Often I find this kind of information being available as regards Gandhiji as a student – “... Gandhi remained a mediocre student. He shone neither in the classroom nor on the playing field. One of the terminal reports rated him as ‘good at English, fair in Arithmetic and weak in Geography;’ ...”. These suggest that Gandhiji was not a good student but was rather a poor one.
I wish to examine this objectively.
I have a feel this statement comes from people who just copy from his autobiography (The Story of My Experiments with Truth) with much analysis. Gandhiji has written there:
“... My own recollection is that I had not any high regard for my ability. I used to be astonished whenever I won prizes and scholarships ...”
“... Two more reminiscences of my school days are worth recording. I had lost one year because of my marriage, and the teacher wanted me to make good the loss by skipping a class a privilege usually allowed to industrious boys. I therefore had only six months in the third standard and was prompted to the forth after the examinations which are followed by the summer vacation. English became the medium of instruction in most subjects from the fourth standard. I found myself completely at sea. Geometry was a new subject in which I was not particularly strong, and the English medium made it still more difficult for me. The teacher taught the subject very well, but I could not follow him. Often I would lose heart and think of going back to the third standard, feeling that the packing of two years' studies into a single year was too ambitious. But this would discredit not only me, but also the teacher; because, counting on my industry, he had recommended my promotion. So the fear of the double discredit kept me at my post. When however, with much effort I reached the thirteenth proposition of Euclid, the utter simplicity of the subject was suddenly revealed to me. A subject which only required a pure and simple use of one's reasoning powers could not be difficult. Ever since that time geometry has been both easy and interesting for me ...”
The interpreters have got the message from this that Gandhiji was perhaps not a good student... he was not able or competent ... he used to have difficulties in understanding certain subjects... etc.
What they do not understand is that Gandhiji has written “My own recollection is that I had not any high regard for my ability” because of his divine humility and because of his high standards of judging things for himself. Actually if one tried to read between the lines – one could find out more:
... whenever I won prizes and scholarships... – it implies there were occasions when Gandhiji won prizes and scholarships.
... a privilege usually allowed to industrious boys ... – here we have to understand that the teacher judged him industrious, only then he would have cleared him for a promotion (skipping a class). One also has to judge that Gandhi was able to endure this skipping and not only did he pass matriculation, he became a Barrister – studied in England which would have been so rare during those days - period of 1880s. That time a very small percentage of Indians went to school and even a smaller number passed matriculation and only few of them went for further studies that too in England.
... the utter simplicity of the subject was suddenly revealed to me ... – Gandhiji has suggested that he found Geometry simple, only if understood the concepts well, he would have found it simple. If he found Geometry simple he cannot be a mediocre or a dull student at all. ... It is now my opinion that in all Indian curricula of higher education there should be a place for Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and English, besides of course the vernacular ... – Gandhiji seems to have gone through a tough curriculum of education... he studied these 4 languages at school and would know Gujarati also well which was his mother tongue. It is not so easy studying and knowing 5 languages... certainly not for a mediocre student. Actually Gandhiji knew more languages than these 5 – he had studied some Indian languages simply to be able to read some articles and books he wished to read.
Actually Gandhiji wrote beautiful English, one can find that out by reading his English writings. Those writings reflect the sharp but saintly intellect of the person writing them.
While judging some other personalities like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Churchill, Tolstoy, nobody cares how good they were in their school studies. Why should this benchmark be set for Gandhiji? Do we expect him to be some Physicist or Mathematician etc. in addition to being what he was (so that we would say – yes he was a good student)? When we talk of Bill Gates (the founder of Microsoft Corporation) as being a college drop-out we are excited, we take this to be something heroic and we do quote this with the spirit that he might be poor at studies... do we?