My father is a born teacher. He’s the kind of man who can spot a potential learner from a distance and go into action. When I was in my forties, he taught me how to bowl at his local bowling alley.
Reclaiming Real Shiksha in Our Lives
“Real democracy is not about being able to choose one’s rulers. Real democracy starts with being able to choose one’s teachers.”
Dayal Chand Soni (adapted from Mewari language)
My family and I have made a decision not to send our daughter to school, either in India or abroad. Instead, Kanku (age 5) and we are learning together. As teachers working within the education system, you may be wondering why we took such a decision and how we are supporting our daughter’s learning. In this short essay, I will try to share some of the reasons behind our decision and the very practical actions that we are taking to support Kanku in choosing her own gurus and weaving here own learning web.
What’s wrong with schooling?
We actually made our decision before Kanku was even born. For years, I had been working in the field of international education, and I had come to understand some very disturbing things about schooling. Of course, there are the oft-heard complaints: irrelevance, too much pressure on children, heavy bags, overloaded curriculum, corporal punishment, too many tuitions, etc. But, I had been looking deeper than these usual official suspects into the hidden curriculum of schooling. I saw that what school fundamentally does is disconnect us — from nature, from physical work, from our hands, from our families and communities, from our local languages, from our wisdom, from real world issues. In sucking away children’s time, forcing them to regurgitate decontextualized information, and keeping them trapped in a box all day, schools kill their sensitivity, innate propensity for cooperation, multiple intelligences, spontaneous curiosity and imagination. They create fragmented and hypocritical minds — people who are unable to see beyond black and white disciplinary categories and roles; people who cannot relate their self-proclaimed beliefs and values with their actions; people who fear experimenting with the unknown. In other words, the perfect modern babus. Schooling – with its precise system of sorting, ranking and labelling children has created a modern social hierarchy that is far worse than the caste system. So much to the point, that people who do not know how to read or write or who have not gone to school are treated with contempt and made to feel invisible. Their children who attend school for the first time are obnoxiously labeled ‘first generation learners’; thus, negating all of the learning that they and their ancestors have been engaged in for thousands of years. Such is the arrogance of today’s educationists.
Why would such horrible things be done to innocent children? Is it an accident? When I started to look at the origins of the modern schooling system, I saw how it was deeply connected to the modern nation-state, industrial economy, and militarisation (and here, in India, to colonial rule). It suddenly made sense to me. This school system made good workers, good soldiers, good citizens who would be obedient to the state-market nexus. John Taylor Gatto has described the purpose of schooling as ‘dumbing us down’. Students learn not to question authority. In fact, they learn to have a dogmatic faith only in experts, technology and government policies to solve their problems. In this way, schooling today also produces good consumers — people who rely on readymade answers and solutions and who work to earn money to purchase them. After all, if one loses the capacity to work with their hands and to build non-commodified relationships, then one becomes totally dependent on the global market. It became clear to me that schooling has no serious interest in ever having students really develop critically thinking capacities or become more creative or loving because if the students did this, then this global political-economy would actually collapse from a lack of stupid consumers.
Perhaps the worst thing that schooling does is to force everyone on one path, one measure of success, one style of intelligence, one way to learn, and one vision of Civilization. . Schools were undermining the fundamental truth and evolutionary resource of humanity: its diversity. As with other creatures of nature, we are most healthy and stable when we are diverse and self-organizing. The more static, more monocultural we become, the more endangered we become as a species.
But what about Education Reform?
Of course, having worked in the field of education in many countries and contexts around the world, and having gone to school myself, I knew all the counter-arguments. You need schools because without them, children will run wild. There will be chaos. How will we have unity? Or proper socialization? How will children learn without schools? How can there be equality in society without schools? I was told time and again that the solution was education reform. But I grew up in the USA, where I saw billions of dollars being put into fixing schools, approximately an average of US $9000 (or roughly Rs 3,60,000) being spent per child per year, with the latest technology, teacher training, textbooks, etc., introduced every year. And still, the vast majority children and families are suffering with a plethora of deep and debilitative psychogical, spiritual, physical and intellectual problems. Most educationists there acknowledge that their education system is in a mess. It is difficult to see how India with its government spending of roughly Rs.3000 per child per year could ever think of fixing what is essentially the same broken Western education model. At the same time, we need to learn from the experiences of the West and challenge the institutional myth that the problems facing education can be solved by simply throwing more money at them. I believe that it is time for us to stop mimicking the Western models and methodologies and to take the challenge of creating our own models and approaches for individual and community learning.
I also was familiar with commission after commission over the past 60 years in India making recommendations for education reform. Almost 15 years ago, the Yashpal Committee Report astutely noted that there is a lot of teaching and training taking place in the country but very little learning and understanding. But yet, if you asked teachers, children, families, how they compared today’s system with the past, they almost all agree that the situation has worsened. People like Azim Premji of Wipro are talking about creativity and free thinking in education, but their solutions all depend on fancy computers and software, high-end teacher training programs, textbooks, etc. Obviously, this approach makes sense if you want to create new markets for your computer business or be a major player with 9% growth in the Global Economy but it hardly makes sense for a healthy future for our children and local communities. He and his ilk are yet to understand the tremendous creativity that forms the soul of local communities – what I call the ‘jugaad mind’. This way of engaging with the world emerges not from interacting with virtual trees and forests but through deep sensing with real nature and active, authentic engagement with the hands.
So-called ‘alternative schools’ have not proven themselves to be capable of reforming factory-schooling anywhere in the world. They are dangerous because they provide the illusion that school-jails can someday be fixed for all. They may respond to some of the superficial criticisms like less exams and homework or utilize pseudo-democratic decisionmaking processes or include some more progressive content and teaching methodologies, but they don’t address the roots of the hidden curriculum of schooling: the consumerism of knowledge, the soul-numbing obedience to the State-Market institutions, the deep fragmentation of holistic ways of knowing and being in the world, the unjust socio-economic hierarchy and culture of mistrust, the destruction of diverse local knowledge systems. A friend like to remind me that if factory-schools are like zoos, then alternative schools are like sanctuaries – only they follow the Cambridge Board or the IB Board. At the end of the day, the Game remains the same. Most graduates do not develop the confidence that they can create their own learning webs without lifelong institutional direction. Most graduates are not able to imagine possibilities for meaningful living beyond fitting into the Global Economy. Most graduates are unable to re-connect to and build healthy and sustainable local communities. I would argue that those few who are able to do these things – whether from government, convent, private or alternative schools -- do so in spite of their school education, rather than because of it. Furthermore, alternative schools have yet to take a strong stance against the criminal activities committed daily by schools, especially the labeling of millions of innocent children as ‘failures’. No child is born a ‘failure’, it is teachers and schooling which makes them into failures. One has to wonder about the moral backbone of the educational establishment (locally and globally) if they can continue to allow this heinous crime to be committed without even raising a voice.
Moreover, I have tried to learn from past thinkers in education. If many great leaders have tried to reform the current system and have failed, then what? You and I are in no way as influential as Gandhi, Tagore, Krishnamurti, Vinoba Bhave, Gijubhai, Sri Aurobindo, John Dewey, John Holt, Paulo Freire, etc. were. We need to understand why they were not able to make a real dent – in fact, the Education System has gotten much worse after them with more exams, more tuitions, more pressure, more ‘failures’. A friend of mine likes to remind me that “adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies. It only creates more awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars.” How long should we continue to tinker at the edges of a rotten and corrupt system?
Many of these great thinkers eventually came to the same conclusions in their lives that I have. First, to change the education system, we have to be willing to challenge the modern, military-industrial way of life, and its path/indicators of Success and Progress. Basically, we need to shift our still-colonized mental models and philosophical reference points. This includes raising fundamental questions about the dominant frameworks of Science, Nationalism and Economic Development – something that our friends in NCERT or alternative schools are unwilling to do. Second, we also need to focus our attention on what it means to build nurturing community and socio-spiritual ecologies. We need to seriously and playfully think about pursuing other ways of living and relating (outside of the rules of the commodified rat-race), which are more balanced, healthy, caring, socially just and spiritually meaningful. I have seen that subtle but conscious shifts in our personal lifestyle choices can begin to help us to imagine, uncover and co-create the spaces, processes and community relationships we need for pursuing deep lifelong co-learning. A good place to start is to learn from people who have not gone to school. Third, institutions are not going to change by themselves; it is individuals and communities that must take the lead in creating alternatives for themselves. The more alternatives that can be co-created, the more possibilities for the emergence of new systems of influence.
What’s the alternative?
Because of the failure of education in the US, over three million people there have taken the decision to not send their children to school. They believe that as parents and communities, they are better equipped than the State and its institutions to support the learning and growth of their children. They are part of what’s broadly termed the ‘homeschooling movement’. One of the most exciting aspects of this movement is that they are connecting to as well as generating a large network of informal clubs and citizens’ associations in order to support their children’s varied interests and desire for social interaction. These range from astronomy clubs to football associations to nature camps to community service groups. They are oftentimes organized by the children themselves or by a small cluster of families. Homeschoolers have also generated a wealth of learning resources that are shared on the internet.
Homeschooling, however, is by no means a homogenous movement. In the past, it has been confused with Christian fundamentalist groups or white elites. In reality, a very wide spectrum of philosophy and practice exists among this movement. On one end, are people who are trying to reproduce school at home. Parents act as school-teachers; the children go through official curriculum and textbooks, have set schedules and take various exams to achieve school equivalency.
Several parents, however, resist the entire framework of schooling and its rules and parameters. They do not want to reproduce school at home and instead are trying to support their children’s varied learning interests and natural curiosity. This spectrum of the movement is called ‘unschooling’. They see learning as a natural, joyful process, and they don't want to interfere with that or sabotage it. They believe that children are good judges of what they are ready to learn and when they are ready to learn it. Learning processes should therefore be ‘child-led’ rather than simply just 'child-centered'. This implies that there is no set curriculum, no imposed teachers, no schedule, no textbooks, no exams, no fixed models. Rather, children explore their own questions, at their own pace, and engage with a number of different spaces, people and relationships in their community. Unschoolers believe that it is not enough to take the children out of schools, we must remove schooling from deep within ourselves. This means questioning conditioning such as comparing children against each other or looking at knowledge through the lens of compartmentalized subjects.
We, at Shikshantar, have tried to broaden the framework of ‘unschooling’ and have shared the concept and practice of Families Learning Together. The idea is that parents, children, neighbors, relatives, friends — and all those we consider as part of our ‘joint/extended family — are each responsible for their own learning and are responsible for supporting and nurturing each other in our varied learning interests. We believe that children need to re-ignite passion and curiosity in adults and adults need to also do the same for children. The catch is that adults can only do so if they fully embrace and embody the spirit of continuous unlearning and uplearning. The real problem is not with the children, it is with our adult conditioned and corrupted minds. So we, as adults, need to be willing to change if we want to reclaim shiksha into our lives and into our children’s lives. Each of us can generate our own ‘intergenerational learning webs’ — an intricate set of multi-age relationships across different spaces where each of us (adults as well as children) can go to learn or unlearn what we want. For example, the city farmer’s plot of land, the shoemaker’s shop, the artist’s studio and gallery, the local temple, church or mosque, our friends’ homes, the cows and goats on the side of the road, the lake for a swim, etc. This honoring of diversity of interactions across ages, spaces, media forms, economic classes, castes, etc., leads to real human socialization and to deep wisdom. This is real shiksha. And every one of us has the power to decide what we want to learn, who we want to include when making our own learning webs and, in the process, creating our own particular system of shiksha. For me, one billion people inIndia means that we must have at least one billion systems of shiksha. Are we bold enough to re-imagine such a vision?
In the 1970s, Ivan Illich proposed the idea of ‘deschooling’ which in India, has been badly misunderstood as simply just shutting down all the schools. Deschooling can be described as ‘de-institutionalizing ourselves’, ‘de-programming ourselves’, ‘de-professionalizing ourselves’, etc., in order to counter modern forms of dehumanization. Illich describes this dehumanization as the reduction of human beings into homo economicus. This process of deschooling involves asking larger questions about education itself and its relation to the state, the market, the mass media, the military, the scientific establishment and the project of modernity. Illich also proposes a different definition of modern education which requires deeper consideration, “I came to define Education as learning under the assumption of scarcity, learning under the assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce.” In other words, under modern education, knowledge becomes a commodity that can only be obtained through schools (or some organized institutional program) rather than a natural aspect of Being in the world. People are trained/forced to believe that learning and the growth of cognitive capacities, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form. This debilitating dependence created by modern education helps pave the way to a life-long dependence on other service monopolies, such as hospitals, courts and police, to organize our lives.
With regards to deschooling, Illich was asking us to think deeply about the idea of counter-productivity of modern institutions and tools which are being propagated in society; that is, how something that may have started out as a beneficial or useful process can grow into something harmful or destructive. For example, the introduction of so many modern time-saving devices have actually taken away our time for doing things that are really meaningful to us. Illich described, “A tool can grow out of man’s control, first to become his master and finally to become his executioner… There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which they are used to extend human capability, and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions." Illich was asking us to consider the possibility that schooling has grown out of our control and has become our master. He was warning us that it could someday grow into our executioner.
There is also a very constructive and creative aspect to deschooling which needs to be highlighted. Illich was really interested in the creation of convivial social formations, rather than centralized manipulative institutions telling people how to live their lives. Conviviality involves autonomous, caring and organic intercourse among persons, and the wise and interdependent intercourse of persons with their natural and social environment. Such a vision asks us to think deeply about what constitutes healthy living communities in India? Are our efforts supporting the regeneration of healthy and resilient communities and cultures? The vision of conviviality calls for us to explore how to authentically reclaim control over our own lives — our food, our health, our waste, our clothing, our buildings, our media, our self-governance, etc. — away from the ready-made world of big institutions and back into our own hands. Conviviality is predicated on dynamic and natural processes of self-organized learning, co-learning and unlearning.
The question remains as to whether we still have the courage, wisdom and imagination left to move beyond business as usual and enter into a process of asking disturbing questions about our own education and the Education system.
But is it really possible for us in India?
Contrary to popular misconception, unschooling and deschooling are not from the West or only for the West. We need to understand that Shiksha and Education are not the same. They come from totally different historical, philosophical, spiritual and epistemological roots. We need to reclaim the meaning of shiksha and forms like the guru-shishya parampara. Shiksha is more closely rooted in self-organized and experiential forms of learning. Real gurus were never self-proclaimed/State-imposed instructors, nor did they seek to impose a uniform standardized syllabus on all those who learned with them. For us in the subcontinent, shiksha grows from concept-practices such as in satya, swadhyaya, samvaad, ahimsa, anekantavad, yoga, sahayog, lok vidya, shram, vinumvrata, kshama, etc. There are many powerful stories of self-learners throughout history. Eklavya being one of the most famous ones. However, these heroes have been sadly maligned by the guardians of the Institutional Faith. Some of the initial experiments with Nai Taleem and Shantiniketan also tried to embody these principles but somewhere along the way, they also got corrupted in the framework of institutionalized education…
In fact, I truly believe that it is much easier for us to make this connection than for those in the West, because we still have so many living learning spaces. In villages and even in most towns and cities, you can still find opportunities for apprenticeship learning, you can easily get to a forest, you can experience life in a joint family (full of rich relationships of all ages). We luckily do not have go to a zoo to see animals; we can interact with them on the roads and in the fields. One can learn yoga without going to a yoga center. Everywhere, you can find a million forms of kabaad (so-called waste) to jugaad with, to make something useful, beautiful and durable. The best part about these opportunities in India is that most have not yet been commodified. One quite fortunately does not have to pay a lot of money to access them.
We urgently need to look at our learning assets outside of the framework of schooling. This exercise has not been seriously undertaken in the last 50 years. Gandhi had some inkling of it but the work was abandoned post-1947. If and when we undertake this, we will soon begin to realize that India is not a ‘poor’ or ‘backward’ country in terms of learning resources. We need to honestly re-evaluate what is ‘forward’ and what is ‘backwards’ in India. For example, I recently met a woman from Canada who was sharing with me an educational program that she had started in schools to teach children emotional empathy and sensitivity. For a number of reasons, there are very few opportunities for children in Canada to touch and hold small babies. Millions of dollars were being spent to bring small babies into the classroom so that middle school children could interact with them for a few hours a week. I felt we were quite fortunate that children inIndia are able to naturally witness birth as well as well as death. I pray for the day when we in the Global South will begin to understand that we are in many ways much better off than our heavily-institutionalized Western counterparts.
The real threats to these vibrant indigenous learning resources are the institutional viruses that pose as roses: like the campaigns against child labor and for compulsory/coercive education. While I agree that hazardous labor should be outlawed for men, women and children, I do not feel that all labor is bad or should be banned from our children’s lives. Indeed, one of the leading reasons behind the degradation of human health today comes from the lack of authentic physical work and labor in our lives. Such productive labor kept us alive and thriving for generations, why do we want to banish it from our lives? It is important to re-look at the link between using our hands/body, meaningful work and the growth of our mind, spirit and emotional well-being.
Where is the hope?
For the last nine years, I have been working with people around the world to respond to the question, “If not the culture of schooling, then what?” What’s sprung up are several networks. One is the Learning Societies Network where we have invited a number of unusual partners (farmers, artists, artisans, activists, filmmakers, healers, storytellers, local businessmen, children, youth, parents, grandparents, illiterates, spiritualists, etc.) to explore what kind of learning and living we want in our society? We ask people who are interested to start by sharing their own experiences and experiments with learning in different ways in their own lives. The idea behind the Learning Societies Network is to demystify and break the monopoly of education experts and professionals over discussions concerning human learning. We do not believe that educators alone can envision and make the deeper changes in education that are necessary for the 21stcentury. People with diverse worldviews who are leading/supporting real-world experiments across many different domains need to be in the discussion. Today, friends in fields as varied as global climate change, community media, organic farming, free software movement, etc., are raising the kinds of profound questions about life that can eventually shake the foundations of the education system. Are we willing to listen?
Just as natural farmers are redefining the field of agriculture, and self-healers are redefining the field of medicine, so are many youth determining their own paths of learning as more than 90% of youth in India do not attend college. These path-breakers are however, at the same time, nurtured by and nurturing the growth of a large and vibrant underground system of Shiksha. We share their stories, experiences, insights, opportunities and experiments through the Swapathgami Network. The Swapathgami Network is also called the network of walkouts and walkons; that is, people who have walked out of dehumanizing, exploitative or violent situations, institutions, attitudes, products, etc., and who are walking on to live in more meaningful, authentic, healthy and honest ways. In the process of taking control of their own learning, they are re-discovering and co-creating many amazing learning opportunities around the country. It is a silent revolution. They are once again reminding us that millions of ways of understanding/knowing/being exist in the world, which are outside the scope of schooling. Are we willing to see these?
At Shikshantar, we are also exploring and regenerating the learning resources of our own city, in a process called Udaipur as a Learning City (ULC). One of my reasons for co-initiating this process was to open up more (un)-learning opportunities for both Kanku and me. In ULC, we are constantly looking for people and places around the city from whom we can learn to live a just and harmonious life. Most people are interested in finding relationships towards organic living, which includes city farming, composting, zero waste homes and zero waste neighborhoods, self-healing and herbal medicines, community media and urban space, bicycling and pedestrian power, healthy cooking, rainwater harvesting, and more… We are discovering once again that the home/neighborhood are indeed powerful learning spaces for collaboration, creative experimentation and deep dialogue.
In all of these initiatives, we have found that it is important to find creative ways to engage with friends in the mainstream system to dismantle its monopoly. It is not enough to just be creating alternatives. For example, many of us need to Heal from the Diploma Disease. We recently came out with a publication of the same name that invites civil society organizations to stop using diplomas, degrees and certificates in their hiring and promotion processes. In its place, we ask that more appropriate systems of identifying and evaluating personnel be explored and used. This request has sparked a wider conversation about what we want to see manifest in our work and in our world, and we hope will help pave the way for more diversity in learning opportunities.
For me a critical point in my life was when I consciously stopped describing myself as a ‘teacher’ or a ‘planner/social engineer’ and started seeing my primary role as a ‘lifelong seeker of truths’. I do not see myself as Kanku’s teacher. In fact, I consider her to be one of my gurus since she has inspired me to take many new risks in my life. This shift should not be taken as yet another piece of superficial jargon – as is often done by the education establishment. It needs to start with some deep introspection, for example, by re-examining one’s own learning process up until now: What have been some powerful learning experiences in your life? Under what conditions have you learned best? What lies have you unlearned? What brings you real happiness? What are you curious/disturbed about now? Go explore it and share your journey with children. Invite them to do the same. Where are you feeling stagnant? What depresses you about your life? Share this as well. Perhaps they can help you find a way out.
As long as one needs to be working in the education system, one can think about how to creatively subvert/dismantle its claims of authority and monocultural-ness. This is one of the primary challenges of our times. Shake up our own schooled mindsets. Reclaim our faith in the innate power of children and villagers to direct their own learning. Encourage your children to explore other opportunities and relationships outside of the four walls of schooling. Ridicule the examination system and its claim as a fair/useful form of evaluation. Refuse to be called a ‘product’ or a ‘human resource’. Make a strong commitment to regenerating peoples’ knowledge over expert/textual/institutional knowledge. Be creative. And perhaps, most importantly, open up real spaces to experiment and make mistakes.
I realize, of course, this only works to a point (which is why I personally stopped trying to reform the education system). A friend once said, “It’s very hard to criticize something when your salary depends on not criticizing it.” At one point or other, most teachers and schools have to come back to curriculum, textbooks, exams, etc., and more seriously, to the underlying politics and economy. In that authoritarian, unjust and artificial context, it is virtually impossible to sustain any real trust and authentic co-learning between yourself and the children.
So, for those who are genuinely interested in pursuing real shiksha and supporting others to do the same, I would frankly encourage you to walk out of the school system and walk-on to creating something new – learning spaces and learning webs that embody a deeper vision of human learning: ones that do not rest on commodification, competition, compartmentalization or compulsion; ones that deepen human wisdom, imagination and friendship. Just remember that there are no ready-made, mass-produced solutions (after all these years of being fooled over and over again, we should be really skeptical of anyone who offers/imposes these). We each need to invest ourselves in creating our own localized alternatives and connecting these to each other in dynamic ways. There can and should be a world with many streams, not just one mainstream. It is time for us in India to evolve a more mature vision of social equality – one that is not built on monoculture or copying the hypocritical West.
Since she was a baby, I have seen Kanku finding and choosing her own gurus (sources of inspiration) – of all shapes, sizes and species. Some of these are for a few fleeting minutes, others remain for many days. She negotiates and co-creates her own self-discipline and intensity. She is both moved and motivated by real world activities and problems. My experiences, co-learning with Kanku, have certainly made me believe that it is absolutely necessary to re-look at some of our core assumptions about how human beings learn and why we learn. What does learning look like? This debate has to be opened up across the country with our friends, colleagues, children, grandparents, neighbors, leaders, etc. It should not be abstract or overly theoretical but rather start with our own honest personal and intimate experiences: How did schooling help deepen my learning capacities? How did schooling hinder/harm my learning capacities? What did I really gain and what did I really lose? What did my community really gain and lose? How has my local natural and cultural environment benefited and lost? The real debate is not about school vs. no school. It is about co-creating the best possible learning ecologies for ourselves and our chidren. This is what we are trying to do with Kanku and this is the invitation that I would like to extend to you as a reader. I look forward to being in a dialogue with you.
 See my note “Ten Lies My School Taught Me” in Swapathgami: http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/swapathgami_english1.pdf
 Most so-called experiments in school are not really experiments as the result is known beforehand and there is no room to make mistakes.
 See Co-Learning with Kanku: Some Experiences from 2006 at http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/kanku2006bookfinal.pdf