This Monday our group visited Shikshantar, a space for alternative learning in Udaipur. It was started by Manish Jain in reaction to educational development schemes led by organizations such as the Word Bank, USAID, UNICEF and Education Development Center. Mr. Jain has degrees from both Harvard and Brown and has worked for many years as a development coordinator in multiple countries. Needless to say, our group was very excited about our meeting with him and hearing his experiences in our field of interest. His argument, in brief, is that schooling reforms led by large development organizations first ignore the types of traditional learning that take place in local villages by managing to devalue it in favor of literacy and mathematical skills, and second, serve to isolate the individual from the community and promote egoistic versus community minded thoughts and actions. Mr. Jain favors undergoing a process of “unlearning” values, beliefs and assumptions gained via formal schooling and believes that a return to traditional knowledge systems is the key to countering current educational reforms.
His example of traditional knowledge is a boy herding goats. According to him, the boy is forming valuable knowledge about goats and nature that cannot be taught in schools. Furthermore, goat herding is more relevant to the boys experience in his village and prepares him for a future there. Development workers fail to recognize this boy’s particular knowledge and skills under the mask of his “illiteracy” (i.e. because he is illiterate he must not be very smart). Literacy, Mr. Jain argues, comes in many forms, not just the kind associated with reading or writing. Therefore, Mr. Jain is creating a space for fostering alternative forms of “literacy” that are ignored in current schooling.
My comment for Mr. Jain is in relation to the boy’s opportunities. I don’t look at the boy herding goats and think that he has no knowledge or skills due to his illiteracy. What concerns me even more is the central question of capabilities: does this boy have the capability to pursue a life that he has reason to value? If in fact, the boy is only receiving knowledge that prepares him for life in the village, what does this mean for his opportunity to choose his own life and act on his own freedoms? Does goat herding alone, although relevant to village life, sufficient for contributing to this boy’s freedom and agency? By having exposure to goat herding alone the boy is lacking the opportunity to develop other talents that he may have, such as musicality, artistic expression, critical thinking, etc.
My second comment is that education and schooling can foster the development of various talents and knowledge systems. Just because formal (government) and non formal (Seva Mandir and other NGO supported institutions) schooling is mostly focused on literacy and math skills does not mean that it does not have the capacity to incorporate traditional learning techniques and skills such as inter-generational modeling and apprenticeship, environmental and natural systems, physical and mental well-being, etc. However, according to Mr. Jain, education cannot be reformed in this way. Again, my point is that just because schooling does not have that focus now (in the local areas of Rajasthan, India, in particular) does not imply that it can never do so. My own experience as a kindergarten teacher has confirmed the value of fostering different learning styles and knowledge systems such as learning to share and function as a member of a group, how to take care of ones own (and respecting other’s) physical and mental well-being and preserving and protecting the environment IN ADDITION to basic “academic” skills. To my disappointment (and delight), Mr. Jain was not able to articulate a coherent argument against my objections.
My last point deals with Mr. Jain’s assumption that traditional learning is automatically transferred in a village/family setting. Is it really the case that parents/the community are imparting their knowledge systems onto the children? Are families always the best source of learning, by which I mean all types of learning are in practice (social, emotional, physical, rational)? I find this to be a dangerous assumption; one as dangerous as the extremes of the romanticized image of “the happy villager” (will thrive only when left entirely alone/isolated) image or “the helpless villager” (will thrive only through outside interventions and guidance). Again, my experience has led me to believe that family/community knowledge and schooling knowledge must be complementary and reinforcing of one another; neither has the ability to entirely thrive at the expense/rejection of the other.
Following the discussion, my optimism was reinforced. I truly believe that a focus on individual capabilities (such as those of the boy with the goats) is the answer to tough developmental questions. This is not to be taken to mean that development with a capabilities focus is “easy” to implement or can be done so on a large scale (i.e. by cutting and pasting development project proposals from one country to another or even one village to another). Moreover, promoting only one type of capability (i.e. goat herding, literacy and/or math) is not sufficient to increasing the opportunities a person has to lead the type of life he/she has reason to value by his/her own accord and talents (by which I mean it is not decided by others such as parents forcing children to become goat herders or engineers). Of course, after exposure to other opportunities should the boy choose goat herding after all, at least he can make and act on such a decision according to his available freedoms and agency.
I (and Alice, Sarah, Evan and Mike) would appreciate any thoughts on the idea of “unlearning” school knowledge and a return to “traditional” learning. I would also appreciate any other thoughts or considerations on capabilities that require further reflection and/or elaboration on my part.