இயற்கை முறைக் கல்வி

Monday, January 13, 2014

Schooling is 'Rewiring the brain'

There was a time in my life, (a whole year in fact) that I dedicated to becoming an environmental economist. It was the year 2000, a few years into my journey into ‘social change’. I was in Brandeis University in the US pursuing a masters degree in Sustainable International Development. I was attracted to the idea of changing the world from top down and aspired to get into the World Bank or the United Nations. I truly believed that human behaviour could be changed through incentives and disincentives, and that that was the only way to bring about any change in the world. The language of money was what people really understood, and I wanted to learn to speak that language really well.    
But I had no training in either Maths or Statistics beyond my class ten. Very bored with the idea of endlessly studying for exams, I chose a vocational group called ‘Garment Designing & Making’ and pursued my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts. Now, if I had to pursue economics at the masters level, I had to catch up on all the lost statistics, algebra, calculus, microeconomic and macroeconomic theories. And I did. For a whole year, I sat through undergraduate 101 (introductory) and intermediate courses in all these subjects. Since I loved and was good at logic, I loved my classes and assignments. A whole year of cramming numbers, graphs and variables, taking special assistance from professors, I aced almost all of them, and was well on my way coming up to speed.   

A favourite professor spent early morning hours teaching regression. I’d show up at 6 am in his room everyday walking in the dark through the deep snow with my boots on. I, along with a few other students, was assisting him on a research to figure out whether income levels of two Honduran indigenous communities affected wildlife there. 

Elasticity, supply-demand, marginal utility, opportunity cost, efficiency were concepts that began to slowly occupy my head.

During my time absorbing these concepts, from time to time, I had questions coming up from within. And I’d raise them in my classes. I asked one professor who taught a course on ‘The History of Economic Thought’, “Hasn’t Gandhi said something important about how to organise our economies?” He gave me a blank stare “Gandhi? Hmm…  I don’t think so! Well, may be, I don’t know. It does not concern us anyways.” I asked another professor after a private session in Microeconomics 101 “Henry, may I ask you a question that has been gnawing at me?” American professors are almost always very courteous and encouraging, especially when you have questions to ask. “All these graphs of supply-demand, elasticity, etc. give me the image of people as consumers without hearts or free-will to choose not to buy, or to make their buying decisions based on reasons other than price. These graphs make people look like puppets that can be moved around the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes. Something does not feel right about it.” Not expecting a question like this from me at all, he said very honestly “I don’t know how to answer this one! Well, this is economics. Take it or leave it.” I asked the same professor "What do you think about Herman Daly's 'Limits to Growth' theory?" He wasn't even aware of it!

The reason for my writing about this is to talk about what I see, in hindsight, as a fundamental re-wiring of my brain! Very unconsciously, I was being trained to look at many things in my life in terms of their economic and financial costs and benefits. Through my training in ‘environmental economics’, I was unconsciously assigning a dollar value to trees, air, water, etc. even as I was walking through a forest. Sometimes extending it to my time, my life, my skills, etc. I was unconsciously evaluating my own life and pursuits based on their "economic efficiency" quotients. All this was happening in such an innocuous way that I wasn’t even aware of it. It was like I was acquiring a new pair of eyes to see the world with. From time to time, for brief moments, I’d experience a certain ‘weird feeling’ about becoming someone very unlike me. But I used to brush off the ‘weird feeling’ telling myself that it was some kind of a ‘growing pain’. I believed that I was shedding my ‘naivete’ for equipping myself to deal with the ‘real world’ out there. But from time to time, for brief moments, I’d doubt if I was actually trading my ‘innocence’ off for ‘my personal ambition’.

After my first year doing all of this (and more theory courses in Project Management – Planning & Implementation, Monitoring & Evaluation, where we got trained in everything from writing a proposal for projects worth millions of dollars, writing a report, “monitoring and evaluating projects” in the ‘third world countries’, etc. and more theory courses in ‘Poverty Eradication’), we had a choice in our second year. We could either do field work (internship with an NGO, do our own field research, etc.) or do advanced study (taking more courses) staying on in the university. While almost all my classmates chose to do the former, since I had to catch up on so much more economic theory and math, I chose the latter. With the help of my professor, I came up with a proposal for what I wanted to study in my second year, all of which was intermediate and advanced level-courses in economics, statistics and maths. After a lot of persuasion (since the administration discouraged students from taking up this option), I was given partial scholarship to remain and do more course work. There was an immediate sense of achievement and relief!

But something strange happened for three days after that. There was a churning in my stomach that something was not alright. I could not come to terms with the many unanswered questions I had over the course of the year. I was not at peace with the way I looked at myself and the world around me through the ‘modern economic’ lens. I could not articulate what I felt back then. It was just that: a very uncomfortable feeling inside.

I chose to stay with it and asked ‘Now what?’ The answer came to me. Over the next three days, I cancelled my proposal for advanced study, resubmitted another proposal that involved travel in India, booked my India ticket and raised funds through friends to travel in rural and tribal India to take a fresh look at everything. And for the next few months, I backpacked to about 40 different rural and adivasi villages, got to read Fukuoka’s ‘One Straw Revolution’, Kumarappa’s ‘Economy of Permanence’, Gandhi’s ‘Hind Swaraj’, Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ and Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’. All these books somehow came to me as though they were meant to. During my many bus and train rides, I read them and wrote pages and pages with questions and answers that I was grappling with during my five-month journey. My journey ended with an unexpected meeting with Shilpa Jain of Shikshantar, whose presentation about ‘Unschooling and Unlearning’ made a lot of the then-loosely-hanging pieces fall in place. That was when I understood the much deeper implications of ‘schooling’ – much deeper than “Our schooling system does not allow our children to be free. It does not allow our children’s individuality to flower” and such superficial arguments around freedom. 

When I stepped back and saw 'SCHOOLING AS RE-WIRING OUR BRAINS' I could begin to understand ‘freedom’ at a much deeper level. I understood that by allowing ourselves to be schooled, we were fundamentally losing our freedom to be intuitive, connected to the sacredness of life, to trust, to celebrate, to experience the joy of true communion with nature and community. Basically connection and communion with all of life. In other words, we give up our personal power to the mass madness / unconscious that is hell-bent upon rewiring our brains to serve its own advancement.

When I experienced a deep inner joy on seeing adivasi women make elaborately embroidered skirts and artistically woven brooms, I knew that the women weren't doing it because there was a rupee value attached to it but
just for the sheer joy of creating them. They were weaving the songs of their souls into them. 

While I was studying economics, I happened to listen to a lecture on Globalisation in New York by Satish Kumar. All that he spoke about was how his grandmother used to do elaborate embroidery enjoying her days. He ended his talk by saying ‘To counter globalization, please slow down. Go home and bake your own bread.’ I couldn’t make much sense of what he said back then. During my travels just a year later, I could.

In another tribal village where I stayed, I saw the villagers herding and taking great care of cows in their village. My modern mind asked them 'How much milk do you get from these cows?' It was trying to calculate the effort put into maintaining the cows vis-a-vis the economic benefits. The villagers gave me a strange look and said 'Voh hamare saath rehte hain. Jab dhoodh dethe hai, tab ham thoda lete hain.' and explained how, as a community, they took milk from the cows only if and when they produced more than needed to feed their young ones. 

I felt so grateful for those three sleepless nights. And of course all the people and energies that made my journey possible, from then until now. And I’m glad that I never looked back at the modern economic theory ever since. It was one of the best big decisions that I made in my life.


Anonymous said...

I like the way you connect everyday simple acts to global change. I think this is very important.

Sangeetha Sriram said...

Thank you Aravinda! :)