Reading Foucault & thinking college activism

This has been in the making for several years now – trying to identify the causal chain from ideas to action, especially since the first reading of Foucault. The ongoing trouble in colleges and universities of Delhi presents a case to reflect upon this causal chain.

There comes a phase in student life when encounters with different views and ideologies happens. These emerge not in the classroom but come in via campus gates, campus canteens, chai shops and similar such student watering holes. These are at times tensions in the real world, varieties of conflicts of interests and at times plain matters of ideological positions. All of these get overwhelming for a person who is a few years out of school and as a youngster. I remember my first experience of a political rally in a small town in Tamil Nadu. Then there were these trade union rallies (AITUC, INTUC and Mazdoor unions) that I got hooked on to. They were amazing sights and assemblies of people. As a youth this encounter – of the unfolding of ideas as action in real life, shapes one to either question what is happening and have an opinion, or walk away with an indifference altogether. These plain experiences seem to have a bearing on that student’s worldview in later years when he joins the workforce (like, sympathies to the causes of marginalized people and organized resistance as a recourse).

In this process, I find that readings can help a great deal in shaping early views which might enable a student to make, perhaps, a slightly better sense of the encounters that he is likely to have. Political events – rallies, meetings, protests, clashes etc, are referred to as “encounters” because in a student’s life in India these typically have no precedence. Often, the student has seen an action but has not known the idea that inform that action. Towards this, I recall my experience reading thinkers like Foucault and how the use of “power” began pervading my arguments and consequent formation of opinion.

August, 2012 is when I first encountered his article in – Governmentality, in Colin Gordon (ed), (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Since then, the frequency with which Foucault’s writings have ambushed me, became alarmingly high. He died in Paris in the year I was born. That somehow felt like Foucault’s experiences that inform his ideas might be a bit reachable in their nature. However, it was difficult to discern the plane at which his thought-process worked. I wasn’t quite getting a hang of the range of his engagement. Over time, I began sampling excerpts from various themes that he engaged with. The man looked fascinating to begin with and having read a bit more of him I can say that his writings can serve as an armory which can effectively enable thinkers and actors alike for the battle of ideas that rages in our contemporary society. Take for instance, the university and college campus clashes happening in India this week – Ramjas, JNU and the fight for turf. As an unconditioned student in these or any other educational institution, how does one navigate the variety of opinions that seem to be leading up to these clashes? This question seems important now because having attended two universities (which are strikingly different in their institutional values and student body) I see that the ways and means that shape student opinion in these campuses do not have a space for a student’s own reasoned choice which builds organically over time. A student today is drawn by factions and he either tunes in with them or tunes out and stays home, out of “politics” as some label it.

A reading of ideas and examination of arguments made by either sides during historic events can, in a subtle and slow manner, shape (not indoctrinate) opinion-making process in students. Back in school where I was teaching a group of 16 year old students, I tried this out. After a series of classes in “argument and reason” which were driven with thinkers like W E B Dubois, Gandhi and Robespierre (of French Revolution) we examined how these men stood for causes and defended their reasons. These were a random set of thinkers chosen only because the curriculum until then had a mention of them. Over the course of following months, I noticed the students using the methods of reasoning of these men in some of the discussions in classroom and outside. This was a useful insight.

At the same time, in those teaching years, I was also attending a full-time masters at a university where I’d be on the other side – as a student. In that classroom however, the difference was stark. The student discussions invariably escalated into arguments which were fueled with emotions than substantive reason. I tried probing into some of my classmates’ education and work trajectories. And hardly a few reported having had any systematic or coherent engagement with ideas, thinkers or seminal works. Without an intention to offend, this appeared to be an impoverished education. This lack of tradition of reading and informed debates at intermediate and university level of education, appears to be a contributing factor to the rather ugly clashes in Ramjas college and universities like JNU. One might allege that this is an oversimplified take on the events. I’d like to argue that it is not when viewed systemically. The students’ own lack of engagement (due to a variety of reasons) has amounted to this violent and unproductive environment.

I began with Foucault. So let me recall an interview that Foucault gave to Christian Delacampagne in 1980 – published as The Masked Philosopher in a volume of his collected writings. This relates to the case I am making for role of knowledge by the way of reading.

CD : Let’s risk a few concrete propositions. If everything is going badly, where do we make a start?

MF: But everything isn’t going badly. In any case, I believe we shouldn’t confuse useful criticism of things with repetitive jeremiads against people. As for concrete propositions, they can’t just make an appearance like gadgets, unless certain general principals are accepted first. And the first of such general principles should be that the right to knowledge (droit au savoir) must not be reserved to a particular age group or to certain categories of people, but that one must be able to exercise it constantly and in many different ways.

Responding to the above, CD asks the following question, which reveals Foucault’s clarity of thought as well as seems instructive to the case for reading that I am making .

CD: Isn’t this desire for knowledge (envie de savoir) somewhat ambiguous? What, in fact, are people to do with all that knowledge that they are going to acquire? What use will it be to them?

MF: One of the main functions of teaching was the training of the individual should be accompanied by his being situated in the society. We should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on the condition that teaching is a possibility always being offered.

So, does that mean we are envisioning a society of scholars? Foucault’s reply again seems useful to our case.

CD: Are you in fact for a society of scholars (societe savante)?

MF: I’m saying that people must be constant able to plug into culture and in as many ways as possible. There ought not to be, on the one hand, this education to which one is subjected to and, on the other, this information one is fed.

Shiv Vishvanathan in a recent piece on the moral economy of a university speaks of the problem from a different end – that of the university. He reasons that the university’s “role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat.” In a partial sense, this piece also speaks to the gap in reading and engagement with ideas and thinkers that I have spoken of above.

Bottom-line: A part of the fault lies in the disharmony between information (which emerges in the real world) and education (which is situated in a classroom) that the students in India have been living through. This is amounting to phenomenal amount of ignorance and naive behaviour among the student body.

Learning with Tanzanite Group


Today, we close our sociology classes for the academic year. The group of kids (13-14 year old) with whom I have shared classroom time over the year were introduced to ideas of society, groups, norms and rules, sociological perspectives and institutions in a society. This was meant to be an introductory course. In two sessions with one scheduled this afternoon, the students share their experience (or speak of any topic of their interest) with rest of the school during assembly hour at the end of the day. Two groups presented about their topics of interest last week – one spoke of “crime” in society and how might one understand crime. They ended with some statistics on rate of different types of crime. The other group presented their ideas on “media” – its purpose, types and an example of how opinions presented in the media are shaped.

The idea of a review and sharing session during assembly developed when the principal suggested that we might want to have a review on how a year of sociology curriculum was received by the students. I proposed that instead of a conventional writing based or test-based assessment it might be good to involve the whole school as well as let the students themselves have some reprieve from the test-based methods. Understandably, when I proposed this to students, they were enthusiastic about it. They formed groups on their own, selected topics, went ahead with research on the topic and developed their content for presentation. When I saw them present, I was thrilled with the speed at which they executed this. In the entire year, this was perhaps the most swift and complete participation shown by the group of nine students in the class.

This brings me to the first lesson from the year – work with what interests the students, at all times. And if required, wait, till the students show visible interest in the subject. In other words, coercion does not work if the intent is to drive learning. Simple as it sounds, it took me three years to understand this. The outcome of coercion-free learning is marvelous, if I can use that word. At times the enthusiasm of students has been so infectious that I have stayed high with it for days. This year, with Tanzanite group (Poorna has names for groups not numbers) I have had my dead-poets-society moments. I didn’t want to ride back home after school but get on the bus with them and continue living that teen environment. for the sheer freshness of what I heard from them – no stereotypes, every observation, every question so elemental in its form.

An academic year is such a short time when one is tuned-in so closely with the students. The second lesson has been about the extreme importance of introducing social science with an equal emphasis and rigor as other subjects in the middle school. I say extreme because of the shape in which our contemporary world is in. It is no longer easy to parse through facts, truths, values and opinions that each one of us comes across in our daily lives. Most often, the kids project what they have heard their parents discuss at home or what either of their parent seems to hold true and has at some point shared it with the child. I saw this happening when the class discussed food habits (vegetarian/non-vegetarian), when they investigated the effects of demonetisation in India through interviews and wrote about it and several such discussions. A favorite was discussing sociological perspectives with them and watch them try to get a grip of the idea. In the following weeks, I was told several of them were using perspective as a way of reasoning in their conversations in and outside the school. This was intriguing as well as scary. Intriguing – for the speed at which the understanding was mobilized outside classroom and scary because it becomes crucial that one who is introducing these ideas in classroom does a good job at it. One’s own biases can cause a serious damage to the understanding of young, impressionistic minds. And I grew very conscious of it. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. In their minds it was about violence as a method to bring change. I had to make significant effort in busting that impression that revolution always means violence. I used ideas of Gandhi and Mandela to talk of how revolutionary changes were brought about without violence.

Third lesson was about the use of school as a space to shape and mend things that the collective conscience of the society has felt wrong or problematic. For instance, themes like intolerance, respecting alternative views and reasoning one’s choices. All these played out as we discussed themes from the curriculum. I noticed how kids brought their observations from their daily lives into the class and used it as their views. Sometimes, to make sense of their own experiences we read travelogues – Khushwant Singh’s writing on Delhi, we read ethnographies – Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and we tried discussing these first hand encounters to understand how one can go about making sense of daily experiences that stand out for an individual.

On this last day of the academic year, I think with a comfortable degree of confidence, I can say that the group I spent time with is a bit further up in their understanding of people’s lives and society, know how to be empathetic and are empathetic, and finally are able to think consciously (within their current cognitive abilities) of the choices they make at this stage in their lives.

I can’t thank these kids enough for helping me learn even as they trusted me with their learning. A satisfying year at school. I hope the kids also feel the same.

Observations from parent-teacher meeting


Last week at Poorna, we had parent-teacher meeting (PTM) spanning over two days. I was looking forward to this since the current academic year began. I wanted to see and get to know the parents of the kids I was spending time with in sociology classes. At Poorna these meetings have an unhurried and informal format void of any sort of tension that might ride over the kids. I have admired this quality in the school because when I was growing up, PTM in our school was an extremely tense affair. At least for me. However, I am also mindful of the distance between the format and regimentation heavy ways of Army  School which I attended, over a school like Poorna which completely breaks away from such an approach to education and raising children. Hell! The kids don’t even get the national anthem straight here, whereas, we would sing it like Hitler’s boys  – chin up, voices soaring etc.

The conversations with parents is in some ways deep sociological insights into the society, with us embedded in it. Three conversations have stayed with me from last week with parents who came in. I can understand the anxieties that they might be going through in raising their kids and the worries that take over as they think about the future in the world that is only getting more demanding. So, this is just meant to share with due recognition that these concerns are valid. However, they do tell us what we are probably putting our kids through.

One of the parents wanted to know if their child is at par with the children of other ‘conventional’ schools, as Poorna is an alternative school. This I felt was unusual because I assumed that parents are completely aware that they are in some ways choosing to drop out of the conventional education system and let their child learn in a different environment. The element of being competitive and the at par-ness doesn’t leave us Indians, I guess. The mother of the kid was concerned that the kid doesn’t know times tables in math and if that was okay. The teacher felt that it was great that the child could visualize numbers in her head and add up. However, the mother had a different view. She explains – ‘I see her working additions in her mind. Every time she does that she starts anew. This way she will make mistakes. If she knows tables, she will not make mistakes’ The focus as I see was on not making mistakes for the parent, whereas the teacher felt differently about it. There is no room to make mistakes, it appears. And our kids have to ensure that. Who knows… in the future we might have ISO ratings for kids – 1 mistake per million calculations or some such!

Another parent was so concerned that her son is always reading ‘these’ books which are so popular among kids and reading them he is always in an imaginary world. I am completely empathetic to that observation and do feel that a grounding with reality is as necessary. In fact, this was my concern (that kids do not know much of real world around them) when I taught A level sociology and the NIOS 12th standard course. However, I felt that in this case the parent was alarmed way too early and the move to keep the kid’s fiction books away will stifle his imagination instead of enhancing his grip of the real. The anxiety of the parent is sure very identifiable, but perhaps the answer is not to be concerned that the child is forever in an imaginary world. May be that is how he routes back to the real.

Last one is a telling commentary on how for families in India it is not enough to know the good. The paranoia of whats the bad side, the negative etc is ever so present. I do not know where do we get that baggage from. A parent sat through all that I had to say about his son’s performance and his classroom behaviour. The kid is highly engaged, articulate and observant. I had only positive remarks to make. There really wasn’t anything concerning to share. The parent said and I am paraphrasing – all this is fine, what are his negatives. I wasn’t expecting that and was stumped. Again, I think those are his concerns. But for a moment I felt if as a child wouldn’t I want a bit of recognition for the positives? I am not sure, but I began speaking to the kid directly and mentioned that I really do not have or see anything negative to speak of.

I had an exam to write (at the law school where I am doing a masters), later in the day. But some of these conversations remained in my head as I rode back. I felt that the parents are too distanced from their children. It just appears so, may be it is not true at all. And more so in urban settings. School was meant to be a secondary form of socialization, but in the current times it is mistaken as the primary. Look at how early kids are being sent to pre-schools, play schools and the likes. The order is reverse now – more time outside of home and with others who train, coach, mind, tend and shape kids, and less time with the parents themselves.

This must change.

Meanwhile, a million such stories will unfold on September 30, when Rajasthan government has arranged a statewide parent-teacher meeting in all the government schools.

Teaching – Year 3


This isn’t how it was supposed to be! Two years of teaching sociology and economics to senior secondary students was to end this year. The students have graduated and most of them are looking forward to the university now. I thought I have had enough of those everyday realizations of my ineffectiveness in classroom and that constant fear of not doing enough to help the kids with their subjects. In the school administration’s view though, it was a satisfactory performance. Personally, teaching has been a great experience for me as well. I have certainly lived some of the most satisfying days of my life in these two years at Poorna. But I have remained conflicted about my ability to teach and whether I should continue doing this.

I visited the school last month after it reopened for the new academic year since I hadn’t returned the library books and not said a good-bye to the teachers. It was not easy. I had gotten used to the football sessions with middle school kids during lunch time. I was addicted to watching the five year olds figuring out stories from illustrated books. It was exciting to be with the high school kids and help them figure out concepts. All of this as well as sharing the anxiety of board exams with the students I taught! It was great to be a part of this school where I was learning (more than teaching) every single day. So, I knew I was vulnerable to even a slight insistence by the principal to continue teaching.

At the university, the master’s program I am pursuing has entered a slightly easier phase. The classroom load is less and the lectures to attend also few. More importantly, on work front I have a year’s contract with an agency to work on their India projects. Both these parts of my daily routine seemed clear enough to commit to another year of school when the principal pitched the idea of teaching sociology to students opting for O level. To take decisions so quick is unusual for me. However, I was sure that being at Poorna has been responsible for one of the most concentrated phase of learning of my life. I agreed!

Tomorrow, I begin the third year of my teaching attempt. I am a rookie and likely to remain so for long. I am reminded of all those books I read which inspired me to consider being a part of a school. Over four years back I read Hemraj Bhatt’s (a teacher in government primary school) The Diary of a School Teacher . Hemraj’s diary was a daily chronicle of sincere efforts of a teacher trying to make learning better in the little school that he was a part of, in a nondescript town in Uttarakhand. His challenges, how he dealt with them, the children who attended that school and their social contexts, the satisfying moments and little successes that came along… all of these made a lasting impression. Hemraj’s diary is probably the first book that made me  interested in the idea of teaching and in a school at that.

Though I like reading about education and expositions on it, I do not think that they can inspire many to give teaching a shot. Those dense writings by Dewey, Krishnamurti and Friere are helpful for sure. But it needs popular writings – honest, sincere and direct from the classrooms to get people closer to the excitement and satisfaction of teaching. This is why Hemraj Bhatt’s diary and John Holt’s How Children Fail made such an impression on me. Besides these, writings from people at the university I attended – Rohit Dhankar and Anurag Behar  kept me hooked to the reflexive process of teaching and learning. I owe it to all of them.

As I start the new academic year, I feel that I have been lucky enough to get this opportunity to be a part of a school and am slightly unnerved at the thought of the responsibility that comes along with it – to help learners on their path to knowledge. It carries a kind of responsibility that I haven’t been very good at shouldering. On the other side of this thought, lies an excitement to explore, experiment and figure out the world around us with an energetic bunch of students and teachers at Poorna all over again!



Freedom of a real education


It has been a month since I left my teaching job at school. Since, this move was to make more time for other things I was doing, instead of a sense of relief, a constant sense of loss has prevailed over the last several weeks as I finished classes and bid farewell to the kids and colleagues at school. In the two years as a high school teacher, I tried making sense of what education might mean in our lives and what is it that differentiates the proverbial ‘real’ education from the other varieties. The reality bit of this other kind of education professed by some, I have not quite known. I remember listening with serious attention when this Prof of Education at the former university whenever he spoke of purpose of education and what is wrong with the current system in India. I have figured this for sure – that simple it may seem, it is not easy to think about this area of human existence and daily life. If it was, we wouldn’t have so many grownups thinking that something was wrong with the education they received in school and at the university. I find the number of such people increasing around me.

While the school and the life-changing opportunity that it gave me is still a long piece being written in my head, I continue to dive into writings on education. This has been no less thrilling. Also, it sits in such a contrast with my experience at the university I am attending lately. If one wants to understand what is wrong with higher education in this country, this university would be a fitting place to do an ethnographic study. The tyranny of unconscious, hard-headed and impervious professors is unleashed daily on the sponge like minds who are processing their first experiences of a place of higher learning and forms of intellectual inquiry. Their sense of the world is being formed by these professors. This repeatedly foregrounds the question – what is real education? For an academia which has a scorn for Humanities, this question, shall remain beyond the grasp, forever perhaps!

We are led to believe that pursuit of knowledge is what education is about. Skills is what it is about. A skill with which one can make a living and satisfy the wants of life with the money earned through that skill. This is what it is about. Indeed, but this is half the truth. I am glad to discover that there are thoughts beyond this myopia. Among the thinkers that I have been reading on purpose, significance, role and forms of education, I was surprised to find David Foster Wallace delving into this subject in a remarkable commencement speech.

As I read Wallace’s speech I could help but see the simple, yet valuable insight that he is driving all so lightly and that too through a college address. I can trust it to come only after long years of experience… because that is just what it takes to see things this way! He tackles the role of subjectivity in perspectives on life with an unseen clarity. Wallace says –

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Freedom of real education is to decide for yourself what you think has meaning in life and what doesn’t. Last year, in class with high school students, I remember insisting to the students that – you decide what you want to do and what should be your grades in the board exams. It doesn’t matter what I expect or what your parents expect. Unconsciously and in a cruder form I was walking along this thought of freedom. I wanted to let students know that they are free to decide.

On the kinds of freedom, he goes on –

the kind (of freedom) that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Personally, this real freedom he mentions has been difficult for me to be mindful of and practice. Every once in a while, it becomes so natural to join the race for better jobs, higher salaries, more things to make life better and similar such things that are regarded as natural and justifiable pursuits. Nothing short of amazing that we sometimes point complaining fingers at it and sleep, only to wake up and do the same. Wallace is affirming the same difficulty in a stronger tone as he concludes with this –

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

Every few weeks I sort of lose the plot and begin getting worked up about the little things that demand attention and time. Then, readings likes these bring it all back and sort of insist that the daily is important, but larger picture of what is the meaning of all the pursuits that we fill life with, is necessary.

Intellectual thought & imagination in Indian universities

There are some clear advantages of having a foot in the academic world, while one goes about doing other things in life. For one, it is a great way to keep in touch with the intellectual production and thinking (if any) happening in the society. Spending the past three years in two universities and more years ahead, at graduate level, I have had several moments of hope and even more moments of despair working, listening and engaging with Indian professors. The university system as well as academicians together appeared offended when a few months back Narayana Murthy went acidic on their performance, output and culture during the convocation at IISc. More specifically, Murthy was making a point on innovation and then on IISc’s contribution to Indian society. Of course, it wouldn’t have been taken lightly. Soon enough was a CNR Rao from Prof C N R Rao. Prof Rao’s problem? That he doesn’t seem to have left his advanced labs and his cabin to have seen the general apathy  Indian research labs (research scholars ghost writing for lab heads, Professors cannibalizing promising careers, plagiarism etc) are infested with. Prof Rao launches into what-has-industry-done kind of charge, without bothering to acknowledge the problems that Murthy was drawing attention to. Sure enough, the vision is cloudy from the Himalayan heights of Indian science.

Meanwhile, in social sciences and allied disciplines the camps are clearly divided. I wouldn’t be surprised to see university positions being filled on the political leanings of the individuals. This in my opinion is the most unfortunate phenomenon which is seriously gripping the universities. It doesn’t stop here. There is quite a discomfort with dissenting voices as well. It would only be a mistake to understand this as an isolated problem. Even the supposedly best universities have become clubs of a certain kind of people who’d prefer to hang out together professionally.

The law school here seems to have a thriving club of left leaning thinkers academicians. I think I get their game now… keep reasoning and discussion on political systems and role of the ‘state’ hovering a touch above the human rights, civil liberties and similar such categories. And then keep skirting the discussion on relevance and reason of their proposed political actions like unionizing and picking-up-the-gun as one of the political-economy Professor here often likes to mention. Unionizing, by the way is to be read as the single-most important method of collective action, as another life-long labour union activist and law professor would insist.

The problem with these narratives is that they are like the scratchy VHS cassettes in the era of high-definition videos – in their quality and in their relevance. The only place that these VHS records are playing is the university. Outside of it, the world looks different and works differently.

In their quality, they are primitive and hardly appeal the students born in the post-1991 India. Trust me, they seriously are poor quality arguments. Here is an example – “what is your answer… what will you say to the poor man who doesn’t have anything to eat and picks up the gun?”. Add some romanticized, isolated experiences of walking the jungles of Indian states with Maoists and narrating the students how they live, work and survive to this, as an invitation to ‘think’ about Indian society and its inequalities. That kind of stuff doesn’t make one’s reasoning stronger or even help the students gain any granular insight into the struggle between the Indian state and the Maoists.

The other problem is that almost all of these discussions happen on an irrelevant plane. That India is a multi-modal and multi-class society is a banal point which becomes the heart of the matter in every single analysis of the Indian social context, contests and dynamics within. How does that even help drive a critical understanding, I have failed to understand in the last two months. It is elementary and I teach that stuff in high school as a part of A level sociology. So, my problem is this – that Indian university professors (a sweeping remark) are amazingly outdated and lack a self-critical process of reflection. Their lectures would be the same century after century if their life spans supported them! Fortunate for the next generation that some of these guys wouldn’t be around to harp the multi-modal, multi-class society spiel.

This said, it is hard not to be attracted to socialist and left leaning ideas on politics in our times when market led economies are faltering and corporations are taking on dangerously dominating roles in our daily lives. But the discourse on it needs to change as well as those who are in the profession of teaching this. When a professor in class was tendered statistics on education sector which goes against his argument, he should have the humility to consider it and accept (if necessary) that his argument may have lacked evidence. Whereas, as it happened, in a lecture on political economy, the professor was visibly upset and would go on to berate the students as products of capitalist system. That is the bankruptcy of the at least a section of professors in perhaps a substantial number of universities where counterviews find no acknowledgement, leave alone a place of its own. It doesn’t leave one with much hope of the quality of intellectual thought and imagination that is likely to come out of Indian universities in the next decade. No wonder many of the bright minds produce their best in universities outside India and then settle in an Indian university after spending prime research and thinking years abroad. When they resume their lives here and join the pool of Indian academicians, their colour soon becomes the same as the rest. Hard to distinguish and harder to figure what changed him!

What is alternative education?

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A few weeks back, a university professor in course of a conversation asked what “alternative education” means. She hazarded a guess – that it is about educating those who are differently-able.

I figured she was hard at work making sense of the word “alternative” beginning with the typical process of ascribing “mainstream” or perhaps “normal” (in this context) to people with accepted and proven ability to learn, process information and get good scores in exams. Then, moving outwards, assumed “alternative” as a word for provisioning and servicing needs of those who are outside of this normal. I wasn’t surprised. In over two years as a teacher in an alternative school, this was very familiar. That is a whole lot of myth which goes along with it.

The word “alternative” in alternative education stands for non-conventional approach to learning, teaching and education on the whole. This stands as opposed to the ways in which school as an institution in the society has developed and perfected a form of processing children through standardized processes. For instance, transacting the curriculum decided at the beginning of an academic year in a timed manner through the year. In this, the teaching part proceeds at its own speed irrespective of the ability of the learner to understand the ideas which are relayed by the teacher. Also, the learner may not be able to related to the contents of the curriculum and the thought-process that it brings along. Yet, the instruction stands applied to all the learners in the classroom.

There are wide-ranging views on what alternative education means and how does one approach it. At Poorna, I find that the alternative component is about the practice of education – how the school and its teachers approach the process of education and translate it into daily processes in school as well as daily actions that the teachers take in their classrooms. Take for instance, the practice of morning assembly which is common in schools across the country. It is a daily practice across thousands of schools where kids sing hymns, religious prayers or may be a couple of nationalistic songs and the national anthem at the end of it. All through, the kids are expected to stand in queues, follow a certain order and present themselves according to a set form of behaviour. This institutionalizes the behaviour of observing queues, knowing the national anthem and instill a certain regimentation. At Poorna, this is not practiced. Even the fact that meeting every morning is a must, is also done away with. Assembly time is a simple affair meant for all the children in the school to gather together. No queues. No order. Everyone takes whatever space they’d like to. No organization according to classes and separate queues for boys and girls. It is just free flowing gathering. The national anthem is not sung everyday. Neither is there a set of songs/hymns to be sung from a prayer book. The children are free to perform a play or a skit (in which their teachers help them) or play some music, do a  book review perhaps or observe a two minutes silence and disperse. I have seen this way of meeting work great in terms of children gathering by themselves, deciding what to discuss and then drive the entire meeting on their own with equal participation from teachers.

The other very necessary part of alternative education is non-coercive learning as a necessary aspect of school’s approach to education. This can be difficult to realize in full spirit and I have seen schools as well as teachers practice this in varying degrees. The idea is not to force a lesson on a student if he is not ready for it or is not inclined to learn it. Neither the school as a system nor the teacher in the classroom force the child to learn anything that he is not up for. This is a fuzzy space where the teacher and the school has to determine boundaries for themselves and operate within that. From my experience teaching economics and sociology to the senior secondary students I know that this is hard to practice. I face a fair deal of resistance from students while discussing concepts in economics. This is where, it matters that the teacher knows that non-coercion is a necessary condition but that he must now improvise or work around the challenge of getting the students interested in the topic by some other way where the students have the space to not feel forced or compelled to read that topic. It is a slow and hard process as I realized.

In the past year, I volunteered to teach several different age groups of children. Here is another alternative idea – children are grouped according to their age. There is no concept of classes or standards in an alternative setup. Working with different age groups I see that a learner-centered and learner-driven approach helps tremendously in building confidence in children. This works very well until the 14-15 age group, as I see. After that the students take up senior school board exams and then move towards senior school certificate exam. This is where keeping the spirit of learner-driven approach becomes difficult because now there is a rigid curriculum in place and that it needs to be transacted within the time period determined by the board of education. This is where the teaching process in the classroom moves beyond the control of the teacher and the school. The control is taken over by the board of education which applies a set of standardized methods and processes that the school program must follow.

This post was meant to highlight only a couple of ways in which alternative education operates. A longer post must be written about the effects of such an approach on the learners. There is very pressing need in the society for such experiments in education which break away from the standardized format of imparting education. This is because it is a fairly acknowledged fact by now in India that the mainstream form of education as practiced in schools is straight-jacketing the children where they are processed in a manner that they become the feed-stock for the industry to make use. Such a negative view was taken by Marx and further developed by Althusser, which I think does seem to be an appropriate critique of school learning in India.

Meanwhile, last week during school assembly (which happens at the end of the day not in the morning and thrice a week only) saw a splendid flute recital accompanied by tabla by two kids. It is one of the finest live performance I have witnessed. This is also an instance where alternative approach to education helps in bringing out and working with what the child possesses, not what he ought to have as skills or qualities!

The kid playing tabla has had rather serious learning disabilities. But I was struck by his skills in music. It was a sight… pure joy to watch him play those notes on tabla. I now believe that they children are capable of achieving any thing that they set themselves upon. It is adults who come in the way with their own apprehensions and doubts. The kid playing flute was stirring the afternoon breeze! His name is as lyrical as his music – Malhar.

It was one of those days at school when I have come back changed, in a very fundamental way! A part of me turns a die-hard believer in human potential and in the pursuit of alternative approaches to education.

The best blah blee of the country

From the notice board of the university. Those who share this, perhaps are content with only reading it.

From the notice board of the university. Those who shared it, perhaps are content with only reading it.

“You are in the best *** school of the country” is the most frequent starting line in this university, when the key guys address their flock of sheep students (I am attending a university for a master degree in public policy. This is my second masters.). I wonder if boys and girls also use some version of this as a pick up line. Because, I do see them carrying the “best school…” kind of gloss on their nose tips.

This is quite a rant, but feels necessary because I have never been to any “best school” of the country ever in my life. I have been the one who went to all things average in India. A regular middle rung school, a private university for first degree, another private university for masters and then when it came to career, I was again lost in the sea of average-ness starting a company when that was not quite the thing to do.

Two weeks into the program, the Vice Chancellor walks straight into the class, in between a lecture of a professor, takes the center place and urges students to participate in an essay contest “My first day in law school”. The face breaks into a strange smile which I found hard to read. I wouldn’t have cared, but for the extreme high headed, patronizing and appallingly meritocratic feel of this place. It sets quite an adversarial and unhealthy competitive environment in the institution. For graduate students who spend just two years in the campus, this is okay and they can be indifferent to it. But for the integrated law program where 18-19 year old enter the institution and will be spending the next five years this can mean a serious impact of the institution which is likely to shape them as individuals. Certainly, there is something right that this university is doing which produces some of the most well trained and capable lawyers in the country, but as individuals who are also something besides their professions, I feel that the university ends up having a rather questionable effect.

Some of the students on campus and alumni of this university I have met, plainly said, lack a humane attitude. They are outright patronizing and carry a frightening belief that they know it all. The humility that must come along with a good education, is missing.

There is no intention to find faults with this university or with its students, it is only that the place does not quite have a spirit (of compassion, of humility) as necessary of a university excelling in legal and social sciences education.

My first day at law school, honestly, was rife with anxiety. One was constantly made aware of “not getting into trouble” and “authorities”.  It sure is not a good start if one is considering to stay or to leave on the first day at a place of learning. I was doing that constantly! The display of “shields, medals and cups” in the VC’s office were referred to and the new students were urged to win more of those!

Ironically, as a high school teacher, that very morning when one of the guys was urging the newly admitted students to get more of those medals, in the high school where I teach we were discussing the  consequences of a meritocratic education system and what kind of effects it has on the students and society. The students instinctively agreed that it puts tremendous pressure on them. One student said that his Mom would often fuss about the rank that he would get in the final exam. As long as he was in the first five it was okay, but then as he moved past rank 10 and beyond, he was pressurized and urged to get a better rank. In our school, students are not ranked on their performance, nor are they compared with their peers. It is a very learner centered, learner oriented system where each student is assessed only on his own abilities with his own performance over the year. This student then remarked that it was much better that our school (Poorna) doesn’t do this ranking thing.

That same day, in the afternoon, I was to start my master program in the university where there was this call for “become the best”, “you are the chosen few…” kind of public addresses were being made.

So, back to the point… being best is no big deal if all you produce are super sharp minds with no hearts that can feel. And the best institutions of the country should understand this very simple point. Do not carry this attitude. Your competitive entrance exams are a form of violence. They are sheer violence on students from across the length and breadth of the country who can’t get through because the odds are so unfairly stacked against them. They do not have as many sources of information to know or understand that which you test them on, before admitting them. They also do not probably have the proficiency in English language which you use in such fine measure in the entrance exams. And finally, for just over 50 seats a whole mass of them enter into this mindless game of proving themselves worth of one of the spots. It goes down heavy on those who don’t get through. The dejection is carried in the hearts for a long time in their lives. Not every youth in this country is capable of taking failure easily. Societal baggage perhaps, but it is real.

So, even if you do have to keep those competitive entrance exams which sure are a practical necessity, do not keep touting or more importantly believing that what you have admitted is the absolute best. Of what good is this discrimination? It is a plain elitist practice, in a country where there are millions of people are equally capable if given a chance, trying desperately hard to enter the universities and work their way to a better career, a better life.

My first day in law school could have been an inspiring and much joyous occasion for the promise of personal development and opportunities in life that the institution holds (and genuinely offers to those who are admitted to it) but those who run it, ruined it !

Subject knowledge of teachers

A government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh.  Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

A class in progress in  a government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. To understand this town better, a few of us at the university spent time at various institutions in the town. Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

There is a rare corner in the Indian media (print and broadcast) where concerns about various aspects of education system in India are being pursued. This space, I am glad to see, has  a significant presence of researchers and academicians from the university I attended. Over the past year, these articles have aided my work as senior secondary teacher. Besides, reading views on classroom teaching, learning outcomes, teaching-learning process etc have helped me make sense of my experience in the past year.

This morning, in his regular column Other Sphere, Anurag Behar (CEO of APF and former VC of APU) speaks of the lack of subject knowledge among teachers in India (Read: Making Teachers Specialists). This problem he notes, is systemic – that the required qualification for a teacher to teach Grades 1 to 8 is a Diploma in Education (D.Ed) degree alone. This D.Ed degree can he had after Grade 12, in India.

He observes –

To be a teacher for Grades 1 to 8 in India, a diploma in education (DEd) is the basic qualification. These norms on qualifications and all other aspects of teacher education are governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The entry to a DEd programme is after passing Grade 12. It is a two-year programme, and doesn’t have anything to do with subject knowledge of the future teacher. Its curriculum is designed for other educational aspects, e.g. child development, sociological issues of education, pedagogy.

The educational attainment that is required for teaching Grades 1 to 8 in India is simply inadequate. Some years back I spent some time with a bunch of senior secondary graduates who were pursuing D.Ed degree in a small teacher training institute in a district town in Maharashtra. This district is infamous for malnutrition in children in India and for agrarian distress. These boys I met were doing this 2 year D.Ed program with the intent of being appointed “para-teachers” in the state government run schools in distant villages of the state. Para-teachers was an interesting idea that Maharashtra government came up with, to improve teacher presence in its schools across the state and perhaps someone in the government also thought that this will improve teaching quality in the schools.

These boys were too young to be teachers, was my first thought. They were too inexperienced to be made responsible for education of children. Though the intent was to create a cadre of teaching assistants to help regular government teachers in their work in school, in practice, most would end up handling classes themselves as teacher absenteeism was rampant at the time. They were clearly seeing this as a job opportunity. They’d be paid between INR 3500 to 5000 per month for the work. And in the interior districts which also suffer from long running agrarian distress, this is a very decent job opportunity. Not surprisingly, several teacher training institutes were cropping up and D.Ed program was a run away hit. The fate of children in government run schools of Maharashtra’s districts was not partly or wholly in the hands of these young, inexperienced boys and girls who have inadequate knowledge. Poor training which is also a problem, doesn’t even matter.

With Anurag’s piece, I am reminded of those boys. And now, as a teacher, I am able to clearly see the kind of debilitating effects it might have had on learning of children in the schools they joined. Simple in proposition, Anurag’s observations on a teacher’s subject knowledge requirement in India being hopelessly low is single-most important factor in poor educational outcomes in schools in India.

Elsewhere, in Deccan Herald newspaper Rohit Dhankar (heads the School of Education at APU) writes on the myth of Private Schools for the Poor (PSPs) in his piece School as a Mint.  He is looking at a completely different front of the school education dynamics in India. His analysis of two categories of schools (that he sees in India) – schools for rich and schools for poor, builds a plausible case that these schools are not concerned with quality of education and contribute to the poor-elite divide in the society.

He points to a space which is not being questioned by any quarter of the society –

In spite of irreconcilable difference in their appearances, both of these schools have exactly the same notion of quality: that which gives the maximum return for the investment is good quality education. This is the market-friendly definition which is almost unquestionably accepted by the parents, the governments and the economics centric researchers in education.

This drive for profit he argues is ruining education.

Neither is concerned with the quality that helps in developing a harmonious authentic self or a concerned citizen with critical rationality. Profit motive, therefore, creates its own saleable illusion of quality and thrives on it; and, in the process, turning humans into self-seekers and deepening the chasm between haves and have nots.

Again, a rare piece of commentary on the state of schools.

A year as a high school teacher

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

This seems to be a month of anniversaries. This month I complete a year as a high school teacher at Poorna. Besides this, I figure that our little startup which took off from a small house in a small college town is now a fledgling company which is over 7 years old. The business has gathered momentum and the company now has two areas of work – consulting and scientific instruments sales. Momentum (a healthy work pipeline and a sufficient annual revenue), I guess is a natural consequence of sticking around long enough in business.

But back to teaching, I look back at the year in school and realize what a tremendous learning opportunity it has been. I take this as a moment to draw together the lessons.

“Teaching” would be a rather tall claim for me to make and after a year it sure would be a claim to say that I am teach. I realize that I am an agent, who goes into the classroom and shares his knowledge and understanding with the students. That is all. I have been a rookie at best.

Starting with A level and Indian senior secondary level students was a soft launch into teaching as the challenge to simplify ideas and  field questions from unconditioned, formative stage minds of children is lesser with students of senior secondary. Moreover, teaching economics and sociology to such a group can be intellectually stimulating as well as an opportunity to reflect and bring back to class the experiences of daily lives which connect the concepts that one reads in these subjects. In a way, it completes the loop from learning to experience and back to learning in the society.

I also realize that teaching helped me in focusing on what is meaningful in life. And this insight kicks in only when I take a telescopic view of a full academic year. In my pursuit to be a teacher who practices what he teaches, I had to ensure all along about this consistency between thought and action. I couldn’t have been more wrong in imagining this consistency as easy to achieve. There were several occasions when my own beliefs were questioned.

The other view that developed along the course of the past year is that teaching firmly keeps a person in touch with society’s growing and most dynamic section – the children. This has become the most enriching aspect of this experience. Besides, there is always a quick game of football that can be played, a poem that can be enjoyed and absolutely hilarious moments with children who are busy comprehending and making sense of things and people around them.

As long as I can, I am sure to be a part of a school for the rest of my life.