The urge to learn is driven as much by necessity and circumstance as by an inclination to learn. There is an innate tendency to acquire skills needed to survive in one’s natural habitat. Ever watched the kids in a fisherman’s colony? They learn to swim almost as soon as they begin to walk. Just like how tribal kids are ace tree climbers. This sort of hyper-local learning is critical to one’s growth and well-being.
Formal education deals with teaching children some universally accepted subjects such as languages, maths, science and social sciences. The need for knowledge in these areas is fairly critical to humans in any geographical region. So there is no disputing the fact that these subjects must be taught and taught well. But where and how do we teach children the skills required to cope with their native habitat?
In earlier times, the joint family system was the dominant mode of domestic organisation. There was a lot of indirect learning that happened through grandparents, uncles and aunts. Rural society even today is more tightly knit, so kids can run up to the local weaver or potter anytime to watch them work. It’s a favourite pastime in a world sans electronic gadgets as playmates. The skills one acquires in the process are precious.
Let me point to a few glaring instances from modern urban society where the lack of native connect mars the very identity and function of the object – be it in the field of art, architecture, food or literature.
Now – The sad reality of today’s urban architecture is just concrete and glass monsters masquerading as homes, schools, hospitals, companies, malls. Be it in sweltering Chennai, moderate Bangalore, rainy Agartala or arid Jaipur. You just can’t know the difference unless you step in or read the signboards!
Then – The Chettinad architectural style is especially suited for hot and arid conditions of rural Tamil Nadu. Plenty of windows, spacious and open inner courtyards, high ceilings – these are some of the defining characteristics, all designed to suit the local climate. Contrast this with the Kumaon and Gharwal regions of Uttarakhand. The architecture here is characterised with the abundant availability of stone and timber. Cattle, fodder and storage is housed at the ground floor to bring warmth to the upper floors. The heights of floors and door entrances are kept very low to minimise cold air flow. Every house has a character and its function is to blend seamlessly with the local living conditions.
Now – We have neglected the diversity in the consumption of our grains and pulses. The government, for its measure created an inequality by heavily promoting rice and wheat as staple cereals. Foods foreign to our climate and growth conditions such as kiwi, zucchini, and olives are imported from distant lands. Children read about daisies and lilies but remain ignorant about the local flora and fauna. The humble jasmine or marigold that grow in abundance in our surroundings lose out in the process. Greens such as drumstick leaves (‘murungai’ in Tamil) or mustard leaves (‘sarson’ in Hindi), which have a short crop cycle and are low cost but a rich source of nutrition are almost absent from the urban kitchen.
Then – For a tropical country like India, millets and pulses were the main stay of our diet. Seasonal fruits and local vegetables were grown at proximity to the dwelling places. Foods were low on junk value and high on nutrition, not that they lacked taste or finesse. The average Indian had a good understanding of fruits, vegetables and herbs suitable for consumption in different seasons or health conditions. Just try asking your grandmother for a home remedy for a minor ailment, she will give you a recipe in a flash!
Now – The craze to wear black in urban India is astounding! Synthetic fabrics in black colour might work well for fair complexioned men and women in cold, temperate countries such as in Europe. But in most of India we get sweaty and hot for many months of the year. Always sporting black shirts and tops paired with jeans might be ‘cool’ among the youth. But aping the west blindly and shunning natural fabrics such as cotton, jute or even silk is a foolhardy choice.
Then – It’s not for no reason that ethnic clothes in several parts of India – Rajasthan, Gujarat, North Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra – are just white cottons. It’s the best suited for being outdoors in India. The practise of wearing vibrant colours and not pastels like in the west, is also due to our tropical climate. You might note that other tropical countries like Brazil or those in Africa also have similar clothing practices.
I have just picked three areas where the incongruence is obvious and pervasive. There are several other areas such as literature, art, languages, medicine, infrastructure and so on where the native flavour is a key missing ingredient. Some questions linger in my mind on how to achieve this:
Question #1: How do we integrate the knowledge of essential, native skills and knowledge into the learning process of a student?
Question #2: A vast majority of the school / college syllabus is always going to be centralised and universal. But is it possible to earmark a portion of the teaching syllabus to the local administration so that hyper-local content specific to a region can be customised and taught?
Question #3: What if people want to acquire native skills such as weaving, cooking, pottery, painting, carpentry, farming or home medicine outside the schooling system? Can there be a simple and formal mechanism for this, under the ambit of the Skill India campaign as originally envisaged?
Question #4: How can we identify suitable teachers for these life skills? What qualification do we base their expertise on? We can’t go by traditional graduation degrees or B.Ed certifications. So, how do we define qualifications for life skills?
Formal learning must address this lacuna of native skill education. Collective thought, governmental push and swift implementation will help in addressing this lacuna. Text book teaching must complement live experiential learning. The skills training on offer must be curated to suit the local habitat. How I wish!
The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at [email protected].