Rethinking ‘Alternatives’ in the Domain of Education
Here is an analytical article based on a conversation with Dr. Manish Jain—an educationist who teaches university students, reflects on schooling and curriculum, realizes his multiple roles, and locates the culture of learning in the existing socio-political struggles.
One fine winter morning as we enter the Ambedkar University campus to take an interview of Dr. Manish Jain—a leading faculty in the department of education, we come to realize once again that our profession is not the only identity we have, rather our life is a confluence of many identities that converge together to make an integrated personality of an individual. So a person is not only his professional career, rather what he is as an individual is composed of multiple roles that he plays in different areas of his life. Dr. Jain was one such individual whose multiple roles in both his professional as well as personal lives exemplified this fact most beautifully. In conversing with him what we understood most sharply was the fact that, when we speak to any individual we are not only speaking to an engineer, a doctor or an academician we are also simultaneously speaking to a father , a husband, a brother and a friend. And only when we understand the multiplicity of a person’s life, can we enrich our understanding of him and travel with him freely. We went to speak to an educationist, but we realized we were also simultaneously speaking to a father, a son and a husband. In the myriad of roles that an individual finds himself in, one tries all the time to negotiate and create a dialogue between these multiple expectations; perhaps the journey of one’s life is about finding the ‘middle path’ of all these contrasting as well as complementing expectations. What we are perhaps trying to do is to decipher the nuances of this complexity and understand from a person his journey of life in the most empathetic manner possible. Thus when we transcribe this interview into words, we are not only reproducing words but are rather inviting our readers to take on an interesting journey with us, to feel and explore the world from a new vantage point. That’s what life is about, isn’t it?
Dr. Jain is a tremendously down to earth person; his acquaintance with the grassroots movements in India has enabled him to acquire humility and simplicity. What strikes us is that he is without the armor of arrogance or the ‘attitude’ of a university professor. We sit down in his chamber in the university one morning and have an ample conversation with him which turns out to be not only lengthy but also so heart to heart that calling it a mere interview would trivialize it. Yes, it’s true that we had come here to interview the academician in him who has worked extensively in the domain of education, but as our conversation proceeds we understand that what he thinks, feels or perceives as an academician is in no way detached from what he witnessed as a concerned father to his little son. He recalls the times when he was himself a student, when amenities brought about by the onset of globalization were not known, when the relation between the teacher and the student were still more organic than utilitarian, when children would buy toys and books rather than video games and mobile phones.
Yes, he admits that while the world may have progressed technologically and there might have been more advancement in the field of science, there was a tremendous decline in the nature of the teacher-student relationship, in the ethics of dissemination of knowledge, in the way learning was seen within the society. He expressed a deeply felt anguish, he acknowledged the fact that today the child is bombarded with information from innumerable sources ranging from books, to internet, to mass media but on a concrete level the child’s own agency had been crushed under the boots of ruthless mechanical learning. School projects on the solar system, photosynthesis in plants, human body were all available in the market; the charts that the teacher asks the child to make are also available for sale. All that a parent is expected to do is to spend some money, and the child’s report card is adorned with A grades! With the easy accessibility of the internet, all kinds of information are available to the child at the click of a mouse, but the child has lost the love for books which he could hold in his hands, feel and smell. In a deeper sense, the continuous burden of evaluation puts the child under perpetual stress. His only concern is how to remain at the top, and perform better than the rest. The society, the media and the culture industry all propagate symbols of a desired way of life (a job in a high paying promotion oriented multinational firm, a 3bhk flat in Gurgaon, a luxury car, yearly holiday abroad and so on), and each child is expected to unquestioningly chase this dream, leaving him with no scope for cultivating his own imagination or even a desire to explore if there could be a more fulfilling way of looking at life. He points out another crucial point in this debate, he tells us that in a country where economic security (i.e. availability of a secured employment and economic sustainability) is such a worry, families do not encourage their children to explore paths that are unconventional or would require more struggle to stabilize; in such a scenario the imagination of an alternative modality of thinking becomes a distant dream. Only some schools based on alternative philosophies (such as Mirambika in Delhi based on Sri Aurobindo’s vision, or Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh based on J.Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy) have ways of teaching-learning that are innovative and creatively implemented through a wide range of pedagogic experiments. It is in such centres that the child learns in a holistic manner, and the primary emphasis is laid upon not only his cognitive development but also the development of his consciousness, his emotional sensitivity, his spiritual-philosophic quest and an overall understanding of the self and the world based on universalistic principles.
Dr. Jain holds such efforts in great reverence and cannot deny the work that they are doing, but then he asks why such endeavors are made available only to sections of people who can afford to pay their exorbitant fees. Is alternative education not in the destiny of every child? Is it a commodity that is available only for the consumption of the elite? These are fundamental questions. Moreover, amidst a wide range of insights what he spells out is his concern for the need to build up a bridge between what is termed as alternative education and that which happens in the everyday affairs of a society. He asks whether children educated under an alternative institution can settle down among people who are not from such institutions. Do the realities of communal violence, patriarchal hierarchy, and state oppression not trouble their conscience? The point that he is trying to put across is how to make a linking bridge between what is and what should be, between theory and praxis. And he argues that only when we are able to decipher this, can we produce social harmony; otherwise, there is bound to be a perpetual tension between the two.
We indeed are enriched by the time our conversation comes to an end; we understand that his concerns about the excessive mechanization of learning accompanied by the consumerist ethos of ‘having’, and how they have denied the learner the space to explore himself come from his experiences as a father; while his fears of the elitist popularity of alternative centres of learning and their tendency to become exclusivist islands come from his own life struggles and engagement with the question of education at the grassroots level; and finally his interest in the debate on education as one that is of prime importance to the restructuring of society comes from his deep engagement in the realm of learning as a passionate and enthusiastic teacher.
It was indeed a fulfilling conversation; its richness lay in its layered subjectivity. Life perhaps is all about this dynamic interplay of the multiple roles that we play, and if we are prepared, it can open up the whole horizon for us. As we come back to our own spaces, we realize that the acknowledgement of our mutual realizations alone can help us rethink pedagogy. After all, what else is education but a process of realizing that we are all inter-connected?