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Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Towards a Creative Merger with Rural Children: A Pedagogic Experiment | Avijit Pathak

Friday 11 March 2022, by Avijit Pathak

As a teacher, I have engaged primarily with university students. Yet, I have always felt that my participation in what we regard as ‘higher education’ should not be separated from school education. I can’t see myself as just a university intellectual—burdened with a heavy baggage of ‘knowledge’ and ‘research’, and separated from children, or the way they grow up as learners in families and schools. There are three reasons for my intense urge to engage with young children. First, I believe that our universities cannot survive, or function meaningfully unless our children evolve and grow up with intellectual curiosity, ethical sensibilities and psychic fulfillment. After all, a university cannot find its students from another planet! Second, as I see and feel, our children are growing up with heightened pressure, exam stress, hyper-competitiveness and a pattern of education that is ethically and spiritually impoverished. And third, with the growing commercialization of education and pressure of mass exams and standardized tests, the rationale of all sorts of coaching centres has colonized the mental landscape of young children and their parents. The result is that , barring exceptions, our children do not celebrate the culture of learning as awareness; instead, everything becomes instrumental. Nothing matters more than exam performance. And coaching centres, guide books and knowledge capsules seem to be more important than creative and relaxed learning with intellectual challenges, physical energy, ethical/spiritual churning, and illuminating books on science, mathematics, history, literature and art. How can your research university function if your students, as they join the realm of higher education, are already psychologically broken, and have lost what genuine studentship needs—a sense of wonder?

In this context, I wish to reflect on three insights that I gained as a teacher through my intense interaction with a group of rural children . Thanks to Shiksha Swaraj—a forum that works with rural children in Bihar, and that too from marginalized sections.

       Love: Dissolution of the Ego of a ‘Metropolitan Intellectual’

Love or compassion is the soul of education. Quite often, we forget this fundamental truth. Instead, we generate the psychology of fear; we erect a huge wall of separation between the ‘all-knowing’ teacher and her ‘passive’ students; and through constant comparison and value-loaded judgment, we transform our classrooms into sites of symbolic as well as physical violence. However, as I meet these children, and begin to interact with them, I undergo a process of transformation. Their embodied living presence(a gift in a world that is otherwise becoming ‘digital’), their smell, their eyes, their physical movements, their laughter and the boundless energy they carry with them—this magic heals me, and touches me. I forget that I am a ‘metropolitan intellectual’; I forget that I taught at a leading university in the country for more than thirty one years; I forget that I can use jargon, quote big names, and write lengthy research papers. I began to melt. And this steady disappearance of ‘ego’ made it possible.

I touched them. They touched me. I hugged them. They hugged me. We laughed. We cracked jokes. We played together. It was a lovely metamorphosis. As I was rediscovering my childhood, they were finding me as a friend-teacher. I am talking about this touch for another important reason. A terribly patriarchal and caste-ridden society, we should not forget, insulates and stigmatizes many of these children. And they have seen schoolteachers who abuse and insult them. Hence, this touch—or this communion—assures them. They matter; they are humane; they are living souls—not objects of ridicule.

 In fact, without love, no meaningful and authentic communion is possible. And education is about the spirit of communion. Without love, there is no trust. And without trust, there is no engaged learning. And love requires courage. Quite often, with technologies of surveillance or power of knowledge and seniority, schoolteachers are fond of punishing young children, and causing an artificial notion of discipline based on fear. But then, when there is the ecstasy of love and trust in the classroom, it does not remain cold and silent; instead, it becomes alive and vibrant—full of laughter, dialogue and exchange of ideas.

Without love, there is no peace. And without love, there is no democracy. Only when children are trusted and loved, and experience self-dignity, they begin to unfold their potential, and become dialogic and sensitive. No wonder, every afternoon when I meet them, I experience their boundless joy. Shivani—a 5-year-old girl—greets me with a soul-touching handshake; Amman—a 10-year old boy— hugs me; Shimran—a 14-year old girl—opens her bag, and shows me her drawing and painting. And then, they imitate my Bengali-Hindi. No CCTV camera. No authoritarian principal. A friend-teacher with his co-travellers exploring the world...

Mathematical Reasoning and Literary Imagination

Is there a contradiction between love and work, or creative play and cognitive/intellectual challenges? As a teacher, I have realized that it is important to question this dichotomy, and understand that children give their best when they are loved, trusted and assured that they have their creative agency. And this is the only way to overcome what we see in our schools—alienated and disenchanted students and teachers with boredom, nausea and meaninglessness.

In fact, my intense interaction with the children of Shiksha Swaraj arouses my hope in the art of possibility: happy children—creative learning—rigorous intellectual development! They love challenges (and challenges are not about the repressive ritual of mock tests); they love to be involved with their physical, mental and psychic energy in coping with these challenges; they love to do new things (beyond bookish syllabus). Hence, Harsh feels immensely excited when he is asked to measure the volume of the cup I often use as I take tea; and Simran takes a scale, and measures the length of her close friend—Ayushi, and with absolute joy announces: ‘Ayushi, you are tall—165cm!’ Shivam measures the perimeter of the English book. And then, as mathematics becomes real and experiential, I take yet another turn; they begin to learn the fundamentals of coordinate geometry through an outdoor activity.

Think of a beautiful afternoon. We have done a series of algebraic equations. And then, I tell them two stories—a partition story by Saadat Hasan Manto, and a story by Rabindranath Tagore—The Peddler from Kabul. And then, they—yes, these rural/marginalized children—articulate the emotions they pass through as they merge with these two stories. And these emotions are about love and pain, and separation, longing and sadness. A discussion follows. We are doing mathematics; we are doing literature; and how we need to cultivate both these faculties: mathematical reasoning as well as literary imagination, or brain and heart. Possibly, many of us think that this sort of learning is possible only in the life-affirming schools for a tiny section of the cultural elite—say, the Centre for Learning or Krishnamurti Foundation schools. True, in this hierarchical/exploitative/violent society, we kill human possibilities so early , and rob a significant section of children of their creative zeal to learn. But then, if we are really sincere and passionate about the pedagogy of love and hope, even rural/underprivileged children can bloom like flowers. Yes, my engagement with these children makes me believe that the music of integral and holistic learning is enchanting; and even under extremely modest circumstances, it is possible. The only thing that as parents and teachers we need to believe is that meaningful education is not what coaching centres deliver; or intelligence is not what standardized tests measure.

A Fountain in a Desert

I am acutely aware of the fact that what Shiksha Swaraj seeks to achieve is not easy. I apprehend two difficulties. First, even when children love the learning milieu—its joyful, yet intensely creative pedagogic endeavor, it is not easy for their parents to accept it wholeheartedly. Possibly, they are conditioned to think that ‘real’ learning takes place only in regimented schools or coaching centres; possibly, they think that teachers should be ‘tough’, and an egalitarian relationship between the teacher and her students disrupts the culture of ‘discipline’ and ‘seriousness’ of academic study. But then, as I have narrated my experience, Shiksha Swaraj interrogates this ‘taken-for —granted’ notion of education. No wonder, some parents refuse to be convinced, and discourage their children to take part in this learning experience. It is sad that when these children have just begun to bloom, their parents cease to cooperate. I recall Rishu and Archana—two bright girls filled with life-energy, and enthusiasm to learn and unlearn. And now they do not come. Their parents see it as the ‘waste of time’. Indeed, it is so difficult to resist the trap of rote learning and coaching centres! Second, in this terribly patriarchal social milieu, girls are not always encouraged to be experimental, daring and creative. For instance, Pooja, as I have learned from my experience, was immensely curious; she wanted to overcome the chains of oppression in a broken family; her eyes revealed her wonder and interest. But then, she left. And the reason that her father gave was like this: ‘Where is the time to study and play? She has to cook, and engage in all sorts of domestic work’. Quite often, I recall her. And it shatters me to think that the ‘burden’ called Pooja in this violent and patriarchal society would be handed over to another family—equally patriarchal and oppressive—in the name of marriage.

Yet, I do not wish to lose hope. As a teacher, I have always believed in the art of possibilities. The pedagogy of hope that I cherish makes me believe that an endeavor like Shiksha Swaraj—lyrical, soft and emancipatory—is like a fountain in a desert. And we need this fountain.

NOTE: I am grateful to Vikash Sharma—the founder of the Shiksha Swaraj initiative for giving me an opportunity to come to Madhopur—an interior village in Bihar, and work with rural children.

(Author: Avijit Pathak taught sociology at JNU for thirty one years. He writes extensively on education, culture and politics)

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