I was in London yesterday to attend a meeting and was pleased to find that this was to be held in Russell Square. This is one of several green enclosed spaces in the Bloomsbury district that provides some level of respite from the hurly burly of London traffic. In order to get to the meeting venue my walk took me from the recently modernised St Pancras Station along Euston Road and then through Tavistock Square my favourite of the series of green squares that stretch between Euston and Holborn. If you are ever in this area and have time to idle for a while it is well worth exploring this bijou space.
Tavistock square is dedicated to champions of peace and those who have campaigned at various levels for human rights. Within the square there is a tree planted to commemorate the victims of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and nearby a rock adorned with a plaque serving as a tribute to the lives of conscientious objectors to war and as a reminder of many of the atrocities of the twentieth century. The first Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru came here to plant a copper beech tree and other leaders have visited to pay homage to the victims of war and oppression. Tavistock Square has been the focus of many meetings of organisations committed to working for peace and human rights over the years. Throughout the square there are benches labelled with small brass plaques, many with inscriptions to individuals for whom the tranquillity of this place had some significance, and elsewhere trees have been planted in the memory of loved ones who made a significant contribution to their community, for example Sir John Barbirolli, the composer and the author Virginia Woolf.
There is one statue, created by an artist named Freda Brilliant, that takes centre stage in Tavistock square and is probably more visited than all others. Unveiled in 1968 by the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson the statue of Mahatma Gandhi has become a focal point for visitors to this part of London who have campaigned for peace and human rights. I must have stood before this statue many dozens of times over the years, just as I did yesterday in pouring rain, huddled beneath my umbrella, pondering on the contribution that this unique man made to the history not only of his country, but to the lives of many around the world. In particular whilst the water dripped from my umbrella yesterday, I thought of some of the articles I have been reading lately in the UK media that have encouraged an increasing negative view of education and others that have seen this as a contested area, sometimes praising teachers for their care and professionalism, whilst on other occasions blaming them for many of society’s ills.
Gandhi believed in a largely Platonic view of education based upon the notion of developing human values and virtues. Writing in his book The Philosophy of Gandhi, the theologian Glyn Richards said of the Mahatma, “he saw that one of the ways in which basic human rights could be restored was by the provision of equal opportunity in the field of education”. During his life time Gandhi experimented as a teacher, with varying degrees of success, whilst attempting to educate his own children and those of others in the communities that he founded, including Phoenix in South Africa. In his autobiography he wrote of the difficulties he experienced in a teaching role and was candid about his failure to always connect as he would wish with his pupils. However, throughout his life he campaigned for the adoption of compulsory education and for the education of women. He advocated a focus upon vocational training and stressed that respect for manual labour should be an important component of any education system.
Whilst he emphasised the importance of improving the literacy levels within his own country he wrote that “Literary training by itself adds not an inch to one’s moral height, and character-building is independent of literary training.” Indeed he believed that illiteracy should be far less of a concern than what he termed character deficiency. Knowledge he believed to be important but the application of learning for the benefit of others was far more dependent upon children learning concepts associated with justice, duty and service.
When reading Gandhi’s ideas on education today some aspects of his thinking appear to be out of touch with developments in the twenty first century. In many quarters he is viewed as too idealistic to have relevance to the modern world. I would though contend that the underlying principles of his educational philosophy contain a strong message that resonates with many teachers who now find themselves striving to move beyond teaching as a mechanical and technocratic process. Education for Gandhi was about enabling individuals to become independent critical thinkers who based their actions upon social justice and used knowledge to benefit their communities.
Whilst I know that even amongst many of my friends in India there are misgivings about some of Gandhi’s ideas, it does seem to me that the tenor of his beliefs provide at the very least an important starting point for debates about education and the ways in which we live. Should you be in the vicinity of Tavistock square in the future perhaps you too may pause by this statue to consider the ideas of a man who attempted to live by a philosophy of service to others.