between Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945 provide clues to the second and more robust foundational principles on which the developmental model and an educational system’s marketization was erected.

In October 1945, a frail old man, wrote a letter asking Nehru for clarification on the direction India was to take after Independence, hoping against hope to turn his favourite disciple away from the perils of modernist impulses. Gandhi refers back to Hind Swaraj and offers a utopian vision that had become even more complex and subtle in the mind of this “ageing anarchist.” He clears the air…just in case: “You must not imagine that I am envisaging our village life as it is today”. The village “…of my dreams is still in my mind. After all, every man lives in the world of his dreams. My ideal village will contain intelligent human beings. They will not live in dirt and darkness as animals. Men and women will be free and able to hold their own against anyone in the world. There will be neither plague nor cholera nor small pox; no one will be idle, no one will wallow in luxury. Everyone will have to contribute his quota of manual labour…

For Gandhi his imagined village represents the utopian dream that encapsulates not a throwback to the virtues of renunciation but wisdom of the future. The utopian vision for mankind did not lie in abundance of materiality, limited by the telos of ‘progress’ but in the expansiveness of simplicity.

The binding principle of that village of his dreams is simplicity of wants, a reduction of unbridled consumption that generates what Rob Nixon would much later call “slow violence” on the environment and genocide on mankind. The town and the palace then are metaphors for rampant consumption, breeding grounds for power and greed and an extreme atomization of the self, ghettoized into manufactured cultures of false choices. The “…essence of what I have said is that man should rest content with what are his real needs and become self- sufficient.”

The anarchist’s idea of self-sufficiency is an ethical one rooted in a reduction of wants and desires for an expansion of swrajya. Or so Gandhi implied.

But Nehru was having none of it. He ‘read’ Gandhi’s village of dreams into the quotidian village of the present dismissing the anarchist’s utopian vision and setting forth instead a telos of progress stringed along linear time: “A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment.” Then Nehru lays out his strategy for India’s future that reposes faith in the modernist view of history, a strategy that would in the coming years to 1951 and the start of the five year plans form the basis of the development model; a heavy-industry based growth discourse that would replicate the western industrialization path, predicted on a series of ruptures between town and country, man and nature, science and humanities, contemplation and action, the ethical and the material.

As Nehru saw it, the only way to provide food shelter clothing housing and education to Indians and speedily at that would be through a major push for various modes of modernity. “Again, it seems to me inevitable that modern means of transport as well as many other modern developments must continue and be developed. There is no way out of it except to have them. If that is so inevitably a measure of heavy industry exists. How far that will fit in with a purely village society? Personally I hope that heavy or light industries should all be decentralized as far as possible and this is feasible now because of the development of electric power. If two types of economy exist in the country there should be either conflict between the two or one will overwhelm the other.”

And here is Nehru’s sense of self-sufficiency: “The question of independence and protection from foreign aggression, both political and economic, has also to be considered in this context. I do not think it is possible for India to be really independent unless she is a technically advanced country. I am not thinking for the moment in terms of just armies but rather of scientific growth. In the present context of the world we cannot even advance culturally without a strong- background of scientific research in every department.”

Gandhi’s notion of self-sufficiency is grounded in an ethic of simplicity of wants and desires, that would, by implication help preserve the earth’s resources, the world’s cultures from being swamped by the endless feast of consumption. Gandhi’s vision restores agency to the individual by turning her into the author of patterns of consumption premised on the well-being of man and his environment. Nehru’s idea of self-sufficiency rests on materiality and the technical and scientific means to satiate it. It leaves the initiative to the State and Capital to create the regime of materiality and consumption; the individual simply perpetuates it.

In Gandhi’s vision for the new India, the ethical and moral beckon, in Nehru’s, the practical and the material. For Tagore, knowledge is gained through the contemplative and imagination, for Sarkar exactness, intellectual discipline. In both Tagore and Gandhi, selfhood lay in the moral and mutual cooperation and utopian visions the pursuit of which could only spring from self-sufficiency-as-simplicity. For Nehru selfhood lay in nationhood fortified by consuming modernity.


Pathak’s  IE essay ends on  a rather pessimistic note; for a teacher to admit failure to do good, as a pedagogist and an adult, by the children now being exhorted to turn into exam warriors is itself a plea for self-inquiry. But how and where should that process begin? What are the markers by which we shall not just judge our failures as adults and educationists and policymakers and politicians but also map our futures?

If there is an underlying anguish in Pathak’s meditation on the education we expose our children to it is the sense of loss; not just of joy and Ananda and the creative impulse to learning but of agency. The atomized individual the “exam warrior” has no say, leave alone control, of how her education will shape her destiny; it has already been mapped out.

Mendacity, complacency and conformity are valorized. But the pursuit of “success” exacts a heavy price.

 AP Photo PTI


Education then, as we understand and live it, is profoundly undemocratic; as undemocratic as the system for which it acts as the “phrase-factory” delivering the ‘labour force’ to keep the wheels of a market led economy turning.

And yet…

Signposts are all we have and perhaps we could start acknowledging “enigmas of time:” (Bharucha, EPW) and recognize that the telos of modernity based on linear time has had a nasty dialectic whose outcomes are catastrophic for man and his environment. The future beckons and its wisdom, one may submit, lies in the past, not as a signal to return to it, but as markers to better futures.

Gandhi’s vision of self-sufficiency through simple living, fulfilling needs rather than satiating greed and overweening appetites for the modern that are manufactured for “backward” peoples was not a harkening back to  a primitive past, a turning back of the clock. It’s a reminder that we consume cultures too, in pursuit of our insatiable appetites for exotica, the unknown with baneful consequences for those cultures and for us too. In Bali for instance, the traditional system of water management for its rice fields based on management of the resource by temples, has been in grave danger of coming untangled because of tourism and land-use policy changes.

Ground his imagined village in the age we live in with its grotesqueries of freedom, where ‘return on investment’ and ranking of “exam warriors” ensnare us into making choices that drive us into the realms of necessity and manufactured concerns and one can get a glimpse into the futures we need to save ourselves and the planet.

How shall we break free, return to a future of shared concerns for humanity and the environment?

Gandhi’s call affirms not a past that was but a future that ought to be. And in Rabindranath Tagore we get wisdom of the future that centers on the Human, a questioning creative being that can and must find the divine in humanity itself. In Tagore’s world view, the spirit of imaginative inquiry is premised on creating subversive learning. For Tagore, in Vishwa-Bharati the learner was meant “ to study the mind of man in its realization of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view, the culture of Visva-Bharati is the culture of man and its keynote lies in the truth that human personality is not a mean trifle, it is also the Divine personality.”.

Given the onset of a creeping modernity in his time, Tagore adds the wisdom of the future, a subversive wisdom,  that education must also bring man back to nature. It wasn’t enough to have learning conducted in a natural environment, it was necessary to restore man to his natural environment. No ruptures!

Children have their active subconscious mind which like a tree has the power to gather its food from the surrounding atmosphere.” And not in : “…a dead cage in which living minds are fed with food that’s artificially prepared.”

For Tagore, education had to create the subversive and autonomous individual, capable of exposing mendacities of modernity and even of tradition through the critically creative faculty of imagination and empathy. It was this critical and empathic eye that inflected Tagore’s rejections of the deformities in the ideas of the west as they came to India—“all plan and purpose” with the “shock of passion” but with scant empathy and love. (Kakar, 2014).

In both Tagore and Gandhi, advocates of disinterested love and disobedience, we find wisdoms of the future that can help us combat not “exams” but those psychopathological signifiers of hegemonic power–mendacity, complacency and conformity—all of which are sired in the educational system as it has evolved

But looking at education also means examining the system it feeds and feeds off, an exploitative growth-obsessed pattern of ‘development’ centered on the combined power of the State and Capital and the dispossession of the poor and Nature itself to satiate the frenzied consumption of the future by the privileged in the present.

Resistance to, that discourse of development, its inevitability—There Is No Alternative–may be scattered but it manifests itself throughout the country (and the world among indigenous peoples principally) as a multiverse process of re-creative imagination, of an expression of the wisdom of the future.

Central to that re-creative imaginary are key ideas that focus on healing the ruptures that a ‘growth-based development discourse hinges on: ecological integrity and resilience; social wellbeing and justice,; direct and delegated democracy that allows control of local communities and individuals over the means of production and cultural diversity where culture is defined as multiverse ways of being and knowing. (Ecologies…)

In the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra the village of Mendha-Lekha symbolizes the struggle of its inhabitants, the Gond tribals, to reclaim a ‘community of beings’ through self-rule and control of its dry deciduous forests, re-commoning village lands and resources. (A ‘Community of Beings’…).

In and around Balenga Para hamlet in the Bastar region of Chattisgarh in eastern India the Imlee Mahuaa school for the Muriya Gond and other children from families below the poverty line is run by the Akanksha Public Charitable Trust. Begun in 2007 the school was initially inspired by Gandhi’s Nayee Taaleem, J. Krishnamurthi and Martha Nussbaum’s education philosophies but it has evolved over the years in response to the children and adults’ needs. Yet the basic premise remains one that keeps the children anchored to their environment, encourages questioning minds and re-affirms the Gond way of life:

The children in Imlee Mahua are free to decide how to spend their day. They are not forced into any activity, academic or otherwise….Children decide wht they would like to study and when…All learning is self-motivated and self-directed.” (Ecologies, 130)

“In Balenga Para and its neighbouring villages , in keeping with Adivasi culture, the entire community comes together to take decisions that have a bearing on life outside the family.” When the school was being discussed back in 2007 even children and the elderly participated in the discussions. (Ecologies, 133).


“Persistent questioning and healthy inquisitiveness are the first requisite of acquiring learning of any kind.” Mahatma Gandhi

“For us, the highest purpose of this world is not merely living in it, knowing it and making use of it, but realizing our own selves in it through expansion of our sympathy; not alienating ourselves from it and dominating it but uniting it with ourselves in perfect union.” Rabindranath Tagore

“When freedom is not an inner idea which imparts its strength to our activities and breadth to our creations, when it is merely a thing of external circumstance, it is like an open space to one who is blindfolded.” Rabindranath Tagore

“I have seen a man laughed at because he examined a dead leaf attentively and with pleasure…” Remy de Gourmont

Remy de Gourmont: Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas. p 78  Antipodes Press.
Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915) was a French poet, essayist, novelist short story writer and critic.
Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.p. 124. Translated by Talcott Parsons. Routledge London
Avijit Pathak: (In The Beacon) Recalling The Moral Quest
Exam and Peace. Indian Express February 14 2019
Rosinka Chaudhuri: ‘Only What Does Not Fit in Can Be True’ Economic and Political Weekly October 22 2018
M.K. Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru letters:
Nehru to Gandhi:
Rustom Bharucha: Enigmas of Time: reflections on Culture, History and Politics Economic and Political Weekly. March 25 2000.
Sudhir Kakar: Young Tagore: The Makings of a Young Genius. p 147. Penguin Books 2014
Singh N Kulkarni S, Pathak Boome N, (2018)(Eds.) Ecologies of Hope and Transformations: Post-development Alternatives from India. Pune, India: Kalpavriksh and SOPPECOM.
Also in The Beacon:
People’s Manifesto…
Union of Science and Humanities…
The Parrot’s Training
Recalling the Moral Quest
The End at The Beginning: Gandhi and Nehru Letters



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