Education blog #3: Udaipur and Swaraj University
By Isabel Carlisle 20th February 2012
My encounters with radical eduction continue…
We’re back on the night train, this time from Jaipur to Udaipur, stowing our luggage under the bottom bunks and getting the sheets out of their brown paper bags. In Udaipur we are going to visit Manish Jain, the founder of the Shikshantar un-learning programme and of Swaraj University (not a university in the traditional sense as we will find out).
Our train gets in 20 minutes early, around 6 in the morning, and we wonder how many people missed getting out as they were still asleep. That afternoon we take a rickshaw out to a residential area of the city and enter what looks like a family home. Up the first flight of marble stairs (it’s the local building stone) we take off our shoes and step into a large space that is part library, part floor-level meeting area and part kitchen. The rooms off are not so much offices as chambers for art from recycled materials (like lampshades made out of twisted newspaper) and inspiringly subversive quotes like “education goes against the grain of the brain” (John Abbott).
On the roof we are invited to sit on sofas made of piled up car tyres with cushions perched on the top. Around 6 people join us to tell us what Shikshantar means to them, people like Vishal Singh who met Manish way back in the Nineties when Vishal was around 14 and Manish had not yet even really started his radical education experiments. Vishal made the sofas (and an upcycled solar oven from an old trunk, a sheet of glass and mirrors). A week later he takes me on an amazing tour of old Udaipur in which we check out the waste bins and their design faults, the water supply and the whole social fabric of living and working in a traditional, craft-based way.
There is a zero waste policy at Shikshantar which includes people: anyone can drop in and contribute their creativity and learn a whole range of Transition-type skills.
Walk-outs from the education system are welcomed and some of those young people have gone on to create successful enterprises like the cafe Miletts of Mewar in Chandpole (cooking local grains and millets). The food there is so good, and the atmosphere so friendly that I end up eating there most days.
Manish’s original vision was to create a learning city within the fabric of Udaipur. Places with a shared vision like the traditional herbal healing centre Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti, Millets, Banyan Roots cafe and others. Rather like in Transition, those places serve as portals to a culture of the mind that embraces issues and solutions around low carbon living, local economies, traditional skills and an optimistic vision of the future.
Shikshantar people are also reclaiming the gift culture as a radical alternative to our collective dependency on the Global Market. There is a Mewari proverb that goes:
“The river never drinks its own water, the tree never tastes its own fruit, the field never consumes its own harvest. They selflessly strive for the well-being of those around them.”
Manish also says:
“The gift culture inspires us to see our learning resources and relationships as part of the larger commons that is accessible to all and nurtured by all”.
That’s really what unlearning is all about: moving from the many ways our education and economic systems drill into us the importance of competition to collaboration and gifting, and in the process finding our natural ingenuity and skills and the delight of being in community. Creating a much more generative space for people to re-imagine their lives is the reason that Manish, Nitin and Reva started Swaraj University.
Swaraj means rule over the self - both the invidual and the communal self. In 1909 Gandhi wrote “Hind Swaraj” in which he set out his vision for self-rule in India. Manish gives me a copy of the re-print in English and I understand that this is not a political tract so much as a primer for those seeking to understand the concept and true meaning of freedom based on valuing what is already good and present.
We get a chance to see Swaraj University in action when we pile into a jeep and are driven out into the hills to visit the current cohort of students who are staying in the borrowed Tapovan Ashram for a 10-day meet-up. We are invited to sit on rugs on the floor in a covered space with no walls and views of the dry and dusty countryside all around. About 12 young people who are pursuing a 2 year self-directed learning programme have gathered here to share their journeys and get some skills training from adults who are gifting their time to them. Today they will have a chance to get to grips with accounts, with an understanding that everyone will develop their personal accounting style and that nature too has an accounting system. A few days ago they experimented with how food affects our bodies and herbs that can be used for healing.
Each of these Khojis (“seekers”) has chosen to live and study with mentors who not only have the skills they are seeking (film-making, activism, cooking – with 100 mentors the choice is wide) but an authentic lifestyle that they can learn life skills from. Mentors give freely of their homes and time and in return find inspiration in the mentor-learner relationship. The Khojis pay for food and lodging but not for teaching.
At the meet-ups each day starts with a circle discussion in which consensus process is used (thumbs up, thumbs down etc) to reflect on the past day and plan the one to come. Each person has a chance to speak out and be a facilitator. The Khojis need courage to step out and join the programme: their parents may be discouraging and they are certainly going against the grain of the dominant culture, but being in Swaraj University means you are not alone. You can find out more about the university here: http://swarajuniversity.org.
All this has given me a huge amount of food for thought. The programme for Swaraj Uni is very close to how the design team for Transition Learning Journey was imagining our one-year skills-based learning programme for young people who are looking for learning experiences outside college and university. In Transition we would invite initiatives to host learners as well as setting up a bank of mentors. I am excited to see how the gift culture that I have been experiencing can be a part of the Learning Journey. Maybe our Khojis could also come out to Rajasthan and be housed with village families so that they can experience zero waste, the wisdom of grandmothers and traditional skills at first hand. There is nothing like being in India to have all your preconceptions tossed up in the air and land with new ways of seeing the world that are also very ancient.