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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 30 New Delhi July 14, 2018

On Critical Pedagogy: ‘Teaching’ at the Margins

Sunday 15 July 2018


by Murzban Jal and Jyoti Bawane

The materialist doctrine that people are products of circumstances and upbringing, and therefore, changed people are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is people that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (Robert Owen, for example). The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice. 

—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Universality and Counter-hegemony

The idea of “universality” is problematic. We know this. We however do not know this merely from the discourses of postmodernism that castigated any and every form of “master-narrative”. We know this from serious engagement with Marxism, especially with the Marxism that went through the dialectical understanding of social reality.

This idea of universality, meaning “Marxist universality”, is totally distinct from the bourgeois idea of universality. Reading Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of State one finds the radical distinction between the idea of “abstract universality” and “concrete universality”. This distinction is deepened by Marx in Capital when the former is linked to the logic of capital and the latter with the birth and growth of the international proletariat.

Taking this distinction between the two forms of universality, this essay looks into the kind of education that needs being undertaken in tribal India. So far there has been a kind of total marginalisation of tribals, where education and health are totally neglected, so that they not only remain at the peripheries of human civilisation, but also because capital accumulation can enter the forests where minerals and natural wealth can be exploited by the capitalist cartels in connivance with the Indian state that seeks to keep the tribals uneducated and unhealthy so that capitalism can totally uproot them when necessary. It is in this context that we need to look into tribal education.

Now according to a logic derived from the European Enlightenment and perfected by Kant, Hegel and Marx, education and knowledge are always universal and necessary and cannot be determined by partisan politics. This universality and necessity was predicated on a philosophical humanism which said that humanity and the production of free humanity was to be the basis of an enlightened educational system. In this sense, there is tremendous stress and strain between the ideaof education as necessary and universal—in Marx’s sense awakening the idea of the human essence—and the practiceof education determined by outdated traditions, caste-determined semi-feudal ideologies and class-based capitalism.

It was the Left that had talked of creating an educational revolution. J.P. Naik, the doyen of an alternative anti-colonial system of knowledge for instance, talked in his celebrated essay ‘To Begin a Revolution with a Revolution’ of creating this “educational revolution”.1 He quotes Jawaharlal Nehru that “the entire system of education must be revolutionised”.2 Alas, this was never to happen. Nehru said this in 1948. But the Congress was too caught in their semi-feudal semi-capitalism, to even dream of any kind of revolution. What they did was take the colonial bureaucratic state structure to fashion it for the needs to the ruling classes. Education was far from their programme.

Education was replaced by an alienated form of education which was to be determined by the politics of lordship and bondage, patron and client. The Indian masses became bonded clients to the Congress which, as Ambedkar had warned, was nothing but a conglomeration of upper-caste Hindu elites. The Congress imagined that they were creating excellence in the education sector with the picture of Gandhi adorned on the walls of government schools. This picture said it all—celebration of poverty in the form of caste and class divide would be the basis for New India. The divide would be stark and terrible. On the one hand, schools of the best quality that taught to augment wealth for the wealthy, on the other hand, government schools that taught the virtues of poverty.

The school system was both class-based and caste-based. But it was not merely based on caste and class, it was also totally schizophrenic since Nehru mastered the art of constructing an alienated and schizophrenic system of education. This alienated system was based on the following oppositions: capitalist-worker, Brahman-Dalit, male-female. And tragically the education system started reproducing these oppositions. Education became the production of ideologies of reproducing capitalism, caste and patriarchy. The idea of common schools—the dream of a democratic society—would be an idea that would never dawn on the minds of the Indian educators. J.P. Naik insisted on this common schools system. But the political elites, who would soon venture in making education their personal business, would want to create a cartel system of money oligarchy in education. The common schools system would threaten their oligarchy. This practice of an alienated form of education, characterised of being segregated and ghettoised, has created non-inclusive and non-democratic school environments. In such a context, the strength of education, rather than emancipating or strengthening the subaltern masses—also called the “socially and economically backward communities”—has further oppressed and distanced them from the universalising process of humanistic education.

But it must be said that by “universalisation’ one does not mean a form of abstract universalization. As we noted, dialectical logic says that there is a rigorous distinction between abstract universalism and concrete universality. The former is abstract and formal, almost metaphysical in the sense that it abstracts from concrete reality; while the latter is concretely grounded to include individuality and particularity in this New Universality. So when we talk of “universality of knowledge”, we imply that individuality and particularity have necessarily to be included. This New Universalism is an authentic universalism unlike the spurious universalism of bourgeoisdom. It is essentially humanistic and internationalist. And it is this humanism and internationalism which functions as the counter-hegemony to capitalism.

The question remains: “How do we have an education system for tribals in India, when the old charity-based, feudo-capitalist driven system has completely failed?” One does not need a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi with their ideologies and theologies of poverty, celibacy and chastity that intend to keep tribals as museum pieces. Nor does one need Adani, Bill Gates and Corporate Inc. On the other hand, one needs a terrain-shift in this whole problematic in understanding how we can have a scientific tribal system of education.

We call it education at the periphery-margins. The term “Margins”, if one recollects, is what Jacques Derrida uses in his Margins of Philosophy and also what Kevin Anderson uses in his Marx at the Margins. Margins, here, implies literally the margins of a page, where one scribbles notes, where these scribbled notes are left forgotten.

Tribal Education as “New Universalism”

What one needs is the awakening of the memories of these margins. But these margins are not interested in liberal democratic types of education. Margins are not interested in this “rectification” of so-called “errors” of class-caste societies. Margins are not interested in developing centres for “inclusion-exclusion studies”.

The fashionable term “inclusive education”, which the liberals love to preach, is rather misleading. What does this “inclusive education” really mean? Does it mean that the subaltern masses should be included in the Brahmanical and capitalist systems? Would then the preser-vation of caste and the promotion of class—albeit the Gandhian and Nehruvian liberal forms—be the leitmotiv of this inclusive education?

Tribals and Dalits are a few such communities that have been severely affected by this sluggish and stagnant practice of education in schools where the tragicomedy of inclusive education has done nothing. Instead this system, determined by a certain kind of hierarchical ideology based on the totem of purity and the taboo of pollution, has reduced teachers to patrons and students to clients. Teachers are made to play the role of Gandhi who is said to have sacrificed his life for the country. This patron-client relationship also divides the student population according to the caste structure of society. Gopal Guru’s “theoretical Brahmans and empirical Shudras” comes to mind. The education system in free Indian has been less of creating a really free human and more of creating and recreating a terrible panoptic form of a caste-class system.

Tribals are more discriminated against when compared to Dalits, since they lived life independent and outside of society at large, and hence they are invariably looked upon as “outsiders” and not considered an integral part of society.3 One must use terminologies with great care. What does “tribal” mean? And what are these legally defined terms “SC/ST”? It must be understood that any scientific understanding of tribal societies in India must know that the concept of “tribe” in India turns out to be a colonial construction, wherein their identification is more associated with political and administrative parameters that serve for the purpose policymaking, developmental initiatives and administration, rather than scientific analysis.

Understating tribal societies is of great importance. By and large despite excellent research in the field of tribal studies, it is Western anthropology determined by evolutio-nary biologism that governs tribal research in India. The Colonial Census of 1901, headed by Herbert Risley, has been chiefly responsible for the false understanding of Indian people, because of the false understanding of what “castes”, “tribes” and “communities” in India actually mean. The ideas of castes and tribes get disturbed and distorted because of this Census and this spurious classification of the people of India.

It is important to understand that tribes, caste-based societies and modern class societies are three distinct social organisations governed by different principles and regulations. Largely governed by kinship bonds, tribal societies’ outlook is mostly towards equality, interdepen-dency and independency, while both the caste and class societies are more governed towards inequality, dependency, hierarchy and division of labour.4 What 20th century sociologists call “reification”5 applies in caste and class societies, while tribal societies are said to be free from this form of societal distortion.

Social scientists and anthropologists have however defined boundaries for tribal societies more characteristic to their linguistic, cultural and political features.6 Over the years, the very notion of “tribe” as a homogenous community and undifferentiated category has been widely questioned.7 Mainstream anthropology and sociology are mistaken when they impose an evolutionist understanding of history on tribal societies. It is argued that the anthropologists and sociologists have overlooked the context in which the term “tribe” has come to be used in the Indian context, in which they are identified and described primarily in terms of being “outside civilisation” and moreover they have been studied not in their own right but only in relation to “general” Indian society, wherein the overriding features are caste, peasant status and social differentiation.8

Basically these communities have historically been known to be independent of the larger community (or “society at large”) and hence they are commonly seen as “outsiders” and not considered as an integral part of the so-called “civilised” society. These communities even today continue to be marginalised educationally and socio-economically due to the uneven character of capitalist development and the consequent colonisation of tribal societies. David Harvey’s phrase “accumulation through disposs-ession” serves best to the understanding of the onslaught of capitalism on tribal societies.

To develop tribal schooling systems, we need to understand tribal culture and their life-worlds. It would be methodologically and ethically inappropriate to impose urban epistemologies on tribal societies. This is because it is also important to realise that the central ethos of the tribes continues to be governed by collectivity and hence the principle of individua-lity or individual (istic) performance is less considered in their societies. Moreover, these societies are known to be rich in the performing arts and aesthetical skills. Further, their livelihood is mainly dependent on nature. They have strong linkages with the organic world and hence may not be able to relate completely with concepts that involve certain degree of calculation, reciprocation and even memori-sation.9 Over and above, these communities have been falsely labelled as “primitive”. This arises from the false unilinear theory of history where tribal societies are said to be on the “lower stage of development” in contrast to capitalist societies that are said to be on the so-called “higher stage”.

In view of the above, it is strongly argued that the modern education system in the tribal life-world is a form of invasion where, to borrow Ashis Nandy’s term, we have an “imperialism of categories”. Education, in this sense, is understood as invasion. Consequently creating educational spaces (through invasion and colonisation) for tribal communities is not a smooth and easy process as we have so far assumed it to be. Although the Indian Government and other agencies have established Ashram schools with the motive of providing educational benefits to the children belonging to the tribal or remote communities, this segregation has alienated them from their inherent tendencies like being a part of the organic world, collective practices, and self-sustainable economies.

Their forms of human collectivity, as well as their relation to natural environment, have got to be comprehended as a very unique understanding of humanity. It is our point of view to sensitise the public of the uniqueness of tribal societies and tribal culture. Modern societies should learn from tribal societies, rather than imposing their urban-centric, Eurocentric and male-centric views on tribal societies. The mistaken attitude of mainstream society of understanding tribal societies as “backward” stems from both a Eurocentric understanding of history as well as a colonial imposition of European modernity on global tribal societies. In India, it was Risley, in charge of the 1901 Census, who classified Indian society in terms “tribes” and “castes”. We unfortunately have to bear with this colonial legacy. While what we intend to do is to propagate the annihilation of caste as the annihilation of the hierarchical male dominated society, we also intend to preserve tribal societies and tribal cultural as a preservation of non-hierarchical societies. This is our main theory and practice of education.

There is an alternative humanistic-communistic model of education that we need to invent. Its leitmotif is relating education with the social structure of society. Consequently a detailed anthropological study of tribal village society must be carried out, especially in the light of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks. One must differentiate the tribal village society from the caste-village society. Capitalism seeks to destroy the former and preserve the latter. The Indian education then mimes what capitalism does—destroy all memories of tribal societies and preserve the mind and culture of caste-societies.

One form of the elite capitalist education system seeks to destroy rural India. The other—romantic Gandhian—extols village society, without understanding it. The needs of the people, their desires and ambitions, are never taken into consideration by any of these schools of thought.

We are trapped right now. The old feudal, capitalistic, Gandhian, Stalinist models have all failed. All of these schools are based on the old Asiatic oligarchic models where teachers imagine that they are so-called “givers” to the poor and oppressed, as if, the latter have no agency of their own. Gandhism, as Ambedkar so often pointed out, is totally reactionary, because it imagines that people have no agency.

Teachers must grow beyond the approach of being “givers” and students as “receivers”, wherein the effort should not be laid on “civilising” people under the tag of “education”. The truth is that the oppressed are not “marginals”, are not people living “outside” society. They have always been “inside”—inside the structure which made them “beings for others”. The solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves”.10 In the last resort and in every resort, it must be understood that the process of education is to humanise society. When one is talking of the process of people becoming “beings for themselves”, one is implying that this process of education must lead to humanity humanising itself. Capitalism is necessarily a process of dehumanisation. It talks of a universalism, but only the universalism of capital. What we need is the universalism of humanity.

This is what we call “New Universalism”. Tribal societies must not mime capitalism and its forms of development and modernity. Instead one must look at an alternative model of development—what we call the multilinearal and humanistic model of development. Writing in early 1881, Marx talked of the Russian commune as a “regenerative force in Russian society”.11 He also said that these so-called “primitive” societies were “something superior to those countries which are still enslaved by the capitalist regime”.12 One must thus state that “the vitality of primitive communities (which) was incomparably greater than that of Semitic, Greek and Roman societies, etc., and a fortiori than that of modern capitalist societies.”13

The entire order of understanding development is now radically shaken. What one now needs is “the return of modern societies to the ‘archaic’ type of commune property”.14 What we now see is the “new system towards which modern society is tending”, as Marx recalls Lewis Henry Morgan, which “will be a revival in a superior form of an archaic form of society”.15 That is why Marx says, one must not be too afraid of the word “archaic”.16 What we need to understand is that it is necessary to retrieve these aspects of the “archaic” and the “primitive”.

Unfortunately, our thinkers and educators are so engrossed with this little capitalist world (with its illusions of development—), that they imagine that capitalism is the beginning and end of everything. Not only are they engrossed in this little world of commodities, they now continue to seek different interpretations of this little world.

Good old Marx’s statement rings out again and again: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”17 But for that we must recognise that “the educator himself needs educating”.18

Are we ready for this?


1. J.P. Naik, ‘To Begin a Revolution with a Revolution, in A.B. Shah (ed.), The Social Context of Education. Essays in Honour of Professor J.P. Naik (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1978), p. 1.

2. Ibid.

3. Virginius Xaxa, ‘Protective Discrimination: Why Scheduled Tribes Lag Behind Scheduled Castes’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, Issue No. 29, July 21, 2001.

4. Virginius Xaxa, ‘Transformation of Tribes in India: Terms of Discourse’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, Issue No. 24, 1999.

5. “Reification” means a form of dehumanisation of society where money and power overrule human relations. It was Georg Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness who had made the idea of reification central to social scientific imagination.

6. A.K. Nongkynrih, ‘Scheduled Tribes and the Census: A Sociological Inquiry’, Economic and Political Weekly, 45(19), 2010, p.43-47.

7. Saqib Khan, ‘A Relook at the term Tribe’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 8, 2016.

8. Virginius Xaxa, ‘Transformation of Tribes in India: Terms of Discourse’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, Issue No. 24, 1999.

9. Virginius Xaxa, ‘Protective Discrimination: Why Scheduled Tribes Lag Behind Scheduled Castes’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, Issue No. 29, July 21, 2001.

10. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 49.

11. Karl Marx, ‘First Draft of the Reply to V.I. Zasulich’s Letter’ in Marx, Engels Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume Three (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 153.

12. Ibid. 

13. Ibid., p. 154.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ in Marx, Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 30.

18. Ibid., p. 28.

Murzban Jal is the Director and Professor at the Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, Pune.

Jyoti Bawane is an Associate Professor at the same Centre.

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