Like many teachers, children and families in Santa Fe and beyond, I’ve come to believe that creating a more sustainable economy and community begins with rethinking our education system. And like Seth Biderman and Aaron Stern at the Academy for the Love of Learning, I’ve begun looking around the world to discover creative alternatives to schooling.
For a variety of reasons, my search has taken me to India, where for the past five months I’ve been zig-zagging through chaotic mega-cities, Buddhist monasteries and isolated tribal villages, visiting a wide range of organizations and people to try to make sense of the relationship between the human instinct to learn and the societal invention of “school.”
One inspiring visit was to a place where classroom learning is nowhere to be found: the Udaipur-based Swaraj University, a creation of an organization called Shikshantar. Here, the “classroom” is India, and the learning is experiential, like bicycling penniless for 10 days through rural regions. The learners are supported in projects and mentorships that they design themselves, which have included opening organic cafés, documenting land reform and working with street children.
Shikshantar and organizations like it challenge the misconception that learning must be formalized and facilitated by trained teachers. It proves what we already know: that our most important insights and skill development often come from experiences outside of classrooms and standardized curricula.
Equally inspiring has been meeting a mechanic named Pramut. Everything he knows he learned hands-on, as his formal schooling ended in fifth grade. On a recent visit to his cluttered shop in Bhawanitpatna, I watched him patiently rewind electric coils on a burned-out motor, and realized that, despite my graduate-level classes in engineering, his knowledge of motors greatly surpassed mine.
Since meeting Pramut, I’ve been conducting a simple experiment. As I progress through my day, I ask myself if the people with whom I interact, and the human-built constructions that I see, would be different if India did not have its system of compulsory, formalized learning.
Most often, the answer is a definitive “no.” People would carry on repairing shoes, selling goods, driving taxis, plowing fields, building houses or running companies in exactly the same manner: using the skills they picked up through experience. While not all classroom teaching is boring or irrelevant, it’s clear that without school, the world would not come to a screeching halt.
I visited one school in a tribal community where an exciting learner-designed curriculum was curtailed when parents demanded that the children be prepared for grade five standard examinations. Those parents, like so many parents and children in India and the US, buy into the fallacy that a diploma will be their ticket to a dream job. However, studies have long shown that economic success is far more closely correlated to social class than schooling.
If most of the knowledge and the diplomas that we pick up in school don’t serve us in our daily lives, then why don’t we take greater action to free our children to experience the world and spend more time discovering their true passions?
Re-forming school can start by simply increasing access to learning spaces that already exist, as Shikshantar has done in Udaipur. In Santa Fe, where I grew up, we need to re-establish learning as a community-supported process that goes beyond the classroom, increasing children’s access to the workplaces of experts, to sports and arts programs, farmers’ fields, the mountains and deserts. We could expand experiments like Monte del Sol’s mentorship program, and reduce classroom hours so children may explore the rich multicultural traditions of visionary Native American and Latino/a artists; get a taste of scientific research labs in Los Alamos and Albuquerque; and become involved with nonprofits like Earth Care, The Story of Place Institute, Warehouse 21 and Santa Fe Mountain Center.
Aside from our own fear of change, there’s nothing standing in the way of freeing our children to spend less time in the classroom, and more of their days nurturing creativity and rediscovering wisdom that will help to heal our communities and environment. We can begin transforming Santa Fe into a city like Udaipur, a city that learns.
Santa Fe native Christian E Casillas has worked in rural communities throughout Africa and Latin America, in areas of education, energy and “development.” He is currently spending a year in India, trying to make sense of what’s in his head.