Alternative Schools

A Krishnamurti School concerns itself with education of the total human being. Knowledge and intellectual capability alone are not sufficient to meet life’s challenges. Learning to enquire, to observe oneself, to relate with other people and the earth, is the core intention of the school.

Towards the end of last year, Uttara asked me to share my thoughts on my early education in India. We both went to Krishnamurti schools which are Alternative/Progressive schools in India that were really ahead of their time and she wrote an incredibly detailed blog post about the landscape.

I didn’t have a lot of time since I was just starting my crazily intense graduate program, so I sent her a quick note which she reproduced in it’s entirety. Here it is –

Pros

– sense of self; not defined by the crowd. they really encourage this. it is awesome

– respect for authority, but a good amount of disdain for it as well. they used to allow us to walk out of class if we wanted. it goes to #1 as well.

– learned in a non-traditional way – going and examining leaves for science class. walking outside. unheard of in the traditional sense.

– exercise. daily instead of weekly at most regular schools.

– arts and craft – also a lot of exposure to this and very non-traditional stuff. i used to learn how to model in card board, papier mache, photography (at 7/8 years old). i mean, seriously, they made this part of the education, not something that was tacked on because it had to be.

– singing – lots of singing. singing classes, singing bhajans, singing carols. it was awesome.

– it just felt free and enjoyable. i used to love to go to school. i used to cry if i couldn’t go. now, there’s a reversal if there ever was one.

Cons

– unfortunately we live in a world where competition exists. where public exams exist. where there are, in fact, losers and winners. so, in this regard, the school was like an unreal bubble.

– it was really bad at preparing students for exams. i finally got taken out of my alternative school at the end of the 6th grade – when the first batch went through their public exams and things didn’t go so well. I went to a regular school with lots of mid-terms and test. i was paralyzed and had no clue how to take these simple little tests.

in retrospect, leaving KFI when i did was the perfect right thing. just like spending my youth there was also the perfect right thing.

I still agree with everything I said to Uttara. In fact, since September, we’ve had to go through the ridiculously gruelling pre-school process for our twin boys in New York City and as I went through the process, I’ve had occasion to think more about my own experience and about a progressive/alternative education. My time at KFI till the 6th grade was the most enjoyable time of my life. I loved school, played every day, had science class under the trees, lived life, loved life. We were really children without a sense of pressure.

I also feel that KFI enhanced my creative side. My love for photography was born there. An incredible teacher taught me photography and made me fall in love with the power of the image. He pushed me, he challenged me and he didn’t treat me like a 3rd grader. It was amazing. I am in film school today in part because of him. So, Damayan Anna, if you are out there somewhere reading this, a huge thank you!

The lack of pressure of academics and constant mind-numbing deliverables is something that you can never find in the real world or in a regular school. If childhood is to be enjoyed why not let children actually have a life where they don’t have to be “realistic” for a the first few years of life?

But herein lies the rub. When do you do the shift and how do you do the shift? Because at some point, whatever said and done, the real world has not come around to seeing things the way of the Progressive educational system. My sense of self and sense of confidence took a real beating when I changed schools. I moved in the 7th grade and went from being carefree and not thinking about “my worth” to being graded in a system I had no clue how to survive in. But fortunately for me, it was early enough before the public exams in the 10th grade. I learned to cope and, slowly, to do well. But in a system that grinds that students, that values different things. Sure you can excel at debates and writing and extracurricular activities, but you also have to be a scholastic machine in a way that the system expects. IF you can be both, you are a super-star. But purely being creative is not enough.

This is not an issue just in India. I recently saw Gotham Gal’s post about her daughter Emily’s angst around the SATs. Emily goes to LREI, a progressive school in Manhattan. In the US, if you go to a City and Country or an LREIs of the world where you are happy and creative but want to go to a college that requires the SAT, the reality of the process hits you because the school so far hasn’t been focused on students learning that way. It’s hard and horrible and Emily articulates the problem well. Fortunately for Emily once she gets through the SAT, she can go to a college that values her abilities and evaluates her the way she’s used to.

The issue is larger in India. In India, when a kid trained in a progressive school meets reality, reality is in the form of the public exams – the national exams that grade students across the country. A huge deal. And then college, where there are no real progressive colleges that I know of. So even if a child goes to a progressive school, at some point, they have to shift their learning method into the “regular” mode. Maybe the progressive schools in India have morphed since I went there to cope with having to deal with the “evaluations” that exist outside. That would be the smart thing to do.

J&G are still very young but it’s something we think about for them. What is the right answer? To me, there’s no question that at a young age, Progressive is the way to go. We managed to get them into a progressive pre-school. But do we shift at some point? Or do we hope that they are natural test takers? Or do we say, “ok, fine, struggle with the SAT, but enjoy school” and that’s that? What if they want to go to college in India? More questions than answers. Will the world move to a more progressive model? Here’s hoping.

  • Manish

    Today, you have lifted a heavy load off my heart. You have given me a place to educate my child. A good karma never goes waste and its a solid deposit in ur good karma account!
    Thanks a lot. Oh hell! Thanks thanks & thanks again!
    Im pretty much wanting to do something abt edu and after reading ur & ur friends post (on likhati), I have been thinking of channleizing my efforts into building an alternative higher edu insti.
    Could you pz spare a few thoughts on the same…
    We can communicate over email if u like.

    …..(Thanks)hanks
    (this is not just one thanks…but a never ending one)

  • Manish, glad that you found the post (and Uttara's incredibly insightful one) useful.

    I would be excited to hear about your thoughts for a progressive/alternative higher education institution. Would it be modeled after US universities and the flexibility they allow their students in discovering their passion or would it go even further?

    Do share!