During the industrial and mechanical age, the concept of child education took on the character of the assembly line. The idea was to insert the child into the educational system, subject the child to a standard and uniform educational process consisting of facts and established conventional ideas, and preconceived ideas about what the child should learn, and when, and thereby bring out the other side a fit citizen to be a cog in the societal machine. In his book Hard Times, Charles Dickens illustrated this approach and contrasted it with a character who responded consistently from the heart and took up human values of compassion and support. The results of the educational experience made it clear that the idea of stuffing facts into children was an approach destined to failure. Over the last 100 years or more the view of education has begun to be challenged and leading educators have begun to recognise the unique needs of each individual child, and the importance of the child developing the power to experience, think, feel and respond. New approaches, such as the Waldorf school of Rudolf Steiner, or the Montessori method of Maria Montessori were harbingers that a change was taking place. Sri Aurobindo himself, along with the Mother, enunciated new ideas of education, which resulted in the development of the Free Progress System practiced at the Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education.
Education was not always based on rote memorization and forcing the child to repeat conventional ideas. The ancient Vedic and Upanishadic Rishis combined lessons with the practice of meditation. In one famous incident a young student was advised by his teacher to go into the forest with two cows and return when they became 1000 cows. The result was so extraordinary that, years later, when the student returned to the teacher, the teacher gave way and made the student the master. The education was based on observation, and careful understanding of the principles of life and how one needed to adapt to changing conditions to carry out a consistent programme. The teachers in that case were Nature, and Life.
Plato describes the educational method of Socrates in ancient Greece, which adhered to the actual root meaning of the Latin word “educare” which means to “draw out”. The role of the teacher in that method was to draw out innate knowledge already contained within the student.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “Formerly, education was merely a mechanical forcing of the child’s nature into arbitrary grooves of training and knowledge in which his individual subjectivity was the last thing considered, and his family upbringing was a constant repression and compulsory shaping of his habits, his thoughts, his character into the mould fixed for them by the conventional ideas or individual interests and ideals of the teachers and parents. The discovery that education must be a bringing out of the child’s own intellectual and moral capacities to their highest possible value and must be based on the psychology of the child-nature was a step forward towards a more healthy because a more subjective system; but it still fell short because it still regarded him as an object to be handled and moulded by the teacher, to be educated. But at least there was a glimmering of the realisation that each human being is a self-developing soul and that the business of both parent and teacher is to enable and to help the child to educate himself, to develop his own intellectual, moral, aesthetic and practical capacities and to grow freely as an organic being, not to be kneaded and pressured into form like an inert plastic material. It is not yet realised what this soul is or that the true secret, whether with child or man, is to help him to find his deeper self, the real psychic entity within. That, if we ever give it a chance to come forward, and still more if we call it into the foreground as ‘the leader of the march set in our front’, will itself take up most of the business of education out of our hands and develop the capacity of the psychological being towards a realisation of its potentialities of which our present mechanical view of life and man and external routine methods of dealing with them prevent us from having any experience or forming any conception.”
“The closer touch attempted with the psychical entity behind the vital and physical mentality and an increasing reliance on its possibilities must lead to the ultimate discovery that man is inwardly a soul and a conscious power of the Divine and that the evocation of this real man within is the right object according to the hidden Truth and deepest law of its own being. That was the knowledge which the ancients sought to express through religious and social symbolism, and subjectivism is a road of return to the lost knowledge. First deepening man’s inner experience, restoring perhaps on an unprecedented scale insight and self-knowledge to the race, it must end by revolutionising his social and collective self-expression.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 32-33