CERES Global in India—Day 02: Shikshantar People’s Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

From 2nd-12th December 2017 I co-facilitated a CERES Global tour to India, themed around sustainable development, permanent culture and un-learning. My focus for the tour was to collect data for my research project on permaculture as a transnational social movement and to learn more about alternative education models as a teaching and learning professional development immersion.  This posting is one of a series of my daily reflections from the tour on what our group encountered.

Shikshantar co-founder Manish Jain.

On day two of our CERES Global Sustainable Development, Permanent Culture and Un-learning tour to India we visited the Shikshantar People’s Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development.  Shikshantar is an applied research institute dedicated to catalysing radical transformation of education. Shikshantar was founded as a jeevan andolan (life movement) to challenge the hierarchical, colonial culture of education.

During this visit we enjoyed a presentation by co-founder Manish Jain on the workings of Shikshantar.  I had seen Manish speak engagingly and provocatively on education at the 2015 Local Lives, Global Matters conference in Castlemaine, and more recently at the 2017 International Permaculture Conference in Hyderabad in the immediate lead-up to this trip.  I was intrigued to experience first-hand the “un-learning” education model Manish had discussed at these events.

Decolonising the education system

Across the several occasions I had seen Manish Jain speak, he presented a stinging multi-faceted critique of traditional education systems.  First, there is an objection to the commodification of education.  Charging money of individuals for a service that is a public good represents a perversion of education institutions into organisations that are structured to make money as their primary objective, rather than the education of students.  When students then become clients, rather than learners, this can also have a distorting impact on what gets taught, how it gets taught, and how students are assessed.

Charging money for education can also ensnare students and their families in a debt trap that forces graduates to play the corporate game in order to service the loans they took out to pay for their education.  Debt entrapment thus breeds a conservative and compliant educated youth who cannot risk creative innovation for fear of losing their jobs and their ability to pay off their debts.

The bureaucratisation of education creates a standard model of learning to which all students must be shoe-horned into, regardless of their unique aptitudes and personalities that could be tapped more effectively with tailored educational strategies.  The standard educational model is an artifact of power and colonial cultural patterns which disconnect students from nature and from each other.

The education system breeds a dehumanising competition among students, who are acculturated to chase money, position and prestige on the corporate treadmill rather than value education as a vehicle for a more emancipatory and empowering life.  The conformity bred by a system that plays off students against each other for limited opportunities to “make it” becomes stifling to creativity and well-being of individual students, to the detriment of the broader society.

Shikshantar espouses a rejection of standardised curricula in favour of individually tailored programs for individual students.  In so doing, individually tailored programs can be designed to re-connect students with people and nature and in so doing recalibrate the power relationships that sever these relationships under standardised models.

Un-learning

To harness the passion and purpose of individuals, and to combat the ills of the traditional education system that it critiques, Shikshantar espouses a model of “un-learning” based on several core principles.  First, learning should be collaborative rather than competitive, where learners help each other to progress in their educational journeys.  In a similar vein to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Shikshantar model goes beyond mutual aid to mutual co-creation, where learners work with each other through the creative process to develop projects together.

Learning at Shikshantar is structured to be inter-generational, where ideally learners work with peers across three different generations do draw on the wisdom of elders in ways that people might have in village life.  Inter-generational collaboration should also be augmented by a broader diversity of learners amongst co-collaborators, where different perspectives can help to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  They express this through dynamic learning processes and relationships, pluralistic identities, and by fostering traditional knowledge systems and cultural contexts.

Finally, un-learning should foster risk-taking and entrepreneurialism in the educational journey, as opposed to the conservatism in learning approaches and outcomes that they criticise traditional educational models for facilitating.

Passion and purpose

The Shikshantar model asks its participants to formulate a driving existential question to provide the passion and purpose for their educational journey.  As Manish Jain noted to us during our visit, chasing money is a poor goal for a student’s education as money is not a purpose in and of itself, but rather a tool for facilitating other outcomes.

The function of money is to provide an agreed measure of price and medium of exchange for economic transactions, and act as a store of value.  Having money allows people to buy what they need and want to survive and make their lives more comfortable.  Yet as happiness economics scholars have found, beyond a certain point the acquisition of more money has no measurable impact on well-being and quality of life.  In contrast, true passion and purpose has to come from something intrinsically valued by the individual student.

Gift culture

The Shikshantar model is based on the gift culture, where members of the group share their passion, knowledge, skills and resources with the group in a non-transactional manner, knowing that they’ll get what they need back from the group at some stage.  Utilisation of the gift economy model is a direct and explicit attempt to de-commodify education and make it accessible to everyone who wants it, as well as reduce the perverse incentive education-for-money creates in turning students into numbers.  In the de-commodified Skikshantar gift model, information and knowledge are open access and not hidden behind paywalls.

One of the purposes of the CERES Global group, as guests of Shikshantar, was to bring our collective passions, knowledge and skills to the Shikshantar community as our gift, to see what we and the Shikshantar community could co-create through our interaction.

Reflecting on our introduction to Shikshantar

Through facilitating the pursuit of passions, sharing each other’s gifts co-creating together in a de-commodified, open access environment, the Shikshantar model ultimately aspires to build greater networks of community among its participants.  They believe that it is necessary to engage communities in regenerative modes of lifelong societal learning which grow from a larger understanding of, and respect for, human potential and human dignity.

The Shikshantar experience generated a great deal of discussion amongst the CERES Global group about the pros and cons of their un-learning model.  Where does higher education and high-level specialist skill acquisition fit into the peer-to-peer un-learning framework?  Is the unlearning model something that could be scaled up and adequately resourced for larger numbers of students?  Is there something anti-intellectual about the rejection of knowledge acquisition and sharing epistemologies from traditional educational institutions?  What are the limits of co-creative processes, especially for us as itinerant visitors?  These were questions that our group would continue to weigh up as our visit to Udaipur progressed.

We left Shikshantar after our first visit having learned a little about their un-learning pedagogy and philosophy.  We shared a wonderful meal, explored the on-site garden, engaged in spontaneous drumming circles, and made new friends among the Shikshantar community.

*The views expressed in this posting are my own and don’t reflect the institutional position of CERES Global or La Trobe University.

**All photos taken by Ben Habib.