Theory is Practice, Practice is Theory By Avijit Pathak

Theory is Practice, Practice is Theory

A real challenge a teacher/educator faces is how to practice the theories or ideals of education he/she cherishes. Here is an article that has emerged out of a real engagement with a group of children; it seeks to show that theory is empty without a concrete pedagogic practice, and a meaningful practice derives its inspiration from theory.

By Avijit Pathak

Educationists and philosophers have been perpetually reflecting on the purpose of education. It is generally agreed by the sensitive ones that the purpose of education is not just to acquire a skill, possess a baggage of information and knowledge, and earn one’s livelihood. The purpose is far deeper. It is to cultivate the fundamental faculties of learning—how to observe, how to think logically and coherently, how to communicate through language and other symbolic forms, and how to smell, feel, touch, see and experience the connectedness among different phenomena, and relate to the world meaningfully and gracefully. No wonder, with wonder and reverence we recall those who have reminded us of the discontents of the existing pattern of education, and inspired us to imagine something new. For instance, it is great to be touched when Michel Foucault situates education in the context of a ‘disciplinary’ society—the way schools through ‘hierarchical observation’, ‘normalizing judgment’ and ‘examinations’ discipline the child and produce a ‘docile’ body and consciousness.  We become aware of the fact that schools are not necessarily the sites of freedom and creative articulation. Instead, this ‘military dream’ of society makes us feel restless. We ask ourselves: Is there another imagination of schools? And at this juncture, Tagore’s vision of a ‘poet’s school’ enters our inner world. While Foucault saw power and surveillance in schools, Tagore inspired us to create a new school free from all sorts of regimentation and restrictions to the child’s free and spontaneous growth. The abundance of nature, its rhythmic play, and the teacher as a catalyst: let the child bloom, and sharpen her aesthetic, cultural and scientific sensibilities—that was what the poet imagined and tried to strive for. Schools in a capitalist society, a Marxist scholar like Louis Althusser reminded us, act like an ‘ideological apparatus of the state’; schools inculcate the values of competitiveness, profit and success at any cost. And under these hostile circumstances, a visionary like Jidu Krishnamurti was asking the children and teachers of the Rishi Valley school to overcome competitiveness (because competitiveness is based on fear, and fear is based on ego, and freedom is impossible unless one overcomes the constraint of ego), look at a tree, observe it carefully, see the amazing colour of the sky at the time of sunset, and learn not just physics, history and geography, but how to live meaningfully with love and wonder.

Foucault and Althusser reminded us of the harsh reality. And Tagore and Krishnamurti inspired us to evolve a new possibility. But then, the question is: Is it possible? To put in concrete terms, is it possible to engage with the child, and make her see that education is not just about information and knowledge, and success and failure in examinations; instead, education is about the art of cultivating the fundamental faculties of learning, it is the freedom to think, to live creatively, and to do things with patience, endurance, love and joy? The obstacles are many. Even if you try you know that your scope is limited; the other forces are going against your spirit. Television-mediated ‘reality shows’ promote the culture of instantaneity and quick fame; parents, because of survival anxiety, want immediate material success from their children; the job market demands that education should be just acquisition of technical skills; and all sorts of competitive examinations lead to mindless drilling. So where is the ambience for creating a culture of learning that values creative thinking, aesthetic imagination and ethical sensitivity?

I do not deny the reality of these obstacles. I am aware of the limits of critical pedagogy. Yet, I believe in the art of possibility. I believe that it is always desirable to make an effort. And irrespective of its scale, impact and originality, a sincere effort has its own beauty. In this small article I wish to narrate the story of two such efforts that I have made in recent times to arouse the creative potential of the child.


I am engaging with a group of children of Class VI. I am showing them the hard copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth ; I request them to touch the book, feel its concreteness, smell it, and see that books are not just textbooks from which teachers ask them questions; good books exist to open the windows of the mind. I read a story from the book: ‘Domestic Satyagraha’. I ask them to feel the story: Gandhi’s beautiful experiment with truth. His wife—Kasturba Gandhi was not recovering from her prolonged illness. And Gandhiji , because of his innate interest and research in diet and healing, felt that Kasturba ought to give up salt and pulses from her diet. But she was not convinced; she didn’t give much importance to her husband’s prescriptions. Yet, Gandhiji kept insisting. And one day Kasturba reacted angrily, and reminded her husband that even, for him, it would have been impossible to give up salt and pulses had he been asked to do so. However, the fact was that Gandhiji had already given up salt from his diet. Kasturba felt her husband’s conviction and sincerity, and did the needful. Gandhiji narrated this incident as one of his early experiments with satyagraha: how to transform one with the power of truth.
Gandhiji and Kasturba: a bond that passed through the cycle of noble aspirations and hard struggles

Yes, children love stories. They begin to see history as an illuminating narrative, not just a soulless fact. And then I ask them to see beyond Gandhi, and imagine their own experiments with truth. Yes, they take some time. A child asks me to explain it further. I give an example to make them think. I tell them: Imagine a situation. Your papa is angry and shouting at you, and reminding you— ‘You should learn to be quiet and silent’. They begin to laugh. They realize that papa is not doing what he is preaching, and hence it is not an experiment with truth.  And now they get the point, and begin to narrate some simple incidents from their life—the incidents that reveal the symmetry between their words and practices.  They are realizing that to experiment with truth was not Gandhiji’s monopoly; they too can do it. Gandhiji came down from heaven, and they too became like him. And with the joy of a story telling they begin to sharpen the faculties of observation, imagination and sensitivity to life.


This time the children are engrossed in a discussion on the anatomy of human body—its different parts, its vital organs and their functions. But then, we want them to see beyond biology; we engage in a discussion, and propose that a healthy body (nurtured by a balanced diet with a delicate balance of carbohydrate, protein, vitamin and minerals, and physical exercises) alone is not sufficient for good living. A body, we argue, is just a container; it has to be seen what it contains—positive life-energy, or negative vibrations. Yes, we ought to take care of the container; but what is really important is to see what it carries. A ‘physically fit’ body with anger, jealousy and violence is not what one should strive for. At this juncture, it becomes somewhat difficult for the children to grasp the true significance of this intricate relationship between body and spirit. I look at their faces; I understand their doubt and confusion. I rush to the kitchen, find two beautiful /well-designed cups, fill one of these with dirty/contaminated water, and the second one is filled with clean, pure drinking water. I bring these two cups before them, and ask them which one they would prefer. Yes, all of them decide to choose the cup with clean pure drinking water. The discussion acquires a new meaning. Even the cup that contains contaminated water, as far as its outer look is concerned, is pretty attractive; but it is of no use. Because the cup exists in order to contain something, and if what it contains is dirty, it is of no use, despite its good design. Now the children begin to see the point: one has to see beyond the outer beauty of the body; what matters is the purity of the inner world. In the process with the children we too undertake a beautiful journey—from biology to spirituality.

These are simple efforts indicating the art of possibility—the efforts that prove that educational philosophy is nothing but a concrete pedagogic practice, and a pedagogic experimentation is essentially a philosophic innovation. For me, it is not important whether these simple practices can alter the larger scenario. But I know that I am evolving as a human being, as a teacher. Moreover, I now feel what William Wordsworth meant when he wrote:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man:

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.