In Koraput, a poverty stricken district in India beset by an abysmal literacy and Naxalite insurgency a new idea is taking root. Over hundred first generation learners of the Paraja tribe are learning to name and number at a Free Progress residential school- The Auro-mira Vidya Mandir. The school uses informal teaching and learning methodology. There are no classes or grades; but age-independent learning groups. There are no textbooks or a rigid adherence to the curriculum.
A praiseworthy accomplishment for a community that has largely remained at the fringes of formal education. Yet there is something that is deeply disturbing.
The Paraja community is tribe of Central India that is pagan, speaks a distinct dialect of their own and has its own administration, tradition and judicial system. The young school going children often found themselves in a cultural environment sharply different from that at home. At school, their traditional saree was swapped for a pair of jeans. Their hair was shortened; the traditional double nose ring removed. Even their distinct tribal name was changed to make it more familiar sounding. The link between the acquired knowledge and its usability in their immediate or distant future was little explored. Communication in their native dialect was discouraged. Tribal festivals did not deserve holidays in the school calendar.
The question that I asked myself therefore was, are we educating to preserve, honour and integrate tribal culture or to obliterate, dilute and undermine it? Why in an experimental school that defines its own syllabus, did learning themes not support the learner’s inquiry into their indigenous knowledge systems and local environments?
As first generation learners, they constantly negotiated two polarized cultures -one which their family/community is a part of, the second which they try (or are forced) to adopt in order to assimilate themselves into the dominant culture.
My experience as a teacher in the Auromira school deeply impacted my views on the purpose of education. What must education be for a community that has traditionally lived in close harmony with nature ? A community that dances under the gleam of a full moon to reverberating drums and celebrates a month long hunt festival. A community that has little understanding of individual property rights and wealth but an extensive understanding of medicinal plants? Where will our standard notions of ‘education’ take them? Far away from their village struggling to find a low ranking managerial job in a city plagued with unemployment? What are we preparing them for? A life of alienation and manufactured discontent?
A fine balance is needed. The task is to really develop a pedagogy that is relevant and responsive to the social, cultural and economic background that the learners come from . Education must empower learners to engage with, record and share their culture practices with pride, and strengthen ties to one’s identities in a local as well as a global community. The liminality of the first generation learners makes it especially critical that learning take place in step with their culture rather than alienating them from it.