Many years ago, I had an idea of publishing a book full of confessions in which teachers asked for an apology for their crimes against children in school.
My Unlearning Journey: An Interview with Manish Jain
Claude Alvares, Other India Bookstore, interviewed Manish Jain, co-founder of Shikshantar Andolan, Swaraj University and Learning Societies Unconference, for the Alternative Learning Sourcebook.
Could you briefly trace out for us how a Harvard educated person eventually ended up fighting Harvard type of education all over the world? What triggered the change? Was it gradual or was it sudden, caused by some event?
When I was a kid in high school, I was bounced back and forth between honors classes and remedial classes in schools due to my rebellious questioning nature and boring classes/unispired teachers. I started to notice that the ‘dumb’ kids were not really dumb. In fact, they had many gifts which the school system was not able to see or appreciate. I noticed that many of those being labelled as ‘dumb’ were either from minority or low income backgrounds. Once you put kids into a track, it was very difficult to get out of it. I felt this was very unfair from a social justice perspective as a new kind of academic caste hierarchy. Later, I realized that using IQ tests and labelling millions of innocent children as ‘failures’ is one of the greatest crimes against humanity.
Though I was never interested in formal studies, I somehow managed to do well on exams. I always preferred to be involved in ‘extra-curricular’ activities such as school newspaper, small business startups, politics, community volunteering. Sensing my capacities, throughout my entire academic career, my parents would always tell me to stop doing these and to study more. I always resisted because I felt I was learning more through these ‘extra’ activities which encouraged me to interact in meaningful ways with the real world and with a much broader spectrum of society. I could not understand why these real-life activities were always thought of as ‘extra’. For me, they were the core of my learning and growth and driven by my own intrinsic motivation, curiousity and desire for connection. I also started to see and resist how the education system was based on fear, driven by the carrot and stick, rewards and punishments. The idea of exploring your deeper purpose, passion, and heart connections was totally missing.
After working with Wall Street, I started to see that most of the horrible crimes against people and the planet were being committed by the so-called ‘Ivy League educated’ people, not by the ‘uneducated’ people. The crazy thing was that these ‘criminals’ were actually not bad guys. Many of them were my friends and we were really nice, caring fellows. Many were doing things that they did not even personally really believe in. They had to follow the orders or they would not get paid. I started to understand how ‘institutionalization’ really works and the role modern education plays in disconnecting us from our inner conscience.
After visiting and working in many villages in Africa and India, I noticed that schooling was a vehicle for spreading industrial monoculture. It was like an AIDs virus which destroyed the immune systems of local culture, and local commons and local common sense. ‘Educated’ students became ashamed of their traditions and their elders, they became emotionally and spiritually disconnected from their fields and forests, they became useless members of their local economy. The entire backbone of community life was disrupted. My own father was a victim of this. Today it has become very clear to me that the call for ‘educating the tribals’ is very much linked to an agenda of displacing tribal communities from their land (which are full of valuable natural resources.
I also started understanding the nexus of propaganda and control between Harvard, the mega corporations, the government, the military and the World Bank, UN and mega NGOs and factory schooling: how the ruling class is set-up and maintained through schooling, how education is so deeply tied to unlimited economic growth and human resource development, and how the entire game is unfairly rigged. The myth of meritocracy, poverty alleviation and trickle- down economics was shattered for me.
After working with many international development agencies, governments, schools and NGOs, I gave up on trying to ‘fix’ schools. I realized that they were not broke. They were, in fact, working very successfully, doing exactly what they were designed to do, that is, dumb down people and make them dependent on/slaves of the global economy. I slowly identified the 6 Cs DNA behind factory schooling – Compulsion, Competition, Compartmentalization/fragmentation, Commodification, deContextualization and monoCulture/standardization. I realized that any further effort I put into fixing schools would only make them more efficient and effective in manipulating and controlling students. The only thing I could do now was to help expose the lie of education, help dismantle schooling and help create spaces for people to walkout and reclaim control over their own self-design learning processes. In other words, help break-free from the suffocating logic and culture of factory-schooling.
Many friends tell me that kids need to go to school to learn the basics or that social sciences are corrupt but science is pure. I started to feel that the academic knowledge system is a fake knowledge system. It is based on the premise that nature is an unintelligent form of life. That humans are separate from nature and we are inherently greedy and evil and cannot be trusted. It fragments our knowing, fragments our inner and outer worlds. It kills diversity and self-organizing capacities. It turns Life into a commodity waiting to be exploited by us. It does not appear capable of self-correction. I do believe that there is the possibility of more holistic ways of knowing and to live together in a much more beautiful and harmonious way.
Your sister Shilpa was an important part of the first few years. What was her story for getting into the anti-schooling movement?
Shilpa was a very important and active part of Shikshantar in India for almost 10 years. She had also studied in the USA and graduated from Harvard. She also had a lot of questions about the unfair tracking of students in her school as she saw many of her friends being unfairly labelled. In addition, as a lifelong straight A student, she started to feel that schooling with its primary focus on academic performace had a negative impact on her intution, emotion, creativity. It was in her words, “My schooling was a personal spiritual and emotional assault. It was only about winning and being first.” Later she started to question how many of her intelligent, sensitive Harvard classmates were being trained to fit into the global economy. She was disturbed that though they claimed to be the ‘best’ and ‘brightest’, they could not see (or did not want to see) how ‘destructive’ the global economy really is. For most, the logic of ‘getting the highest package’ and TINA trumped all other options. Shilpa started to question whether she was really a ‘winner’ in the game or just better trained to be a branded corporate slave. Her getting involved in Shikshantar was really driven by her desire to create alternatives to the dominant game for herself and for/with others. She was very passionate about helping people walkout of the dominant system. Shilpa continues to mentor and work with young activists around the world in her role as Director of YES!.
How did Shikshanter start? With the first LSC in Udaipur? Or earlier?
The present incarnation of Shikshantar started in 1998 in Udaipur with three friends coming together, Manish Jain, Vidhi Jain and Wasif Rizvi (from Pakistan), to host it. But we believe that the spirit of Shikshantar is at least 4-5 thousand years old. Eklavya and Nachiketa are two ancient stories which capture the spirit of self-design learning and deschooling ourselves. We started with a core question -- what does swaraj mean in our lives and how can we live swaraj?
We wanted to create a space where people who were aware of deep critiques of factory-schooling could come together and engage in creative ways to dismantle the educational monopoly and to regenerate diverse learning spaces and knowledge systems. We wanted to promote the idea that it was possible for people to learn on their own without the direction and structure of dominant institutions. The first few years were spent on connecting to innovative people around the country who were interested in more radical alternatives to the factory-schooling model. We also spent a lot of time exploring our local community, meeting with artisans, artists, grassroots healers, youth, children in kachi bastis and in elite schools, NGOs, villagers. We started some small experiments like the Learning Parks at that time. We also started Vimukt Shiksha magazine as a platform to host many important education debates which we felt were missing in India. We printed the first issue of the Unfolding Learning Societies series in 2001 and hosted the first Learning Societies Unconference in 2002. Most importantly, we also spent a lot of time unlearning many of our own ways of working. Shri Dayal Chand Soni, a local Gandhian in Udaipur who had done a lot of work on nai taleem, was particularly influential in challenging us to ‘walk the talk’. The ‘Institute’ part of Shikshantar became more and more informal, more open to diverse voices and experiments, and as a result, a more generative space for imagination, deeper connection and courage.
We realized that alternative education means learning from Life, not from textbooks, exams and classrooms. So we got into all kinds of lifestyle explorations and projects such as slow food, zero waste, upcycling and design thinking, healing, community media, theatre, organic farming, natural dyeing, eco-architecture, etc. For all of our experiments, we made sure that we were the first guinea pigs. I have come to realize that if you want to do anything meaningful in life, you have to start by putting your own 'skin in the game'.
Nine years ago, I helped start Swaraj University, which is India’s first self-designed people’s university where each learner (ages 17–28) could join and work on their unique dreams. We wanted to demonstrate that you do not need a formal degree to do well in life and we wanted to challenge the mainstream university. Two years ago, I helped start the Creativity Adda unschooling project in a local low-income government school with class 6–12 students in north Delhi, to show that these ideas of deschooling ourselves was possible across economic and social hierarchies. We wanted to challenge NGOs and social change agents to not be content with just throwing educational crumbs of the old system to the 'poor'.
What have been the significant lampposts in the unlearning journey since it started?
For me, unlearning has been an effort to decondition and de-institutionalize myself. Much of my unlearning journey has been guided by two people who never went to school: my ‘illiterate’ village grandmother Jia and my unschooled daughter Kanku. Inspired by Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj, I wrote one article called 10 Lies my School Taught Me which highlights some my own key unlearnings about politics, economics, science, development, etc.
After my experiences with the UN, Harvard and Wall Street, the first major unlearning milestone for me was to start questioning whether the so-called experts really had all the answers to the world’s problems. The second unlearning milestone was to question whether the poor illiterate villagers and tribals were really as poor, powerless or stupid as we were taught they were. The third was whether having more and more money and stuff would really give me more happiness or would lead to real social change.
Interacting with my grandmother led me to exploring and appreciating local sources of learning, traditional knowledge systems and the deep wisdom of village people. I started rethinking about all the things that I thought were ‘dirty’. Waste and shit were the first things. I realized that my grandmother had no concept of waste. She was living a zero waste lifestyle. She would even upcycle vegetable and fruit peels into tasty dishes. I used to think cow dung was really disgusting and gross until I learned from her all the fantastic things it can be used for including flooring, amrit pani, cooking fuel cakes. Gobar cow dung is a central part of unlearning in Shikshantar. We specialize in making a soap out of gobar and multani mitti which really messes up our institutionalized notions of hygiene and cleanliness. I started to question all the toxic chemicals I had been putting in my hair and on my body.
Kanku’s birth raised another whole set of unlearning questions around health. My mother was a allopathic pediatrician so I grew up around doctors. When Kanku came into my life, we started questioning medicines and even vaccines. As we went deeper into this, we started re-looking at our basic food and diet, and our institutionalized dependency on global GM junk foods. We came into contact with many different kinds of millets and started learning about organic farming.
These days I am involved in experimenting with the gift culture. In that much of my unlearning is focusing on my relationship to money, particularly fear, insecurity, attachment and insensitivity that it generates in me and others. Vinoba Bhave once said, "I want to live a life where I don't exploit anyone and where I am not exploited by anyone." I think it is critical today that we find ways to live a happy life without the God of Money.
So deschooling is not really about school or no school. That is a dead-end debate. For me, it is essentially about opening up questions like: who should decide what is the purpose of my life?; who should decide how i live and learn?; who should decide what ‘i’ or ‘we’ even means?
What has been the response of relatives and closer family persons to this different journey into the unknown?
In one word, I would say mixed. On some days they are really perplexed. Other days they are angry. And some rare days, they are very inspired. They are still afraid about Kanku’s future. Some still continue hold on to their conventional notions of money, success, status. I used to get upset but now I have come to appreciate all of these responses. The creative hands-on activities such as terrace organic farming, home remedies and medicinal plants and slow food cooking have been particularly exciting for several family members. The spirit of gift culture has also been a very good point of deep connection, empathy and healing. While many still don’t understand us, I think that they have come to appreciate the dedication and commitment we have put into working on our dream for the past 19 years. Interestingly, the system is collapsing in front us with growing unemployment, depression and corruption. So many of the things we have been talking about are slowly becoming more visible to them. We have not given up on all of them.
When you married Vidhi, what was her response to this? Was she part of it or did you have to convince her? Did she get married to you because she found these ideas attractive? Or did she have her own unlearning journey?
A journey of deschooling our family was one of the pre-conditions we agreed upon prior to our agreeing to get married to each other. Though I doubt whether either of us really knew what the full implications of that would be at the time or how to do it.
Vidhi had been on her own unlearning journey before we met, having grown up close to the bureaucratic machinery of India. She saw the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. Her own questioning of institutionalized power started from there. While she studied at Delhi University, she realized that she learned more doing things outside the classroom than in it. Vidhi also spent a lot of time working with children with special needs in both cities and villages, and realized how insenstive the education system was towards different learning styles and intelligences.
When we started Shikshantar, we wanted to design an intergenerational office space where both of us and our future children could all work-learn-play together. We were very inspired by the work and learning spaces that we saw traditional artisans had created. We also did not want to raise Kanku in a nuclear family which is one of the worst manifestations of industrial life. There is a famous proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” So we wanted to create a space which would help build a community of learning – a new kind of joint family -- and support for our child to grow in and for us as parents to grow in. Vidhi and I have been on a long journey to figure out what it means to re-root ourselves.
What has been the impact of these activities? How many young people have you succeeded in reaching, through Walkouts, Swapathgami, Swaraj University, Gap Year, Families ?
I really don’t know about the impact on others. We have never tried to measure it in the conventional parameters of scale. In fact, when I started Shikshantar, I never expected to see the change we dream of happen in my lifetime.
I do know that Vidhi, Kanku and I have grown immensely from all of the rich interactions we have had in these programs. I believe that many people of all ages have gotten the courage and imagination to make some different decisions about their personal lives. I have seen the self-image and body language of many young people who were branded as failures change when we talk to them about their gifts and about their being ‘walkouts’ instead of dropouts or failures. I also believe that we have re-ignited many young people’s imaginations to break out of the clutch of TINA thinking, and lots of exciting self-organizing experiments and networks are growing out of these efforts. I think that our efforts have definitely strengthened the larger movement that is emerging in India to question education and development. Most importantly, I know that there are thousands of happy smiling kids who don’t have to go through the daily drudgery of factory-schooling.
If there are 50 different varieties of toothpaste, why only one model of education? I dream of the day we have thousands of ‘small is beautiful’ alternatives for self-designed learning in our country. Many seeds for this dream to happen have been planted through our work.
Could you briefly tell us why you started a movement against certification? Where has this reached today?
About 8 years ago, we published a pamphlet called Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease and started a campaign to by-pass degrees. Degree and certification is the main source of the monopoly of the education system. Degrees are today considered the filter to the gateway of opportunities for jobs, intellectual hierarchy and even shaadis. They are the primary vehicle of control, standardization, centralization - whether in the case of education, health or farming. It’s a big racket. But imagine if young people could get meaningful work which would allow them to take care of their livelihood needs, without having a degree. How many would stay in schools? Very few I think. There would be a mass exodus.
Degrees are the tool to reinforce the hierarchy of who is ‘educated’ and who is ‘uneducated.’ This is worse than the caste system. The world of degrees is used to morally justify all kinds of crimes and patterns of injustice.
Without the piece of paper, one is today made to feel absolutely worthless, as if you don’t exist. But what does a piece of paper really tell you about a human being? Does it tell you about their curiousity, their creativity, their compassion towards others, their willingness to unlearn, their commitment, their capacity for hard work, their inner motivation. These seem to me much bigger factors of success and happiness in life than degrees.
In the Healing the Diploma Disease campaign, we have contacted over 500 companies and organizations which are willing to give people without degrees a chance to work with them. Many have agreed to look at portfolios instead of certificates or degrees. They see are seeing the total emptiness behind that people with degrees don’t have real skills, passions, commitment, intrinsic motivation. We want to open up a dialogue of what kinds of human beings they really want to work with. We also want to kickstart a process by which other ways of knowing and other non-certified ‘gurus’ in our communities can be re-validated.
Most of the radical and transformative energy of many educational experiments that have emerged over the past 100 years, became diluted and maimed because of their inability to take a stance on the degree issue. They always had to compromise in order to fit back into the official norms.We are trying to change the game by our willingness to challenge the legitimacy and value of our own degrees. Otherwise people always accuse changemakers of keeping their degrees but telling others not to go to elite schools and colleges.
Swaraj University does not consider people’s certificates as part of entry requirements. We do not offer any degrees or certificates. We have been able to attract over 120 young people over the past 7 years who are wanting to learn and work on their dreams, not for just a piece of paper.