A Celebration of Walkouts                                                                              Press Release

Bhandardara, Maharashtra

September 14-18, 2003

 

“Deep inside somewhere at the core is a voice that says… you are meant for greater possibilities.  The challenge is in putting your finger on that one thing that means the most.

And then comes a feeling that there is no stopping the possibilities that unfold.

Take a deep breath, spread those wings and take flight like there is no tomorrow.

Along the way, let's savor each moment, for life is in the here and now.

Having 'walked out', let's walk on…”

-          Nyla Coelho, age 39, Karnataka

 

Walking out.  The term itself calls to mind certain historical images: students rising from their classroom seats, leaving school grounds, to protest against war; factory workers stopping their industrial equipment, relocating together outside factory gates, to protest against exploitation.  Walking out implies a conscious decision, a willingness to translate beliefs into actions.  It is the courage and conviction to say, “Enough!   I refuse to be a part of a system that is violent, demeaning and inherently irrelevant.  I will no longer subject my body, mind or spirit to this torture.  I will walk out of here, and walk into doing (living) (being) something better.”   

 

A Celebration of Walkouts, or Vimukt Shiksha Utsav, was held September 14-18, 2003, in Bhandardara, Maharashtra.  Co-hosted by Abhivyakti Media for Development (based in Nasik, Maharashtra), Shikshantar Andolan (based in Udaipur, Rajasthan), and Multiworld-India (based in Mapusa, Goa), the celebration brought together 35 walkouts and 15 “unlearners” to spend five days co-creating together. 

 

The walkouts represented a diversity of backgrounds, from Shivram, who is 15 and had left school in Class 7, to Sujata, who is 40 and walked out of her Ph.D. program.  Some came from supportive families; others had to struggle with parental disapproval of their choices.  Income levels and caste backgrounds, as well as places of origin, from big cities to small villages, also fell along a spectrum. 

 

‘Walking out’ of formal education also meant different things to them.  Rahul (age 23, Goa), for example, had taken a year off between 12th and college, and again after college, to pursue his interests in snakes and reptiles.  He has published two books on his experiences, including Free From School.  Anish (age 18, Delhi), on the other hand, had left college to improve his talents in theater, but had simultaneously joined the Indira Gandhi National Open University. Gopal (age 21, Rajasthan) had left school completely after Class 12 to work more closely with folk cultural traditions, organic farming, and local language.  He edits a local magazine on organic living, “Dharati Re Sang”.  Similarly, Ravi (age 25, Delhi) left school after Class 9, and went to have great success in street theater and storytelling.  He has launched his own organization, NECTAR, to share performance media with street children. 

 

Yet, even with all these differences, what the walkouts shared was a willingness and conviction to take their learning, and control over their lives, back into their own hands.

 

The “unlearners” were people ranging in age from 25 to 55, also from a diversity of backgrounds.  They had come to enhance their own unlearning process, to “de-professionalize themselves”, as Claude (age 55, Goa), pioneer of an alternative publishing house (the Other India Press), put it.  Not only did the unlearners want to hear the experiences and ideas of the young walkouts, but they also shared their own experiences with “walking out”.  All of them had taken decisions to move out of prominent positions within maninstream systems and fields of work, ranging from business and international development, to architecture/design and social work.  More importantly, like the walkouts, they were interested in recovering and rediscovering more creative ways of learning and living.  As Ravi (age 34, Delhi), an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate who walked out of a potential career in business, expressed, “How can we create our own paths in the face of an inherently violent economic-political-social system? This is a big challenge for the 21st century.”

 

Over the course of five days, the walkouts and unlearners were co-creators of the celebration.  Together, they explored questions such as: Who am I?--Who are We?;  Why did we leave the formal system of schooling or college?;  What are struggles and challenges that I am facing in my life?;  What opportunities do I have (or can I make) for learning and living differently?; What can do to support each other, as well as to support other potential or existing walkouts? 

 

To understand and deepen these questions, the Vimukt Shiksha Utsav consisted of many unique processes.  For example, on the second day, a mela was held.  Each person created a stall to share his/her life stories, questions, concerns, talents, and dreams.  The group divided into two halves.  The first half put up their stalls in the morning, and the remaining half visited and interacted with them; roles then reversed in the afternoon.  This “festival of self” brought forth a tremendous amount of energy and provided a genuine context for knowing one another and building relationships. 

 

In the mela, Pankaj (age 23, Delhi) shared how he has struggled with his parents, to balance his learning interests with their monetary concerns.  They would like him to maintain a steady job in marketing, but he would rather start a “traveling learners” program, for young people interested in traveling to different places to work, explore and learn together.  At the moment, he is getting ready to leave for the UK and then Ladakh on a student exchange scholarship for six months.

 

Vinay (age 22, Maharashtra), on the other hand, had a lot of support from his family to continue in their traditions of simple living.  His father was a fan of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese pioneer of natural farming, and felt it right for his son to leave school and engage in natural learning.  Vinay is working with young people in his village and in other parts of the country to re-generate and enhance organic farming and medicinal plant traditions.

 

One of the premises of the Celebration was that each person present was a ‘resource person’.  There was no hierarchy of experts. With this in mind, knowledge, skills, ideas and experiences were shared in open space co-learning workshops.  A fantastic range of topics ranging from organic farming to economics, to photography, theater, music, meditation, origami, storytelling, discovering possibilities, making mud houses and catching snakes, were proposed and hosted by the various participants.  In the true spirit of walkouts, people self-organized from one session to the next, co-learning freely without any external authority to control or direct them. 

 

This open spirit was also evident throughout.  The Celebration shifted for one day to a small village, nestled in the backwaters of the Bhandardara dam.  There, KB Jinan (age 50, Kerala) who works with craftspeople, invited the group to reflect and unlearn by silently being in and with nature.  He described how ‘sensing nature’ enabled him to recover his intuition, which he feels is the true basis of learning (not the intellect).  Activating his senses in nature also helped Jinan to undo the damage done to his aesthetic senses by his training at the National Institute of Design.  The silent time listening to the sounds of nature, seeing the smallest of flowers and insects, and smelling the breeze and greenery of the surroundings, had a soothing and healing effect on many individuals in the group.

 

One-to-one conversations, dancing, singing, drawing, writing, cooperative and spirited games and collective cooking marked the rest of the days of the Utsav.  The collective wealth of experiences and energy reminded all the participants of their power to create a beautiful world.  As Hemant (age 23, Delhi), who is forming a new musical band with other walkouts, commented, “I am feeling energetic and fresh with so many different alternatives for learning. I wish all young people could experience this.”

 

The dynamism, openness and fluidity of the five days also captured how the walkouts and unlearners understand processes of learning.  They do not expect readymade alternatives to be produced for them to purchase and consume, but rather see themselves as seekers and creators of their own paths of learning.  They are willing to take risks, venture into the unknown, and put in hard work, in order to find the places and people who are ‘right’ for them.

 

The Celebration ended with a bang, as an open sharing was held in the heart of Nasik with its citizens.  Potential walkouts, parents, NGO staff, and many others interacted with the walkouts and unlearners.  Stories were shared, questions were posed, and many citizens felt surprised and motivated by the confidence and determination of the walkouts.  They also realized that the learning landscape in India is quite expansive, and extends far beyond the narrow limitations of schools and colleges.  They saw that we can both find existing learning opportunities and diverse knowledge systems, as well as create our own learning communities to meet our needs and fulfill our dreams.  Many Nasik youth felt encouraged to start ‘walking out – walking in’ and also received some concrete advice on how to gain family support in the process.

 

Why is this Celebration of Walkouts timely and important?  In India, and around the world, millions of young people and their families feel frustrated and angered by the educational system, both while in it and afterward.  They are filled to the brim with expectations of and desires for material luxuries, but after their ‘education’, they neither know themselves nor can they stand on their own feet. Very few opportunities exist for them in government sector and they are de-skilled from their traditional family occupations. Indeed, most are at the mercy of a highly competitive market, which daily grows more cut-throat and exploitative.

 

While calls for increasing access to education continue, most ‘Education for All’ advocates have failed to realize that access to random, useless and mugged-up information is hardly worth the trouble.  Moreover, they do not see that there will never be enough seats for everyone.  The education system is actually set up for manufacturing failures; if it does not select, filter and then reject the majority of human beings, it cannot fulfill its purpose. It is time to recognize that the education system cannot be reformed by simply changing the syllabus or textbooks, or by training teachers and adding some computers. Something more radical is required.  Something that takes us beyond the monopoly of the education experts.

 

Here is where walking out — and walking on — comes in.

 

It is clear that young people want something different.  Yet, they have lost the imagination, or the confidence, or the social support, to leave this stifling education system and pursue other, more meaningful paths of learning. Many parents feel that they have no choice but to keep their children in school or college, even while they recognize that it is not leading them anywhere – and worse, having many negative effects on them and their communities. NGOs, government and corporations exacerbate this catastrophe by demanding degrees and certificates, even while knowing that these paper tigers do little to highlight a person’s real skills, talents, experiences, values, strengths or motivations.

 

This Vimukt Shiksha Utsav is a first step in inspiring others to see the strength and potential of rising out of stifling, dead institutions.  In the tradition of Gandhi, Tagore, Vinoba, JP and others, the co-organizers view the decision to leave school and college with dignity and appreciation.  As Manish Jain (age 34, Rajasthan), one of the co-organizers and unlearners, who walked out of UNESCO and the trappings of his Harvard Master’s education, further clarifies: “We are not telling anyone to leave school or college, but we wish to support those who have made that decision. Right now, it does not make any sense to continue to ‘pass time’ in school, especially when young people are unhappy there.  Instead, celebrating the decision to walk out means creating more learning options for the children and youth of India.  It means listening to our hearts, setting our own needs and priorities, defining our own identities, and generating diverse alternatives to this self-destructive paradigm of development."

 

A Celebration of Walkouts demonstrates that ‘walking out’ has been complemented by ‘walking on’: discovering and creating spaces and opportunities for learning in meaningful ways.  Whether it is Jyoti (age 17, Delhi) who is linking up with various artists to develop her own painting talents, or Shiju (age 23, Gujarat) who started his own music group, while simultaneously running a small canteen, or Gopal (age 20, Delhi) who apprenticed with an electrician to learn the trade, or Japan (age 26, Gujarat) who left college to become a well-known local journalist…  the list goes on.  These walkouts vibrantly challenge the dehumanizing labels of ‘failures’ and ‘drop-outs’, and reaffirm the consciousness, creativity and courage that lie within the choice to pave a different path of learning and living. Chandresh (age 26, Gujarat), who left class 12 and has since been working with many innovative educational experiments around the country, describes, “This is great opportunity not only for me but for my three-year-old son.”

 

At the close of the Celebration, many walkouts and unlearners have launched several initiatives to follow this initial celebration: a musical group, a resource booklet for walkouts, a theatre group, a video on walkouts, a visual arts group, a website for walkouts, a walkouts bulletin…  And a follow-up event is expected to be held during the World Social Forum in Mumbai this January.  If you are interested in participating or learning more about these initiatives, please contact: Shilpa Jain at Shikshantar <shilpa@swaraj.org>, Nitin Paranjape at Abhivyakti <nitin@abhivyakti.org.in> or Claude Alvares at Multiworld-India <mversity@sancharnet.in>