Udaipur & Shikshantar
During a recent trip to India I had the pleasure to spend time in Rajasthan, a beautiful desert region in western India, and visited Udaipur, one of the regions most beautiful and culturally rich cities. In Udaipur I spent a couple of days at Shikshantar, a grass roots community center in that offers programs and events for people to be self-empowered learners, change agents in their local community, and more autonomous in their daily lives. Shikshantar is a Schools Without Borders partner, and it was wonderful to experience the fruits of SWB manifest for me by connecting with this inspiring organization on the other side of the world. I had the pleasure to spend a good part of a day in conversation with Manish, one of the founders of Shikshantar, as well as with his wife and a couple of volunteers. It was an incredibly interesting conversation, and it challenged some of my fundamental beliefs in a way that is rare to encounter.
Manish, who has a highly prominent academic and professional background, spoke against schools and academic institutions as instruments of oppression rather than liberation. Rote learning, standardized grading, and fixed curriculum do not address the personalized learning style of an individual, and learning through prepackaged concepts ultimately promote the status quo. This engenders schools to be a tool of conformity, commercialization, and hegemony rather than personal creativity and expression. In addition, he pointed out how we consistently assign authority, worth, and power to an individual based on their academic affiliations and degrees. This practice reinforces established power structures and propagates false egoic identifications.
This rhetoric was more virulent than I had previously encountered as a critique of modern education. One typically hears criticism that educational systems do not work effectively because students fall behind, do not having access to amazing teachers, and are dropping out prematurely. I had not experienced the perspective that modern schools are an instrument of suppression and cultural dissolution. While it was tough to hear at first, I have to admit that the argument was compelling. It may not be an overt form of oppression, in that there is a nefarious group of people using schooling as a way to suppress cultural heritage and individual expression, but rather a more subtle artifact of an education system that is outdated, benefits from a standardized approach, and propagates ideas that reinforce its own relevance.
As I get ready to embark to Oxford, arguably one of the most prominent academic organizations benefiting from a status quo in education, it made me question the validity of my pursuit and the motivation behind going. I am a lifelong learner, both in traditional academic settings and through self-guided means, and I think that any opportunity to learn and grow is a beneficial experience. However, I am aware that any long-standing academic organization is going to present information based on a particular worldview, and that the nature of mass-produced education will tend not to promote creativity, self-expression, and radical new ideas. This is true even in the times where "innovation" and "creativity" are expressed virtues - truly challenging preconceived notions and underlying systems is generally not received very well. My nature, for better or worse, is to question authority, argue against established doctrines, and to expose cultural assumptions that hurt our way of life and our planet. Is it possible to continue this exercise in an academic establishment such as Oxford, or will I inevitably be brainwashed, becoming an instrument of a system that I seek to benefit from and simultaneously demonstrate as harmful and illusory?