Profile: Shikshantar and Swaraj

Thursday, January, 3, 13 § 2 Comments

What does “school” look like when we throw out the grades, the classes, the teachers (the competition, the tests, the authority from above)? This one-of-a-kind organization in India offers a compelling picture for what learning could be.

Second-year learners from Swaraj University, at a farm outside of Udaipur

The Place: Udaipur, India, a “small city” of around 500,000.

The Skinny:  Shikshantar, the People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, is an organization that studies and practices more natural and sustainable approaches to learning and development, most of which differ radically from typical approaches to “education” or “fixing poverty.” Now in its second decade, Shikshantar hosts a variety of activities, including providing guidance and resources for free-thinkers, organizing un-conferences, producing publications, and cultivating projects that challenge dominant systems of education and economy. Swaraj University is a “university” started by Shikshantar, now in its third year, with 50 “seekers,” or students aged 17-28. It is not an accredited university, and does not give diplomas nor require them. It is focused on nurturing understandings that lead to a more sustainable engagement with society and the environment. Learning is mentorship-based, with facilitator support for a self-designed curriculum. Graduates of the two-year program focus on portfolio creation, as a more effective alternative to degrees.

What matters: The intention of Shikshantar and Swaraj University are to directly challenge harmful values that the founders feel are ingrained in the modern world’s approach to education and development. For these visionaries, school need not be compulsory nor based in competition. They challenge the idea of a superior “mono-culture,” (we all need to know the same things), and ask people to reconsider the power of corporations, the allure of consumption, and the monetary-basis of transactions. They do this work by nurturing both thought and action regarding the roles of collaboration, gift-culture, self-designed learning, and environmentally sustainable ways of living.

More info: This blog profile highlights a few facets of the innovation occurring at Shikshantar and Swaraj University, many more of which are described at the website of Swaraj University, or that of ShikshantarShikshantar has also produced a LOT of excellent and provocative publications on various aspects of education and development over the last decade, all freely available on their site. For example, check out this document on literacy.

Shikshantar is an example of a living, creative, learning space. Its “office” is a large house, across the street from the home of co-founders Manish and Vidhi Jain. It is a deliberate place where learning seems to unfold each day in unplanned ways. Its roof-top is covered with water-jugs-come-planters, art made from recycled materials, and a bicycle washing machine. There seem to be a constant stream of people, varying in scope from international visitors like myself, to collaborators and mentors, with many shades of young folks coming by to bounce ideas off of Manish or Vidhi, and participate in whatever activities might be happening.

One morning I found myself helping to make soap from cow manure (among other ingredients), and on another day watching folks clean and grind various grains on the roof. The main floor of the office has the most inspiring library I’ve ever come across, covering topics on learning, economy, sustainability, and spirituality, with the more radical views in prominence. There are also several rooms with clothes and handmade art, freely available to anyone, highlighting Shikshantar’s support of a gift culture. Each Saturday they host the Halchal Café open and free to all, with the intention of holding a fun space where people can come together to connect – Shikshantar’s answer to both corporate meetings and happy hour.

Weekly Halchal Cafe

Weekly Halchal Cafe

Amidst the chaos (and often contributing to it) is Kanku, Manish and Vidhi’s young daughter. Kanku is an un-schooler. Unlike a homeschooler, who still follows a standardized curriculum, Kanku’s emerging interests comprise her curriculum, her community is her teacher, and her environment is her classroom.

Kanku knows what she is missing: Manish and Vidhi have taken her to visit schools, just like one might take a child to visit a zoo. But Manish is no shy critic of the conventional education system (of which he sees homeschooling as just another permutation), and he likes to point out to Kanku, or anyone else, the common aspects found in most schools that he finds unnatural, and often damaging: They are compulsory, based on competition, nurture a singular culture and viewpoint, and are geared towards equipping people with skills that support a consumption-based economy. Rather than merely critique, Manish and his collaborators are offering an answer: Shikshantar.

A recent creation emerging from Shikshantar is Swaraj University, an overt challenge to university education. It is a two year program that calls itself a university, despite having no accreditation, faculty, degrees, or required diplomas from incoming learners. The university provides support for individuals to discover and pursue their passions through self-designed curricula, mentorships, and a variety of unique learning experiences, all through a lens of sustainable living.

Manish and several other folks act as guides and facilitators to each learner, who is called a khoji, the Hindi word for “seeker.” A khoji’s “education” is comprised of alternating periods of mentorships, meets, and learning journeys.

For the mentorships, khojis spend time with organizations or people throughout India that provide insight into their current callings.  The meets provide time for the khojis to come back together in community and reflect on their experiences, receive guidance, and participate in various workshops. One of the learning journeys taken by all of the khojis is a ten day bicycle trip without any money or technology through rural India, with the goal of becoming to become more aware of the wisdom, generosity and richness present in some of the nation’s most materially “poor” communities.


First-year khojis at Shikshantar office

I was at Swaraj during one of the meets for the first and second year khojis. The second-year khojis came together daily at the Shikshantar office to develop their individual projects. One khoji was envisioning how to create his own Shikshantar, of sorts; another was building art from recycled resources with the goal of raising awareness about over-consumption; and a third was envisioning how reforestation can be carried out through the creation of publicly owned, “sacred” forests. One of their workshops, on social entrepreneurship and business planning, focused on helping them come up with concrete steps and think about the real world constraints of implementing their visions.

I also had the opportunity to spend a few days with about fifteen first-year khojis, whose meet was hosted at Tapovan Ashram, a working farm outside of Udaipur. The farm is a cluster of simple houses and open spaces nestled amidst cultivated fields, groves of trees, and rolling hills. The owner supports the vision of Swaraj and generously provides his facilities as a home-base and campus for the university. During the meet, I accompanied the khojis to one of Udaipur’s dump sites. Most of us dealt quietly with the various emotions that we felt as we gazed at the piles of smoking rubbish, mostly plastic, being picked over by women and children, and abandoned cows, no longer fit for producing milk. I was told that the people scavenging for recyclable material come from a caste whose prior livelihoods, that of making grindstones, recently disappeared with the “progress” of modernization. One of the youngest khojis, a 16-year-old, pointed out that we all have a hand in creating the Armageddon-like conditions we were witnessing through the waste we create.

View from Tapovan Ashram, outside of Udaipur

The visit to the dump was part of a number of sessions focused on aspects of development. Contrary to the conventional view of development as improvement in quality of life through more sophisticated technology and access to material wealth, their sessions looked critically at the darker symptoms of development:  the creation of a corporate-controlled economy based on unsustainable rates of production and consumption, the erosion of indigenous livelihoods, the devastation of the environment, and the rise of new forms of anxiety and unhappiness.

The various conversations that I had with these first-year khojis touched me deeply, and left me impressed by their depth of self-inquiry and commitment towards authentic learning. I engaged in a conversation about non-conventional forms of marriage between several khojis, a topic that is very taboo in India, and which one of the khojis was considering exploring through documentary film. Another khoji shared with me some of his recent experiments, ranging from diet to medicine. He had recently reduced his reading of scientific texts to cultivate his own power of observation. A young man from England, with Punjabi roots and an M.S. from the UK, was finding support for his own un-learning process of self-discovery.

Upon completing their two year program, the khojis take no exams, but instead develop a portfolio of their skills and experiences, which the founders believe reveals more about an individual’s knowledge than a diploma. To help the khojis find gainful employment following their time at Swaraj, the founders have created a network of hundreds of employers who will accept a Swaraj portfolio as an alternative to a university diploma.

A group of creative youths at Banyan Roots Cafe

A group of creative youths at Banyan Roots Cafe

Far from nurturing creativity too rich to be useful in our current societies, the “graduates” of Swaraj University are already making waves as change-makers. Recent graduates are engaged in enlightened projects that include documenting land reform, promoting eco-friendly products, and practicing natural medicine. One Swaraj graduate has co-founded the Banyan Roots Café, a place where youth can hang out and cultivate their passions. I visited a few times, and found the place humming with writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs, strumming guitars or huddled around laptops planning film and book clubs and theater performances. The Café also offers an organic store that sells herbs and grains at prices barely higher than the pesticide-rich products in the local markets. The competitive prices derive from chemical free cultivation that is guaranteed through personal relationships and a handshake, rather than a costly regulating body.

On one of my last days at Shikshantar, a Swaraj graduate let me accompany him to a nearby village where he was lovingly greeted by swarms of smiling young children emerging from various alleys. He’s been working daily with these children, most of whom don’t go to school, and who support their families in various ways, often collecting waste.

As our visit ended, I asked the young man about the logistics of his organization, and his timeline and plans for working with these kids. Had he graduated from a conventional university, he might have shared a top-down approach for getting the kids into schools and a vision for scaling his project. Instead, he told me that currently he isn’t making any salary. He has no real long-term plan for what’s best for the children. He lets the children’s own daily challenges guide the evolution of the work, with his own learning supported by a small network of mentors. As for his personal commitment?

He smiled broadly. “I hope to be with them for life,” he said.

-Christian Casillas | Site visited in December 2012


§ 2 Responses to Profile: Shikshantar and Swaraj

  • Nanda says:

    Yup sounds like the kids in Santa Cruz and San Lorenzo Valley..and the various portfolios they compiled with students to place them in private colleges,universities, jobs. I think we are seeing more and more how we have left values and the spirit in education and as Wes Beach would say..we created” a one size fits all’ for education. I feel more and more PARENTS will split off from this model as they see the dangers of not noticing uniqueness even if it is in the form of personal pain or learning issues. What is being required of us culturally is to “attend” not with an attitude of a program but more about a way of life that notices what this pain or illness is indicating about our whole culture and trying to teach us. Certainly a teacher that sees his students as part of his life rather then his roll call is talking about an educational community not a download into a student then off we go to the next software upgrade. Things will have to slow even as the world speeds up and much more will be possible in an atmosphere of intimacy then accomplishment(not exclusive qualities in the long run.)

  • melissa cuevas says:

    I couldn’t have described Schikshantar better

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