Learning to be human

Meenakshi Umesh

Work and education are inseparable and when we separate them, we create self-serving humans who become parasites that feed on the labour of the hardworking creators of food, clothes, and housing – the basic needs, and electricity, automobiles, furniture, roads, trains, and airplanes – the luxury needs! Count Leo Tolstoy has written at length about the reasons for inequality in society in his book What Then must we do? His concept of ‘bread labour’ is not only logical, it can also show the way ahead for a planet where each human lives a dignified life and all of nature too is respected!

Work is work, only because we named it so! For children the major work of their life is to understand themselves and their role in the life unfolding around them. And all this work happens through play. Play is the work of childhood and work is the play of childhood!

Every adult who has spent time with children knows their teeming desire to do exactly what the adult is doing. To understand why children are so keen to do everything that adults do is to find the key to human evolution, emotion, and empathy. To understand this need in a child we must understand the process of learning to be human! To be human is to learn how to manipulate one’s environment. To be able to manipulate we need to understand our environment and the processes there in. Every child is trying to learn this and this is the work of childhood: to discover their ability and purpose in the world.

I was blessed to have parents who were simple village folk who had just moved to the city of Bombay, now Mumbai. They lived within their means and spoke out their thoughts with honesty. They never indulged in pretending that they were richer, more knowledgeable, or better. They were just themselves. And, this meant we could be ourselves too! My brother and I were never pressured to perform in school. The minimum was all that was expected – to get promoted to the next grade.

I guess many people of that generation knew the labour of creation. They indulged in physical work to create the basic needs for all humans and knew the effort it takes to create and therefore valued other people who worked to create resources. They knew the redundancy of great thoughts without the ability of proaction. Since my parents came from that generation, we were raised to partake in the everyday chores and be responsible for our actions. Apart from contributing to the maintenance of the house and ourselves we were free to do what we chose. Climbing trees was not forbidden. Cycling, swimming, painting, and craft work were encouraged. Games for fun were cheered. There was no pressure to win the game. It was an activity we indulged in for the sake of entertainment alone. My dad often said, “You have only one childhood and you must enjoy it!” Every year we went for a holiday to the village and spent our summers helping with harvesting the wheat crop, eating sugarcane, caring for the animals, and running in the village streets, which were very safe as there were no vehicles! This kind of childhood gave us a lot of time to reflect, think, observe, and question. And our parents always answered our questions with respect and serious thought. I guess, therefore, in spite of the rote learning of facts in school, we escaped the formatting. School was a place to go to for fun. The books were read only for the exam. And the rest of the time was ours! This made us creative in our play and proactive in making changes that we wanted in our surroundings. Today, children are more reactive. Their lives are controlled by the expectations of their parents and society. And, their minds are controlled by the advertisers and the news in the media! They are always afraid of losing out on something. The present education system is producing reactive people with low tolerance for pain and therefore they lack empathy. “Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment, if the weather is good, they feel good. If it is not, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them!” Steven Covey.

Illustrations: Niharika Shenoy

As I observed my children grow, I realized that learning is a primal instinct. It is the instinct that comes before hunger and is the driving force of life! I saw my children learn every moment and I was amazed at their observations. I watched as they grew, each one at their own pace and each with different skills. Each one unique in their learning and their behaviours but all of them pure of intent; full of self-confidence; happy and mindful; content and wilful; caring and compassionate; fearless and curious; eager and proactive! I realized that I had nothing to teach them except literacy. Numeracy was integrated into their observations! I watched how they looked up to me for inspiration. And I was moved to learn with them!

My search for fairness and justice had led me out of the bustling city of Mumbai, where the discrepancy between the rich and the poor made it difficult for me to continue to inhabit the city. I wondered why humans were living such undignified lives! I wondered how a society like that evolved where each of us felt pitched against the other rather than supported by the other.

My thought process and innocent questions, which my parents answered with the resources they had, brought me to the conclusion that human society was built in schools and as long as schools did not change there was no hope for the human being! I wrote an essay on ‘My school’ in my 9th grade where I described the kind of school I wished to be in. It was a school without teachers, without exams, without classrooms! A school with lots of trees and no objection to climbing them, a school with lots of books and space to make what we wanted.

After my 10th grade exam, my father gifted me a membership to a library and I found Gandhiji’s My Experiments with Truth. Reading that book changed my perspective of life. I was inspired to experiment with my life! My father also gifted me The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. He said my ideas for a school were not stupid. That I was on the right thought process when I thought about schools and that it was for me to bring my thoughts into action. He often said that criticizing others was not going to change anything. The only control we could exercise was in our lives and change our ways to experiment and experience the effects of our thoughts on our action. Change, he said, was a slow process.

So that is what I set out to do. Create my own Utopia. My own experiments and my own learning at my own pace with my own values. At Dharmapuri, in Tamil Nadu, my husband and I bought twelve acres of completely degraded waste land and I started learning. Learning how to regenerate the land, from books, from people and from observation. As the children arrived one by one, their observations became better and sharper and they supported me in whatever I was doing. They watered the plants, weeded and planted the garden, cared for the animals, and played in nature observing learning and experimenting on their own.

Work and play were interchanged and work became their play. I made many mistakes as I struggled between the need to do things and my conscience. My children forgave me generously and corrected me as I stumbled with the idea of freedom of thought and action and the provision of the basic needs. I learnt compassion, empathy, honesty, and integrity all over again. This has evolved into a different pedagogy over the last 20 years. Now at Puvidham, our learning centre, the work of living together is the most important aspect of learning.

Work as pedagogy: As a pedagogical approach work can facilitate many attributes in the growing child which are prescribed for a happier, healthier, and safer society in the future of mankind. As we work in the garden, in the kitchen, with animals and maintain our spaces, we learn biology, zoology, chemistry, physics, measurements, logical thinking and literature!

Inclusiveness: When the child along with adults is involved in the basic work of cleaning and maintenance, growing food, segregation of waste, caring for the animals, crafting things and cooking, there is a lot of learning that happens unconsciously. The natural learning process is indeed unconscious and a continuum of growing up for children. Their inclusion in the activities happening around them give children the understanding of how plans are made, how activities succeed each other and how life unfolds! They understand that there are always challenges to be faced and failures to be learnt from.

Sensitivity: When children are included in processes of caring they understand the needs of others. They remain sensitive, observant, and available to support adults as much as they are being supported in the process of inclusion. They know the value of everything they receive because they have engaged in making the effort to provide for the community in their own way as per their capacities. There is no comparison and there is no judgement. This ensures that feelings of ineptness and incompleteness are not harboured. The children learn that there are as many ways to do a job as there are people and that they can evolve their own processes! Their hand eye coordination, finger dexterity, space organization and self-discipline are nurtured through the process.

Creativity: As children work, they find creative ways of making work easier. They design tools and they invent processes that they try out and find out the usability and appropriateness of their thought processes. They actually think! Even if they are making excuses to not do the work there is the process of explanation and reasoning that goes along and supports their logic or can be challenged by better reasons to continue the task at hand. There is mutual respect in all communications. The child here is not someone that is to be ordered around to do the task. The child is a willing participant because he/she sees reason and mutual benefit in the transaction.

Like Herbert Read says “A child’s art work is its passport to freedom, to the full fruition of all its gifts and talents, to its true and stable happiness in adult life. Art and craft work leads the child out of itself. It may begin as a lonely individual activity, as self-absorbed scribbling of a baby on a piece of paper. But the child scribbles in order to communicate its inner world to a sympathetic spectator.”

Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “If educational processes are created to aim for the unity of the whole humankind, the beginnings of this are in the growth of love of the baby for the mother, for the immediate family and ultimately to universal love. But the foundations of this unity are laid in creativity.”

Self-esteem: Self-esteem is the value that we hold for ourselves. When the child sees that he/she is trusted with important work, his/her self-esteem rises and makes them want to increase their ability and effort. The way the adults respect the most trivial contribution of every child sets the standards for mutual respect and great regard for the adult in the eyes of the child.

Self-reliance: The children when given the freedom to clean themselves, dress themselves and make decisions of what they want to help out with become self-reliant and independent. Instead of needing care all the time they become care givers!

Self-knowledge: When the child works at different jobs supporting and helping the adults they learn about themselves. They learn which jobs they enjoy and which they find very taxing. They also learn that whether or not they like it they must do certain tasks because they are necessary for survival. They learn to respect others who are able to do easily, the tasks they find taxing. This lays the foundation for challenging themselves and evaluating their abilities.

Ability: The ability of the child becomes their pride. When they are able to carry loads that are carried by adults or walk faster than the adult during hikes and treks or running errands, they feel empowered and enabled.

Agility: All this activity keeps us all agile and healthy. Children learn about their body and its processes and systems. They learn how to eat healthy and how to cook wonderful meals with available ingredients rather than go shopping to make food according to a particular recipe. This increases their creativity and sensitivity.

Environmental awareness: The work of growing food, cleaning and segregation of waste creates awareness of what and how the resources of the environment can be optimized and how our existence can be less polluting. Minimalism begins to make sense. Sustainability of life on the planet comes into focus.

Management skills: The children learn to manage their resources, create minimum waste, learn re-cycling and up-cycling of things extracted from the earth. They learn to live meaningful lives where there is no need for pretense because they are themselves all the time. There is no duality of character to go into the good books of the adults around. There is truth and enablement in the community not judgement and critique.

Conflict resolution: While working with hands, and working with others, conflicts are bound to arise. These conflicts are resolved by the adults with nonviolent and amicable processes. There is understanding and supporting instead of accusing and blaming. The onus of creating a space where conflicts are resolved in a democratic fashion lies with the adults in the community. In fact, Sociocracy – the new and evolving form of community organization must become the model of communication. Acceptance of mistakes and forgiveness should be modelled by the adults. Letting go of our ego is a huge exercise in Sociocracy while including all the others in the process. The community and the individual both work in tandem – one not sacrificing for the other nor personally progressing at the cost of the other.

Compassion: Compassion needs to be experienced to become compassionate ourselves. Every person needs to listen with compassion. Also, adults in the learning or living space, must work upon themselves to observe their actions and be open to being corrected.

Empathy: Happiness is indeed the only thing that all of us long for. To be in eternal happiness is to accept ourselves as we are and to be accepted and appreciated by our community as we are while giving us positive criticism and dealing with our lapses with empathy. This state of happiness or mindfulness is what the child is born with. Each child is a little buddha. Children have the ability to forget and forgive themselves and others. They are capable of living in the present moment. But we steal this ability away by our methods of evaluation and judgement.

Resilience: As the children touch, feel, and work crafting and creating an understanding of the world around them deeper than ever before, they will blossom as individuals, sympathize with the environment and will help each other rather than compete with each other.

They will learn to handle and care for simple tools improving their hand eye coordination, space organization, and discipline. They will learn the value of hard work; they will feel the contentment of creating something and their confidence and self-reliance will improve far beyond our imagination. The beautiful and useable articles they will create will make them see themselves in the work. Reflection, diligence, and pursuit of perfection will become second nature to them. Something will begin to work up on their body and soul and they will grow up to be graceful, honest, creative, hardworking and content.

Proactive behaviour: All the care we give in making the space completely free of evaluation, competition, stress, and consumerist attitudes make it a happy place for the child to be and create. In conventional schools children live in fear of the consequences of non-conformity. In spaces where children are allowed to evaluate themselves and even that only informally, they blossom into human beings that have a huge store of compassion and empathy. They become adept at conflict resolution, both internal and external conflict is managed with sensitivity and clarity. They question injustice and they don’t just talk about change – they become the change they want to see.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” M.K. Gandhi

The author started Puvidham Learning Centre (www.puvidham.in), based on Gandhi’s Nai Talim after she decided to move to Dharmapuri, a village, from Mumbai. Her move came after she realized that city life was harming her and her children. She can be reached at director.meenakshi@puvidham.in.

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