A case for the need of humanist educationDrawing parallels between Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh’s Humanism and Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism on the philosophical stance that is humanism.
“When we reach the state of mind and insight ‘to see ourselves in others’, this is a condition for acquiring perfect knowledge.” This statement is taken from the book Humanism written by Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh, in 1928, which states that extreme forms of individualism and animosity, according to Singh, are part of our animalistic character. And to distinguish animalism from humanism, Singh calls for a humanistic mindset and education.
Singh was born in 1877 as a prince of the ancient kingdom of Bajhang, located in the north-west of modern Nepal. He was well-educated and married to Khageshwori Devi, the daughter of prime minister Chandra Shumsher JB Rana. He served as political advisor to the prime minister’s advisory board. He was a linguist and journalist, wrote textbooks for schools and also wrote the first Nepali grammar book. He started the first newspaper of Nepal, Gorkhapatra. He also established and financed a number of schools in far western parts of Nepal, and in Kathmandu, at a time when the Rana regime was controlling the education system.
Singh was among the first thinkers of modern Nepal. He could be compared to the likes of contemporaries like the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, as Singh fits Gramsci’s description of the ‘organic intellectual’, who with a humanistic mindset is intimately involved in public issues. He was an extraordinary educationalist of his time. Exactly 75 years after the publication of Singh’s Humanism (1928), Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004) was published. And there are unique similarities between the ideas of the two scholars on humanistic education. I am not making a comparison between the two books. My aim here is to highlight the need for humanistic education based on their related ideas. Singh’s book Humanism (reprinted 2019) is a collection of the three volumes published earlier, and I will focus only on the chapter dealing with humanist education.
On the educational systems of the classic-era South Asia, Singh writes that “education was not a means of lively-hood, but was perused only for the sake of knowledge. This needed a particular attitude and a special mentality; and only those that were endowed with them undertook the risk and the expenses involved in the journey to, and the stay in, the centres of higher cultures.” Singh also writes that education was not widespread during his time. Rich private individuals financed the educational centres and selected students were not charged fees. The selected students were individuals with specific attitudes and financial capacities.
Singh also details that the local village schools in his time taught basic reading, writing and mathematics to selected students. In this way, the division of the caste system prevailed throughout the history of the country, and across much of South Asia. Singh’s concern for humanistic education and search for the cure of human troubles and miseries continues to date.
Singh gives equal value to studies of science and social science. He says that modern education only “attempts to fit a man for this world and equip him with the necessary knowledge and means for the battle of life… modern education limits one’s ideal of life here and its relations with the surroundings, immediate and present.” In this way modern education does not take the wider issues into account, including the interest of future generations. Classic and modern educational systems have failed to give humanistic knowledge, and the continuation of racism and mutual hostility towards people of different colour, language, nationality and ethnic origin are harsh evidence of that. Singh says the problem lies with the utilitarian approach to education and lack of environment where humanism becomes a primary educational objective.
The idea of humanism has different connotations. For some people, the idea is a secular alternative to religions. For others, humanism is natural, scientific and democratic concerns outside religions. It is a common concern that humanism as a discourse is under threat, essentially because of a complex set of crisis of the survival of the human civilisation. The threat has arisen, primarily because of the lack of emphasis on the true goal of humanistic education. This is the conclusion made by Singh.
A common theme that appears in the writings of Singh and Said is the rejection of artificial divide between people, which is the common discourse of many modern liberal intellectuals. The ignorance of oneness as human is imperfect knowledge, Singh says, considering it meaningless, mercilessly violational and the main cause of human miseries; “as a result of imperfect knowledge, man sees no unity in others. He sees in them only division and diversity...”
Said’s idea of humanistic education resembles Singh’s humanistic oneness. Said explains that “it is more rewarding—and more difficult—to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapunctually, about others than only about ‘us’. But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how ‘our’ culture or country is number one or not number one, for that matter.”
Singh and Said are reiterating the quest for knowledge and belief in intellectual truth. Intellectuals are often lonely individuals, writing often behind bars (example, Gramsci) or in exile (Singh and Said lived and died in exile) but they were organic intellectuals and public intellectuals nonetheless.
Both Singh and Said believed not just in self-knowledge but also in self-critic. For Said, a public intellectual is not necessarily an expert but an amateur who goes beyond his area of knowledge and explores ideas and takes a stand against the power based on intellectual truth. Singh too believed that self-knowledge is unattainable without an equal degree of self-criticism, or the awareness that comes from studying and experiencing other people’s traditions, and ideas. It is interesting that Said’s democratic criticisms and Singh’s perfect knowledge resembles Buddha’s concept of self-shadow-ego test (the so-called delusion of the Mara demon) as a kind of ego and ignorance that can be used to make one aware of one’s own consciousness.
But in today’s world, the approach towards education is focused more on socio-economic development with a utilitarian mindset. Not enough emphasis is put towards learning for the sake of learning, and on the agency and value of human beings, individually and collectively. Thus, such times give rise to an important question: how can we develop an educational system and curriculum that can help students reach a state of mind that helps them see themselves in others?
Malla has an LLM and LLD in international law from the Stockholm University.