What a father’s letters can teach us

Last Updated 16 November 2022, 12:15 IST

Though not an educationist himself, in the narrow sense of the word, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, embodied, in both letter and spirit, what an ideal education may achieve. Through two books, written as letters to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, Nehru models habits of mind that most systems of education aspire to teach. Letters from a Father to His Daughter, first published in 1929, and Glimpses of World History, in 1934, are classics that provide us with a vision for a broad, deep and meaningful education.

When Indira was around 10 years old, Nehru wrote a series of letters to her that was later published as Letters from a Father to His Daughter. From the tone and content, it is evident that Nehru intended to ‘educate’ Indira through these letters. But how he goes about doing so has lessons for all those who work with children.

Rather than adopting a didactic tone and filling Indira with reams of facts, Nehru tries to awaken her inherent curiosity about the world with all its complexities and contradictions.

He tries to hone the child’s observational and inquiry skills by pointing out that “Every little stone that you see lying on the road or on the mountainside may be a little page in nature’s book and maybe able to tell you something if you only knew how to read it.” In a single sentence, Nehru conveys an expansive view of reading and captures its essence, the extraction of meaning from a source, be it a stone, a book, a painting or a musical score. He motivates her to look beyond surface representations, as mundane objects may harbour profound secrets.

Instilling moral foundation

Besides describing how the earth was formed and how life began, Nehru introduces his young daughter to history and humanity’s foibles. He reminds Indira how power and privilege can corrupt and tries to instil a moral foundation that encompasses all people. “We must take the good wherever we find it and try to remove the bad wherever it may be,” he exhorts.

As Indira grows, Nehru keeps up his correspondence with her. Mainly written during his various stints in prison, in Glimpses of World History, Nehru delves more deeply into human history, while emphasising how history was being made in India at that time. For many children, history is a distant subject dealing with distant times. But Nehru breathes both life and meaning into it when he writes, “To read history is good, but even more interesting and fascinating is to help in making history.”

Through his letters, Nehru also conveys that he is an avid reader, a deep thinker and an eloquent writer. Yet, he maintains humility, regarding his own learning and that of humanity collectively. For though humans have made progress in art, science and literature, the tiny ant “has learnt the art of co-operation and of sacrifice for the common good far better than man.”

Reimagining history

Nehru also confesses that he didn’t imbibe much history in school as it “was largely wrong or distorted and written by people who looked down upon our country.” He attests to the power of self-learning when he learnt “real history” by reading on his own. Moreover, he advocates that people should train and educate themselves on issues instead of simply believing rhetoric spewed at them.

Though the Greek conqueror is often referred to as “Alexander the Great” in history books, Nehru asks what was ‘great’ about him. What was his legacy? True, he was a great military general who won impressive battles, but he “left little of himself behind him except a memory.”

That history is only about rulers is another myth that Nehru tries to dispel. Authentic history has to portray “the people who make up a nation,” including its farmers, craftspeople, traders and laypersons. According to Nehru, history is the “story of man’s struggle for a living.” If we truly wish to honour Nehru this Children’s Day, educators may take inspiration from his missives.

(The author is a psychologist)

(Published 15 November 2022, 13:01 IST)

Follow us on