The Poet's Challenge to Learning

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore's work on education and learning (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.) is of great significance and is not as well known as it should be in the West. In keeping with the richness and diversity of Tagore's vision, I would like to comment on a superb paper (The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul) by Shilpa Jain and others that explores not only Tagore's philosophy but his impact on the essential spirit, if not the soul of what it means to learn and be taught.

I would like to recount an experience, which I had some years ago during a visit to an experimental school in California, and how it affected my own expectations about teaching and learning. I was invited to a Rudolf Steiner School to examine their approach as well as to learn more about how they hoped to change the experience of learners in a positive and constructive fashion. I have many doubts about the underlying religious foundations for Steiner education, but I saw something that really affected me that is closely linked to the spirit of Tagore's perspective on education.

My hosts took me to a small elementary school that had been built at the edge of an agricultural area. Once inside the school, I noticed that the ceilings were quite low and that the furniture was considerably smaller than I had anticipated. One classroom had a very small door built into a larger one and as I looked into the classroom, I noticed that the desks were also smaller than usual. I asked the Director of the school why this was so and she explained that they had decided to tailor the architecture to the size of the children in order to make them more comfortable with the scale of the space. This struck me as an extraordinary idea. Children see the world around them from a very different perspective. Adults can seem like giants even when they are gentle. Scale, perspective and space are crucial components of a child's world, but are often disregarded. In fact, the general architecture of schools is poor and rarely takes students and their experience as a central premise for the design process. These factors are not minor ones for learners. Why would the school system be so unaware of their importance? There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is a lack of synchronicity between the higher purpose of learning and the everyday needs of learners.

This goes to the heart of one of Tagore's concerns, which is the relationship between creativity and freedom. Schools are presently designed to teach students and are not centred on the principles of learning. The lack of a holistic viewpoint of the sort suggested by Tagore is missing. Keep in mind, that my own view of learning is that it is very ephemeral and that for the most part, schools have outlived their usefulness in their present form and need to be completely rethought. This point of view is summarized in the following quote from Jain's piece:

"…the very act of creation is freedom, for it allows human beings to discover their full potential. They have the opportunity to live what is theirs, to make the world of their own selection, and to move it through their own movement." (Page 11 of The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul)

In order for creativity to be released and for students to discover their real purpose in learning, they have to have the power to criticize and reflect upon the experiences that they are having. This is much more difficult than it appears. It is part of a double bind. If the students themselves have not learned enough to make their criticism rigourous and well-thought out, then their commentary will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if the environment does not facilitate the growth and the development of enough intellectual acuity, the quality of their discourse will be poor. This is not dissimilar to Tagore's commentary on the alienating experience that students have as they struggle with the banality of school and the lack of respect for nature and spirituality in the school system.

From my own perspective as the President of a University of Art and Design, I am most interested in the history of Santiniketan, the ashram that Tagore founded which turned into a school and now is a university. My own experience has taught me that institutions are very far away from understanding their own cultures with enough depth to engage in real change. This may seem like a dramatic statement, but the reality is that even the best of leaders tire out very quickly as they encounter increasingly complex levels of resistance to sometimes urgently needed shifts. The question is, what is it about an educational institution that breeds so much resistance? The answer is not a simple one because there are also numerous institutions in which radical thinking is taking place.

There is something fundamental about schooling that Tagore understood. In order to keep a school going the experience has to be systematized, that is, days have to be ordered and classes scheduled and marks given. Yet, it is precisely structures of this kind, which inhibit the development of open spaces and places for learning. What is unclear about Tagore’s perspective is how to ‘free’ up institutions — how to create enough of a sense of community to sustain open-ended inquiry and freshness of thinking. Tagore looked to nature as an example and in this he is quite close to the thinking of Thoreau and Rousseau. It is unclear how long that openness can be maintained without introducing some expectations both on the part of learners and teachers. In other words, there is a profound romanticism at the core of Tagore’s thinking and practice. It is a romanticism that I support, but for which there is no social, political or cultural consensus.

Even Tagore’s use of art and music mirrors many other experiments from Steiner through to Montessori. Jain’s paper explores all the facets of Tagore’s wonderful effort to build a new way of thinking about the world and about learning, but it fails to address the fundamental issues of institutional culture and institutional change. Given the large number of people are seeking to learn and the incredible investment of time and money into institutions ostensibly devoted to learning, strategies of institutional transformation seem to me to hold the key to future change in education as a whole.