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.

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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.

Searching for the Heart of Education

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I recently happened to read a book called “Killing Monsters: Why children need fantasy, superheroes and make-believe violence” by Gerard Jones. The book is about what goes on in children’s minds when they watch violent cartoons, or play violent games (live action and video games).

There has been a widespread public sentiment against violence in children’s media in the US since the 1960s, based on the fear that exposure to a lot of violence in the media during childhood could desensitize children, and potentially make them violent persons later in life. There have been many studies which have attempted to find a link between exposure to violence in the media during childhood and violent behaviour later in life, but they have all been inconclusive.

Most caring parents and adults find it abhorrent that their child is so engrossed with something that they find distasteful and fear that their children may get desensitized. Nevertheless, have we stopped to ask why our children are so glued to cartoons and games embodying so much violence? What are they taking away from it? How are they looking at it and making sense of it?

Gerard Jones says that most of the time the children are not passive consumers of the media, but are actively engaged in weaving their own fantasies around the content that they are engaging with. This, he says, is a way for the children to make sense of the world they live in, and a safe place for them to explore and understand what they find intriguing and disturbing in it. So the violence that they are being exposed to in the media may indeed be benefiting them. There are no studies which have conclusively shown it either way.

Jones says it is important that the adults, repelled by the literal meaning of the content in the games or books their children play or read, do not impose their anxieties onto the children. He says that most of the time, children know the difference between their fantasies and the reality, and imposing our anxieties on them would mean taking away this safe haven, and blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, making them doubtful of their own control over their emotions.

Why do children need to fantasize? Right from birth, a child has to struggle to learn about the world she finds herself in, to learn to stand, to walk, to run. And all these involve innumerable failures. Every day of her life, she has to come face to face with her own inability. What keeps her motivated to persevere in this extremely difficult and potentially demoralising process of learning? She needs a sense of triumph, a sense of being in control, of being powerful.

This struck a chord deep within me. I could feel this child within me, with the insecurity of feeling unequipped to face the world. Especially since middle-adolescence, probably because around this time the fantasy worlds of my previous years disappeared, due to my evolving outlook of the world and life. I still feel completely unequipped to face the world today.

I had always thought that the purpose of education should be to prepare a child for understanding the world she finds herself in and enable her to act in it. But can there really be such a state of being prepared to meet something as complex and unpredictable as life? Can we be educated enough to act coherently and intelligently always?

And this is where the book struck a chord within me. Perhaps it’s not just children, who need fantasies to live with their incapability. Even adults have to face the fact of their inadequacy every day of their lives. And even they need a fantasy world to help them feel as if they are in control, and get on with their lives.

Whereas children’s fantasy worlds seem to be dynamic and ever changing just like them, the fantasy world of adults seem to be static and stagnant- it is embodied in the notion of settling down in life, getting a job, marriage, building a family and so on. Most children lose the colourful worlds of their fantasy as they grow into adults, and it gets set into the world of security that helps them meet the challenge of life and feel in control.

But can education help them meet the challenge of life differently? Can it help children to grow to be able to live with their incapability and not be intimidated by the world in the wake of their incapability? Can it help children realize that it is alright to be incapable, and that there is no one in this world who is actually in control outside their fantasy worlds?

Governments and corporations and advertisements and the media will tell you that they are in control and if you want to be in control, all you have to do is to follow them. But doesn’t anyone who has looked at the world a little more closely know that that is just fantasy? Wouldn’t you say that the world is just tumbling through time and space somehow, if you look at the massive inequality and ecological destruction and violence in the world?

Why do I need to live in a fantasy world to be secure? Can I feel secure in my incapability and continue to learn and do what I can without needing to feel in control?

Can education help a child do that?

The Good Old Days

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It is often misleading to compare life in two different eras, but that is exactly what I’m attempting to do in this post.

Recently I have been reading some classic Malayalam novels like Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum by Uroob, Oru Deshathinte Kadha by S.K.Pottekkatt and Unnikkuttante Lokam by Nandanar. All these books beautifully describe the life in Northern Kerala some 90 to 50 years ago. One thing struck me after reading these books, more than anything else- that how sterile the environment in which I grew up- and my childhood- were.

I’m not grumbling or being ungrateful. I like to think that I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in comfort, with liberty and into a life full of possibilities. But something is missing- big time. I really don’t know how to pinpoint what exactly is missing.

Perhaps it’s the lack of contact and communion with nature, having been brought up entirely in a town. Perhaps it’s the effect of today’s schools(which are more like factories). Perhaps it’s because of the demise of the joint families where cousins got together in their ancestral homes at least during vacations (my elder cousins had this fortune. By the time I was growing up it was too late…).

Perhaps it’s because of the marginalization of society. Especially in towns, people generally interact only with people from similar economic/social backgrounds. This is very evident if you look at the backgrounds of your classmates, whether in school or at college. Perhaps it’s because so much time is now spent watching/listening to various virtual media so that actual time spent “living” is less. Time spent observing and interacting with the real world. So that we have withdrawn deeper and deeper into our shells of comfort and become less and less bothered about what’s going on outside it.

It must be a combination of all these things and more, which I do not have the words to explain- basically a lack of diversity and colourfulness to stimulate the senses and the intellect, compared to the “good old days”. Of course, these are my personal views. I can’t generalize them, but from my understanding of my peers I could confidently say that these conditions apply to many if not most of them too, differing only marginally from person to person.

I simply cannot accept this as the “price of progress”, just like I cannot accept environmental degradation and our alienation from nature as the price of progress and civilization. I sometimes wish I was born at least some 20 years earlier! But coming back to reality, I really do want to explore alternative ways to see if I can rediscover some of that colourfulness…