Rediscovering the Co-Creators Within

Manish Jain 

Over the past year, I have continued my search to more deeply understand the meaning of learning societies and, through this process, to help nurture various learning communities in India and other parts of the world. During this period, I have struggled to keep my faith in the inherent goodness of human beings and life’s natural regenerative processes, amidst all of the depressing acts which have taken place around the world – acts which defy human wisdom, acts which deny the human spirit, acts which place the entire planet at tremendous risk.  

The challenges facing learning societies seem to be growing with the onslaught of the “Global Knowledge Economy” and the “Information Age.” We are witness to devastating forms of modernized violence and poverty, as well as arrogant experiments in nuclear testing and genetic engineering, which try to address (but instead compound) the various problems which have emerged from mal-Development. The growth of patent regimes, coupled with the rapid loss of bio-cultural diversity, makes the search for new, contextualized alternatives and possibilities appear more dismal. The situation in most schools is getting worse – more tests, more competition, more control, more fear. The environment in homes and neighborhoods is also deteriorating, as escaping to the virtual world (brought to us courtesy of television, video games and the Internet) is becoming more important for children and youth than living in the real world. Powerful research around the brain, creativity, multiple intelligences, cooperation, spirituality, etc. – which can greatly democratize and revolutionize human learning – is not only being ignored, it is being commercialized and exploited by elite education franchises like DPS, Eurokids, Open Minds, etc. and by corporate gurus like Edward DeBono and Shiv Khera. They try to convince us that we have to continually pay, if we wish to “access” our innate abilities to learn.  

What may be most depressing is that several of the groups today which are raising profound questions around mal-Development and experimenting with alternatives to it, still hold on to the same frameworks of mainstream education. For the first 28 years of my life, I used to think that the “Right” was the problem. I still believe that that right-wing hatred and profit-driven thinking is part of the problem, but it seems that the Left today is equally “conservative” and “paternalistic” and is blocking us from thinking of new solutions to our problems. I have started to see that, in many ways, the Left and Right are really two sides of the same coin (or dollar bill). The Left continues to argue that “more” and “better quality” schools are needed – changes in the textbook, more teacher training, universal enrolment, more computers, etc., are the solution to “mono-culture of the mind” and to “vinashi vikas” (destructive development). I have failed to understand the logic in this. This is like someone wishing to challenge Big Industrial-Agriculture but calling for more “child-centered pesticides” or “joyful cash-cropping.” The Left keeps trying to convince people that schools can be reformed, trying to force (by threat of punishment or bribe) everyone into them in the name of equality. Sadly, they continue to confuse equality with homogenization and standardization. They refuse to recognize the linkages between the culture of schooling1 and larger political-economic-media systems, and the need for human learning to be liberated from these dehumanizing frameworks. Most disturbingly, in India and other places, I have witnessed that those in the Left who run campaigns which make demands to the State for compulsory education, have been totally uninterested in genuine dialogue on meaningful learning or the culture of schooling. In these ways, the Left plays a significant role in perpetuating the status quo. 

Over the past year, I have come across several myths about learning societies, propagated by various “liberal” and “progressive” Indian and international education experts, that I feel are important to clarify/challenge:  

MYTH 1: “Learning societies are only a viable option for the rich – rich people and rich countries.” People who advance this myth equate learning societies with computers and other expensive, hi-tech inputs. They argue that learning societies is a Western concept. At the same time, they believe that Education (like Development) must also proceed along linear stages; i.e., only after 100% school enrollment has been achieved can people from the South begin to think about learning societies.  

The reality is that the emergence of learning societies will have very little to do with computers (or with simply having lots more information). In fact, an over-emphasis on computers may actually undermine the growth of healthy learning societies. What is important is that there be a wide diversity of hand-heart-head processes, natural environments and media tools that people can use to engage in genuine dialogues. It is important to note that the unfolding of diverse learning societies cannot take place through large scale, centrally-planned projects. Rather, they must emerge organically from initiatives conceptualized and undertaken by individuals and their local communities. For this, peoples’ imaginations, sense of agency and personal commitment are more critical than financial resources. There is no linear set of stages for learning societies to emulate. Indeed, it is likely that those countries who have achieved 100% enrollments in schools will have a more difficult in unfolding learning societies, since much of their time and energy is taken up trying to maintain their heavy and rigid systems.  

MYTH 2: “Learning societies neglect the needs of the ‘poor’ who do not have any other options outside of schooling.” People who propagate this myth see rural people and those who live in slums from a “deficit” perspective. They believe that the poor live in superstition and ignorance. School is their only hope for escaping their horrible situation (i.e., for leaving their community behind). They also believe that forcing all children into school will end child labor, exploitation and inequality.  

Without romanticizing the situation, the reality is that the so-called poor have a tremendous amount of practical knowledge, particularly in matters of biodiversity, democratic media and sustainable living. They also have profound understandings of concepts of dignity, justice, leadership, love, conservation, cooperation, sharing, etc. All of this not-so-coincidentally is developed in learning spaces outside of school. The concept of learning societies starts with an appreciation of these spaces rather than a negation of them (as is often done by the culture of schooling). It is true that over a period of time, some of these spaces deteriorate or stagnate. The concept of learning societies seeks to continuously regenerate, re-invigorate and evolve such spaces, as well as encourage people to create their own new learning communities according to their changing needs.  

It is also questionable whether forcing children into school ends violence against children. The culture of schooling around the world commits tremendous mental, emotional, spiritual and physical violence against children. This severely cripples their imagination, self-confidence, sensitivity and moral conscience. The claim that schooling opens up many new opportunities for the poor also needs to be critically interrogated. Schooling basically enslaves people (both in terms of consumption and production) to the vagaries of the global political-economy which is inherently based on exploitation, violence and insecurity. 

MYTH 3: “Learning societies let the State off the hook.” People who propagate this myth ultimately see the State as being responsible for administering and controlling peoples’ learning. It is argued that local communities are not capable of learning on their own – they are too ignorant, too lazy or too evil. They believe that the State and its technocratic institutions can objectively plan and re-engineer society to bring about social justice and freedom. They also believe that the State is the only body which can protect people from the harmful effects of the Market (and from each other). 

Proponents of this myth fail to understand that a politics and economics of monoculture underlie the modern Nation-State. The State functions by centralizing resources and power and spreading blind obedience. In the process, it actually deprives people of local autonomy, kills local diversities and creates debilitating forms of dependency amongst the population. It is also questionable how objective the State is. Officials of the State often make decisions without understanding local contextual nuances or dynamics. If an entire village or a language, or the life of a child, is destroyed in the process, there is virtually no accountability by State functionaries. The State is closely tied to Market, and many of its decisions are made under the pressure of lobby groups in the interests of corporations. In addition, the State needs a lot of funds to sustain itself. It must carry out horrible acts of violence against its people/Nature (or against those in other countries), if it wishes to continuously increase its exchequers and provide subsidized services to people. Learning societies actively seek to create a space for local communities to redefine the role of the State and the Market in their lives and their relationship to these institutions. As Walter Mignolo describes, “The future of diverse planetary civilizations cannot simply be the universalism of either Western neoliberalism or Western neo-Marxism.” 

Taken together, these myths serve to paralyze us, to silence us into submission and to keep us from envisioning new possibilities. They prey on our babu fears, insecurities, guilt and greed. Perhaps the most critical challenge to unfolding learning societies today is to confront the babus within us and to transform ourselves into co-creators. For this, we need to break out of the thinking that colonization is something that the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italians, Japanese, etc., did in the past to peoples of the “developing” world; that exploitation is something that is only happening to poor, uneducated, marginalized communities; that “sub-alterns” are only peasants, women, or indigenous people. We need to admit that in the modern world we, the “educated” class – both Left and Right – are all colonized by babu-dom.  

The term babu is translated as “administrative clerk” but its meaning and manifestation is much deeper. The dominant socio-economic and political structures force upon us a one-dimensionality of self and break our bonds with Nature. Our existence is defined in terms of only serving and feeding the System. Babus are blind implementors who only follow three “dominator” symbols of power: Money, Military Weapons and the Political Chair. Babus are those who act without a personal conscience or vision. They separate moral values from economic livelihood and political gain. Babus fit passively into standardized, ready-made, externally-controlled environments. They acquire a peculiar mental laziness and demand over-simplistic, linear and short-term solutions. They take existing parameters, boundaries and realities as given and are afraid to take risks.  

Learning societies will not just fall out of the sky. Nor, will they emerge as the result of directives issued by specially trained experts. Rather, they must be co-created by each of us, each day of our lives, in all aspects of our lives. In this essay, I would like to share with you two aspects of our work at Shikshantar that have provided me with some greater insights into how “educated” people are living and learning to escape babu-dom and to transform themselves into co-creators. 

Unlearning Stories

“What if we were to develop a conscious desire to explore possibilities outside our conditioned thinking? We might become aware of what lies outside the box, we would perhaps see and hear things we were previously oblivious of. We would gradually develop a creative tension between our desire to change and our resistance, which is a fear of the unknown; we could confront the old model, unlearn what was holding us back, and begin to open up enough to dissolve the old box, and create anew. When this occurs, it is a moment of breakthrough and great awareness. For a while, there is reduced attachment to the past and reduced anxiety about the future. Such transformations lead to dramatic increases in openness and create a space, a gap between current reality and the future vision.”

- Gregory Bateson, 1972

 

Over the past several years, I have been exploring the concept of unlearning within myself and with other friends. In various conversations in different parts of the world, I have noted that there are several different dimensions that people associate with the concept of unlearning, namely, “de-conditioning,” “de-colonization,” “de-programming,” “deschooling/unschooling,” “de-professionalization” and “de-institutionalization.” At its most basic level, unlearning starts with looking at the realities and possibilities of life from other points of view. It involves becoming aware of the different mental models, assumptions, generalizations, sacred constructs, expectations, etc. that influence how we understand the world, how we create knowledge, how we take actions and how we grow. It also involves understanding the strengths and limitations of various ways of seeing, ways of knowing, and ways of organizing ourselves. 

I have started to believe that unlearning is perhaps more important and more necessary today than routine learning, when it comes to facing the immense challenges before us and to engaging in the larger struggle for swaraj (rule over the self). While conditioned mental models and set patterns have an important role to play in helping us conduct our daily lives, it is difficult for information and experiences to be processed in new ways or for new breakthroughs to take place when our lenses become too narrow or rigid. As Albert Einstein describes, “The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”  

For example, today the “educated” are caught in the trap of thinking that the solution to the problems that emerge from modern Development lies in the spread of more Development projects. Very few are willing to think outside of conventional Development frameworks (when they are, it is usually in terms of what should be done to change the lives of the Other, not what should be done to change their own lives). 

Unfortunately, the concept and processes of unlearning has been totally neglected by the UNESCO Delors Commission on Education for the 21st Century Report, Learning: The Treasure Within. This may help to explain why the principles of “learning to know,” “learning to do,” “learning to live together,” “learning to be,” still remain primarily only on paper. Educators have had trouble processing these principles outside of the school-colored mental models of teaching, training, compulsion, competition, standardization, etc. If we wish to become co-creators in the 21st century, it is crucial that we explore unlearning in more detail. 

My own process of unlearning has been seriously inspired by M.K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. In this book, Gandhi raises profound questions about modern civilization by interrogating three of its dominant pillars: lawyers (a metaphor for the conception of justice); doctors (a metaphor for the conception of health); and railroads (a metaphor for the conception of technology). At the same time, he challenges the notion that non-Western (or pre-Enlightenment) societies did not have any thinking about these issues. This book provoked me start looking critically at the claims and politics underlying labels of “developed,” “developing,” and “underdeveloped.” How do systems take control of and disempower human beings? What should be the limits of institutions and technologies? 

I also went back and started to identify and analyze the key assumptions and narratives that various media in the culture of schooling taught me, both in terms of the formal, explicit curriculum as well as the hidden curriculum. 

10 LIES MY SCHOOL TAUGHT ME

10. Western science and technology can solve all our problems.

9. Big bombs and big armies will give us security, protection and peace.

8. Competition and greed will bring out the best qualities in us. I can only win when others lose.

7. Only Western-style parliamentary democracy can lead to a more just and free society. It gives people a real voice and real choices in the decision-making process.

6. All life and happiness revolves around money; without money you can’t do anything meaningful. If the rich get richer and GNP increases, then the benefits will someday trickle down to the rest of society. So, it is good for the poor that the rich people become richer and consume more.

5. America and European countries are financially richer because they are smarter and work harder. America and European countries are ‘Developed’ nations. Poor people around the world are poor because they are lazy and stupid.

4. Human beings are separate from Nature. Nature is our biggest enemy and it must be conquered/controlled/exploited in order for human beings to progress. Furthermore, common people cannot be trusted to take care of their natural resources.

3. Over-population is the biggest problem facing the world today. If the poor people would just stop reproducing, everything would be great.

2. English is a superior language and my local language, Mewari, is an inferior dialect.

1. India became independent in 1947 and I am a free human being.

 

I started to evaluate how much these deeply ingrained assumptions influenced my daily life decisions, my dreams as well as my understanding of what is “reality,” what is possible or not possible. I also realized that these assumptions and narratives ran contradictory to many of my own personal experiences and discoveries about life. This process provided me with the understanding that I must continuously seek out new perspectives and different ways of thinking in my search to understand the “truth” and, that I must always act with humility. It has made me question my role as an “Expert” – that what I say has validity for everyone, everywhere, at all times. It has also made me question the idea that projects must be large scale and hi-tech in order to be useful to people. Most importantly, it has made me question the claim that local people are “ignorant,” “backwards,” “superstitious,” etc. and are not capable of thinking and doing things by themselves.  

In the Indian sub-continent, unlearning is by no means a new process. There are many examples of individuals, such as Buddha, Mahavir, Kabir, Iqbal, J. Krishnamurti, Rabindranath Tagore and M.K. Gandhi, who have engaged in it in different ways. From them, I have discovered that unlearning does not simply mean rejecting lies, breaking out-dated mental models, shattering oppressive relationships, etc. It is not a selfish act. Rather, there are also many regenerative dimensions to the term: self-discipline, humility, forgiveness, compassion, conservation, simplicity and wisdom. Unlearning actually opens up new spaces for self-directed learning and co-learning. It is a process that involves looking both inwards and outwards, journeying into the unknown, exploring the whole self. As Joanna Macy describes, “The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or at other moments, we can cast its boundaries further to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained.”  

As part of our work in Shikshantar Andolan, we have been trying to understand how to support the process of unlearning. We have invited different young people (ages 23-40) from different parts of the world to share their own personal life stories with us. We ask them: How did you come to question dominant narratives of progress, success, security, etc.? What are the ways in which you are resisting the dominant destructive military-industrial paradigm and its institutions of thought-control? What experiences have helped you to identify your own potentials, abilities, skills, creativities, questions, common sense and voice of conscience? What inspires you to undertake new experiments in your life? What values/dreams/relationships are important to you? 

So far, we have collected stories of 12 individuals. In these stories, they explore themes dealing with Economic Growth, Profit, Efficiency, Nationalism, Democracy, Science, Information Technology, the “Educated” Human Being, Human Nature, Gender, Religion, Community, Institutionalization of Children, etc. They discuss their experiences in challenging stereotypes about the Other. They also share how they have confronted perceptions of their own limitations, certain fears and insecurities, selfishness and egoism, and the desire to compete against and dominate others. 

What has most clearly been demonstrated by the stories is that that there can be no standardized curriculum for radical activists. The unlearning process is very diverse and unpredictable; an experience that deeply touched one person didn’t have much impact on another person (or it meant an entirely different thing to another person). But even at this early stage, we can highlight a few common elements among the unlearning process of the different individuals:

It is also interesting and important to analyze their experiences with schooling. Most of the stories indicated that the people were generally bored with school; it was unable to stimulate their imaginations or deal with their questions. As a result, they started to explore other spaces outside of the classroom, sometimes on their own, other times with the help of an adult (even a friendly teacher-resistor). They came to the understanding that they could learn much more by themselves, with their friends and from Nature than from their classrooms. They also realized the limitations of fragmented disciplines and started to cross disciplinary boundaries on their own. Some even had negative experiences in school. They brushed up against its strict bureaucracy, rules or harsh punishments. They realized that school hardly lived up to its own rhetoric of openness and democracy. They saw that it was inherently unfair in terms of its early tracking policies and that it was characterized by racial, class, gender, urban, etc. discrimination. 

We have also tried to understand how unlearning processes contribute/d to their roles as co-creators. First, these individuals are developing their own sets of questions which continually fuel their interactions and explorations. They have moved away from thinking that there is only one right answer to every question, from linear, reductionist, compartmentalized and mechanistic modes of thinking. They have started to appreciate the beauty of “gray” and the necessity of the unknown. Second, these individuals are in the process of developing their multiple identities. They have realized that the individual has many potential selves, capable of being realized in different settings. Third, these individuals are developing a deep understanding about dissent, resistance, non-cooperation, self-organization and transformation. The relentless pursuit of money is no longer at the center of their lives. They now have the courage to challenge and/or break existing rules (and even entire systemic frameworks, if necessary) and the wisdom to pick their battles carefully. They are willing to take new risks in their search for new ways of living.  

“Doing” Together in an Organic Learning Community

Over the past four years, Shikshantar Andolan has also been to support the growth of co-creators in many different organizational and community contexts throughout the world. During this time, we have also tried to develop our own space as an organic learning community to nurture fellow co-creators. It is a space for doing, for discovering one’s own path — not an individualistic path (which breeds selfishness), but one that is deeply connected with all beings in a web of life. (Some friends have even affectionately called it a space for misfits.) From the very beginning, we have focused on creating spaces in which people can start to reclaim control of their own shiksha. This is done in two ways: 1) by exposing and dismantling the culture of schooling; and 2) by exploring and regenerating spaces for learning-sharing outside of the culture of schooling. 

It is difficult to describe what Shikshantar is, as it does not fit neatly into one category. It has purposely been set-up as (and evolved into) a hybrid organization – research institute, library, community activity center, place for retreat, publishing house – to allow it to cater to varying needs of the larger movement. People from ages 5 months to 85 years informally volunteer (real or virtually) with Shikshantar. This group includes those who go to schools and colleges, those who have dropped out of school, working people, housewives, retired people, people from different parts of India and other communities in the world.  

Shikshantar is also an organic learning community (some have called it an alternative college). At any point in time, we formally host 8-12 full-time learning activists on our core team. As learning activists, we are actively involved in exploring ourselves and our local surroundings vis-a-vis the big questions/debates of our times. We are also involved in actively nurturing the learning and unlearning of others. The learning activists are responsible for supporting and adding to the larger Shikshantar movement. For this, it is critical that the learning activists develop themselves into co-creators.  

There is no formal selection process for learning activists. Nor are any degrees or formal qualifications required. Learning activists emerge out of their own declared interests and intent. Whenever any new volunteer comes, we ask them to share what is special or unique about them and about their community or village. We also ask them to share meaningful questions that they are exploring and concerns they have about what’s happening around them in the world. They are invited to get involved in some specific aspect of the work of Shikshantar and to understand the vision and activities of the movement as a whole. If and when they feel that they would like to make a full-time commitment to Shikshantar, they can apply to be a learning activist by sharing their ideas about what they would like to do to contribute to the movement. A learning activist is taken on for any period between four months to five years, depending on their discovery process. 

A Lesson in Nurturing Co-Creation

In one of the Upanishads comes the story of a boy going to his guru and asking him: “Will you please teach me what is the nature of Reality? Will you teach me please what is the essence of Life, the meaning of Life, all the knowledge in your books?” The guru says: “I would love to help you, but look I am very old and I have these 200 cows. I need your help. They used to live in the forest. Would you take them away from the place that I am living, enter the deep forest, find a place where you will feel comfortable and live there till the 200 cows become 1000. While they are becoming 1000, you have to observe, interact with, and listen to everything that happens around you. Come back with the 1000 cows, then we shall see about your learning.” And the Upanishads proceeds to disclose how the young boy with 200 weak and lean cows goes far off into the forest having trusted the words of the sage. He lived there – nurturing the cows and being nurtured by them. For the process to be successful, he had to explore, dialogue and be with Nature. Over time, he started to understand the movement of the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers, the trees, the birds, the living and growing patterns of the cows, the intelligence that they express. For him learning, working, playing and being/becoming became one. And the Upanishad proceeds to tell us that when the young man went back to the guru’s place with 1000 cows, his entire being radiated with the light of deep understanding. He was joyful, his face glowing, his eyes full of an inner peace and bliss. And the guru said: “Congratulations, you have learnt by yourself.”

 
There is no pre-set curriculum for the learning activists. Rather, the learning agenda (learning goals, environments, styles and pace, resources, evaluations) emerges from mutual dialogue among all of the co-learners. We have learned that there are, however, some processes that can assist in their deeper exploration:

We have learned that there is, however, no particular order or time-frame or even specific exercises for these processes to take place. Each of these is explored with the individual learning activists’ own needs, capacities and dreams in mind — along with the flow of activities and new opportunities in the Shikshantar movement. We try to identify together what each of us is passionate about and what each of us holds as our strengths and weaknesses. On a daily level, the learning activists read and share articles, books, videos, art, theatre, songs, etc. that inspire/challenge them; devise their own projects according to their interests and talents; meet and interview diverse local people; create, as well as attend, workshops/conferences; and host study tours with other groups. At the core, it is assumed that the responsibility for one’s own learning and motivation rests with each and every individual. There is no hierarchy in learning, so every human being (regardless of formal academic qualifications) is a potential learning resource. And every kind of work, if done honestly, is a spiritual act. 

Much of the day-to-day efforts of learning activists are plugged into our work in Udaipur as a Learning City. This makes work very real, contextualized and tangible. It opens up a lot of space for interesting discussions, new questions and critical meta-reflection. The entire process is geared towards shaking the lethargy of the mind, expressing oneself and one’s vision of life, imagining new futures and developing the courage to break the chains of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) mindset. Learning activists are also encouraged to weave their own decentralized networks of volunteer co-learners. Current learning activists and some of the projects they are working on include:

In the past, learning activists have also contributed to the unfolding of learning parks, networks with local artisans, and writing/research for issues of Vimukt Shiksha. In all of the activities, learning activists are encouraged to identify new resources (beyond money) in Udaipur to support their work, and to use “waste” in creative new ways — which helps to break the myth that having a lot of money is necessary for doing meaningful work. 

Learning activists take a leadership role in designing and running their own projects. But all work is flexible and shared. There are no divisions like “Research,” “Administration,” “Computer Operations”, “Publications,” etc. There is a lot of informal giving of feedback and support to each other’s work as it develops. There is also a strong element of building on each other’s work once it is completed. For example, after Mahesh, Laheru and Pannalal published a book in Mewari on local artisans, Shilpa, Kishan and Gopal worked with them to design and run workshops to introduce children and their families to the books. 

Learning activists are encouraged to use their skills and knowledge that they develop across domains. Ajay, for example, is now taking the skills he acquired from working on Yuva Halchal magazine and combining them with his interest in martial arts to start a new magazine on martial arts. Learning activists also share what they are doing with their own families, friends, neighborhoods, caste and religious communities and other circles they are involved in. For instance, Pannalal, following his experiences with local communities and the Mewari language, is working with his caste community to organize their community events in Mewari. Vishal and Kishan have organized workshops with children in their neighborhoods, after participating in workshops at Shikshantar. Learning activists have also contributed to new experiments with our different partners in diverse parts of the country and around the world. 

Learning activists are also involved together in several group activities that include organic farming, cooking together, creating wall murals, organizing city-wide learning festivals (such as Celebration of Play and Rakhee Mela). They also go on team learning visits, with the dual intention of both being provoked and provoking, to places like Narmada Bachao Andolan and Auroville. From time to time, different individuals and groups come to Udaipur to share their efforts, experiences and burning questions with the team. 

In striving to become co-creators, our emphasis is on the “co-”, that is, the active involvement in respecting and facilitating each other’s learning. Stephan Harding describes, “We understand that other beings, ranging from microbes to multicellular life-forms to ecosystems and watersheds, to Gaia as a whole, are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potentials… Since all beings strive in their own ways for self-realisation, we recognise that all are endowed with intrinsic value, irrespective of any economic or other utilitarian value they might have for human ends. Our own human striving for self-realisation is on an equal footing to the strivings of other beings.” 

It should be clarified that there are no “teachers” or faculty at Shikshantar. Each of the learning activists is a co-learner. The power dynamic between learning activists is always changing. At times, different people (depending on their knowledge, skills and insights) organically emerge to play the role of “guide” – to help facilitate deeper exploration, better communication and new connections. It is important that the guide make his or her role, his commitment to the learner, and his or her expectations, rules, etc., clear. There is no threat of compulsion or use of punishment. Neither are there any financial rewards to look forward to. The guide must also make himself/herself vulnerable to critique from others and to the possibility (and necessity) of his/her own unlearning and new learning.  

Learning activists are not awarded grades. They do not graduate. They do not even have attendance records. We make no attempt to quantify or rank the learning or growth that occurs among the learning activists. We simply observe each other as we grow and try to encourage ourselves to engage in continual self- and peer-assessment. As John Holt describes, “The student, the do-er, can only learn a difficult action insofar as he can put the teacher inside of him. He must be a student and teacher at the same time. He must, more and more, grade his own tasks, get his own feedback, make his own corrections, and develop his own criteria, standards, for doing these things.” 

It is critical that learning activists feel that they have full access to the learning environment and the ability to add to/change it. So, all learning activists have their own key to Shikshantar. Everyone has the power to convene a meeting when they feel it is needed. They can post things they find interesting on the walls. Everyone is encouraged to bring new ideas, new people and new possibilities into our work. Learning activists are also encouraged to share problems they are having with their work or even personal problems. Every day at lunch, there is a Circle Check-in, in which everyone on the team shares what is on his/her mind. Learning activists also visit and spend time with different groups to learn how they manage (or mismanage) their organizations, and to get ideas on how we can further develop Shikshantar. 

There are several challenges that we continue to struggle with in our work with learning activists. First, we have found that there is a certain kind of arrogance that initially develops with the newly-gained knowledge. Sometimes, some of the learning activists use their power to dominate other young people; they move from quiet and suppressed to oppressor/teacher/boss. They may acquire a certain smugness or superiority complex which is not only rude, but also leads to laziness, in terms of seeking our new perspectives.  

Second, it takes a while for people to get used to the freedom. Each person has to figure out what is really important to them, how to set their priorities, how to manage their time (without somebody constantly watching them), and how to keep the commitments they make to others. It takes time to generate one’s own understanding of responsibilities to the larger community and own concept of self-discipline. It is very difficult for people to be honest (with themselves and with others) about their mistakes. There is a very strong culture of blaming others which takes time to unlearn. 

Third, learning activists have difficulty initially working together on a team, and in working with others of opposite sex, different age groups (particularly with older people), and across socio-economic boundaries. It takes time to recognize our own biases and to deal with the biases of others. Learning activists have difficulty giving critical, thought-provoking and constructive feedback which connects (rather than divides) others and in listening to such feedback. Lastly, while most learning activists have the support of their immediate family, other family members and friends subject them to continuous negative pressure to fit back into the mainstream system. 

Towards Co-Creating Ourselves in Learning Communities

Our experiences have shown us that the path of becoming a co-creator is not a linear, pre-determined one. Each person makes their own path as they go along. He or she makes many small choices along the way, which, at any point in time, can catapult them in new directions. There is a continuous dialectical process between unlearning and doing. Like the proverbial chicken and the egg, it is difficult to say which comes first. It is also very difficult to identify a final end state of being a co-creator or a final learning community, or a final learning society. Indeed, it is hard to imagine whether such an end state even exists. What we can say, is that transformation of self leads to transformations in the System, and transformations in the System lead to new transformations of the self. So in the process of unfolding learning societies, there is need to look at both the self and the System — in conversation and interaction with each other. 

In this third book of learning societies, we seek to highlight different ways that people are working to become co-creators and, at the same time, to co-create their own learning communities. We have tried to focus on actual experiments taking place in many different contexts in the world, so as to challenge the notion that learning societies are an impractical dream. These experiments are meant to be blindly “replicated” or “scaled-up.” Rather, these very real and concrete experiences surrounding these experiments give us many insights to the possibilities and pitfalls facing learning societies. They also give us renewed hope in the face of the colossal crimes against humanity being carried out by the culture of schooling. Our own work in Shikshantar has been continuously inspired by many of these experiments. 

Section I of this book highlights certain entrenched frameworks around Education and Development that prevent us from becoming co-creators of our learning societies, as well as some efforts to move beyond these. Section II focuses on various processes, spaces and media that are being developed to nurture co-creators in different parts of the world. Finally, Section III specifically explores experiences in decolonizing our minds, our bodies, and our communities in order to discover new possibilities for co-creation. Each of the articles in this book should be taken as an invitation by the authors to start a personal dialogue with them and to broaden our connections with each other. Please also share your thoughts on the Shikshantar website, to enrich the dialogue around learning societies: <www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/ls_discussion.html>. We invite you to experience the possibilities with us. 

ENDNOTES

1 The culture of schooling includes but is not limited to schools, non-formal education centers or distance education courses. For a more detailed discussion of this, see Jain, M. 2001. “In Search of Learning Societies...” in Unfolding Learning Societies: Deepening the Dialogues.

2 The tools utilized for dissent by the Left today, such as marches, petitions and letter-writing campaigns (real and virtual), dharnas (sit-ins), litigation, voting, etc., tend to be one-way and aggressive. As a result, they lack space for genuine dialogue and crossing established boundaries.

3 It is interesting to note that Gandhi, in his vision of Nai Talim, rejected funding for education that was derived from taxes on the sale of alcohol and tobacco (major sources of revenues for the State).

4 For details about individual stories, see Stories of Unlearning at <www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/stories_ resistance.html>. 

 
REFERENCES

Gandhi, M.K. 1908. Hind Swaraj. Ahmedabad: Navjivan Mudranalaya, 1938 ed.

Harding, S. “What is Deep Ecology?” Devon, U.K.: Schumacher College.

Holt, J. 1976. Instead of Education. Goa: Other India Press, 2002 ed.

Mignolo, W. D. 2000. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern

Knowledges and Border Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Manish Jain <manish@swaraj.org> is the coordinator and a co-founder of Shikshantar. Prior to that, he served as one of the principal architects of UNESCO’s Learning Without Frontiers transnational initiative. He currently lives in Udaipur with his grandparents, his wife Vidhi, and their 3-month-old daughter Avanika.