Mahatma Gandhi and Madam Montessori

India is currently in the process of introducing the New Educational Policy (NEP 2020). Exercises are ongoing to develop the curricula and frameworks for education at all levels, starting from Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  As per the Policy document: The overall aim of ECCE will be to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy.

This vision for laying the strongest foundation for lifelong learning has its seeds in the thoughts and writing of many educationists and thinkers. It has a deep resonance with Gandhiji’s thoughts on education. In 1937, at a conference in Wardha, Maharashtra, Mahatma Gandhi seeded an important idea to revamp the educational system through Nai Talim or Basic Education.

Gandhiji’s vision was that this new paradigm of education should prepare the young learners to become morally sound, individually independents, socially constructive, economically productive and responsible future citizens. The foundation for this was to be laid in early childhood. Gandhiji believed that education should develop all the capacities of the child so that he becomes a complete human being. “By education I mean all-round drawing out of the best in child’s and man’s body, mind and spirit. Literacy is neither the beginning nor the end of education. This is only a means through which man or woman can be educated. 

In Gandhiji’s educational thoughts the integrated development of the personality of child is more important than mere literacy or knowledge of different subjects. Thus his vision was of life-centred as well as child-centred education. Besides learning of three R’s–Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in school, he insisted on development of the three H’s–Hand, Heart and Head.

While these thoughts took formal shape in the form of Nai Taleem in 1937, they had long been brewing in his mind. Over the years he was also assimilating the writing and educational philosophies of other thinkers and practitioners of alternate and innovative systems of teaching and learning. One of these was Madam Montessori.

The two had already met in spirit before they met in person. Gandhiji was in London to attend the Round Table Conference in October 1931. Maria Montessori was at the time holding one of the International Training Courses for teachers. Common friends brought them together. At their first meeting which was around 9 October 1931, the interaction was recorded thus:

Gandhi greeting her said: “We are members of the same family”.

“I bring you the greetings of children” said Madam Montessori.

Gandhiji said: “If you have children I have children too. Friends in India ask me to imitate you. I say to them, no, I should not imitate you but should assimilate you and the fundamental truth underlying your method.”

Madam Montessori: “As I am asking my children to assimilate the heart of Gandhi. I know that feeling for me over there in your part of the world is deeper than here.”

Gandhiji: “Yes, you have the largest number of adherents in India outside Europe.”

On 28 October 1931 Gandhi gave a speech at the Montessori Training College in London wherein he traced his own Montessori journey.

Madam you have overwhelmed me with your words. [Madam Montessori had welcomed Gandhiji as “a soul rather than a man”.]

It was in 1915 when I reached India, that I first became acquainted with your activities. It was in a place called Amreli that I found there was a little school being conducted after the Montessori system. Your name had preceded that first acquaintance. I found no difficulty in finding out at once that this school was not carrying out the spirit of your teaching; the letter was there. But while there was an honest—more or less honest—effort being made, I saw too that there was a great deal of tinsel about it.

I came in touch, then with more such schools, and the more I came in touch, the more I began to understand that the foundation was good and splendid, if the children could be taught through the laws of nature—nature consistent with human dignity, not nature that governs the beast.

…I see the same thing here, and it was a matter of inexpressible joy to me that from childhood the children were brought to understand the virtue of silence. It and how in ,response to a whisper from their teacher, the children came forward one after another, in pin-drop silence. It gave me great joy to see all the beautiful rhythmic movements and as I was watching those movements of the children, my whole heart went out to the millions of the children of the semi-starved villages of India, and I asked myself as my heart went out even to those children, “Is it possible for me to give them these lessons and the training that are being given under your system, to those children?

It was this first meeting that inspired Mahatma Gandhi to visit Montessori schools in Rome on his way back. He declared there, his interest in promoting them in India. The two continued to be in touch. Just after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when Maria Montessori came to India, Gandhiji was one of the first to send her message of welcome. They met and corresponded during the nearly 10 years that Montessori lived and worked in India. After Italy’s entry into the World War, restrictions were imposed on Montessori as she was being considered as an enemy-alien. Gandhiji expressed sympathy, and regret even, though he was under restrictions himself.

In March 1940 when Madam Montessori was in Ahmedabad she inaugurated the Bal Mandir (kindergarten) in the Sabarmati Ashram campus. Thus the long friendship between two visionaries took concrete form.

As we mark Maria Montessori’s birth anniversary on 31 August, it is a good time to revisit the close links between her and the Mahatma. In these turbulent times, we urgently need to remember their strong belief that to have real peace, we must begin with the children.  

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. MK Gandhi

Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of education. Maria Montessori

–Mamata

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