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Revisiting Socratic teaching through Tagore

South Africa’s apartheid era was notable for the country’s ranking high on all economic indicators while the majority of the citizenry faced a life of systematic subjugation and discrimination. This reminds us that while focus on economic development remains important — the opportunity cost of this cannot be democracy, social justice, social cohesion and individual liberty.

Unfortunately, any social development model rests on consensus from the elite. If this class opts for real development then it will likely result in a comprehensive and far-reaching education policy aimed at producing minds well versed in independence of thought, critical thinking and empathy and respect for others. Yet if economic growth remains the sole objective of policy makers — what we will have is a citizenry whose collective priority exclusively hinges upon employment in terms of market demands.

We have seen this happen in Pakistan. Over the last few decades, education policies have been focused promoting the STEM discipline, meaning science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. This has been at the expense of humanities and liberal arts. This doesn’t bode well for the future since the latter produce creative and innovative thinkers who are prone to challenge injustice and the wavering from established democratic values. We simply cannot afford a ‘trade-off’ between the two.

Instead, we should recall the educational philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1901 established an experimental school at Santiniketan in West Bengal. Its aim was to develop creative and independent minds capable of developing innovative ideas in every discipline, free from the rigidity of established academic traditions.

It ought to come as no surprise that economists are now confronting such issues as: the moral limits of the market or how to juxtapose distributive justice and individual liberty when it comes to suggesting welfare policies

The school’s core values were founded in the Socratic tradition of questioning, intellectual self-reliance and freedom. In short, as Tagore himself put it: the human mind gains true freedom not when it possesses the ideas of others. But when it establishes its own standards of judgement and thought process. He even went on to immortalise his strong dislike of learning by rote in is famous allegory, ‘The parrot’s training’.

Contemporary American philosopher Martha C Nussbaum believes that Tagore strongly influenced the educational philosophy of John Dewey — the man responsible for laying down the philosophical foundations of the US education system, which is firmly grounded in the liberal arts tradition. The result has been an intellectual emancipation reflected in the extraordinary US contribution to the world. Of the 911 Nobel Prizes thus far awarded — 259 have gone to American citizens.

This approach is gaining currency elsewhere. Recently, China and Singapore have made moves to follow the same path despite existing political systems not being entirely conducive to such reforms. Sadly, no such inroads are being made in Pakistan. Here, the emphasis remains on rote learning, with intellectual exchange between students and teachers actively discouraged. Meaning that we have an education model that promotes control and obedience of thought. As such, it is better suited to an authoritarian set-up. In addition, it is the capitalist free-market that determines the accessibility of courses. Presently, only five higher education institutes in the country offer philosophy degrees. Predictably, the outcome of all this is Pakistan’s abysmal ranking on global indexes. We are the world’s six most populous nation. We come in at number 147 in the human development index; 109 in terms of quality of democracy; and 80 in the World Happiness Report.

It ought to come as no surprise that economists are now confronting such issues as: the moral limits of the market or how to juxtapose distributive justice and individual liberty when it comes to suggesting welfare policies. Thus public policy makers often feel unanchored when pure economic analysis of development policies comes into direct conflict with moral and ethical questions. Should the state provide elitist schooling to children of the poor or not, for example?

Nevertheless, we should not confuse the matter at hand. This is not about producing increased humanities graduates. It is simply a gentle reminder to our policy makers to include the broader objectives of human development within the education paradigm. It is only way forward in terms of achieving development goals as a whole.

We must not waste the lessons of Tagore’s philosophy. Indeed, his work should be mandatory reading for all, not least of all our policy makers.

Awan, Jahanzeb. Revisiting Socratic teaching through Tagore. Daily Times, March 30, 2017.

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