Sunday, November 26, 2006

Unschooling

Up until age sixteen, I was a hundred percent sure where I wanted to spend the rest of my life and in a directional sense of what I wanted to do for a living. I surely wanted to leave the protected confines of my little town which had given me a great schooling, a bunch of friends from all over India and some very positive role models. I had opportunity to meet some uncommonly smart people from around the world who came in as consultants to the major companies in town. They came home for dinner and they indulged my wide eyed curiosity.

I learnt a little about the executive lifestyle in Tokyo, about being a management guru lecturing at the best business schools around the world, about being Indian and starting up a consulting company in the mid-western US in the 80s or closer home about trying to using the Bhagwad Gita as a manual for success without stress in the corporate world. Sitting in my living room, I was an enraptured observer soaking in conversations that had very little bearing on my high school existence but I grew aware of the multitude and diversity of possibilities in the real world.

I knew I wanted to stay in India and do something meaningful for a living. I would not have a drone job - each of these people had started out with regular education and had been able to use the flawed and often dysfunctional system to do something path breaking. I was convinced that anything was possible if I had the talent and passion for it.

My idyll was broken for the first time in the eleventh grade when I started at a new school. My class was comprised of the best students from around town and our collective lives depended on success in the competitive exams to elite engineering and medical schools. The pace of life was furious. I was summarily written off as a top tier engineering school prospect because I had refused to get myself coached by a professional tutor and lacked the stamina to put in the 12-16 hour day that all serious contenders did.

It was no longer important to understand concepts, have an unconventional approach to problem solving , love the subjects that were being taught, find pleasure in the process of learning without any end in view - all the things that were true about my education up to tenth grade. Education was reduced to a set of sharply honed skills that would be put to test for tactical readiness. Having a passion for theoretical physics was akin to being given a philosopher where a battle ready foot soldier was required.

I realized that I had no interest in an engineering degree but was putting myself through this terrible ordeal simply because there was no viable alternative for guaranteed employment by twenty two. I thought that I would be able to pursue my "real" dreams only after gaining financial independence. I was too risk averse to consider following my heart which would have been a liberal arts degree and no line of sight into a "career". Back in my day, the options for those who wished to play safe and certain were woefully limited.

My growing disenchantment with the education system peaked when I started engineering school. As predicted, I made it to tier two instead of one and most people told me I should count my blessings given how disorganized and unprofessional my strategy for the competitive exams had been. Most of my friends had made to the tier one schools like they very much deserved to - they were the kind of people who could crack any exam, they were the pros who had both the intelligence and the test-savvy it took to be successful. In later life, they would breeze through the top ranking b-schools with consummate ease.

The four years of engineering was everything I needed to hate the Indian education system with a passion. My schools years had been an artificial cocoon that did not prepare me for the reality of the Indian situation. The fascinating dinner guests at my childhood home had demonstrated that living your dreams was possible but had not shown me the path to get there. It was not as point A to point B thing like I had imagined. During the holidays I met with my high school friends who had used the system to better advantage than I had been able to. Some had followed their heart to a pursue a degree in literature others to the coveted engineering and medical schools. We compared notes about our experiences and realized we all felt seriously underwhelmed.

Surely such super-human efforts should have yielded much more, we talked about those lucky kids in the US who could get into an Ivy-league school with half as much talent and one fourth the effort. In our group we had a few "all-India toppers" the holy cows of the system that are looked upon by lesser mortals with almost religious reverence. Almost everyone was talking GRE, letters of recommendation, admission essays and what have you -it was about waiting out the four years till being able to get a chance at an education that would be worth all the struggle and strife. It felt unfair that despite being among the best and the brightest it would take so long to gain affirmation and recognition of one's true worth.

Reading about the school system in present day India caused deja vu. I remember the shiver of excitement finding about home schooling for the first time when I was pregnant with J. It felt so liberating to know that I could teach my child what I liked, how I liked and the system would consider it acceptable. For days, I made notes on ideas for projects J and I could work on, the endless possibilities of using my imagination to make learning immensely joyful to my child - it was like being set free from a cage and told that the sky was the limit. If there was a single incident that steeled my resolve to raise my child in this country it was this. I wanted J to find joy in learning every day of her life, for her to make choices in education that were not guided by viability in the job market. She could participate in the school system and yet not be held hostage by it and that could be extremely liberating.

I did not want her to become an ace professional test taker like so many of my phenomenally talented peers (including my ex) were. Above all, I did not want her to feel like the system had extracted disproportionately more from her than it had given back to her. I did not want her to churn through a process that had to eliminate deserving candidates simply because there was not room enough in elite schools for all of them.

Even today, the Indian system forces a prescriptive rigor that may be completely unsuitable for the temperament of the child. Even today, to be successful a child must become a willing and compliant ally of the system and may not question is percepts or even applicability to their personal goals in life. In my grandfather's time when the country was not bursting at the seams from overpopulation, the education system did not eliminate childhood from a child's life in the process of providing him with an education.

Learning was pleasurable and proceeded at a relaxed pace. A man with a matriculation certficate was qualified enough for a job that could support a family. We don't have the same luxury today and in as such the old education system is no longer supportable. We have no use for philosophers in a time of war.

I wanted for J to have a real childhood, a time when it was okay to spend a entire holiday playing with imaginary friends and not have to worry about school admissions at age three. I realize that nothing significant in life comes free. For everything that J stands to gain from the American system, I have to be prepared to pay a price as well. Yet for all that, I am not covinced that India is a better deal for J.

3 comments:

ggop said...

HC,
Homeschooled kids usually do way better than their counterparts in public schools in standardized tests. Parents devote lot more time and energy to their kids when they teach them at home. You can't beat the teacher student ratio for sure!

However, I am intrigued by this trend in homeschooling. In all honesty, I don't know what the parents of the kids in the article are thinking - it doesn't seem wise for the average kid or tween to set the agenda of the day. Maybe the gifted kids are exceptional.

gg

Heartcrossings said...

gg - I agree that allowing kids to set the day's agenda is pushing it too far. Its too much of a good thing :)

The idea of homeschooling itself is wonderful specially if supplemented by regular classroom interaction with public school kids. Parents whose jobs require frequent travel out of the country could stand to gain a lot.

To be able to school kids at home full time is a good idea too as long as it does not impair their social and teaming skills.

Scott Hughes said...

I think unschooling works because kids naturally want to learn and know more.

Thanks,
Scott Hughes
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