The problem with modern education

This week’s blog post is extracted from an online course that we will be launching soon. The course is designed to make a participant contemplate on his/ her educational experience and connect the dots to better understand modern Indian education. The course is made up of short audio-visual presentations, reading material and self-reflective writing exercises. A relevant screen-grab from the audio-visual part of the course is shown below.

And, here is the extract from the online course…

Pawan Gupta, the co-founder of SIDH, has a favourite story about the fundamental problem with our education system. When they moved to Mussoorie, some village women seeing that Pawanji and his wife Anuradhaji seemed to have a lot of free time and seemed to be educated, asked them to start a village school. When some time had passed and the village women got comfortable with him, they told Pawanji that this system of education was destroying their children. “What is your education system doing to our children?” they asked. They felt the education seemed to be alienating the children from their families, villages, culture and their ways of doing things. The children started developing a sense of shame towards whatever was their own. An old woman seeing the effect of education on young boys, who now preferred to move around with their hands in their pockets, told Pawanji that he should teach children to ‘Be’ rather than focus only on the appearance. “Hona sikhao,” she said, “dikhna dikhaana nahin.” Pawanji considers this his mantra in education and he says that this was the turning point where he became aware of his hidden assumptions and his real education started. Pawanji says that another lady had asked him about the objective of the modern education system. “Was it,” she asked, “designed to take the village boys to Delhi and the Delhi boys to America?”

Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great philosopher and scholar, criticizing the British education system in an essay written in 1909, titled ‘Education in India’, gives us indications about this problem when he says:

“The system of education set up by the British creates anti-national tendencies by ignoring or despising almost every ideal of the Indian national culture. Most students lose all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture and become strangers in their own land. The education is really based on the general assumption- nearly universal in England- that India is a savage country, which it is England’s divine mission to civilize.”

The problem started much earlier. This can be seen in what William Bentinck the governer general of India wrote in a letter to the secretary of state in 1827. This was 3 years after the rebellion by the Indian soldiers at the Barrackpore cantonment rattled the British empire. In the letter he said:

“There is nothing to worry now as the educated Indian has started leaving his ways and stopped giving alms to mendicants and sadhus and, with the money thus saved, is busy entertaining the British and imitating their ways.”

Mahatma Gandhi has spoken eloquently about the alienation that this type of education brings to us. In an article titled ‘The present system of education’, written in 1916, he says:

“An impartial English writer has said that as long as there is no continuity between schools and homes in India, the pupils will not have the benefit of either. Our youths learn one thing from parents at home and from the general environment, and another at school. The pattern at school is often found incompatible with that in the home. The lessons in our textbooks are regarded as of little relevance to conduct. We cannot put the knowledge so acquired to any practical use in our daily life. The parents are indifferent to what is taught at school. The labour spent on studies is considered useless drudgery which has to be gone through that one might take the final examination, and once this is over we manage to forget as quickly as possible what we had studied. The charge levelled against us by some Englishmen that we are mere imitators is not entirely baseless.”

The problems in modern Indian education, which began 200 years ago under the British rule, have not been addressed till date, as fundamentally nothing much has changed from those times. And the problems seem to afflict all types of people whatever be their linguistic, social or economic background. So, the first generation learners begin to look down upon their illiterate parents and their local culture. And the children of affluent educated parents despise the very idea of India without knowing anything very much about it.

We go through an elaborate, time-and-life-consuming, expensive process of national education that finally results in us becoming mindless imitators, self-conscious about who we are, losing our real confidence and becoming asahaj. Do you not think that it is time that we did something about it?

Schools: Anand Niketan

This is the fifth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I don’t think Gandhiji will be pleased to see what they have done to his ashram at Sevagram. Everything is manicured and tourist-ready and there is a souvenir shop. To top it all, there are small boards put up everywhere saying things like, ‘Gandhiji took his sunbath on this lawn’. The atma has left the place and only the immaculately preserved mummy exists. However, Gandhiji will be very happy to see Anand Niketan in the adjoining compound. This school, originally started in 1940 by Gandhiji to experiment with Nai Taleem and shut down in 1975, was revived in 2005 and is now doing very well.

Sushama Sharma, the head of Anand Niketan, was in the middle of working with some children when I reached the school. She told me that she could stop what she was doing because her time was flexible or that I could wait for half an hour. It was almost lunch time so I went, had lunch, and came back to find her free. Sushama is a soft-spoken, polite, gentle, and wise woman. During our walk around the school, many teachers and children spoke with her. Her tone with everyone, whether adult or child, was courteous and her interactions had the completeness of wisdom. It seemed as if Sushama was a part of everything happening in the school. As we were passing by a class, we heard some children talking loudly and laughing and stopped to ask what was going on. The children explained that some of their friends had not kept their footwear in the designated place outside the classroom and so they were teaching them a lesson – when these friends were away, the children in the classroom hid their chappals under some bushes in the garden. The children told Sushama all this as if she were part of their gang and would see the justness of their actions. I noticed that Sushama enjoyed the exchange but gave no adult value judgment like – ‘OK, after they learn their lesson please return their chappals’; or ‘That is a good thing that you have done.’ Wisdom and compassion probably go together in people.

The school campus is spread out and the buildings are the same ones that Gandhiji walked through. I don’t know exactly what it is – the location next to the ashram, or the spread out buildings, or the large trees everywhere – but there is something utterly charming about this school. It felt like the farm, and the trees, and the buildings with their tiled roofs and the small and big people moving through it all fit into each other perfectly. There was a completeness to the picture; perhaps it was in the simplicity of the buildings and the people, or their connection with the local. (This is not an elite English medium school, the teachers and students speak Marathi all the time.)

Some things that stick out from my visit:

– The Montessori-like preschool with its two large rooms with the work of the children visible everywhere. The children finishing their meals before leaving for home. Their teachers, quiet and efficient and mother-like.
– The crafts room where among other things the children weave the floor mats they use in school and also sell to make money for the school.
– The farm area where every child helps in the growing of the food for the school.
– The large Maulsari tree in full bloom with its small delicately scented flowers.
– The museum where the history of the school is chronicled in old black and white photographs.

Let me wind up this impression with an excerpt from a story of how the old school used to be.

“Awaking early in the morning, the entire school community, consisting of its students and teachers, would undertake an hour’s safai (cleanliness) of the entire premises, including classrooms, dormitories, buildings, grounds, latrines. Time for bathing, washing clothes, and attending to personal cleanliness followed. The community then assembled for prayers, after which there was breakfast. Three hours of Sharir Shram (manual labour) formed an integral and perhaps the most important part of the curriculum. Here too, students and teachers worked together whether in the fields, or the spinning shed, or later, when the subject was introduced, in the mechanical engineering shed.

Study periods would be in the afternoons, after lunch and rest. No textbooks were followed, but all that was taught was related to the work done in the morning, not just math or economics, but science, social studies, language, literature also would be based on the work done. A session of games, in which students and teachers participated, helped to build an atmosphere of harmony and co-operation. At about 6.30 p.m., the entire ashram would meet for prayers. When Gandhiji was there he would always attend and on occasions, he would give a talk after prayers.”

Quick facts:

Name of school: Anand Niketan, Sevagram, Wardha
Been around since: Restarted in 2005 at the original Nai Taleem campus that Mahatma Gandhi set up at his ashram in Sevagram in 1937. (The original school had shut down 40 or so years ago.)
Number of teachers/staff: 20 including balwadi teachers
Number of children: 110 including balwadi children
Classes handled: Pre-primary to class 9
USP: Continuation of Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai Taleem school
Location: Sevagram, Wardha

Schools: Manzil

This is the fourth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I met Ravi Gulati, the founder of Manzil, at a learning conference in Delhi where he was one of the speakers. The gentleness and wisdom that shone through his words made me search him out and talk to him. This is his inspiring story!

Ravi grew up in Khan Market, a posh colony of South Delhi, where some of the richest and most powerful people of Delhi stay. Like any upmarket place, Khan Market also has a few people living in big houses and many, many more, providing essential cleaning, gardening, cooking and driving services, living in small servant’s quarters and one-room tenements that are carefully hidden from the manicured views of the rich. Ravi says that he played with all the children in the neighbourhood as he was growing up but the rich kids very early got a sense of which friends could be taken home. A defining influence in Ravi’s life has been a sister with special needs. As she finished her schooling and Ravi’s mother taught in her school for 20 years, Ravi got his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Reluctant to plunge into the rat race that he had a golden ticket for, Ravi was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life when the family was sucked into a year-long battle with cancer that his father lost his life to. Ravi decided to slowly sort out all the pending duties and move to a remote village in Uttaranchal and begin organic farming.

He was relatively free and two boys, in 8th and 7th class, from the poorer side of Khan Market, came to him to learn math and he agreed to teach them. It was soon clear that although the boys were very smart, they had fundamental problems and Ravi started working with them. Soon there were 20 children of various ages and abilities coming to Ravi to learn math and this is how Manzil began its serendipitous journey into outside-school, non-formal education. Ravi’s plan to escape into the Himalayas gets renewed periodically, but Manzil, that is today more about learning and less about which side of the economic divide the student is from, has been around for 17 years and conducts classes in spoken English, math, computers, music, painting and theatre. They also have a pre-school that is open to children with developmental needs and adult education classes for their mothers. Manzil has grown organically driven by the needs of the students coming and seeking help and by students becoming teachers even as they learn something else.

Manzil used to run from Ravi’s house but as more children enrolled, they have expanded and operate out of two small tenement houses that one of the student-turned-teacher, Anil, who has been with Manzil for over 10 years, showed me proudly around. There was a very informal atmosphere and a computer class was going on and it was difficult to tell who the facilitator was and who the students. I had asked Ravi how Manzil was funded and he gave me an answer that I will not forget in a hurry. He said that his family has passed him down two precious inheritances, one some money-in-the-bank and the other an innate miserliness that makes the money go a really long way.

Let me finish by using Ravi’s words from their website:
“…Manzil’s journey has been one of constantly discovering the deeper continuities and inter-connectedness of all life. It is this thought that infuses our work and vision, and illuminates our understanding of education and empowerment, as that which builds connections between the self and the social, the personal and the political, the intellectual and the emotional, the rational and the felt, the common and the distinctive, the ordinary and the sublime. We are all learners here. And like life itself, any Manzil is only a sojourn.”

Quick facts:

Been around since: 1996
Number of teachers/staff: 23 teachers; 11 core members
Number of children: 230 students
Classes handled: Non-formal supplementary classes in English, math, computers, science; In the arts: theatre, music, kathak, modern dance, photography, film making, art and crafts.
USP: A learner driven space for non-formal education, Manzil is a learning community and an after school alternative learning centre. They work with people with high responsibility of learning, people who want to learn regardless of age, gender, region, religion, intelligence, caste or class.
Location: Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi