If I had to describe India in one word, I’d say….hmm…that’s a tough one. India is so incredibly diverse in every possible way; culturally, geographically, ethnically, climactically, politically, academically, you name it! It engulfs your every sense, at every moment. Consequently, I guess I could say India is chatpata; a word describing a perfect blend of spicy and sour flavors. A gentle tango between the hauntingly beautiful adhan (muslim call to prayer) from the minaret and the incessant rickshaw horns. The aromas of biriyani, rose water, and car exhaust. The fresh taste of adventure on the tip of your tongue. Sweet, pickled, spicy, crunchy…and always delicious.
I was lucky enough to experience some of this flavor during the AIF Thematic conference on Education in Kutch, Gujarat. As we drove from the airport in the city of Ahmedabad to a rural corner of Kutch, the landscape changed right in front of our eyes. We went from a bustling city, full of lights and sounds, to the silent open fields looking up to bright stars against the pitch black night sky.
The aim of the conference was for us to expose ourselves to the victories and plights of education in a rural setting, specifically affected by seasonal labor migration, myriad policies, and a distinct socio-economic context. We saw various colorful aspects of education as we visited a Learning Resource Center (LRC), a government school, salt pans, an ancient Harappan civilization, and a salt desert. We spoke to community members, LRC facilitators, and School Management Committee (SMC) members. In the end, we tied everything together in the context of the Indian education structure, the role of the government, and the idea of active citizenship to allow for accountable governance. We kept an eye out for the big picture, while we discussed finer details.
One of the discussions that stuck in my mind was regarding one the most widely practiced learning methods in Indian schools; mugging.
AKA rote memorization.
AKA not fun.
The standard Indian schooling system places little emphasis on extracurricular activities or “extraneous” subjects that deviate the student’s attention away from earning the highest marks in their core subjects. In addition, there seems to be a disconnect between the way students are taught and the nature of knowledge itself. Students are most often taught subject by subject, implying that knowledge is kept in distinct categories, with little room for mixing and borrowing. However, this is not the nature of knowledge at all. Every subject is related in some way or the other; chemistry is applied physics is applied mathematics.
Which is why I question; why should education be bland in such a chatpata place? Indeed, education is food for the soul! Right?
Actually, it can be (way) more complex than that. In India, an education can be something to “lift you up,” but on the other hand, it is not always something that can “lift you out.” Due to the incredibly diverse nature of its people, social structures, caste system, ideologies, etc., people can often be bound by their circumstances, despite receiving an education. For example, a child of a migratory laborer not only has to deal with migration, but also the fact that his or her help in the field brings in money to the family, while going to school does not.
We saw this phenomenon when we visited the salt pans during the conference. A young girl was scraping the surface of the salt pan with a rake, in order to catalyze the formation of crystals. Despite the biting cold and the corrosive salinity, she was wearing a pair flip flops with knee high socks, in vain, as her legs were completely submerged in the salty water. This girl and her family were most probably prisoners of the cycle of borrowing money, working long hours to make money, and still coming up at a loss. Eventually, she would be forced by circumstance to leave school and work full time. In such cases, it may take more than a basic education to lift her out of this vicious cycle.
In response, there are a handful of great innovators and organizations that bring quality education to kids living in these conditions. These organizations subscribe to a more free-flowing, creative pedagogy that aims to open the eyes of a young student to the joys of learning. An example of this approach is the LRC, run by the AIF Learning and Migration Program (LAMP). These Learning Resource Centers are places where students can go after school to learn through playing games, engaging in hands-on activities, and having a lot of fun. The LRC therefore serves as a centralized location for learning and celebrating community.
Although just a few days long, the thematic conference was truly a turning point. Spending time discussing education with the other fellows helped me better understand my own project. Education to me is quite possibly the single most important gift that one can give to any person. It is what gives life its eclectic flavor and leaves one craving for more. I am incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to work in a field where I can share my enthusiasm for knowledge with others and hopefully inspire them to do the same. The future of the world is built upon the education of its children. That’s why I think it makes sense for us to invest our own futures in educating our children.
Sending the warmest of hugs to Palak, Olivia, Abby, Tim, Nadeem, Ben, Annika, Pious, and Denise. I was truly humbled to be learning alongside each of you wonderful people at the thematic conference. Also, a huge thank you to Arjun for imparting his knowledge and humor upon us to engage us throughout the entire experience. And last but not least, thank you to the Unnati staff, for their kind hospitality and friendship, and for hosting us on their campus during the conference.