Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Outside Classrooms

If you ask me what I remember of all that I studied at school and, then, in many years at college and university and which came in handy later in life, I don't think I'll have much to narrate. What an awful waste of those precious youthful years! Honestly, little of what I was forced to learn in the classroom proved of any use to me once I stepped out into the 'real world'. Which is why, when Raju, a middle-aged father, came to meet me yesterday for 'advice' as to what to do about his two sons, who go to an expensive medium school but who seem, as he put it, to 'learn nothing at all' there, I was tempted to tell him to pull them out of the school at once.

If education is a means for us to learn about the world so as to help us prepare to live in it, it was mainly outside the classroom--out in the 'real world'--that my education really took place. My parents made it a point to take us to a new place every year during the winter holidays, and the things I learned in the course of those early travels--about different places, monuments, people, cultures, religions, ways of living and so on--was my first exposure to the 'real world', and an enormously educative experience. But this was for less than a month each year, and then it was back to school, where, carefully insulated from the 'real world', I spent the rest of the year studying about almost nothing at all that inspired or intrigued me.

I know I ought to be grateful for those annual learning trips, but they were nothing remotely like what a girl I heard of the other day is priveleged to enjoy: She's not yet ten, but her parents have sensibly withdrawn her from school for a while and are taking her on a two-year journey around the world. They are really roughing it out, going for treks in the mountains, trips deep into deserts and jungles and across seas, and spending time with NGOs working with people with disabilities. What an amazing learning experience for that lucky little child!

Back in the 1980s, I was in college in Delhi, where I majored in Economics, a subject I had no interest in whatsoever. The subject was taught in such a way that it seemed to have no bearing at all on the harsh realities of the 'real world'. Poverty, for instance, was just a bundle of figures and graphs. We learned about industries and agricultural yields, but were never taken to see a factory or a field out in the 'real world'. And so on. And so, when I heard of an organisation that sponsored college students to spend their holidays in an NGO of their choice working out in the 'field' I enthusiastically signed up, and was sent to spend a month in a little village in tribal-dominated Koraput, in Orissa.

This was a quarter century ago, and Koraput, which is still said to be among the most 'backward' districts in India, was then thought to be really 'back of beyond'. The village I was to live in was set in a narrow valley and surrounded by thickly-forested hills. Most of its inhabitants belonged to the Kondh tribe, most of who were then (and, I suppose, even now are) miserably poor. The Kondhs still followed much of their simple, traditional way of life. More