Reaching the least, the last, the lowest and the lost: Thoughts on Gandhi-ji and the spirit of Higher Education

by Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon

The words in the title of this blog are the formal goals of the Dayalbagh Educational Institute, a university founded by followers of the Radhaswami faith in the early 20th Century. We learned about the unique and inspiring work of the Dayalbagh University from Dr. Anand Mohan, the Registrar as part of this presentation during a two-day symposium on the implications of Ghandian thought to the issues facing Higher Education Institutions in the first quarter of the 21st Century.  The symposium was jointly organized and hosted by the UNESCO Chair for Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education in cooperation with the Association of Indian Universities, UNESCO New Delhi and the Asian Office of the International Development Research Centre September 18-20, 2019.

We were reminded of many of the Gandhian concepts and practices such as Nai Talim, a philosophy of education that stresses the equality of mental and manual knowledge and of learning through doing. Sarvodaya, Gandhi’s overall political philosophy refers to the the uplifting of all sectors of society. It underscores a message of inclusion both from an epistemic and social perspective.  Swaraj was the concept that  referred to the Independence of India from Britain, but also can be seen as a broader concept of decolonisation when referring to contemporary challenges of higher education. Discussions ranged far and wide with connections made between contemporary discourses of decolonisation and epistemic justice and other concepts such as Ubuntu as used in South Africa, Ujamaa na Kujetegemea as used by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Sejahetra as seen these days in Malaysia in the context of values and higher education

But coming back to Dayalbagh Educational Institution, it’s story provided the most complete example of a contemporary higher education institution incorporating practices that could be said to reflect Gandhian principles. Dr. Anand Mohan, the Registrar of Dayalbagh made the presentation to the conference. What was fascinating is that Dayalbagh Educational Institute was founded in the early 20th Century by, many years before Gandhi’s own ideas on education were to be articulated and practiced.

The goals of Dayalbagh corresponds well with the Gandhian concept of Antyodaya, or service to the last or lowest person. Fees are kept low so young people of little means may attend. They have a system of education from Primary through University. Mental and Manual labour are united with all students taking a role in farming, cleaning, and making practical items. Respect for manual labour is combined with the newest technological approaches to the running of the school. Solar power provide all the electrical needs. They grow the food that they eat. Solar generated steam heat cooks the food. Students are treated the same without reference to caste or class. I have never seen such a complete integration between core functions of teaching and research in a university with society around it. This university truly practices the core principle of engaged teaching and scholarship in its fullest manner.

The practice of Nai Talim by Mahatma Gandhi emphasised several of these principles of learning and doing, of teaching and service, of expertise for larger service to society. Dayalbahg’s spiritual moorings have given it the inspiration and an institutional ethos that integration of theory and practice in everyday life. What I saw four years ago in Agra  is still unique in this respect.

Our conclusion after several days of conversation is that indeed Gandhi’s ideas can provide important philosophical grounding for our contemporary concerns with community-university engagement and the social responsibility of education for the common good.  And further we have evidence of many smaller innovations already in place around the world and at least one institution, Dayalbagh,  shows us how total institutional transformation is possible. Its spiritual and normative foundations are strong for sustainability.

Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon are co-chairs of the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Budd is located at the University of Victoria in Canada. Rajesh is founding President of PRIA in India.