Invoking the True Spirit of Vocational Education
With our hierarchical consciousness we tend to devalue the meaning of vocational education. However, as Gandhi and Tagore emphasized, vocational education seeks to integrate theoretical cognition and productive labour; it can promote a meaningful pedagogy—learning through doing, or learning the ‘skills’ for a sustainable living and positive contribution to society. At a time when a highly over-populated country like ours is experiencing the spectre of unemployment, it is important to rethink our educational practices, and reinvent the possibilities in vocational education.
Dr. Jeebanlata Salam is an Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies. Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore.
India is a country endowed with its uniquely rich and diverse landscape, geography, bioresources and economic activities. Each region in India is unique, and hence the economic activities of its population are bound to vary. In the larger sense, almost every Indian is gifted with some sort of skills which are local and specific. These skills provide an important source of their livelihood. When these skills of different trades, crafts and arts are learned through vocational education (formal/non-formal), it prepares an individual to be more productive and selfreliant. Since ancient period vocational education was integral to Indian system. In fact, vocational education in India can be traced back to the ancient times when numerous technical skills such as carpentry and weaving were part of our education system.
This practice encouraged the dignity of labour by incorporating vocational skills as integral to the overall education system. It is important to recall that the ancient Indian literature refers to sixty-four arts that include weaving, dyeing, spinning, art of tanning leather, manufacture of boats, chariots, the art of training elephants and horses, art of making jewels, equipment, dance, music, agriculture, building houses, sculpture, medical and veterinary science, the profession of a chemist, manufacture of perfumes and a host of other professions. A majority of students earned their livelihood by following various professions. In the vocational system of education, young men used to work as apprentices under a master for a number of years and gained expertise in their respective professions. The apprentices were taught free of cost and provided with boarding and lodging by the teacher. Even a student aiming to gain the highest philosophical knowledge was duty bound to do some manual labour daily, such as collecting fuel, tending cattle, etc. Vocational education was not ignored during the Buddhist system of education too. The monks learn the science of architecture to build new monasteries or to repair the old ones; they were also trained in different types of vocation to earn their livelihood such as spinning, weaving, printing of clothes, tailoring, sketching, accountancy, medicines, surgery and coinage. In medieval India vocational skills reached great heights as it is evident from the findings of the numerous archaeological remains of the period. However, colonial rule destroyed such a valuable system of education intrinsic to India’s social-cultural and economic system. Even though it established a set of vocational centres, the primary objective was to facilitate the British administration by producing technical persons for construction and maintenance of public buildings, roads, canals, ports and harbours, railways and other services, artisans and craftsmen in the maintenance of instruments and equipment for army and navy. The Wood’s Despatch, 1854 gave a momentum to this colonial agenda of education. During the period of Indian freedom struggle, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi redefined the meaning of manual work and vocational education. Tagore deplored the ineffectiveness of the bookish learning by stressing on the role of creative education involving productive labour and aesthetic sensibilities. And Gandhi, with his experience at the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, realized the great educational value of manual work.
As he stated, “The weak became stronger in the Tolstoy farm and labour proved a tonic for all’’.
In India where more than 80% of the population was involved in agriculture and another 10% in industry, it was a crime to make education merely literary and to make boys and girls incapable of engaging in manual work. No wonder, Gandhi insisted that manual work should find a place in the school curriculum, and it should be sufficiently productive. Indian education system, he thought, should be primarily vocational, focusing on the area of agriculture, weaving and carpentry. This idea was further developed in his discourse on the ideals of a national system of education during the conference of education ministers and eminent education experts in 1937. The October 1937 education conference under the leadership of Gandhi passed the resolution of free, compulsory and craft-centric education for every child in the age group of 7 to14. The first model school was set up at Sevagram to run the programme on experimental basis. Soon after, a wave of educational reconstruction was carried out almost all over the country. The success of the programme could be noticed from the overwhelming response of common people from every part of the country.
The programme at Sevagram was centered on group activities such as cleaning the school campus, including lavatories .Moreover, they were required to work in the farm, in the kitchen; and they were also involved in spinning and weaving. After the completion of the assigned tasks, both students and teachers used to reflect on their activities in a scientific way. The exercise helped to unite theoretical knowledge with practical experience. An education system of this kind was based on the organic relationship between social experience and human knowledge. Music and art, celebration of festivals of all religions, games and sports were integral to the educational programme at Sevagram. An education system of this kind was of immense importance and valuable; it promoted human dignity and scientific temperament; it fostered a culture of cooperation and democratic value in all spheres of life of the teacher and the taught and the community as a whole. It was for the all-round development of the body, mind and spirit. He promoted mass education that inspired cooperative life through the pedagogic practice of ‘learning by doing’ in an atmosphere of freedom which enabled young people to earn a sense of self-respect, life- skills and sustainable livelihood. After its short glorious journey, Gandhi’s education project declined as it was poorly and falsely perceived as a system meant only for the rural folk by the political masters and bureaucrats whose sole aspiration was to promote English education as an escape route for their children.
True, in post-Independent India several important policy documents such as the Kothari Commission (1964-66), the Radhakrishnan Commission (1948),the Mudaliar Commission (1952) and the Ishwarbhai Committee (1977) referred to the importance of vocational education. And the same story was repeated in the National Policy of Education Resolution (1968), the National Education Policy (1986), and the National Knowledge Commission (2006). But not much happened in terms of practice. The fact is that despite these notable policies, vocational education continues to be stigmatized due to a host of factors including a societal prejudice that it is nothing but a craft for poor performers in academics and school dropouts. It is necessary to fight such a false societal perception about vocational education because at a deeper level it means learning a skill, doing a job meaningfully and serving the community. For example, a paddy farmer, while working on a given piece of land is responsible right from procurement of seed material to the sale of farm produce in the market. His job involves cultivation of paddy as per the practices required for a particular agronomic climate zone, type of soil, rainfall pattern and climatic conditions to achieve the yields. The farmer bears risks, possesses clarity and skills necessary for arithmetic and algebraic calculations. The farmer’s job is neither frivolous nor undignified.
Likewise, in a manufacturing industry an electrical engineer working for a power plant requires the coordination of a draughtsman. Even though his occupation does not have a high ‘status’, it is he who provides a detailed account of machinery, buildings, construction sites, power plants etc. Even scientists working for missile/ radar system are also dependent on the meticulous works provided by the draughtsman. Similarly, while performing a delicate surgery, the chief surgeon is assisted by junior surgeons, nurses, technicians and electrical engineers (to monitor continuous electricity supply). The successful performance by the head surgeon is hence dependent on the planned co-ordination of all skilled individuals involved. The point I wish to make through these examples is that all skills learned with love and sincerity are worthy and valuable to society. Currently India stands at a threshold of demographic dividend and is set to become one of the youngest countries in the world by 2020. However, the quantum of unemployment among educated young population is a shocking waste of resources. For example, according to a report published in The Times of India ( August, 2016), in Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha district, 17,000 young people—and most of them are graduates, post graduates, engineers and research scholars— applied for positions for safai karmacharis. What does it mean? Does it remind us of Gandhi’s concern: equipping young people with productive skills, and making them truly self-reliant? With the establishment of the new Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, and Make in India Policy, can we expect that the true spirit of vocational education and ‘skill learning’— as imagined by the likes of Gandhi and Tagore—will be truly implemented and practiced?
This article is published in The New Leam, MARCH 2017 Issue( Vol .3 No.22 – 23) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at email@example.com
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