Project Defy


It is no surprise that we’re witnessing one of the biggest turnovers of what defines human value and its methods or perception of ‘educating’ in history, for all that stood for schooling (information holding and dissemination) is smoothly being taken over by memory chips and the internet. Existing school and college systems are largely at stake of losing all relevance, as collaborative capacities, run for initiatives or instant thought becomes far more valuable than degrees. And as our digital seconds tick, we are closer than ever to realise the futility of the mindless competition and egocentric ideas of ‘success’ our colonised minds have so long adhered to. To such an extent, that we feel completely lost and miserable without a given goal or a checkpoint, probably a hangover of the slavery under the British rule.


Not that we’ve completely gotten out of it, or that the numbness of an enslaved mind has left us, but we surely have started questioning our ideas of ‘success’ and ‘necessities’.

Experimentations and re-evaluations in education, at least in India, have been ages old. But for relatability and a counter colonial narrative, we can go back to 1920’s; when a resourceful and acknowledged figure (in the world of literature and otherwise) tired with the factory model of classroom schooling, decided to have classes under open skies and banyan trees, with complete interdisciplinary courses which continue till date. And no wonder it brought out few of the most diverse and acknowledged minds in the world of cinema to the world of economics. Rabindranath Tagore, thus, can be taken as one of the foremost examples of those in India who pioneered experiential learning, with symbiosis and self-realisation as core values, countering the absurd idea of British schooling (which were no more than prisons training ‘well behaved’ clerical slaves).


There were several others including Mahatma Gandhi (idea of swaraj), Sri Aurobindo (Auroville) who have tried to, and to certain extent have, successfully established spaces and ideas of exploratory and experimental schooling, and a human society where growth and thought are driving factors. It is a mind-boggling phenomenon, however, to see ‘globalisation’ cause such an impact, that even after seventy years, people are still being sold mono-cultured and linear ideas of success, where it is an imaginary ladder to climb, while ensuring that others are left behind. And the only way to climb that ladder is with an IIT certificate, without which one might as well imagine a deadbeat existence. If we care to reimagine the world, we must look beyond the usual faces of success, the famous CEOs and Billionaires and Investment Bankers, and find new ones that have succeeded in life differently.


Jail University, Udaipur 

The inmates here, at the Central Jail of Udaipur, try to explore activities which are close to their hearts, discovering a sense of freedom during their time in prison. This includes a variety of things, from permaculture to theatre to painting, through a wonderful program called Jail University. One of the faculty-inmates for the program, began his journey at the jail six years ago, when according to him he, along with his father and grandfather, was  falsely accused of a crime and sent into prison. Following an intensely difficult phase and getting a lifelong sentence, on the verge of giving up, he found painting to be his companion and guide through the program. From intricate drawings for drawing books to painting murals on walls, he found his calling. Took him nine months to master his craft, and some amount of resilient faith to start passing it on to twenty other inmates, who plan to continue it professionally when they get out. This program aims at shifting the societal outlook of imprisonment, punishment and crime to a more inclusive process of lifelong learning and a journey of finding one’s true calling.


HIAL (Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh) and SECMOL 

The name of Sonam Wangchulk rings a familiar bell after the popularity of how the success rate of matriculation results in Ladakh’s villages took a sharp increase within a decade of introducing SECMOL (Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh). A program introduced after he worked together with the government and villagers into making the school curriculum more relatable and inclusive of local culture. For those still struggling to cope up, he introduced this alternate school, HIAL, which takes learning to its core, making it fun, hands-on and experimental. From agriculture to eco-friendly buildings to starting campus radio or newspapers, this place could be a live example of what a community of solution builders, rejected by the generic schooling systems could accomplish, given an inclusive space. For more specific examples, we could consider two of the learners who had earlier failed their matriculations repeatedly four to five times. One went to become a top journalist and later education minister, while another a renowned filmmaker with multiple awards. Thus, the examples of those rejected by conventional institutions blooming at the chance of necessary and adequate spaces are endless.


JP Nagar Nook, Bangalore

Another such story which can’t go unmentioned would be that of Niah, and her ongoing journey of exploration and self-directed learning, from JP Nagar nook. For those unfamiliar with nooks, these are physical self-learning spaces within communities, where learners of all ages and genders can come together, explore and learn through projects of their choice. Niah, left her school after 12th and got married   early, to a household where she wasn’t allowed to do much outside household work. She discovered the nook while coming to drop off her sons, only to find out she equally belonged to this space. A space without any teacher, a strict code of conduct or exam, one where you could simply be. Laptops and the internet opened a whole new world for her; she started learning English and the possibility of exposure immensely boosted her confidence. She is still figuring out how to use her newly acquired skills but is glad to have found a voice and not be constricted in the household anymore.


There are endless examples of such journeys, where young and creative minds, rejected by social structures of schooling and education, have flourished the moment they have found enough space to ‘grow’ and to ‘be’. From Albert Einstein to Thomas Edison to Leonardo Da Vinci, we could keep looking at known figures who made a positive shift in the course of humanity but were seriously rejected by their schools and teachers.

That brings us to a very basic question – Can a student or person ever be a ‘failure’? Or is it the school which fails when it labels its student as ‘failure’?

In fact, what kind of a society is evolved, if it’s idea of nurturing is based on exclusion? It is like choosing the plant which is already in full growth and bloom, and providing it with more food and water, taking credit for its growth. No wonder the gap between the richest and poorest, economically, and culturally, has only been ever increasing. No wonder linear ideas of growth and success are devouring all possibilities of diverse thought and solutions, with every bit of human essence left in them. We’ve already lost touch with most of our cultural roots and the mind-boggling diversity they held, their crafts and knowledge, mostly vilified by schooling systems.


Since we are at the verge of a major crisis which is ecological, economical, educational, societal and political, it is a good time to think about taking a small pause; rethink our ideas of success, growth and happiness and ask ourselves, ‘if everything around us appears to be ‘garbage’ or ‘failures’, who or what has really ‘failed’ ?

Then, we can hold up these existing stories, which took the courage of going beyond the norms, giving curiosity, imagination and the human ‘being’ a chance; and use them to inspire enough such stories and spaces, that they fill up this existing void of neglect and rampant rejection.

For what use is a school of, if it doesn’t know how to include and create enough space, for each to grow?


About the author

Archisman is an explorer and storyteller with special interest in the impact of visual design and architecture in everyday life. He likes painting walls, listening to teatime stories and working with organisations or communities aiming for a more conscious, symbiotic future.

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