The “unfinished business” of Basic Education

Jane Sahi

Often Gandhi’s ideas about education are dismissed as out of date, obsolete, or he is accused of having failed because the government quickly gave up trying to implement Basic Education as a model for schooling.

Children-working-at-Sita-School Krishna Kumar, in his paper, “Listening to Gandhi” appeals to us to follow Gandhi’s own ideals of flexibility, openness, and persistency in re-examining the fundamental ideas of Basic Education. Gandhi himself spoke of “waiting upon Truth” because it is an unending process of discovery. He stresses that it is important to “keep oneself open to the winds of change…and to be undogmatic.” So it would be a mistake to only look backwards and see Basic Education as something fixed and that happened in the past.

Particularly in the early period (between 1937-1941) of the growth of Nai Talim, Marjorie Sykes, an English educationalist who worked closely both with Gandhi and Tagore, vividly describes the questioning, discussion and honest searching that went on as people experimented and put into practice some of these ideas. For example, she describes how in 1941 a frank discussion took place, about the function of art in education, and the problem of the enrolment of teachers…whether they should be qualified or not. Marjorie Sykes later laments that because of the political turmoil and tensions, the imprisonment of leaders, and the interference of the colonial government there was much “unfinished business” in seriously working through many aspects of basic education, that had newly begun to take shape.

The subsequent failure of Basic Education, as a state policy to attract people was partly because the government after Independence clearly saw Basic Education as education for the poor. It was implemented as an option only up to the fifth standard, which was never what Gandhi intended. In fact, just the opposite, he wanted a comprehensive education for all beyond caste, class, and religion. But this does not prevent us from re-looking at the essentials of his ideas of Basic Education.

Basic Education grew out of a longing to find an alternative to the explicit and hidden violence of normal schooling. A system of schooling that re-enforces inequality and injustice by deliberately rejecting the weak, economically or academically, is a kind of violence. It promotes an attitude of survival of the slickest and marginalization of the poor. A schooling that takes no account of each individual’s gifts and potential, nor the needs of the community is destructive for both the individual and the society. Learning that dries up originality, reflection, imagination, and compassion is deadening. When a child is transplanted to an unfamiliar, artificial and hostile environment that is disconnected from home, family and familiar language, it is a violent uprooting.

Much of what is accepted as normal is in fact very abnormal – to herd young children together and to confine them in a limited space; to learn an alphabet of a language when you have no grasp of basic vocabulary, to spend long hours sitting with very restricted use of hands or feet are all signs of being against nature.

The author has been working in an alternative school near Bengaluru for the last 30 years and has also been involved in sharing resources in art and language with government primary school teachers. She can be reached at

This is an article for subscribers only. You may request the complete article by writing to us at