You are committing a sin.
You will spoil and ruin your child’s life.
You are mad.
Seven Deadly Sins of Schooling
All over the world, from governments to media houses to corporates to NGOs to UN agencies, schooling and modern education is being sold as the panacea to all social, health, economic and environmental woes. Those who are not convinced and not willing to ‘buy’ these propagandistic claims are branded as ‘backwards’, ‘fundamentalists’, ‘superstitious’, ‘elitest’, ‘romantic’, etc. In India, the Right to Education Act has recently been approved to threaten, pulvarize and compulsorily force such irreverent non-believers into submission. We must be made to believe that mass schooling is the only way to the promised land of Development.
In this essay, I would like to propose that contrary to mainstream belief, more schooling is not a ‘solution’ but rather a huge part of the problem. Where schooling levels are the highest you have the highest rates of overshooting ecological footprints (measuring consumption, pollution and waste), the highest levels of social depression and community breakdown, the highest levels of military expenditure and fear, the highest levels of corruption, the highest levels of pornography, the highest levels of pesticides and poisons in food, and the highest levels of diet-related health diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, etc. Not so coincedently, these indicators and their correlations to education are never seriously discussed by the United Nations and World Bank in their analyses of the Millennium Development Goals. They may cause a dent in the grand narrative of Education = Development = Salvation for All.
Never before in the history of world has the process of ‘education’ led to so many cases of suicide (or attempted suicide). To paraphrase Rancho in the film 3 Idiots, it must be clarified for the official record that these are not suicide cases but rather murder. Thousands of such ‘murders’ go un-investigated ever year all over the world. In this essay, I will elaborate on my beliefs that factory schooling is a fundamentally anti-human, anti-nature enterprise that will be condemned one hundred years from now just in the same way as we today condemn practices of slavery. Our great-great-grandchildren will one day wake up and wonder how could we have committed such atrocious crimes against innocent children. It is high time that a national debate take place in India on the damage that schooling is doing to our children, the ethno-sphere and the eco-sphere.
Most people reading this essay will already be familiar with Macaulay’s Minutes on Education (1835) in which he articulates the goal of British education in India is to create “a class of persons who are Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” This civilizing-colonizing mission of schools has not been limited only to India. Over the past 100 years, factory schooling has been condemned by leading social thinkers across the globe (including Ivan Illich, John Holt, Noam Chomsky, Paulo Freire, Michel Foucault, Leo Tolstoy, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Rabindranath Tagore, J. Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, Vinoba Bhave, and Mahatma Gandhi) as an instrument of mental slavery, indoctrination and totalitarian social control. It is interesting to take note of the fact that the same root thinking that gave birth to the organization of modern factory schools also gave birth to the modern industrial factory, the modern prison system and the modern army. Indeed, we can note that the ‘best’ students in school are the ones who most obediently follow the orders handed out to them from above, without any questioning of authority. They are the ones who are molded into good soldiers, good babus or clerks, good factory workers, good global consumers, and good citizens for the nation.
Before I proceed any further, it is important to clarify why I use the term ‘factory schooling’ to describe the modern education system. First, the inherent model has been patterned around modern factories and Fordist assembly-line production with a dominant view towards inculcating industrial discipline/obedience and routine-isation in the students. This was quite different from the predominantly craft-based traditional forms of production in which highly skilled artisans exercised substantial creative control over their conditions of work. In his treatise, Principles of Scientific Management (1911), Frederick Taylor devised a means of detailing a division of labor in time-and-motion studies, task allocation and a wage system based on performance, in order to increase the control over the pace and productivity of work. Taylor's gospel of more specialized and less complex tasks for workers, also known as ‘Taylorism’ would become the design standard for both industry and schools worldwide.
Second, human beings are reduced to being seen as ‘human resources’ (thus the need for Ministry for Human Resource Development) that must be molded and manipulated as a factor of production. The child is seen to be a ‘blank slate’, ‘clay to be molded’, ‘empty vessel’, etc. According to Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean of Stanford University School of Education, 1898, “Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.” Indeed, I find it very strange when I hear people across various social settings introduce themselves as being ‘products’ of this or that institution. Almost 40 years ago, Ivan Illich described how schools are designed to convert homo sapiens into homo economicus – the value of our entire lives has been reduced to how much we can produce, consume and add to the GNP. And, as with all other natural resources like land, water, forests, air waves, learning, etc., that have been converted to commodities, the government a.k.a Big Brother becomes the primary custodian of all children, replacing the role of family and community. The danger behind this, of course, is that Big Brother now has the power to sell these commodities to the global marketplace, whenever and at whatever cost they deem fit.
Third, factory-schooling, though it is described by many as ‘a-political’ and ‘neutral’, is driven by an industrial-military vision of development in which economic growth, nationalism, Western science, hyper-technology, army and corporate power are the new gods. Schools are the primary vehicle for developing new ‘markets’. There is virtually no space given in the school and mainstream media to seriously question the dominant narrative of growth, progress or success in the schooling process. It is repeatedly drilled into us that the only path to success and happiness is to obediently enter the rat-race to serve the global economy. We are instructed to accept that There Is No Alternative (TINA). Starved for new markets, today many major corporate houses in India have setup private foundations as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives to assert control over the agenda of factory-schooling, particularly in the rural areas.
It is important to note that factory-schooling is no longer limited to just the formal schools. The culture of factory-schooling has permeated into non-formal education, into toys and play, into the way we organize our workshops, seminars and conferences, into TV and the mass media, into religious training, even into our family lives, etc. It influences almost every aspect of our modern everyday lives and thoughts (see Box 1). There are two dominant assumptions on which the culture of schooling has been designed and built: 1) that human beings are inherently greedy, selfish and isolated beings who can be manipulated and molded through reward and punishment, and 2) that human beings are separate from and superior to Nature which is wild, diverse and needs to be tamed.
Box 1: Everyday quotes in the Culture of Schooling…
* “My dream is to do something for the poor. But I am saddled with huge student loans so I will need to join a corporate law firm.”
* “Why are you wasting time with all these extra-curricular activities, just study because the exam and your job package are the only thing that matters.”
* “I want to buy a good gift for my niece to help her get ahead. Like one of those new baby Einstein toys based on the latest brain research.”
* “Our family is comprised of hum doe aur hamara doe.”
* “Oh, your child is hyperactive in school, why don’t you give him some Ritalin.”
* “If you don’t study harder, you will remain ignorant, backwards and useless like your father.”
* “I wrote this article. I own it. It is my property.”
* “My real role as a teacher is to filter out the children, separate the wheat from the chaff – the brilliant, from the mediocre and weak students.”
* “If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to beat the competition.”
* “Too bad if you think I am exploiting others, it is my right. I have worked hard in school to earn it.”
Also, it must be clarified that there has not been a smooth and linear historical evolution from gurukuls to factory schooling as many mainstream educationists would like to have us believe. I have sadly visited many schools around India where they simply replaced the word ‘teacher’ with the word ‘guru’ and now they think they are operating something similar to a gurukul. We must understand that there was (and continues to be) a massive cultural-economic upheaval to replace gurukuls, gotuls and other indigenous learning processes and learning spaces (see Shri Dharampalji’s writings). Indeed, the last 65 years of ‘Independence’ has witnessed the Indian government launch a massive propaganda campaign, at the behest of agencies like the World Bank, United Nations, etc. to dehumanize, humiliate and silence the so-called ‘illiterates’ and peoples’ knowledge systems of the country.
Mass factory schooling grew out of a desire to control people – through thought-control rather than through guns. In his famous book Propaganda (1928), Edward Bernays wrote, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element of democratic society…In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Indeed, we can find that factory schooling has been a primary tool for indoctrination on two levels. First, it helps disconnect and up-root people from their natural learning processes, web of complex socio-ecological relationships and the diverse cultural imaginations that are present in their communities. Second, it seduces more and more ‘educated citizens’ with the promise of trickle-down growth of the global economy, the obnoxious faith in technological utopianism, hi-tech gadgets and a managing technocracy, and the propaganda of so-called Western-style democracy.
Many critiques about factory schooling are floating around India these days leading to many calls for improvement in the education system. I have found that there are two common misassumptions amongst those working for education reform which need to be more deeply interrogated: 1) they all agree that government schools are in bad shape but they believe that elite private schools like DPS or Doon school are providing ‘good quality’ education; 2) they agree that most education in schools may be ineffective or irrelevant but they fail to recognize the deep and far-reaching damage that is being done to children, communities and the human species as a result of factory schooling. Thus, most efforts end up simply tinkering with the existing system with the usual check-list of interventions i.e., teacher training, principal leadership training, textbook reform, low-cost teaching aids or computer-aided technologies, more standardized testing and value education classes. Their cultural imagination has been colonized so much that they cannot see the diverse and abundant learning possibilities inherent across local communities. So they continue to perpetuate the belief that we have no other options than to repair the same old school system.
The Modern Seven Deadly Sins
The seven deadly sins are a classification of capital vices that were originally used in early Christian teachings to educate and instruct followers concerning immoral man's tendency to sin. Described by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, the seven deadly sins are as follows: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony, overconsumption, over-indulgence, waste), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth, laziness, apathy), Ira (wrath, more commonly known as anger or discrimination), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride). The epidemic-like spread of these sins essentially symbolizes the fall of humanity.
Factory-schooling is guilty of its own deadly sins. It is important for those working in the field of education to understand the serious damage that factory-schooling does to our children and to our wider species. I was recently at an education conference and met leaders from several spiritual groups who were calling for an additional class in value education to be taught in schools. Their core assumption was that because they did not see ‘good human values’ emerging in school graduates, that there was no values being taught in the current education system. They could not see that the factory-schooling system is full of an unspoken and hidden set of values which are continually being communicated to students through the design, rules and daily practices of the education system. The system is not failing to teach good values; rather, it is quite successful in advancing a different set of values centered around the Industrial-Military growth paradigm.
After 65 years of Independence, it is time to move beyond our education debates beyond just good or bad content or better or worse teaching strategies and materials. We need to understand the hidden curriculum that accompanies factory schooling, i.e., the systemic or structural dimension of factory schooling. As John Taylor Gatto aptly describes, “The method of mass factory schooling is the only real content. Don’t be fooled into thinking good curriculum, good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of education.”
In Tagore’s story, The Parrot’s Training, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison the wild and uncivilized parrot while she is being educated by the king’s pundits. All kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques were tried on the parrot. But she was not allowed to leave the cage. We need to more deeply understand the nature of the cage and its impact on us. In schools, we are not only taught a particular subject but our whole way of thinking and perceiving ourselves and the world is being re-structured. This restructuring affects our conscience, our senses, our moods, our values, our desires, our imagination, and our relationships.
I have been involved with formal education for the last 38 years, first as a ‘good’ student, then as a ‘bad’ student, then as a ‘brilliant’ student, then as a ‘teacher’, then as ‘education researcher’ and ‘education policymaker’, then as a ‘education reformer’, then as a ‘education resistor’, then as a ‘unschooler’, and now as a learning activist. After working in many different countries and contexts, I started to connect the dots about the education system and its larger impact. Based on these experiences, I would like to propose the following seven deadly sins of factory schooling. I invite you to spend some time deeply reflecting on these and what they imply for a healthy or just society as well as spend some time creating your own list of seven deadly sins of schooling.
1. Creates a vicious knowledge hierarchy (academic vs. non-academic, scientific vs. superstitious, literate vs. illiterate, developed vs. underdeveloped, white-collar vs. blue collar, etc.) and rationalizes systemic discrimination against people without/with less degrees. Students are made to believe that one’s primary learning and growth of intellectual capacity can happen only in the classroom, with children their own age, and through the official textbook and certified teacher. At a very early age, children are introduced to a vicious tracking system which labels and brands them as ‘slow learners’, ‘average learners’ or ‘gifted learners’. Millions of innocent children are sentenced as ‘failures’ for life. Others are labeled with a string of extra letters next to their name, which they confuse as more important to their identity than their human qualities. Everyone is conditioned to accept their proper place in the hierarchical totem pole -- when to act superior, when to act inferior. Those who don’t attend school or have lesser degrees are deemed as sub-human and treated with disdain and contempt. They have ‘wasted’ their lives. Those who have degrees arrogantly believe that it is their right to rule over the others through their manufactured consent. Textual knowledge is valued over experiential and intuitive forms of knowing. This epistemological dada-giri leads to a tremendous loss of diverse cosmologies, knowledge systems, learning traditions, languages, communities and ecologies and threatens the survival of our species.
2. Inculcates a survival of fittest competitive mentality and a feeling of artificial scarcity. Children are taught that life is a zero-sum game against others where there can be only one winner: more for the other means less for me. They receive one clear and direct message from their schooling - that it is only one’s individual achievements that matter and do anything you need to in order to get ahead. In other words, be first, even if you have to be greedy and selfish! Students are also conditioned to care more about the winning outcome rather than the process. They enter into a vicious game of constantly comparing oneself with others and feeling insecure whenever anyone else achieves something. I have always been puzzled when I have seen students develop a peculiar insensitivity which allows them to be happy, when all others, even their closest friends and relatives, fail around them. Learning is framed as an isolated, individualistic process. Students Competition actually discourages imagination, risk-taking and innovation, as students learn that in order to win, they must please the judges and conform to established norms. are not given the space to imagine win-win relationships or play games or work on projects that promote collaboration, mutual care, co-learning and the collective intelligence.
3. Converts children into parasites who have no idea where their food, energy, clothing, water, shit, waste, etc. comes from or goes to. “I only know how to study for the exam,” is the un-official mantra heard from students across the country. Students around the world are actively being de-skilled (particularly those from artisan, healing and farming backgrounds) and are being taught to despise and devalue physical labor – since labor is considered as non-intellectual work. The education system goes on to label and ban all non-institutionally-approved forms of work as ‘child-labor’. We hear educationists saying, “Those poor children are only herding goats, they are not learning anything. They are being exploited by their families. They should be in school all day.” For the first 23 years of their lives, students are not encouraged to be meaningfully involved in productive activities related to their basic needs or their community’s needs which would encourage them to understand deep inter-connections or a sense of right relationship/limits vis a vis their natural resources. Dependency on fossil-fuel technologies and culture, has also led to a noticeable evolutionary decline in the strength of the physical body and its capacity for tolerating harsh conditions. I am amazed to see in village after village, 70+ year-old men and women having more stamina and capacity for physical work than their educated 18+ year-old grand-children. In addition, students are removed from an active and responsible role in community life and inserted into the artificial bubble of the school. A friend recently told me about plans for an elite school in Delhi which is planning to serve children chai and snacks directly on their desks so that they don’t have to get up and move around. As a result, they become inculcated into a value system of short-cuts and false entitlement – the entire world is theirs to be consumed and trashed without any responsibility. They learn to view modern paraphernalia such gyms, waste in trash bins and landfills, flush toliets, supermarkets, nuclear power, etc. as totally normal.
4. Produces fragmented minds and fractured beings. This deadly sin happens at several levels and is where the factory aspect of schooling excels the most in the name of greater efficiency. Students are taught to think in terms of seemingly unrelated compartmentalized subjects and disciplinary categories (maths, biology, history, etc.). There is a fragmentation between mind, body, heart, spirit. Theory is separated from practice. Knowledge is separated from context and from Being. I have been told by many elders that one’s jabaan (one’s word) was once directly related to one’s dignity and status in communities. But modern education, with its emphasis on the textual-legal world, has ruptured the link between our jabaan and our actions. Short-term thinking and superficial concentration is also enforced through the 50-minute period system and the pressure of continuous tests. If a child is enjoying an art or music or a science project and wants to work on it longer than the allocated period, they are not allowed. Students are not given the time and space needed to develop the wisdom and sense of whole needed to responsibly handle the multiple realities of a complex, diverse, messy and uncertain world.
5. Introduces the notion of private ownership and belief in commodification of life. Students are educated into a ‘taker culture’ which believes that we are the owners of ideas, knowledge and nature rather than its trustees. Rather than sharing their knowledge , talents and gifts, they are trained to hide and hoard it. A world of copyrights, patents and private property are the accepted belief system. I have heard people tell me, “Since I am the owner of this property, I can do whatever I want with it, including destroying it.” Schooling also teaches children that learning is a scarce commodity that must be paid for with money. Or conversely, it teaches them that learning is free (to be distributed only by the State or taken/stolen with a sense of license). It in both cases schooling disconnects us from the sacred spirit of the gift culture. We are made to be dependent on the money system to decide what is the inherent value of things and whether what we do is socially useful. For example, we are taught that those who get paid money at a job are those who ‘work’ and those who contribute to the household i.e., housewives, don’t ‘work’. We also come to believe that we don’t really need deep relationships with anybody else because we can just buy whatever we need with money. Happiness is to be derived from owning more money and things (which you can only acquire if you have a degree), rather than from forming intimate ties of sharing and connecting with each other. But as the ancient Cree saying goes, “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and when the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
6. Subjugates the moral conscience, common sense, aesthetics, intuition, spiritual selves and wisdom to the authority of institutions – where scientific experts and technological utopianism are the master. In army-like fashion, students are taught to follow orders and ignore their own inner compass. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they are conditioned to respond to authority through the carrot and stick approach. Gold stars, ‘very good’ remarks, and prizes go hand in hand with detention, low marks and physical and psychological torture. Standardized, decontextualized textbooks and black-and-white answers to tests dumb down our capacities to engage with complex philosophical and moral questions or to look critically at many of the assumptions we hold. Through grades, badges and report cards, students are made to believe that self-worth is to be derived from external sources. Their own natural internal feedback mechanisms for self-evaluation, self-improvement and autonomous meaning-making are weakened. Furthermore, as intergenerational bonds are discouraged and cut by the classroom age format, a pernicious peer pressure and a mob-like mentality grows, characterized by fear, de-sensitization, apathy, indifference and numbness. I am shocked by how children in classrooms across India can sit numbed at their desks and every day watch a fellow classmate being punished, humiliated and beaten. Some even learn to take sadistic pleasure in this. Sacred, multidimensional human beings are also colonized to describe themselves as only as atomized 'economists' or 'engineers'. Some of the worst crimes of the 20th century have been committed (and continue to be committed) based on this sin.
7. Denies the most basic right to learn on one's own and to make one’s own meaning of the world – maims the khoji in each of us. Students are made dependent on the school teacher and textbooks as their primary source of information. Curious and sensitive learners are turned into passive consumers who must be spoon-fed ready-made world of facts and formulas. Complex questions related to each of our unique svadharma: Who am I?, What is the purpose of my life?, What is happiness?, What does it mean to live with dignity and freedom?, What are my unique gifts and talents? have been replaced with one truth, one right answer, one moral of the story. One of my gurus, Shri Dayalchand Soni, once wrote ”Real democracy is not about people being able to choose their rulers. Rather real democracy means that people should be able to choose their gurus.” Schooling teaches us that you need a PhD or Bed certificate to be a teacher. We are told that we are not capable to find our own gurus and learn on our own. Instead, we demand that the State, through RTE, should assign them to us in a compulsory fashion. One needs to attend official ‘certified’ courses and workshops to learn anything. We are given the message that anything that happens outside of the authority of schooling is considered to be ‘extra-curricular’, worthless or a waste of time. Also, students are filled with a fear to make ‘mistakes’ as they are told they will be punished for them. They learn to hide their mistakes rather than see them as a rich source of feedback and learning. In the process, our tremendous potentials for self-initiative and self-organizing are shattered.
Raising the Bar for Alternative Education
"Suppose a man is sucking a lump of arsenic and you warn him that the stuff is poisonous. Would he be considered sane if he countered by saying that he must first be given a cup of nectar; otherwise, he would not give up whatever he had?" – Maulana Azad
In Dante’s world, arrogance is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the primary source from which the others arise. There is a very famous saying among wise people, “The more I know, the more I realize how little I know,” which we seem to have forgotten with factory schooling and the cult of hyper-specialists. Modern education feeds the arrogance of experts and discourages the humility of seekers. The often-mentioned policy term ‘first-generation learners’, which is used to describe children to attend schools for the first time, is a prime example of this. This phrase implies that all of our ancestors who did not go to school for thousands of years never learned anything in their lives and that it is not possible to learn without going to school. Indeed, the arrogant claim that “we educated people know…” and others who have not gone to school (including other sentient beings) do not know, is what has got us (and the planet) into big trouble in the first place. The need of the day is to question the arrogant claims that more factory-schooling is the solution – the only solution in fact according to documents such as the Right to Education Act.
Many people say will argue that all of this discussion is okay but what about all the benefits of factory-schooling, “Manish, you have presented a one-sided argument.” There are many myths about factory-schooling about the benefits of factory-schooling which need to be exposed and re-examined. One of the most silliest and also most depressing arguments that I have heard was when a friend recently started arguing with me that the purpose of schooling is to make friends and that without schooling, people would not be able to develop deep lifelong relationships with others. I would ask the reader to interrogate the meaning of socialization and the kind of socialization that happens in school today. My own experiences have led me to believe that ‘educated’ people experience far more isolation, loneliness and insecurity that ‘uneducated’ people.
A more serious argument is that, for many, factory-schooling is a necessary evil as it is the only way to social equality and social liberation. Government schools represent a way out of generations of poverty and discrimination for Dalits, women, villagers, tribals, blacks, etc. Many would argue that the education system is essentially okay as it is but the opportunity of quality schooling for all needs to be extended more equally to all people in the form of a common school system. Then, everything in the world will be fine.
I think that we need to exam the claims of social liberation more closely. Has it lead to social liberation for all or for a few at the expense of many others? For example, it is claimed that education has been a key to empowering and uplifting women. Indeed, Kofi Annan of the United Nations once said that “The future of the world depends on women.” He called for all girl-children to be incarcerated like Tagore’s parrot into schools and to be ‘empowered’. While I agree with Annan’s statement, I would question both the sentiment behind and strategy associated with it.
One benefit of schooling all over India, for sure, is that it provides girls with a social excuse to delay getting married and having children. It has also brought girls and women more into the limelight of consumer brands and into the current political set-up. But it difficult to see real wide-spread social liberation as a result of education taking place. In his new TV show, Satyameva Jayate, Aamir Khan highlights that the highest rates of female foeticide, declining sex-ratio and dowry are happening amongst the most school-educated. At the same time, so-called traditional illiterate women have been the gate-keepers, whether it be in the areas of traditional seeds or alternative healing or community media, for maintaining a healthy and vibrant community life. The same goes for Dalits and tribals. Their joining factory-schooling and being mainstreamed means that the last bastion of autonomous resistance to the industrial-military paradigm will be destroyed. While some token admission has happened into the ranks of the global elite, social liberation has meant over the mid-to-long term, for the most part, greater social alienation, loss of local-level security (food, social, health, natural resources) and self-sufficiency, and a deeper enslavement into a fundamentally exploitative, volatile and destructive global economy.
Because of the green movement, it has become quite fashionable (and profitable) these days to describe one’s school as alternative or innovative. This typically means that the institution has developed various techniques or tricks to help children access mainstream schools or help children perform better on tests. Nowadays, they may even have solar lights, mud-construction or an organic kitchen garden. Very rarely does it mean a deeper questioning of the core assumptions, structures and frameworks which drive schools. Most of the so-called alternatives have no clue about what opportunities, what economies, what communities, what future they are preparing people for. It is questionable whether they really give children the choice (and the tools) to say no to schools, exams, degrees and a life of drudgery in the rat-race.
I am often visited by many well-intentioned people working in NGOs or private corporate foundations, who are trying to provide education, of either the formal or non-formal variety, children from urban bastis, ragpickers, construction sites, tribal areas, etc. They come very excited and share the latest ‘child-friendly’ and ‘joyful’ methods that they are using. But I am surprised by their blank stares when I ask them what is your vision for these children or their communities 10 years from now. What kind of lifestyle do you see them living, what kind of work will they do, what kind of community will they be part of? They quite surprisingly say that they have never thought about it. They don’t see that they are unconsciously perpetuating the false promise that going to school will yield everyone a well-paying job which equals lots of money which equals lots of happiness. I would like to propose that we raise the bar for alternative education experiments. Rather than demanding that the wider community supports an alternative school (as an isolated space), we need to shift our thinking to evaluate how an alternative school can better support the co-evolution of the local community and local ecosystem, of which it is part. How can it enable opportunities within the wider learning web? Also, alternative education experiments need to look more closely at supporting families in their unlearning and deprogramming efforts in relation to the seven deadly sins. One can physically take a child out of factory schooling, but it requires much more effort to take the frameworks and values of factory schooling out of each of us and our communities.
Indian educationists have committed two grave murders: first they killed Eklavya, and second, they killed Gandhi (they never allowed poor Tagore to even come onto the stage). The story of Eklavya is inherently a story of the power and potential of self-designed learning. The story inspires us to imagine approaches beyond child-centered and take us on a journey into the world of child-led learning. Whenever I think of it, I always celebrate the resilience of the learning spirit in all of us. It reminds me of when a 8th class boy named Sudeep once came to us at Shikshantar quite distraught. He had found out that his grandmother in Kerala was very ill on her deathbed and his mother wanted to take him to spend a month caring for her. Sudeep’s principal refused, saying that he could not miss a month of school. Sudeep came to me not knowing what to do. I said, “by all means, you should go and take of your nani. You will never have this chance again.” So, off he went with his mother for a month and he cared for his nani until she passed away. When he returned, the principal gave him a hard time but eventually allowed him back. Today, many years later, he says it is one of the most powerful learning experiences he has had in his life.
The story of Gandhi is essentially a story of swaraj, the dignity of learning with hands/labor, heart, head and home, and invitation to meaningfully engage with one’s own experiments with truth. By swaraj, I mean a commitment to autonomy, diversity, self-organization and interconnectedness. Swaraj is also about slowing down and creating spaces to question the narratives of industrialization, globalization and development, the dominance of science and technology, nationalism and the militaristic nation state. It is about reconnecting to the khoji within each of us. It gives us hope for the possibility of human beings living in harmony with each other and with the world, beyond the seven deadly sins of schooling.
Today, we must explore a discourse of learning which is not about mainstreaming into one homogenous monoculture of Barbie dolls and GM foods, but rather, about creating a world with the possibilities of many streams. As the Zapastistas of Mexico so beautifully describe, “a world in which many worlds are possible.” In this essay, I should again clarify that I am not arguing that there should not be organized or structured learning spaces. Quite the contrary, I am proposing that there are and should be many, many more spaces and opportunities than the monoculture of factory-schooling currently allows for. We can start by revaluing the wisdom of intergenerational interactions, nature, cooperative play, bodily labor, joint families, apprenticeship opportunities, silence, local languages, travel, and love. We can also try to re-claim intellectual spaces for those who do not have degrees, and for those ways of knowing which are not based solely on rational, logical, linear, measureable frameworks of intelligence.
Despite what modern planners and managers believe, diversity is a core element to the resilience of our species. So if there are 1.2 billion unique minds in India, I believe we must have 1.2 billion diverse systems of shiksha which are simultaneously autonomous and interconnected. This is the level of design imagination that we must aim for. This is possible if we regain our faith in the power of self-designed learning and self-organizing systems.
My faith in amazing world of self-designed learning that exists outside of schools led me and my wife to consciously chose to unschool our daughter, Kanku, and ourselves. Unschooling means two things to us. First, as parents, we are trying to unlearn our conditioned and colonized schooled mindsets and recover our own genuine self-designed learning processes. Second, we are trying limit the direct harm of the culture of schooling on Kanku’s authentic unfolding, while exposing her to a much wider socialization process than children currently receive in schools. Unlike, homeschoolers and alternative educationwalas, we don’t believe in or follow the official syllabus, textbooks, exams or competitive practices of formal schools. Rather, we regularly ask Kanku what she would like to learn and try to support her in creating her own personalized self-designed learning plan, in a way that she is more conscious of the impact of her choices. At age 10, she is developing the confidence to interact with many different kinds of people and the confidence that she can earn an honest livelihood. We are also inspired to explore our own passions and life questions along with her. We are not limited to just the home or one center or space. Rather, we are trying to regenerate the larger organic learning commons with many diverse learning communities and resources. This includes volunteer apprenticeship spaces, spiritual and religious spaces, festival spaces, natural spaces like the lakes and forests. I share this not in the spirit that everyone has to follow unschooling, but rather, in the spirit of what else is possible.
I would like to conclude by invoking the spirits of Eklavya, Gandhiji and all the ‘il-letterates’ of the world, and propose that we enter into a small but profound thought experiment to decolonize ourselves: Can we for sometime imagine that there are no schools in our lives? What would we like to create? How we will fill the time and space in our lives? How would we like to learn? What do we feel is important to learn individually, in our local communities, across boundaries, and as a species? How do wish to rebuild our relationship with Mother Nature? How would we like to re-design our community? What kind of political-economy do we wish to support? What does happiness mean to us?
Such a thought experiment is not an exercise in going backwards to some romanticized, past glory days. Rather, it is intended to help liberate us from the deep conditioning of factory-schooling which continually pushes us into formulating our efforts in relation to reforming, fixing, improving, transforming, etc. the existing system of factory-schooling. Having the mental space to ‘say no’ to the monopoly of factory-schooling might also provide a renewed sense of agency, motivation, connection and creativity to children, parents and, even everyday people, who serve as real gurus but do not have a teaching certificate or degree.
Another world is truly possible if the wholeness of the world once again becomes our classroom. In Shikshantar, we have found that we can start reclaiming our learning ecosystems with very small acts: spending time listening to stories from elders, organic gardening and cooking with friends, small acts of kindness towards strangers, sitting in silence, communing with plants and animals, learning a new skill from an ‘illetterate’ person, etc. It all starts with making ourselves vulnerable to the magic of life again.