Tagore’s notion of the university

Professor Brenda Gourley is a noted educationist and the first woman to be university Vice-Chancellor in South Africa.  She was invited to Visva Bharati (the university Tagore founded to speak at the graduation ceremony in 1997. Upon her return she wrote in a piece Tagore’s lamp to the mind:

It is not often that one accepts an invitation to deliver an address and finds it a life-altering experience. But my visit to Visva-Bharati … was such an occasion. .. I was shamed to discover that whereas the University of Natal had at last established our school of rural community development, Tagore anticipated us by 70 years. He conceived of a university where, through participation and service, there was a ‘living communication’ between the university, the students and the peasants rooted in the soil.

In a more recent note, Professor Gourley writes:

Tagore understood the ‘universality’ in the concept of a university and gave expression to it in his choice of a name for the university he established:  ‘Visva-Bharati’ – translating to mean ‘the world in one nest’. The idea of a nest conveys ‘home’ and ‘comfort’ and being fed – in this case by knowledge and ideas that come from elsewhere and yet find hospitality, the hospitality of the mind ready and able to contemplate the different and be engaged by it.  “I have founded Visva-Bharati,” he said, “as a school in which men of different civilisations and traditions may learn to live together. You may think it is a very small place in which to begin such a huge task. The smallness of the beginning does not frighten me. All great ideas have to be born, like men, as very small babies. Visva-Bharati is a big idea.”

It is a concept which still has resonance in a world that seems to have grown more intolerant of the different while having ever more opportunity to learn from it.

Tagore was also adamant that universities should pay attention to the upliftment of the communities in which they are embedded. He painted a picture of their ideas being as ‘vapour’ which rises and should result in rain that brings life to the parched fields around it – and if it does not, loses its point.

I cannot imagine why this visionary genius’ books, his plays and poems and essays and paintings are not on the reading lists of all universities as we strive to find understanding across nations and cultures – and learn more about our common humanity.

Professor Brenda Gourley is the former Vice Chancellor and President (Chief Executive Officer) of The Open University in the United Kingdom. She occupied that post for nearly eight years (until 2009) and for the nine years previous to that she held the same post at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.  She is also is a Fellow at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University in Boston.

She serves on many boards and trusts, both in the public and private sector, and chaired the Association of Commonwealth Universities for two terms of office. She is a frequent speaker across the world – promoting especially the role of Higher Education in promoting social justice, civic engagement and the changing nature of Higher Education in the digital world. She has been recognised for her achievements by the award of honorary degrees and fellowships of distinguished institutions on four continents. Last year she received the UK Public Servant of the Year and Outstanding Achiever of the Year Awards from the UK Women in Public Life organisation.

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Our Tagore events

  • Oct 6, 2012 AUTUMN EXTRAVAGANZA, Michael Power St. Joseph High School, Toronto. A variety show with Tagore’s works, and a multicultural Dance Ensemble with folk dances of Ukraine, Chile, and India.

  • Sep 25, 2012 'Walking Alone: Justice and Inequality in Tagore's thought', talk by Ananya Mukherjee-Reed at Princeton University, USA.

  • May 4, 2012 Soul of Spring,McMichael Art Gallery, Kleinburg, Ontario. A medley of music, dance and poetry based on Tagore's play. It was performed during an exhibition of Tagore's paintings 'The Last Harvest' at the gallery.

  • Jan 19, 2012 'Race and Diversity in Tagore', talk by Ananya Mukherjee-Reed at the University of Toronto

  • Sept 30, 2011 Tagore reading at the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts

  • October 2, 2011 A panel on Tagore featuring Uma Dasgupta and Martha Nussbaum on Writers & Company, CBC Radio One Broadcast time 3:05 pm Eastern. Click here for more details and podcast
  • Dec 3-4, 2011: A film festival featuring the North American premier of two films based on Tagore's work.
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