Looking at ‘Education for All: The Case of Tagore’s Alternative Education

Children take a break from class at their newly-established primary school in north-eastern India.
Happy School Days” by United Nations Development Programme is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Tagore noted “…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” (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 ‘catch-up’ with developed countries and has been constantly criticised for ‘free markets’ 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 labour market and posits ‘effective’ 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 Visva-Bharati University (VBU) in Shantiniketan (1921), a university town in West Bengal. Tagore referred to schools as a ‘cage’ and children as ‘captive birds’.  His description of schools as prisons is similar to Foucault’s (1995) analogising schools as a heterotopia; a cultural, institutional and discursive space following a process of ‘othering’. Tagore (1917) described his perceived failure of formal education as “…the highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence”. 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 rural reconstruction. 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 UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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 United Nations SDGs (2015) aimed towards the fulfilment of seventeen SDGs towards 2030. The SDG (4) targeted to provide quality, equitable and inclusive education. It’s important to unveil the rose-tinted development goals to reveal the actual realities while grounding the Education for All Movement (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’s 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 National Education Policy (2022) – highlighting suppression of marginalised communities in mainstream educational institutions and policies.

Tagore’s 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 Santhal 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 ‘their’ 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 ‘us versus them’. 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 ‘alternative’ education (Dias, 1987; Marx, 1979). The goals outlined by the EFA framework were in practice in Shantiniketan through Tagore’s rural reconstruction and global-local harmonisation. Tagore’s 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 ‘Global Citizenship’ 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 cultural shock because universities in India are again syllabus-based, systematic and rewards rote learning. Hence, it’s 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’s a turbulent road because India is a middle-income country with rising unemployment 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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  • 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’s Scholarship and has successfully graduated from the MA Education, Gender and International Development program at University College London (UCL).

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