Looking at 鈥楨ducation for All: The Case of Tagore鈥檚 Alternative Education

Children take a break from class at their newly-established primary school in north-eastern India.
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Tagore noted 鈥…they [children] must be trained, not to be soldiers, not to be clerks in a bank, not to be merchants, but to be the makers of their world and their destiny. And for that, they must have all their faculties fully developed in the atmosphere of freedom鈥 (Kupher, 2015)

The British colonial rule dramatically altered the curriculum and pedagogical policies by introducing examination-based, textbook-centred and teacher-directed educational systems in India. The limitation of this form of education is hyper-focus on employability and economic development as the only end goals of education. The traces of colonialism can be found in the mainstream education system of India while the neo-liberal agenda forced education to play 鈥榗atch-up鈥 with developed countries and has been constantly criticised for 鈥榝ree markets鈥 as its solution to all socio-economic problems. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Tagore highlighted the gaps in Human Capital Theory which connects education to the and posits 鈥榚ffective鈥 education as a marker of higher productivity, increased profitability and gross domestic product of a nation. Thus, making the case for alternative educational approaches which focus on motivation for learners to learn regardless of any external rewards; which are now an integral foundation for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Tagore and Shantiniketan

Rabindranath Tagore founded schools and the (VBU) in (1921), a university town in West Bengal. Tagore referred to schools as a ‘cage’ and children as 鈥榗aptive birds鈥.  His description of schools as prisons is similar to Foucault鈥檚 (1995) analogising schools as a heterotopia; a cultural, institutional and discursive space following a process of 鈥榦thering鈥. Tagore (1917) described his perceived failure of formal education as 鈥…the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence鈥. Consequently, Tagore built the foundations of VBU at Shantiniketan on the three pillars of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking. Making the case for an important feature of postcolonial thought – agency of individual children and formulating their lives towards harmony in their existence. Shantiniketan harbours the ideas involved intercultural and intersectional understanding of respect, joy and freedom through the pedagogy of art and creativity for social engagement, child-centred learning, inclusivity, and . Thus, making India home to existing alternative education systems with egalitarian approaches relevant to building sustainable societies. Consequently, Shantiniketan has been included as an integral part of . The colonial curriculum has been ignorant of India’s socio-cultural, religious and economic realities. Resulting in the universalist frames of education developed by the West guided by structured binaries of tradition-modernity, subjective-objective.

Education for All Frameworks

The aimed towards the fulfilment of seventeen SDGs towards 2030. The targeted to provide quality, equitable and inclusive education. It鈥檚 important to unveil the rose-tinted development goals to reveal the actual realities while grounding the (EFA) and alternative education – as the latter problematises colonial approaches to pedagogies and practices which lack learner-centrism. Alternative education serves as a powerful counter-narrative to colonialism while being radically ahead of implementing aspects of capability approaches and achieving the global EFA and SDG movement. Shantiniketan has been an abode where rote learning was dissuaded and true comprehension was celebrated while being situated in Tagore鈥檚 ideal educational setting of freedom, the tapovans (forest colonies) – inculcating learning amidst a creative environment. By the early 20th century, girls began to be accepted in the institution, breaking social norms and making it a co-educational place of learning; way ahead of SDGs and the EFA frameworks. Additionally, ethnic minority languages are not included in classroom instruction, until (2022) – highlighting suppression of marginalised communities in mainstream educational institutions and policies.

Tagore鈥檚 Response to Colonial Education: Alternative Education

The education model in Shantiniketan was unique and sensitive, incorporating a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial educational curriculum, pedagogy and environment. All children (under the age of 6) were given free education and didn’t leave behind millions of tribal people like the tribal community – consequently resulting in an increase of educated Santhals in West Bengal, working as teachers, social workers, etc. The power and possibility of inclusive curriculum and pedagogies in Shantiniketan to meet the learning requirements and abilities of all children enabled the building of a strong and harmonious relationship between education and cosmopolitanism with the local communities. The educational influences of the Global North informed policy, curriculum and pedagogy, resulting in domination and marginalising of local educational ideas in the Global South. Gradually, the Global North began to realise the problems with the human capital approach to education and turned their efforts towards global agendas of the United Nations like – MDGs and SDGs (2015), and UN & World Bank led EFA to build 鈥榯丑别颈谤鈥 ideas and foundations of sustainable and egalitarian learning systems catering to marginalised children, focussing on learners, socio-emotional development of children, and critical thinking (UNESCO, 2014) through self and environment, etc. Visva-Bharati in Shantiniketan came into existence approximately seven decades before the global guidelines, bringing together children from indigenous and rural communities, and pioneering co-education with the inclusion of girls. As Said (1978) emphasises that the West stereotyped education from the East and the pressures of the colonists suppressed the voices of the subaltern to speak (Spivak, 2010) about their educational structures.


As opposed to the current socio-political environment of India, Tagore dissuaded any categories or groups that stand on the construction of 鈥榰s versus them鈥. Alternative education has been based on the premise of challenging otherness and the hyper-masculine British imperial structure and mindset. The global frames of EFA and SDGs and their chartered ideas for new forms of education were (actually) based on the ideals of the existing education system in South Asia (Dias, 1987). The forms of education were pushed to the peripheries during the civilising mission and were termed 鈥榓lternative鈥 education (Dias, 1987; Marx, 1979). The goals outlined by the EFA framework were in practice in Shantiniketan through Tagore鈥檚 rural reconstruction and global-local harmonisation. Tagore鈥檚 Shantiniketan was a response to colonial education systems with learner-centric approach and pioneering intercultural and intersectional understandings of respect, joy, leisure, freedom and happiness. Amidst the colonial period, his ideas surrounding education, nationalism, nationhood and a world without borders were radical for the time. He envisioned connecting people across cultures, decades before 鈥樷 became a buzzword. However, the challenge remains that traditional education systems in India are still influenced by colonial ways because the mind still remains colonised, resulting in negative societal perceptions and imagery of alternative schools. In Indian society children in alternative schools are seen as outside of the mainstream, making it difficult for them to even make friends and induce fear of unemployment. Children who move from alternative education systems to colleges face massive because universities in India are again syllabus-based, systematic and rewards rote learning. Hence, it鈥檚 difficult to achieve cooperation from the range of actors involved both at the international as well as national levels.
The journey of alternative education in present-day India is difficult and requires a conscious awareness of colonial traces and wider scope of understanding that goes beyond economic development. It鈥檚 a turbulent road because India is a middle-income country with rising even with considerable efforts in the mainstream educational sector. In this context, demanding space for alternative education would be difficult. Both EFA and SDGs have significant challenges, and so do alternative education systems. Therefore, instead of fixating on universal goals, the policies can look for inspiration in traditional and existing schools of thoughts for newer and better models of education. It might result in cumulative engagement and learning for mainstream education and fill in the gaps in both global frameworks and alternative education systems, further empowering learners to build sustainable futures.


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Sharma, A. (2019). Shantiniketan: Tagore鈥檚 Idea on Education. Medium https://medium.com/history-of-education-timeline/shantiniketan-tagores-idea-on-education-6e9b9ec67863

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  • Shruti Das

    Shruti Das has around five years of research experience which dives into education spaces with an intersection of gender, sociology, digital technologies and other developmental issues at the grassroots, national and international levels in South Asia. She is the recipient of the IOE-ISH Centenary Master鈥檚 Scholarship and has successfully graduated from the MA Education, Gender and International Development program at University College London (UCL).

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