Amit Deshwal is an IIT-M alumnus. Laced with narratives from the Amit’s personal life, this version of Amit’s article adapted by Abhinand Shankar presents the former’s thoughts on the meaning of learning and education.
Sometime in class 7 or 8 I had got hold of a book on Tagore and his life. I had read how he had quit school and learnt things he really wished to; about a space he created for children called Shantiniketan. Back in school I liked what I read but the thought of doing the same never occurred to me. After leaving the job trying to figure out what my heart was into, I wondered what if I could spend my life working towards one such space too, a learning space, a space unlike a regular school.
I say unlike a regular school because there were so many things that out rightly baffled me about the present day schooling system, things that I wanted to understand and if necessary question. I wondered –
1) Why is it that the children from age 3 onwards have to go through a rigid regimental system where learning is not self- directed, self-designed?
2) Why in the current system, are all children of similar age groups put together in a class when all of us outside are constantly learning and living with people of different ages and hate being evaluated on some straight jacketed norms?
In order to understand the varying perceptions of learning and education, I spent around three years visiting different communities including monasteries, villages, and tribal folks, living and volunteering at some for sustenance. Interestingly, the so-called “illiterate and uneducated” people helped me understand some of these questions better than the revered experts.
Trip with the kids to a nearby forest
When I was young, i.e. in school, whenever we went to visit our grandparents in the village I looked down upon the villagers. I felt that our family had overcome all that and hoped that someday these people would also break out of poverty and ignorance and move to cities.
Two years ago, when my grandfather passed away, I went to my village and spent about a month living with my grandmother. I noticed all through the time I was there that not for a moment was my grandmother alone. She always had 10-15 women, from all over the village, who sat with her and listened to her. They would finish their work early in the morning and then come and spend the rest of the day with my grandmother, telling her all sorts of stories. I wondered – how could someone spend so much of their personal time to help someone else?
I also saw the abundance of knowledge the people in the village had about the local environment, the health and well being – knowledge so deep rooted yet so fluid and free and how despite the knowledge most of them had internalized the labels we had stuck to them such as ‘backward’, ‘poor’, and ‘uneducated’.
I observed the same with many vibrant communities, who despite the richness of their life saw themselves as uneducated just because they had not studied rhymes and algebra in school.
Last year I met a lady who lives with a tribe in Chattisgarh. Over a few years, she along with few others worked out a different way of engaging with the kids taking into account their outlook of life. However the officials did not accept the changes. They expressed concerns about teaching the kids about self-reliance and self-governance. “But that’s there in their stories, songs… that is how they have been learning to live”, she says. They said, “No madam, let us do away with all this and stick to the curriculum. It works quite well”.
It is sad to see how the present education system is, knowingly or unknowingly, destroying the diversity of life this planet has, killing the many ways of knowing and learning and promoting one and the only way.
Learning about weaving and hand-looms from a tribe in Belgaum
During my journey I met Palak, a young girl from SECMOL, an alternative learning space in Ladakh. Palak was one among many who showed me that learning is innate, natural and something that we would all love provided we are free to choose what we wish to learn. She told me how as a kid she had loved learning about different kinds of plants. She would go around the fields with her grandfather and listen to him talk about various herbs and their uses. It all changed though when she started attending a school nearby. Suddenly all that she knew about the plants around had became useless. There were other things she had to learn about, however hard they were to relate to. In class 9, her elder brother who was working in Ladakh had told her about SECMOL and she decided to run away from her village in Jammu and join this space instead.
In one year that Palak had spent in SECMOL, where she was free to learn things she was interested in, she learnt how to take care of the solar electricity system of the place, and about Ladakhi people and their customs. She knew more about the AC and DC current than I did. One evening while having dinner, I asked her, what it was that she had enjoyed learning the most in the institution. She said, “The best was learning how to milk the cows. Since I was a kid I always dreamt of doing it perfectly one day.”
A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, which I believe is even more basic than his freedom of speech. No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. If we take from someone their right to decide what they will be curious about, or if we tell them you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us we destroy their freedom of thought. I know many of us would not agree with this. How can we let the children decide? We do not trust them, just like the colonists did not trust the aboriginals in Australia and the Natives in America.
The other day I was going through an article by Marc Chehab which posed the question: “What will happen if a child realizes that what we see arrives faster than what we hear?” For someone to arrive at this conclusion autonomously is utterly profound. It’s also radically corrosive to power. It’s profound because it may lead to some very deep reflections on their place in the world; and it’s corrosive to power because it teaches them that whether something is or isn’t true does not depend on what a teacher or a book says. It depends solely on whether it’s actually true. It read how Socratic reflection is still being punished for the same reason that Socrates was executed for: because we all are scared of the consequences of letting our children think freely, because for the socio-economic system to survive you need obedient people with no urge to question. We do not need musicians and artists on the street but workers in the industry. We do not need people who have found their own meaning but those who have learnt the meaning we wish to teach.
And probably that is why, not just here but world over, schooling with a set curriculum, decided by the experts, and the powerful, is being seen as panacea, as a source of hope, as a means to promote this one single monoculture. Why else would a child in Ladakh, a child in Kerala, and the one in the Rajasthan (and possibly in Africa and Europe too) be studying exactly the same stuff, which has less to do with their own culture, their own little place and their own language and geography?
I see that there are innumerable cultures, ways of living thriving in our backyards. I am not saying at the least that these cultures are perfect. No they are not. All I am saying is that all of these exist and all are special in their own way. However, as we talk here we can see a lot of them being schooled and homogenized in the name of development and modernization.
One of my favorite quotes on education is by Leo Tolstoy. He says “Education is the tendency of one person to make another just like himself or herself… Education is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another…”
Tagore writes of what he thinks education should be. He says, “I believe that the object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom.”
Drawing from these two thoughts I feel education would take a very different shape from what it is today. If you ask me, I dream of a way of life where there is no compulsory schooling and different ways of knowing and learning are encouraged, wherein there are spaces where people come together to share and learn from one another, wherein artists, farmers, scientists, activists, musicians and people well-versed in any other discipline are willing to teach someone who wants to learn at a nominal cost, wherein the knowledge that would otherwise be freely available is not boxed in grandiose buildings and sold to people at exorbitant prices. A way of life wherein irrespective of their age everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.
Do check out the complete article here.
Amit Deshwal graduated from IIT Madras in the year 2008. He now spends time working with a group of children who chose not to follow the regular schooling pattern at a small learning space in Hyderabad.