Dr B.R. Ambedkar – EDUCATE! AGITATE! ORGANIZE!

Dr B.R. Ambedkar – EDUCATE! AGITATE! ORGANIZE!

Last year, it was the usual board exam time here in Turbhe, Navi Mumbai, where I take science classes for Hindi medium learners. On the day before the exam, during the evening time as the school was closed, our team decided to find a place to sit and study amidst the hustle and bustle of the oddly pungent (nearby dumping ground), yet vibrant urban slum, Turbhe. We found a small Shiva temple which was, as usual, empty and decided to occupy our place to sit and discuss last minute doubts. Just then, a couple of girl students moved to the back and stood kind of shocked! After the usual silence and hesitance from their side, I replied “I get it, It’s ok if you have periods. There is nothing unholy about it! Of all the fancy gods, especially the most defiant and radical ones like Shiva, definitely won’t get angry! You all know about the biology of periods right, it is there in the syllabus!”. 

The girls were the brightest ones, who knew the syllabus very well. And as reproductive system is a part of the curriculum, there is no doubt about their knowledge of the physical aspect of it and how to use sanitary napkins, etc. Yet, even after knowing it well, it makes me wonder why they still believe in the myth that periods are unholy? What kind of education system does not tell them that periods are not unholy? What kind of science education system we are in which dare not to break these mindless taboos and superstitions but rather silently perpetuate them?  

“It is the education which is the right weapon to cut the social slavery and it is the education which will enlighten the downtrodden masses to come up and gain social status, economic betterment and political freedom”, these are the views of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who devoted most of his social, moral and political efforts to achieve the ideal, “Sarvenah Bhavantu Sukhinah SarveSantu Niramayah” i.e. “let the good and prosperity be of all” and struggled throughout his life for securing the rightful place for the discriminated, deprived and downtrodden sections of our society. Many studies on Ambedkar’s pursuit to establish an egalitarian society in India, and had been discussed widely by different scholars, but very few studies are available that talks about his views on education and importantly what role did his teachers played in making of the man we know as Bharat Ratna, our beloved Babasaheb. 

“EDUCATE! AGITATE! ORGANIZE!” These were his 3 commandments, as he went from being a victim of tyrannic caste oppression in a village school where he was made to sit on a rag at the back of the class (so that he does not “pollute” his upper caste classmates), to becoming the Chairman of India’s Constitution Drafting Committee and arguably one of the most venerated Indian figure, even by his ideological opponents. So on whose shoulders did Babasaheb stand to achieve greater glory and strive for well being for all?

In June 1952, Columbia University in New York recognized him with an honorary degree in for his role in framing the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar surely responded to New York’s invitation from his alma mater Columbia University – he studied there from 1913 to 1916 under some of the best professors America had to offer that time. But during his visit in June 1952, there was one person whose absence was felt deeply by him: and that was John Dewey, the American philosopher of pragmatism, educator and former teacher of Ambedkar from his days at Columbia University. Unfortunately, Dewey passed away after a short illness while Ambedkar was on his way to New York. In his letter to his wife, Savita, he lamented that “there are many old friends who have gathered around me and [are] helping me in all sorts of ways. I was looking forward to meeting Prof Dewey. But he died on the 2nd when our plane was in Rome. I am so sorry. I owe all my intellectual life to him. He was a wonderful man.” [1] For those who have read the powerful, no-nonsense and point blank style of Ambedkar’s writing, his unconditional reverence and a statement like “I owe all my intellectual life to him” might seem a bit out of his character. It shows how much Ambedkar respected and admired Dewey, and it is also important to understand why Dewey received so much adoration and veneration.   

John Dewey’s view on Education was that of a pragmatist: As a tool for social reconstruction [2]



He was the leading proponent of the American school of thought known as pragmatism, which is a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as arising from an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment. So let’s break it down a bit and digest each part. Dewey viewed education as “Naturalistic” “Active” and “Adaptive”. He viewed the urge for knowledge and education comes as a natural instinct of the human mind when it interacts with the wonderfully bizarre world and figures out how to make sense of it. Don’t get too relaxed by the word “natural” in terms of education, John Dewey’s education was certainly not an easy way out. As he said, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” He also characterized it as an active, mutative and adaptive process, much in line with how species naturally evolve through evolution, but in a more self-driven and accelerated manner. One might wonder how evolution and education can be compared when the former takes thousands of years to reveal changes while the latter has to be acquired within say ten years or you will be labeled a failure! At a physiological level, one can say that education is intrinsically the evolution of neuron’s structure, strength, and function; as neurons make new connections, grow in number and break old patterns, which at the level of mind results in generation of new thoughts and ideas, at the cost of discarding older habit patterns. 

Unfortunately, not many educational institutes view education this way, but the emerging field of brain sciences has broken the lot of hectoring myths like “Our brain cannot grow after the 20s”, “Habits are hard to change”, and has been proving time and again that our brain and neurons indeed are the most malleable and modifiable part of our body, and in fact they keep doing so on daily basis while learning and interacting with the environment! We hope schools function less like a factory where learners are “OK. Tested. Made fit for the society” but more like a forest where “every unique tree adds beauty and diversity”. [3] 

The current education system might “educate” us about the facts but it is unable to agitate the curiosity and skepticism which is needed to weed out nonsense from sense, and thereby it fails to help the next generation self-organize as a better society, instead it tries either be silent about it or worse, preserve it’s rotten idea apples and pass it on wrapped in a plastic bag with label, “This is your ancestral heritage, be proud of it”.  

Instead of ranting about how education should be and not, casually engage yourself in the list of scenarios given below and compare the alternate possibilities as given in the links, and see if there is any tool that can be picked up to renovate the education system:

Do you see most of the education system as authoritarian and hierarchical? Does it feel as if “Elixir of Knowledge” is being passed down from the authority of the teacher to empty cranial vessels of learners? Does such an education promote skepticism and spirit of inquiry? Will the child also learn that whatever that comes out from the mouth of the “authority” is right? In this system, can we ever create educated learners who can unite and challenge if the authority goes wrong? Would Rutherford have discovered the nuclei had he not challenged his teacher J J Thompsons’ plum pudding model of an atom?  

(https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/can-children-really-direct-their-own-learning

Isn’t our education system a bit too competitive and has lost its heart? Instead of having exams where it is more like “All on their own” and “may the best one win and rest lose”, can we have exams with conditions like, “Give exams as a team of 4, and all the 4 have to pass then only the team will pass, where both individual and the average of the team will be given due importance” ? How will learners adapt to that? Aren’t the learners who develop the habit of helping each other more likely to take up Millennium Development Goals like, “Food, water, energy, security, health, and education for all” and tackle such issues with vigor instead of smugly sitting with self-centeredness and apathy? (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/empathy-classroom-why-should-i-care-lauren-owen)

In this age of internet which made any source of factual knowledge accessible and within the reach of all, shouldn’t curiosity, compassion, empathy and collaboration be the main lessons kids should be learning in school ? Especially when we have researches showing that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning (https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students/collaborative-learning) .

The natural conclusion of this line of thought is what Dewey had said, “Education is not a preparation for life, education is life”. Irrespective of whether one goes to school or not, we all are educated by what life as a teacher has to offer. There is no escape from it. Also in the same line, it is also obvious that some ways of “education” can lead humanity to greater well-being whereas others may lead to stagnation or worse deterioration. Both Ambedkar and Dewey considered education as a tool for social reconstruction. At the first level, education of the individual results in the reconstruction of the nature of the brain and mind, and when many minds connect the new changes permeate and integrate into the fabric of the society. To quote Dewey again, “The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” And it is in this aspect we have a lot of learning or rather unlearning to do in terms of making education relevant to the current society and future challenges. May the coming generation of educators feel the urge to not just educate but also AGITATE and ORGANIZE, stand on the shoulders of Babasaheb and Dewey, equipped with modern educational tools for the reconstruction of our self and society to achieve “Peace and Prosperity for all”. 

References:

1) Nanak Chand Rattu, Last Few Years of Dr Ambedkar (New Delhi: Amrit Publishing House, 1997), 35. 

2) http://dewey.pragmatism.org/

3)  Understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science New insights on learning through cognitive and brain science (https://www.oecd.org/site/educeri21st/40554190.pdf)

Nikhilesh Iyer

Nikhilesh Iyer, (Founder of asanvigyan.in; works in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai)

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