September 25, 2006

Education in Mirambika is a spiritual process

Whenever there is an endeavour to extend the limits of the ordinary, there is a questioning - will it succeed? Doubts, scepticism, derision, anger, fear...... various reactions surface. The following is a first-hand account by one of the students who did her education in an Integral Education school - Mirambika (a Free Progress School), New Delhi, since the age of three. It provides an insight into the ‘success’ of the experiment, as well as how it is perceived by someone on whose behalf ‘the society’ is anxious....... It is especially relevant as this July Mirambika has completed 25 years.
Mirambika….hmmm….it is really so difficult to tell people what it is because people’s minds are so compartmentalised into angular boxes that they cannot cognise in curved thoughts (which is what you require to understand Mirambika). And, also because Mirambika itself is so difficult to explain – only one word can totally encapsulate its reality – i.e. the word ‘Mirambika’!!

To begin with, it is based on Sri Aurobindo’s and The Mother’s philosophy of education, and of life in general. But before I expand on that I should give you an overview of what the system appears to be like on the exterior, so you can understand the philosophy better; as these are the things in which the concept of Mirambika manifests.

Hmmm…now, we never gave exams as students of Mirambika before the tenth grade. Mirambika does not believe in examinatory-evaluation systems. Neither does Mirambika believe in competition. Something I picked up from Mirambika is to not be competitive, because I do not believe in performing well and reaching new heights only to out-perform others. I strive for new heights to address my own progress and responsibilities. Promotion of students therefore, is not based on exams. Mirambikans do not wear uniforms, as that too is against the belief system of Mirambika. Why should there be uniforms? We spent half our day in school, we got three meals in school, we cleaned our own classrooms and corridors. In fact, there are no classrooms; we just had rooms – open! Walls did not go up to ceiling. The whole building is very open, with a lot of lobbies and courtyards.

There were about ten children per class and two teachers per ten children. And so, everyone knew everyone else. On birthdays, the whole school would be wishing the birthday child! If some kid made the grave mistake of bringing chaat-masala to school the whole school would end up running after her/him! We sat on the floor, in a circle, not in rows and columns. But, we spent half our day in the library. There were no black-boards as there were no ‘classes’ per se.

We studied by doing projects, which we did solely on our own, using teachers as resource persons. These projects could be on absolutely anything! That was entirely the student’s discretion. I have done projects on bizarre things like Monsters! Rocks! Food! Movies! Houses! And it was the teacher’s job to chalk out a curriculum in the purview of this topic that would help the student learn something. So, in ‘monsters project’ I ended up reading a lot of legendary stories of different cultures. I learnt the art technique of papier-mâché; and by the end of it I had a very well-formed opinion of my own on monsters! I was all of ten! Similarly, in ‘rocks’ we ended up building a rock garden, with a slide made of cement (which we hand-crafted ourselves). In ‘food’, we had different people coming each day, teaching us to cook foods of different ethnicities!

Once Damini (a friend) and I did a project on Mirambika itself – we made a whole booklet out of it, with a lot of metaphorical drawings, interviews of students, teachers and the principal. All of this was compiled together with our own, very coherent opinions. So, each project included many different facets – a wide variety of ways to learn, apart from just the academic bit. There was a lot of art, interaction, field work (like a trip to the marble factory, collecting heavy rocks, learning how to change the tyre of a car or visiting a stud farm).

I hope you get the basic idea of what I am saying – the system lay a lot of emphasis on freedom; freedom from structures, from prescribed modes of thought, from inhibitions, from fear. This explains the caption under ‘Mirambika’ – ‘a free progress school’.

But this freedom never came without responsibility. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, and together culminate into self-discipline. Self-discipline, to me is true discipline, which comes from within a human being and is not imposed and forced on her/him. This constitutes an ‘individual’ in the true sense of the word – someone who does not do things by being compelled to, by others, but simply because her/his convictions urge her/him to do it. Motivations and discipline that are self-realised see much better results than those that are obligatory.

Mirambikans have the freedom to make their own choices – what they want to study, how they want to study it, or whether at all they want to study! If we wanted to spend all eight hours of school playing basket-ball, we could do that. As long as we give in a good project in the time frame provided to us, we can organise our day however we wish to. If there was anything where we did not have freedom, then it was sports, and yes, food! Every child had to play sports in the morning, in the first one hour of school – vigorous exercises followed by a different sport each day. And food – we had to eat a proper meal each day. And of course, one more thing, cleaning our surroundings was mandatory.

Now, back to the philosophy of freedom; self-discipline was vital. The teachers were not supposed to stand on our heads all the time and instruct us, inject us with information all day long. They were not responsible for us, nor were they meant to discipline us. It was us, ourselves who were responsible for our own growth, learning and education. This explains the excellent rapport we shared with our teachers (diyas – didis + bhaiyas, as we called them). They were our friends, we joked with them, ate with them, played foot-ball with them, went to their houses and had them over at ours. They were one of us!

The education imparted in Mirambika was not meant to create encyclopaedias, money-making machines or ‘good citizens’ out of its students. It was meant for creating, no, not creating, for bringing out the beauty that lies within each child, to build truly beautiful human beings. To my belief and intellectual capacity, Mirambika did this because children are not born as blank sheets of paper that adults have to write on and fill up. They are born with a lot of stuff inside of them. All education should do is bring that out. What formal schools actually end up doing is inserting things into the child; imposing ideas, beliefs, values, information and ‘knowledge’ onto the child, instead of unearthing what already lies within her/him.

The dominance of text-books in classrooms and the hierarchy of teacher-child relationship undermine the role of both the teacher and the learner, and deny them creative engagement with the learning endeavour. A great part of our educational culture is entrenched in the fabric of ‘received knowledge’, where the learner is perceived as a receiver and the school or the teacher as the provider of knowledge. To me, it is a truism that every child is born with a spark. The kind of formal education and conventional socialisation that exists in most societies dampens that spark instead of enhancing and using it as a tool to enable us to reach our best selves.

Formal schools seem to restrict a child’s own growth and expect everyone to conform to one formula. This ‘one size fits all’ approach does not actually work. It means that everyone should fit in these prescribed structures, those who do not, are labelled “dumb”, “not meant for academia”, “differently abled”, or simply “unintelligent and stupid”. The point these people miss is the fact that every child has her/his own way of growing, her/his own pace and own method. Mirambika taps into each child’s ‘own way’.

This is why education in Mirambika is a spiritual process, which fostered that spark in us, through which we embarked on a journey of self-exploration and expression, of wholistic development and growth, done at one’s own pace, not at the pace of the prescribed syllabus meant to be covered within a particular time frame. Education here was geared towards the nurturing of a child to empower her/him realise her/his completeness as an individual and as a part of a larger whole; not toward passing exams for becoming ‘professionals’. It is aimed at developing (in the students and teachers) confidence to think for themselves and enhancing their creative and critical faculties, thereby fostering self-reliance and a spirit of questioning.

Since this growth was slow, cynics often got worried over a fifth grader who does not know her/his tables, or whose grammar is weak. Little did they know that while the child may have temporarily suspended her/his academic learning, she/he was busy learning other things, exploring the world, expanding her/his horizons and basking in the warm light of these beautiful experiences she/he has had. For instance, when we had ‘drawing time’ (as we called it) in the art room of our school, we were never ever told what to draw, we could paint absolutely anything we wished to. And this used to excite us beyond limits! It completely triggered off our imaginations to drive into new worlds yet to be explored by us. And once they were explored to our satisfaction, we expressed our comprehension of them through various media – art, essays, poems, stories, plays, games and academic projects.

So I could make a flying elephant or a pink tree. I remember, I had once for a few weeks, developed this strange fetish for galaxies (and I barely even knew what they were). So every work of art that I did would have galaxies in it – these beautifully coloured spiral patterns in a rich blue sky! I still remember those drawings so well, because I really lived them, they were a part of me, an expression of me!

Today I call myself an artist, and really, I discovered the artist in me right there in Mirambika. Mirambika was big on art, and every child did art there, so we were all artists in our own right! This speaks volumes of how different it was from formal education systems as it was characterised by openness. Formal schools tend to pin children down in a prescriptive straitjacket to ensure their development as ‘responsible’ citizens. No more discoveries for them. The child’s world is then discarded for an adult universe, teeming with segmentation, prejudice and hierarchy. Mirambika refrains, strongly refrains from doing this, allowing each child to lay a foundation of an aesthetic mindset for her/himself.

You will never find a Mirambikan with inertia. This word is happily absent from their lives. You will always find them up and about, ready to do something, bubbling with energy – both, physical and mental. A display of their physical energy would be in their utter craziness – ever ready to play a game, a sport, or just simply wrestle with each other! During meditation time, the five minutes of Mother’s music (before starting the day, and after sports, breakfast and cleaning) – just five minutes, and we could not control our energy! Since we could not talk, we would just play those ‘pass it on with no returns’ games, with such discretion that the diyas would never know, because they would be in deep mediation! Of course now things are different, I do realise the importance of meditation.

There is such a wide variety of ways in which Mirambikans channellised their mental energy – their projects, and the life they put into them was a clear exhibition of their exuberance. On Christmas the whole school, every child is busy painting windows, cleaning, making and wrapping gifts, learning carols! The atmosphere is so magical! Every now and then, throughout the year, all the groups (classes/grades) would receive an invitation by another group (a very tastefully done one at that) for a play, an art exhibition, a quiz, a performance of some kind. And the whole school would gather to share their experiences and knowledge.

We once did a play on the Mughals and the Delhi Sultanate, because for weeks we had been doing a project on Medieval Delhi. Till today I remember that so well, it was just so much fun! My medieval history is so good, thanks to the fun way of learning that made me remember each detail. We did many more plays on such projects; Mughals is just one of my favourites. Another exciting venture of ours was when we took on the role of teachers. We used to have bi-weekly clubs (non-academic, co-curricular activities), which were facilitated by teachers. Ours being the eldest group, we decided to facilitate the clubs for our juniors, and it was a great success!

This probably gives you a peek into just how much experimentation went on over there. We were constantly throwing up ideas of how to do new things and experience as much as we can in the seemingly little time we thought we had! And of course, the teachers rarely ever said “no”, they were very supportive. But I must confess, sometimes we went a little overboard with this; we did sometimes take our freedom for granted and shed the responsibility that came with it. For instance when we went on a ‘hartal’ against English grammar classes! And when we ‘ran away’ from Hindi class, hiding the whole day, in different corners of the school from our diyas!!!!! We were really too crazy for words! A bunch of brats I would say! But really innocent ones at that; Mirambikans never grew up before their age, their innocence was always preserved.

Another thing really remarkable about this place is the cultural diversity of people that exists here. In a group of ten kids you will find Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims; and Italians, Americans, Germans, Iraqis! You name it! Not that religion or ethnicity was ever a major matter of discourse here, but, the cultural diversity did in subtle ways add to the richness of this place.

Mirambika kids have a great sense of adaptability. They can adjust to any situation (not always willingly and happily, but they do usually fare quite well once thrust into it). I remember one of my most testing times – when I gave my tenth class boards privately. I prepared for them in six months flat, and had absolutely no experience of writing exams whatsoever! The uncertainty that was thrust upon us, before we made this bold decision of giving our boards that very year did not leave me so easily. Its residual effects haunted me and clouded my happiness while I was preparing for my first exams ever; the result of which would shape my entire future, the preparation of which demanded immense determination and sacrifice from me, and which is done in conditions very different from those that formal school kids have the privilege of. Patrachar Vidyalaya was not exactly fun! It was one of my most unpleasant experiences actually. But we pulled through, and quite well indeed!

And then the two years I spent at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya – the people there seemed to have had a tough time accepting me as I was ‘different’. This is when I realised the vast difference between formal schools and Mirambika. In Mirambika differences in thinking, behaviour, dress or anything else are normal. In other schools, they are pathological, thereby causing concern, contempt and rejection. Not that this does not happen in Mirambika at all, but on a much lesser and friendlier plane, it does not turn hostile. What I faced at SPV was rejection and patronisation. The only reason I was able to put up with it for two years was the strength I derived from my Mirambika background, enabling me to survive crisis situations, and in fact, even make something of them by learning from them.

My class teacher in SPV (a strict disciplinarian), once said to the whole class, when I topped – “it’s amazing that Sarandha is doing so exceptionally well in a conventional set up, in spite of being from Mirambika”. I corrected her immediately and said, “Ma’am, it’s not in spite of being from Mirambika, it is actually because of being from Mirambika”. She fell silent. She did not know how to answer me. I do not blame her, there aren’t many who would understand the meaning of what I said, there aren’t many who know exactly what ingredients Mirambika uses to build us in a way that our loyalty and love for it surpasses all bounds….

Our tutors in class ten were thoroughly impressed by Ankit, Damini and me! They used to rave about our courage, confidence and focus in life. They saw our ability to adapt, and they recognised the amazing grasping power we possessed. Of course we were no special angels or god-gifted prodigies, it was all Mirambika!! They saw the difference between us and other students they taught, and told our parents how absorbent we are. So much so that they wanted to get their own kids admitted in Mirambika!!

But, all this was not done by Mirambika alone. It is an imperative here to identify the parents’ role, who were just as involved in the whole system, which they were very much a part of. They grew with their children, learnt, and became better people and better parents. The parent-teacher meetings weren’t just about their own child, with the teachers. They were group meetings where all the parents of all ten kids came, sat together (again, on the floor!), drank tea and discussed group dynamics. And, one thing is for sure, it requires immense guts to put your child through such a radical system, which is still an experiment. They do not know which way it will go. One really needs to have hell of a lot of faith in the philosophy and system to put her/his child there. One needs to be strong about her/his convictions without a morsel of doubt, which may surface by being repeatedly questioned by society about their seemingly absurd decision.

The school would do the ground work; the rest was, to a great extent, in the hands of the parents. They need to work upon their child, while the school does the ground work. They need to give the correct nurturing or their child is ruined. A very precarious balance exists between freedom and responsibility, if it is not maintained with care and attention, self-discipline will never be the answer. The answer will spell out ruin for the child, which has happened with many of my own friends. Thus, the parents share a great part of the responsibility in this learning process. They cannot afford to be like conventional school parents. I am more than grateful to my parents for educating me in Mirambika, and for being the right kind of catalyst required.

I once read in a newspaper article – “an education system that builds upon a child’s first triumphant channelling of positive energies as a doer will create a society of individuals who have achieved a sense of unity within. Individuals who seek inter-relatedness, not isolation; plurality, not conformism. Individuals who seek to resolve conflict within humane parameters and build a nation of common wealth that grows out of the life breath of communities in the most natural manner, like a bud becoming a flower”. If we were to scrutinise Mirambika from the sociological perspective and analyse its contribution to society, then no words would be more apt than these.

All I can really say to sum up this discussion, or rather this conversation I had with my own self, is that if you understand the Anna of ‘Mister God, this is Anna’, by Fynn, then you know for sure what a Mirambika child really is….! - Sarandha
(Passed out from Mirambika in 2000, by giving 10th boards from Mirambika, but privately, through Patrachar Vidyalaya. Graduated from Lady Shri Ram College, DU. Currently pursuing MSW at TISS, Mumbai.)

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