Holding on to radical questions

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What is a radical question? Why do I get drawn to them? Why do they frustrate me?

I have a radical question when I believe that the way we generally do something is not smart, that there is a better way to do it. But we stick to the old way of doing things just because we have been doing it that way for a long time, and it’s convenient to just continue. And just keeping it going that way takes so much of our energy that we don’t look at things afresh.

This state of affairs pains me, since it pulls my energies in other directions rather than focusing them on work I believe in, work that I believe is best for myself and the people I’m working with. It’s not just the idea of this waste of time and energy, there’s a real pain and frustration coming from the organism within. I feel that pursuing the radical question has the potential to make my work more of play, at the same time making it more useful for the people I’m working with. There’s a romantic notion of a more wholesome, happier life associated with the radical question.

Wherever you are, there will be some constraints which you have to accept as existential. Obviously you are not going to change the whole world! When you put on paper what are the constraints you are willing to work under to pursue your radical question, and what is the test to decide if it’s useful to hold the radical question within the constraints you have accepted, I think the radical question has the potential to become real and woven into your work. If it’s unrealistic you can drop the radical question and live with the status quo or look for another situation with a different set of constraints to pursue your radical question.

And either way you would have probably learnt a lot in the process.

Random Thoughts

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John Holt calls education “the ugly business of people-shaping”.

***

I’m convinced that it’s essential for one to have the freedom and leisure to mess around with whatever one is interested in or feels a fancy for at that moment. I don’t mean to say that one should not be asked to do anything. But whatever one has to do must be a real demand- a demand from somebody else that one has agreed to take up, or a demand that life throws at you. And having met the demand one must have the right to use one’s time as one wishes. Not only does it keep one in good spirits and enhance your creativity, but I think it is a fundamental right of any human being, of any age- as long as they are not harming somebody else.

***

The third year in teaching feels different. I feel like I have in my mind a richer map of the landscape of living and working in a school, just by having been in different kinds of situations with children, both inside and outside the classroom.

Keeping aside all the entanglements in the business of education given what our society is, I think children benefit from having adults around who are not very rigid in their thinking, who are doing something real that they enjoy, who can listen to children without having an educational motive all the time, and I think I partly fit that profile.

***

I probably can do a decent job here, but I don’t know if this work nourishes me. I do feel that being here has nourished me, whether it is partly due to the work with the children or whether it is completely independent of it but due to the environment, I do not know.

***

What nourishes me? What does this nourishment feel like? Is it more than just feeling good about one’s work? There seems to be a complex understanding of one’s work that you gain by going through a variety of experiences, and trying to make sense of them. I remember reading in “The User Illusion”, that stability is the foundation on which surprises can emerge, something truly creative can emerge. The science of complexity, I feel, gives an interesting way to make sense of our lives.

Stability can become linear and predictable and boring. And we try to make our lives more interesting by discarding stability and seeking out entirely new experiences which increases the possibilities in your life but also increases the disorder.

On the other hand, if one doesn’t stop asking questions and doesn’t start resigning oneself to things as they are just because one sticks with stability, I think the small and insignificant brush strokes which you enjoy making but think are meaningless can together make something interesting and unexpected. But you are not in conscious control of the emergence of complexity. You cannot foresee it.

You can only keep listening to your life and try to sense whether the linearity of stability is becoming boring, and if it is, try to study one’s brush strokes more closely instead of discarding the stability and seeking quick fulfillment in something else.

This is the insight which the science of complexity shows us. How is it different from the message of almost every religion? Probably the essence is the same.

But I find this insight neutral and devoid of any moral obligation or responsibility for working with oneself to reach a more enlightened state. All it says is that if you are bored with the linearity of your life, probably the more intelligent way to address this issue is to look at the little things you do and not yearn for a romantic wholesale change. The former allows complexity and meaning to emerge, while the latter will probably just increase disorder.

I don’t think anybody can understand this as an abstract concept and then try to live it. I see this insight when I try to make sense of the experiences I have already been through. I think everybody goes through a point in life when they feel bored with the linearity and yearn for romantic change. Sometimes they take the plunge, sometimes they persist with their earlier lives. In both cases, I think it is the subsequent investment of oneself in the small and insignificant brush strokes that lets complexity emerge from the linearity of stability.

***

Having been here for over two years now, I see that my brush strokes have allowed the emergence of some complexity and meaning. Probably it would have happened even if I had been working in an IT company or doing research. But taking a jump helped me move away from some of my mental blocks and look at life afresh.

But without having been through different experiences I don’t think I could have seen this. I think it is perfectly normal for any young person to reject and resist such ideas from elders as a simple advice of delaying gratification, coloured with a moral tinge. I think it comes only by being through various experiences and trying to make sense of them, and cannot be passed on through education, by sitting down together and talking. Even though elder people do it only wishing for the good of the youngsters.

It’s probably healthier for younger people to reject such advice and follow their instincts. One may or may not ‘do well’ in life, and nobody outside you can truly judge that. Either way you will be responding to real demands of life and possibly let a real understanding emerge, while accepting such an idea and limiting one’s own experiences can distort such understanding, I think.

Life, the Universe and Nearly Everything

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Here I am, at the end of my second year in Sahyadri, left again in a pensive mood. I get lost when I try to express my experiences here in a way so as to communicate with the world. Looking back at my previous blog posts about life in Sahyadri, I realise I have written about various aspects of my experiences at different times, but all disjointed. I have written about the interesting things that happen here from day to day. I have written about my experience teaching in the classroom. I have written about my discontent and frustrations. I have written about my evolving outlook of life.

This year has been one of interesting experiences and insights and questions and confusions. It’s very personal, and I wonder if I should write about it on the blog. I keep writing my thoughts in a notebook these days, since I think they are very specific in space and time. But then I think there is value in trying to distil those experiences and get its essence in a form that’s relevant for a wider audience.

Articulating one’s thoughts in a form meant to communicate something to someone else helps me get clearer about my own thoughts. There are very few people to whom I talk about my thoughts at a level where I feel- “Ah, we are communicating!”. There are many people who know me, whom I know, with whom I just pass by. And I suspect the reason for that is that I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell myself. And I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell others.

They say an adolescent matures psychologically at a rate determined by the society. The fact is, coming to Sahyadri was the first thing that I had wanted to do, decided to do, on my own in life. Granted that I had doubts whether I would be suited to be a teacher (and I still do!), but once I had come here for the interview and seen the place and met some of the people, I knew that I wanted to be here. And it’s only after coming here that I have been able to feel like  an individual, with legitimate desires and frustrations and abilities and shortcomings.

***

The first year went mostly in getting used to life in the classroom. This year I feel I have got a better grip on that. Of course, teaching is such a complex activity that you can probably never say you have done a good job, but I know that I’ve done at least a baseline job part of the time. And I’ve been aware at some other times, that I was doing a less than baseline job, but just couldn’t gather the motivation and energy to put in that extra effort.

In this second year, I’ve been able to peel off some deep rooted ideas about myself and see myself differently. Of course, it’s still only a set of thoughts- an idea of what I am- but it’s been liberating.

At the beginning of this year I was very motivated, being the second year of teaching, and I was eager to build on things that I had learnt in the first year, to do some things better that I had made a mess of at my first attempt. I was also entrusted with additional duties like being a class teacher, and made myself available to listen closely to students’ issues and experiences in school. I had some additional classes too, since I was teaching computer applications also. So most of my waking moments went into my school work, for the first half of the term.

I’m not sure what happened after that- perhaps it was just fatigue, but I think it was something deeper too- I felt a disconnect with the work in school. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew that I felt an immense resistance to sit down and prepare for the next day’s class, I just didn’t enjoy being in the classroom, I felt that my work was completely meaningless.

Not that I had been thinking that this work is meaningful in any deep sense. Being an atheist, I don’t attribute any cosmic meaning or purpose to anything. But meaningless in the sense that I seemed to be labouring within the same constructs of society which I had found meaningless as a student. It seemed like I was stuck somewhere. All I could realise was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. But then I had no answer to the next question- what do you want to do then? I liked being in this place, with these people, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, because I seemed to be stuck within the same meaningless constructs.

That’s when I realised that I had no coherent story of myself. That I was more of an overgrown adolescent of 22, rather than an adult of 22, pretty much still figuring out his place in society. It was a very difficult time, dragging myself through the weeks in the second half of the term. You can’t hide from people your disconnect and disinterest, when you are a teacher. And once it came embarrassingly to the fore on teacher’s day, when some class 10 students were interviewing some of the teachers in the morning assembly, about why they chose to teach. When my turn came, I began with why I came to Sahyadri in the first place, but could only stammer my way to my present reality that I was confused about being a teacher.

It’s a blessing that I have people here with whom I can talk about my discontent and frustrations without their being illegitimised. I had long conversations with some of them, talking about my discontent and trying to uncover its source. It was very messy and we kept going back and forth for many days. In a way it seemed to me that whatever the discontent was, it was not directly related to the work, and if I jumped over to doing something else, it would just resurface. So I knew I had to keep at it and get to the bottom of it.

In the beginning of the second term, we had this workshop on re-envisioning education, during which we spent ten days just looking closely at our individual beliefs about teaching and learning, and why we teach. This again was a legitimate space for sharing frustrations and discontent, and some things crystallised for me at the end of it.

For one, I could see the messy and entangled nature of education, and that being a teacher meant having one foot in the muck all the time. And I could also see clearly that I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to teach. I realised that I came here seeking a place far away from the crowd of cities, where I could be in touch with nature and quietness, where I could be with people who had a similar outlook of life (and as I recently realised, with whom discontent and frustration were natural and legitimate). Teaching was something I thought I could do, to have access to these. If I could be here without having to teach, I would still be happy.

***

After the workshop, I felt I needed a fresh start in teaching. Fortunately, it was still the beginning of the second term, and 10th standard classes were almost over. So I decided to start afresh with class 9. I had been experimenting extensively with them even in the earlier term. Now I thought was a good time to start with their class 10 syllabus.

Before I started I had a heart to heart chat with them about my workshop experience and how I looked at teaching now and how what we did in class would depend a lot on what they wanted from it. Most of them were very clear that they were learning chemistry to pass the ICSE and get that qualification, and wouldn’t be learning it otherwise. I said- fair enough, we’ll make the classes focused on preparing you for that.

For the first time I could go into the classroom feeling that I was there to do something which the students wanted to do, for whatever limited purpose. I no longer had to go into a class thinking that this topic had to be made interesting for the children to remain engaged and so on. Of course, that didn’t mean that I would be teaching by rote. One of the things which the children said they wanted from the classes was to understand things properly so that they could learn more easily and better. But getting children interested in chemistry was no longer one of my concerns, helping them learn well for the exams was.

This worked well for my relationship with the subjects, and the domain of knowledge in general. I find them quite interesting at one level to think and talk about, but there’s nothing there that has touched me deeply that I have an urge to share with children. And I think I was labouring under the common myth that a teacher needs to be passionate about the subject. I found it quite interesting to engage with the children in the subject, but I could access that something within me only if there was an interest from outside. There’s no urge within to share, and definitely not to push anything down somebody’s throat.

***

In a way that took care of my relationship with classroom teaching. I still have many questions about the constructs of a school, especially a residential school, and what being a teacher means. But I feel a difference- there’s no frustration or impatience to get to any answer. In a way I see the complexity in the whole business of education, and I’m happy to keep the questions alive and wait for the living of it to reveal answers if any.

Another part of me became clearer to me during the course of this year, during the course of conversations. Something not really connected to school work, but about my motivations and what I am really seeking and yearning for in life.

I had been a good student in school and my parents encouraged me to excel at everything I did, and I tried to do so. It seems to me now, that I had done everything that was expected of me as a child. This was especially true of my mother, who had very clear ideas about how I should grow up, how I should never take things for granted, how I should excel in whatever I did and not be mediocre, and so on.

I might be wrong, but I think these expectations have been a burden on me. I don’t blame my parents, it just reflects a society that thinks it knows what is best for children, and is acting out of best intentions, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that but the devil is in the details of how you do it.

And in my case, I realised it because these external expectations and push virtually disappeared one day when my mother passed away in June 2006, when I had just finished my schooling and was getting ready to step into college. There was a huge emptiness, because my mother had almost completely filled the horizon of my consciousness throughout my childhood, with me being an only child and having very little close contact with any adults other than my parents.

For the first time, external expectations of doing well disappeared, and it was liberating. One thing that suffered was academics. I was no longer one of the toppers, but rank average. But I dare say I learnt a few things well, things that I found interesting. I was free to be myself in a way I had never been able to when I was a child. I might sound ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful to my parents for all that they did for me, and the love and care with which they brought me up. But I cannot deny that I experience a greater wholeness of being today, in the absence of those expectations.

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to feel guilty about feeling this way. But then, my mother had suffered so much from her long term illness, and death only saved her from the suffering. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had my mother lived. It would have been interesting. In the last few months of her life, when I was in the 12th standard, I had already begun to have questions about life and society and education, and I used to talk to her about my thoughts. It was interesting how she used to take me seriously sometimes, and how she used to just tell me to stop whining and get back to studying, at other times.

Anyway, I do feel happy to be free today. One of the interesting things I have learnt is that without the external expectations, there’s nowhere I really want to go and I’m already on “the other side of the hedge”, as in E. M. Forster’s story. I’m just a living organism seeking survival and play. What constitutes play for me is something I’m constantly discovering for myself.

I’ve become extremely wary of attachment, and traditional values of family and relationships. It’s often looked at as something pure and desirable, but it’s an iceberg of entangled human emotions of which one sees only a rosy tip. I like the people around me, and I savour human contact, but I do not want to get attached to anyone. I don’t miss anyone. That’s another thing I’ve realised- when I’m here, I’m in contact with the people around me. Everything and everyone else recede to somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness- almost just names and images. I could be accused of not caring, I guess. Perhaps I don’t. But then that is me.

***

That is my story for the time being. I’m sure parts of it will change and evolve, but I feel that for the first time, I’m on my way to becoming an adult. And I think that means some crystallisation of certain aspects of oneself, for life.

I feel immensely happy and contented to be here. One very important habit that I’ve formed this term is to just go off on my own for walks, during the term. Earlier I used to go on for months without stepping outside the campus, and then suddenly realise- Oh my goodness, I’m living in the middle of all this beauty and I’m stuck in these abstractions!

Lying on the python hill looking at the stars listening to the breeze, watching raindrops on leaves, watching birds and insects (and snakes sometimes!), watching the sun set in different places on the horizon as the seasons progress, watching the moon change its shape and rise at different times, it’s easy to get away from the abstractions in which one lives and works. And remind myself that I’m only a living organism on this planet.

And though I’ve had my difficult times and situations with students, I feel it’s a privilege to be in constant contact with young human beings who are growing up.

I’m on the other side of the hedge.

The Distorted Painting

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I want to make a painting. A beautiful one. I have got this canvas that I have been given. I start painting. I make strokes. The painting doesn’t look alright as it develops. And I don’t have another canvas. I look closely at the canvas and see that it was not blank to begin with. I see irregular spots all over it. The spots are distorting my painting. And now there are the strokes I have made. All entangled together. What do I do? I want to paint. I want to paint a beautiful picture. I look at the spots. There are so many of them. And in such weird shapes. My beautiful painting will never come up on this canvas. I don’t want to give up. I want to see on canvas the beauty of the picture in my mind. I want to feel the beauty of painting. I make a stroke on the canvas. A line. I connect two spots. I look closely at them. I make another stroke. A curve this time. That looks decent. I like this. I enjoy making strokes on the messy canvas. I can’t help but keep thinking of the beautiful picture in my mind. It will never come up on this canvas. I want to do more than make meaningless strokes. It is fun. It will never come up on this canvas. I like the little stroke connecting the two spots.

“Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”

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I recently came across this long article titled “Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”, sent to me by a colleague. It is an attempt to interpret some of the recent (last 10-15 years’) findings in cognitive science, neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, and “provide a theoretical basis for a complete transformation of formal educational structures”, in the authors’ words.

I was someone who, during my adolescent years, was desperate to grow up so that I can be in charge of my own life. Now I find myself in a role where I control the lives of adolescents, and I find that it creates an inner conflict, sometimes.

There’s enough that is interesting about being a teacher to go on like this, but I really want to understand the issues of adolescence better, just because it’s something that’s close to my heart and I’ve been thinking about it since my adolescent years, how young people who are growing up do not have a proper place in modern society. Also, to explore the possibility of creating saner spaces for young people growing up.

Here are some excerpts from the article that suggest the critical evolutionary role of adolescence and its very features like exuberance and risk taking tendency that modern society find difficult to handle.

“Of the greatest importance to early people was the progression of their dependent
child to that of autonomous adult. This was a process that had to be completed sufficiently early to ensure that the young adult would be able to take on whatever were the responsibilities of the earlier generation before they died. While there is much evidence about the care and attention given by such people to the very young (as can easily be noted to this day in remote areas of Africa or elsewhere) there was absolutely nothing soft or sentimental about this.

Amongst the nomads of the Zagros mountains of southern Iran, until very recently, adults spent much time and energy equipping every four-year-old to look after the chickens, the six-year-olds the goats, the eight and nine-year-olds the sheep, the ten-year-olds the asses and twelve-year-olds the donkeys – leaving only the bad tempered camels as needing actual adult attention! When the tribe moved everyone had a task to complete. As the child grew older so the tasks they were allocated became harder. Everyone was engaged, even if work frequently felt like play they all shared in the sense of achievement.

Such small-scale, self-contained communities depend upon the good will of their members to ensure cohesion, but such cohesion would have come at too high a cost if youthfulness lasted too long , and there was any undue delay in reaching adulthood. The adaptation that had earlier enabled the young to learn easily in their earliest years through intense emotional connection with older people, had to be balanced by an internal mechanism that prevented the children from becoming mere clones of their parents. In other words unless those close bonds which had characterized the earliest years were ruptured (forcibly if necessary) the young would not grow to be adaptable to new situations.

Adolescence, it is now becoming clearer, is that deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words to prove themselves – so as to start a life of their own. As such the biology of adolescence aims to stop children being merely clones of their parents. It is probably a time-limited predisposition, in other words if the adolescent is prevented (by over careful parents or a too rigid system of formal schooling) from experimenting and working things out for itself, it will lose the motivation to be innovative or to take responsibility for itself when it becomes adult.”

I don’t believe that adolescents should be left completely on their own to do whatever they want to do. Even in these early pre-industrialization and pre-civilization societies, the adolescents had tasks to do, but those were more concrete and real unlike the abstract subjects children learn in school today, and they had a role in society unlike the “youngsters of today who are too old to be treated as children but not yet in meaningful employment.”

It seems like our brains are wired so that adolescents of every generation will question their parent generation and try to find their own way in life. Given that, and given the likelihood that schools are here to stay for at least my lifetime, there are two questions that come to my mind about schools.

Is there something of value which the older generation can give the younger generation in such a set up? If so, what? And how is that valuable to the younger generation? I’d like to examine this question from scratch, not taking for granted anything that we think is of value in education.

Is there something of value which the younger generation has to give the society here and now(not some abstract notion of future citizens and blah-blah)? If so, what is it? And what are the conditions/environment that will bring forth those contributions?

In continuation of the last post

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The findings of anthropology and evolutionary psychology over the last few decades clearly suggest that most of the problems that mankind has faced since the beginning of civilization are due to social structures which do not suit the evolutionary make up of human beings.

Conventional wisdom assumes human beings to be somehow superior beings compared to animals. It assumes that man reached fulfilment with the advent of civilization and science and art and all that, and considers the prior tribal existence of man for almost 200,000 years as inferior intellectually and spiritually.

So, from the point of view of conventional wisdom, the problems of man have always existed, and it’s just human nature, and all you can do is pursue the path of spirituality to become a “better human being” yourselves. While the new findings suggests that man was better off in small groups which made a living together, where there was no concept of private property and so on.

It seems almost impossible that human beings will get out of the mess they have created over the last 10000 years or so. The social systems in place are so rigid and unrelenting. Now it doesn’t even haunt me, or affect me, and I don’t even feel interested in the question of change.

Interestingly for me, the question comes back to who am I and what am I doing here? But it makes sense to me when I think of myself as an animal, an organism that is seeking “survival” and “play” when I ask myself, what am I doing here? And it’s not even a metaphor for intellectualising. I am actually an animal seeking “survival” and “play”.

A Passing Thought

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Since time immemorial, man has been obsessed with the question of who (or what) we are, where we came from, how life should be lived and so on. And over the ages, and still today, spirituality and religion have been the path in the search for answers to these questions.

But over the last few decades, it seems like science has a better way to offer. Disciplines like evolutionary psychology, neurology and anthropology seem to tell us much much more about what we are, and why we are the way we are than spirituality ever could.

Spirituality seems to be obsessed with something that’s ideal and unattainable, probably because of man’s innocent desire for perfection, but often exploited by spiritual ‘gurus’ to keep the masses coming to them for answers. Science, on the other hand, looks only at what we actually are, thereby creating a possibility of using that knowledge to make our lives more sensible.

 

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