Saturday, August 20, 2011

Alternative Education

I wake up at the same time as the peacocks in JNU, at around four in the morning.  Since my routines during the week are implacable, I enjoy the leisure of silence before dawn, and the early sounds of the morning as the song birds are up only by around 6 a.m on a monsoon morning. In July I was in Bangalore interviewing Jane Sahi, the eminent educationist from Bangalore. She is a very simple lovely person. Great joy to be in her company for a few hours as we spoke, drinking lemon juice with her husband who has supported her work for a lifetime. Jyoti Sahi has his studio in the vicinity of the Sita School that Jane runs for local community children. Art work in the green and exquisite garden around their house,  seemed to merge. Where oil paint finished and green foliage began seems to merge in my mind. Both of them, with their children, who also by vocation are school teachers, have supported Alternative Education, which by its  very term resists the notion of a standardised syllabus. Here  below, is an excerpt from my paper, which is to be published in a Festschrift for Prof Satish Saberwal who was my teacher in JNU in 1978.  Satish was essentially always interested in the relationship of the State to it's people, and the tensions by which the centralisation principle was to be understood with regard to federalism in India's national administration and politics. Satish's friend Vasant Palshikar is one of the pioneers of the Alternative School Movement, and the  Alternative Education Network meets today inspired by the motivation that diversity in educational practise is essential to the cause of learning.

The eminent educationist Jane Sahi who runs the Sita’s School in Silvepure, Bangalore says in a published lecture, that 
The word we use to describe the place of education is “school” which is derived from the Greek word “skole”, which means leisure. It has also been linked to the meaning “hold back” or “rest”. Leisure for the Greeks has been explained as a "receptive attitude of mind…it is not only the occasion but the capacity of steeping oneself in the whole of creation.” Leisure is not spare time, nor idleness, but is connected with the celebration of meaningfulness. It is the play, the drama, the festival that serve as pointers to make the whole of life, including work and duty, worthwhile. Maybe, leisure carries with in the idea of a meaningful space.
Relatedness begins for the young child largely through the space of play. It is by seeing, grasping, moving, letting go, dropping, listening, undoing and constructing that the child discovers concepts of time and space and explores the laws of nature.” (Sahi 2000:55,56)
Jane Sahi, (interview 10.7.2011) argues that mother tongue learning is most significant, that the children who come to Sita’s School are trained very early to write in their own words. “In My Own Words” is the title of her new book, which is in press. She believes that the Right to Education debate must take into account the questions of parallel school education, particularly when it comes to village schools. The Standardisation argument is problematic and for them lethal, because what they are doing in the alternative school movement is essentially taking schooling to every child each according to his/her need. The movement is inspired by many who are networked now as the Alternative School Network. The blurb of the published Marjorie Sykes Lecture which she gave in 2000 says that “Sita School is outside the formal educational system following its own curriculum and methods of teaching. Artistic activity is one of the principal mediums through which children educate themselves with the help and guidance of the teachers. Most children attending Sita School are from the common poor folk who would otherwise have had to go without education. The children come from the five surrounding villages and are mostly first generation school goers.
The children are at school from 8 a.m and the older children stay until 6 p.m.They are divided into five groups according to ability rather than age. A number of activities are shared and there is a stress on interaction and co-operation between the different  groups.."

In terms of current standardization debates, Jane Sahi argues that alternative school education has different goals, and among themselves there is a great deal of debate about the methods to be used. For instance, Jyoti Sahi, (India’s best known Christian artist using indic themes in his painting, and former President of the World Association of  Christian Religious  Artists and the founder of the Art Ashram in Silvepura where Sita School is located,) says,  in the small booklet "What both Gandhiji and Tagore stressed upon was education through craft. Traditionally, there has been a distinction drawn between art and craft. Art is something inherent in each individual – a talent which each person has to discover. This art cannot be learnt, but it can be nurtured, and given freedom to grow. Craft, on the other hand, has much more to do with cultural traditions, and the development of certain technologies. These can be imparted to the young through a direct process of learning through seeing, and participating in a working situation. That, as I understand it, is what the gurukul system was oriented towards.."  The standardization of text books and school curricula will affect the teachers and thinkers in the alternative school movement primarily because they have had the energy and ambition to set up a discourse different from the mainstream, whether it be public or private ,  religious mission or state schooling. Influenced by Rudolf Steiner and Martin Buber rather than Maria Montessori, Jane Sahi talks about the necessity of engaging with the state on the right of the small schools like hers to survive. Only two children have registered in the local government school, all other children in Silvepure  go to schools of their  parents' choice, of which in the small village of Silvepure on the outskirts of Bangalore, there are many.  Similarly, when I walked for two kms on May 4th and 5th  2011 in Tiruvannamalai and spoke to the shopkeepers on the Giripradikshanam  (circumambulation of the holy hill) route, I was surprised at the number of schools that they said they sent their children to, for no two children went to the same school! A web search into the list of schools for Tiruvannamalai will show the vast number of schools available to the local populace, confirming the difference between the children in this respect. This  free choice is interesting, since much of it reflects religious or secular tastes, free or paid schooling and the questions raised about variety of syllabus would also be significant.
 There is also the Arunachala Village School, which is 7 kms from Ramanasramam  Tiruvannamalai in Vediyaptannur village. The trust was set up in 1996 by a Swiss lady, and  then Madan took charge. The school charges no fees for the local  children. Madan sees education and health as primary requisites in a democracy. The trust has a mobile clinic which treated 33,000 people last year.They serve 45 villages, and have covered 47,000 people with health care. The school is with teachers and students very involved with the tree planting programme for the betterment of the  local population, and has contributed plays as well as songs which are integrated into their routine learning practice. The greatest problem that is felt by Arunachala Village School is the preying nature of local bureaucracy, which does not clear papers  in time.

Here too, the children are given a space of freedom and discipline. There is the rigour of timetable and collective learning, on the other hand, the respect for the teacher is accompanied by an instinctive love. They are unafraid of the Principal, as Madan is a friend to the tiniest child.  
 Quo Vadis, which is a interfaith organization in  Tiruvannamalai also works with interesting experiments with young people, nomadic groups and foreign students who are looking for the certainty of co-existence on a global level. While wholeheartedly supporting conventional schooling, Dan Mission attempts through Quo Vadis to integrate children into the larger cosmos. Given freedom to express their creativity in functions which are organized conjointly, for Quo Vadis is the consequence of 150 years of the Danish or Tranquebar mission’s presence in South India. One of the organizers said at one such function in 2007, (quoted by the Express News Service, September 9 2007, in the website),

“Today’s education system treats first rank students as geniuses and low rankers as stupid. This creates a feeling of inferiority in many and superiority in a few. A good education should make the learners brave and liberal . . . Our aim is to make up for the deficiency in the present system of education, by making children confident and liberal thinkers.”

Another school which I have been following closely is the Marudam Farm School in Tiruvannamalai. Here we find European Spiritualists children and the local community children studying in close and happy interaction. Waiting recognition, the Marudam Farm School is based on Ramana's Theology "Be As You Are" which, with a blend of Montessori, Olcott and Krishnamurthi Foundation principles leads for a very systematic and sound base in primary schooling methods. Alternative Schools link with Open Schooling  for certification for the children in High School, at the last analyses, but without recognition  at the primary school level, they will face immense problems in the future. I hope the State and Central Governments will take the issues raised by Alternativists very seriously.

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