A story in self-education
In life, the grand phenomenon that is personal growth is never like a ladder – it is not purely vertical, linear or step-wise. Being an educator for many years, I am beginning to see this lucidly. The ‘ladder’ has many shortcomings as a metaphor for growth – though most education systems and curricula are structured this way. I’d like to think that learning happens in the metaphoric spaces of fields, of grasslands. Expansive, rugged horizontal landscapes. In many ways, ‘fields’ subvert the colonial scaffolding over which our schools and institutions are modelled. I mean ‘colonial’ in the way the African educator and anti-racist activist George Sefa Dei describes it – “colonial is defined as more than simply anything foreign… Instead, the colonial implicates all that is imposed and dominating…”
In a field there can be many paths – all different yet equally viable. Here “paths are made by walking” too, in Antonio Machado’s words. New trajectories are possible. It can hold Rumi’s profound insight – “there are as many paths to God as there are people on Earth.” A field acknowledges and dignifies plurality and diversity, just like every natural ecosystem. It is a humane and compassionate space.
There is place to wander, opportunity to trace back or traverse a different learning path, something we often observe naturally in children. Some speak before they read, some run before they speak. In a field, student and teacher are on the same ground. The distinctions between them are blurry and varied. In such a place of learning, each child, each human being, is intrinsically and uniquely intelligent. When many voices can speak and be listened to with equal dignity, then the erstwhile voiceless begin to speak to us too – including the land, the trees, the birds, the rivers. Several indigenous philosophies of education have recognised the importance of this. In Maori educational pedagogy for instance, the word Ako is to both teach and learn. And as a principle it emphasises ‘reciprocal learning’ where the teacher (or any one being) is not the fountain of knowledge but a partner in the vast conversation of learning. It reinvokes the infinitude of the world and throws each child, each human being into full citizenship with all other things.
Children naturally resist coercive hierarchical structures. Carol Black says, “Children’s resistance takes many forms; inattention, irritability, disruption, withdrawal, restlessness, forgetting; in fact, all of the symptoms of ADHD are the behaviours of a child who is actively or passively resisting adult control.”
Self-education at 16
I am self-educated, by which I mean that I took charge of my own learning journey at an early age. It started with an act of resistance. I left home abruptly one night when I was 16, seeking to elude a physically abusive stepfather whom I had endured for over five years. Deep in contemplation, I got off a bus near my school (The School, KFI), walked in and knocked on the door of the principal’s house inside the campus. It was nearly midnight. G. Gautama, then the principal of The School, listened to my story. He spoke with my mother the next morning and we decided that I would stay for a while at Pathashaala – a new residential KFI school. Over the next few weeks, I visited Shibhumi, The Valley and other residential schools to see where I could resume my high-schooling. After several conversations, I decided to do my 11th and 12th (A levels under the CIE curriculum) as an independent student staying at Pathashaala. At the time it was a new school – a hundred-acre campus set in rural Kanchipuram with a few teachers, non-teaching staff and about 30 students up till the eighth grade. I scheduled my study time, engaged with my teachers from The School over phone call, and travelled by train to perform practical experiments and write my exams in HLC School in Chennai.
These were my formative years, where I became grounded in the values and pursuits which continue to anchor my life and work to this day. Academics had only a small role to do with my education. I spent a lot of time walking this landscape – the lakes, paddy fields, grasslands, the Paalar river basin – watching and documenting other life. I got to know birds, snakes, trees, and insects very closely. Hundreds of conversations with different people – children, villagers, teachers, guests and farmers taught me much more than textbooks.
During this time, I realised how conventional schooling had a strong top-down structure. A framework is readymade and imposed. The realities, capacities, heart, mind, and body of the individual child aren’t considered. Learning, doing, teaching, and living are artificially separated. This became very clear as I went through my chosen educational path. Most often, in truly valuable experiences of learning and growth, these distinctions vanished. They didn’t happen in timetabled scheduled slots.
Historically, only forms of indoctrination were linear, one-way, tailored, and topdown – much like today’s political discourse. For me, learning happened like weed growth in the fields, sporadically, wildly, simultaneously on several paths – and perhaps that was its natural course.
Paths and Pursuits
In Pathashaala, I rediscovered the recorder, a woodwind instrument I had learnt for many years when I was young. I read Anders Ericsson and his 10,000 hour rule. During vacations, when children and teachers went home, I stayed back on campus – which would grow delightfully wilder. One summer I practiced the recorder obsessively to pack in the hours. Uday Shankar, musician and inventor of the Chitravenu, was visiting the campus at the time to practice his instrument in tranquillity. We practiced all day for many days, fuelled by each other’s fervour. One day I practiced for 14 hours, and my left thumb split along the knuckle and bled. Later I would pursue this interest further and complete a Licentiate of Trinity College London (LTCL) in music performance.
In 12th grade, I got the opportunity to conduct science workshops every week for three government schools in villages around the campus. My core interest was to enmesh the concepts they learnt in their science textbooks in their own landscape – local flora and fauna, farming practices and other livelihoods, everyday materials, and activities in the village. The content in their books were often far removed from their lived realities. We created a butterfly garden, activity cards and a range of other supplementary learning materials in the process. I also began teaching science subjects in Pathashaala, and for interested children, the recorder.
Parallelly I discovered in myself a strong passion to read and write about the natural world, human consciousness, working with children, and the beautiful intersections between them. I read M. Krishnan, Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane, J. Krishnamurti, Gary Zukav, E.O. Wilson, Michael Pollan, Tim Ferris, Daniel Kahnemann to name a few. The headmaster of Pathashaala was K. Ramesh, who is also a world-renowned Haiku poet. His room was a library curated from second-hand bookshops. He would let me borrow generously. And writing for me became a tool to navigate and understand the mindscape-landscape continuum. Pen and paper have been my constant sensory technology.
Becoming an Educator
As I grew as an educator, there were several inner conflicts. The curriculum I was supposed to teach was concerned with concepts and facts. Not values and processes. No syllabus ever said that the school and classroom must be a diverse ecosystem, and that each child should have the space and confidence to blossom as they are. No syllabus ever said that there are numerous ways of knowing, seeing, and making meaning – and the curriculum put forward was just one of these ways. No national or state syllabus in its whole framework clearly puts the wellbeing of the Earth and that of the child as its central intentions.
This raised many questions, which I pursued with other people and within myself. David Orr said that “all education is environmental education.” This should especially be so for the times we live in. Work by visionary educators like Richard Louv, Maria Montessori, Gail Melson, Peter Kahn, Lucy Jones, and others have established from different perspectives the importance of land and wilderness for children to learn and grow in – for their healthy emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual development and wellbeing. Then what is the core intention of mainstream education, one wonders if it is not all these.
J. Krishnamurti points to a colonial reality, which is still prevalent in India and across the world – “Governments want efficient technicians, not human beings, because human beings become dangerous to governments – and to organised religions as well. That is why governments and religious organisations seek to control education.” A fundamental truth we must acknowledge is that each child’s journey into self-discovery, fulfilment, growth, and search for meaning is profoundly unique and irreplicable. The increasing number of home-schoolers, un-schoolers, and alternative educational institutions in India is a good sign for the future.
After A levels, I began thinking about moving out for college, while also uncertain about leaving everything I had started here. One morning, Gautama walked into my room and offered an alternate path. He said I could stay here if I wanted to, continue my work, and pursue a degree through distance education. After much thinking and negotiation, I did exactly that. I enrolled for a B.Sc. degree through Indira Gandhi Open University in Zoology, but then finished in Physics to avoid dissection sessions.
Becoming a Writer and Activist
In January 2016, I returned to Chennai. Over the next year and a half, I wrote and published my first book A Naturalist’s Journal – a semiautobiographical collection of essays on countryside wilderness and my journey in self-education. I connected with my music teacher S. Balakrishnan again and for two years we played many concerts together in the city. He then fell ill. As cancer progressed up his leg (it would take his life within a year) he passed on his students to me and introduced me to Abacus Montessori School, where I first joined as a performing arts teacher. Serendipitously, the school also had a farm programme where children of classes 7, 8 and 9 learned and engaged in sustainable farming practices at the school farm. Kamini Sundaram, the Director of the school, invited me to join the programme and soon we extended it across all ages, including in it nature education and citizenship-education.
A couple of years ago, I sought out and met activist Nityanand Jayaraman to be part of environmental campaigns in the city. A group of us like-minded people formed a youth collective called the Chennai Climate Action Group under his guidance. We are now actively involved in social and environmental campaigns, research and advocacy work in Chennai and Tamil Nadu.
I’ve seen and learnt that children and young people have extraordinary agency, intelligence, and the capacity to relentlessly question. John Holt describes this curiosity as something which “grows from real concerns and real needs.” An exciting part of my work right now is creating a curriculum for older students to be directly engaged in matters of society, environment and governance in the city. Recently, the Class 11 children of Abacus were part of an inter-school movement across Chennai to save the Pulicat lagoon from a mega-port project. They ideated and executed various ways of gathering public awareness. They visited the place, understood the impending ecological destruction, spoke to the fisherpeople and listened to their woes. One of their initiatives was collecting around 500 endorsements of students from over 50 different schools and colleges in a letter to the Chief Minister and other authorities, requesting them to reject the port proposal. It became one of the most powerful parts of the campaign.
Seeing this sort of education in action is what I think the world needs today. And it is one of the most fulfilling things to be part of this movement.
First published by Sanctuary Nature Foundation