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Learning? Yes, Of course. Education? No, Thanks.

May 18, 2015

Transcript of the TEDx IIT Kanpur talk. Here is the Video

I spent the first six – seven years of my life in a very small town near Lucknow. I remember of it as a small place, where we knew so many people around. We knew the vegetable vendors, the rickshaw pullers, the gardeners, the maids, the neighbours, school teachers used to live just nearby. Later when I read Malgudi days by RK Narayan, I was reminded of the little town it was. And then when in class 3rd we moved to Noida, partly the face of growing Indian metropolitan. We moved to an apartment and started going to a big and famous school there, Delhi Public School. I liked going to the school but mostly because I had many friends there. I do not think it was particularly because I enjoyed the learning environment there or the structure of schooling. I did enjoy going to bookstore once a while and buying a book of my interest. Sometime in class 7th or 8th, I bought a book on Tagore and his life and really liked it. I too wanted to do something good for the world. But soon the pressure of doing well in class 10 and then putting in everything into preparing for ‘the’ engineering took over. The engineering books took precedence and those other wonderful ones were left out to gather dust in some other corner of the room. At times during preparation for exam I would think that once I get over with exams I would go back to the books I so loved living life the way I wanted to. But that was not how it was supposed to be. I got through the examination and soon was being hailed as a hallmark of brilliance. The overwhelming congratulatory awes, that I received for next 5 years dragged me back into deception. Soon I was doing things I simply never connected to, running after things I never even wanted to have in the very first place. I now wanted to start a company, do an MBA from a reputed school, because that is what I thought was the in thing. It is quite interesting and also disturbing to see the uncanny ability of the world to pull you away from your own self. After completing engineering, I took up the job with the World Bank, only later to realize that our definitions of ‘doing good’ were quite different. Slowly the discontentment started to grow. It was here when it started to hit me how I had lost myself in this mindless pursuit. I call it mindless not because there is something bad in this kind of approach to life, but because it was not what I wanted to do. A year later I finally decided to leave the job, the degrees, the worldly definitions of success and failures, to once again try and listen to myself.

Like I mentioned, sometime in class 7th or 8th I had got hold of a book on Tagore and his life. I had read how he had quit school and learnt things he really wished to; about a space he created for children called Shantiniketan. Back in school I liked what I read but the thought of doing the same never occurred to me. After leaving the job trying to figure what my heart was into, I wondered what if I could spend my life working towards one such space too, a learning space, a space unlike a regular school.

I say unlike a regular school because there were so many things that out rightly baffled me about the present day schooling system, things that I wanted to understand and if necessary question. I wondered –

Why is it that the children from age 3 years onwards (and now-a-days 2) have to go through a rigid regimental system where the learning is not self directed, wherein they are not taking part in designing their timetable and curriculum, for on an average 20 years to prepare themselves for life?

Why in the current system, all children of similar age groups are put together in a class when all of us outside are always learning and living with people of different ages and hate being evaluated on some straight jacketed norms?

I somehow knew this – that, no the present schooling system was not the best that we could have come up with to educate our children. We who have come up with wondrous symphonies, with unbelievable art work, innumerable myths and stories to explain the mystery of human life, could have come with something way way better, something much closer to the way all of us learn, something that gives space to our curiosity and not a system that systematically destroys it.

I spent around three years going around the country – spent time in monasteries, villages, time with tribal folks, seeing how different people understood education so differently. Interestingly, through my journey, more than the experts, meeting and getting to know the so called “illiterate and uneducated” people helped me understand some of these questions better.

Jungle walk

Trip with kids to a nearby forest


When I was young, i.e. in school, whenever we went to visit our grandparents in the village I looked down upon the villagers. I felt that our family had overcome all that and hoped that someday these people would also break out of poverty and ignorance and move to cities.

Two years ago, when my grandfather passed away, I went to my village and spent about a month living with my grandmother. There are three things I noticed. All through the time I was there not for a moment was my grandmother alone. She always had 10 to 15 women, her friends, from all over the village sitting with her and listening to her. They would finish their work early in the morning, and then come and spend whole day with my grandmother, telling her all sort of stories, not allowing her to feel low for even a single moment. How could someone spend so much of their personal time to help someone else? Having spent my childhood in Delhi, I was an alien to this culture.

Second was this deaf and dumb friend of my father and uncles, our neighbor. I saw how my uncles were communicating with him in sign language. I asked them, ‘When and from where did you learn the sign language? They did not have an answer. After sometime they told me, “Well we grew up playing together. And we learnt. Isn’t it obvious?” It wasn’t obvious to me. Learnt perfect sign language just by playing together! The incident taught me how easily one learns the things they really need.

Third thing I had noticed was the abundance of knowledge the people in village had – knowledge about the local environment, about the flora around, knowledge about their health and well being, knowledge so deep rooted and yet so fluid and free. It troubled me to see how despite the knowledge most of them had internalized the labels we had given to them of being ‘backward’, ‘poor’, and ‘uneducated’. How they had internalized the fact that learning is something that happens only in schools and colleges and that because they had never been to one they were the ‘ones left out’.

And this I saw was the case with the many vibrant and rich communities, who despite the richness of life saw themselves as uneducated just because they had not studied rhymes and algebra in school.

There is this small tribe called Yanomami, somewhere near Venezuela. They live in large, circular, communal houses. They do not have a chief. Decisions are made by consensus, frequently after long debates. No hunter even today ever eats the meat that he has killed. Instead he shares it out among friends and family. Children are not treated in a special way but as individuals. They share the responsibilities and learn from the society around.

A few years ago I would have called these people “backward” for their alternative ways of life or nakedness, or if nothing else for their lack of material possessions, that they have tried and failed to keep up with the “modern” world, that they have little understanding of cars, hospitals, and banks. I would have also tried to set up a school for their children, to teach them stuff we know and our way of life. Today however I can understand José Mereilles when he calls these other cultures, “the last free people on earth” — free from the influence of governments, the subliminal powers of advertising and the media and particularly free from the thoughts of others.

A few years ago, I met this lady who had spent some time living and working with tribal communities. Over a few years, she along with few others worked out a different way of engaging with the kids from those communities, a way that came out of their way of understanding the world. These she presented to the concerned officials. However her ideas were not accepted. Concerns, about teaching the kids about self-reliance and other things that were an integral part of tribal culture, were expressed. “But that’s there in their stories, songs… that is how they have been learning to live within the community”, she said. They said, “We understand but it is all too complicated. We have a set curriculum on what children in every grade are supposed to learn and it works everywhere. Why don’t we just stick to it? We can if you wish include some of their poems and stories in the curriculum”.

These instances made me see how the present education system is, knowingly or unknowingly, destroying the diversity of life this planet has, killing the many ways of knowing and learning and promoting one and the only way.

Belgaum trip

Learning about weaving and hand-looms from a tribe in Belgaum


The other thing I started seeing was how the current system is feeding us with this idea that we need help of institutes to be taught how to learn and think. A young girl from SECMOL, an alternative learning space in Ladakh, was one amongst many who showed me how that is not so true. How learning is innate, so natural to us. How we love learning provided we are free to choose what we wish to learn and how we have unnecessarily complicated it. She told me how as a kid she loved learning about different kind of plants. She would go around the fields with her grandfather and they would discuss so many things. How in a few years she learnt so much about various herbs and their uses. It all changed though when she started attending a nearby school. Suddenly all that she knew about the plants around became useless. There were whole other things she had to learn but could not relate to. In class 9th her elder brother who was working in Ladakh told her about SECMOL and she decided to run away from her village in Jammu and join it instead.

In one year that she had spent in SECMOL, where she was free to learn things she was interested in, she learnt how to take care of the solar electricity system of the place, learnt about the plants around, and about Ladakhi people and their customs. One evening while having dinner, I asked her, what was it that she enjoyed learning the most there. She said, “The best was to take care of the plants and animals. I learnt how to milk the cattle, take care of them. Since I was a kid I always dreamt of doing it perfectly one day.”

I like how Aaron Falbel shares his thoughts on learning. He writes, “Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn or how to think. We are born knowing how to do these things.

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, which I believe is even more basic than his freedom of speech. No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. If we take from someone their right to decide what they will be curious about, or if we tell them you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us we destroy their freedom of thought. I know many of us would not agree with this. How can we let the children decide? We do not trust them, just like the colonists did not trust the aboriginals in Australia and the Natives in America. But I ask you to please think about it – don’t we feel we should at least let our children participate in choosing how and when they want to learn what.

The other day I was going through this article by Marc Chehab – It asked what will happen if a child realizes this that ‘What we see arrives faster than what we hear’ Himself or herself

For someone to arrive at this conclusion autonomously is utterly profound. It’s also radically corrosive to power. It’s profound because it may lead to some very deep reflections on their place in the world; and it’s corrosive to power because it teaches them that whether something is or isn’t true does not depend on what a teacher or a book says. It depends solely on whether it’s actually true – on whether what you see does in fact arrive faster than what you hear. It read how Socratic reflection is still being punished for the same reason that Socrates was executed for: because the communities that surround the education system are scared of the consequences of letting pupils think freely, because for the socio-economic system to survive you need obedient people with more or less no urge to question. We do not need musicians and artists on the street but workers in the industry. Not people who have found their own meaning but who have learnt the meaning we wish to teach.

And probably that is why, not just here but world over, schooling with a set curriculum, decided by the experts, and the powerful, is being seen as panacea, as a source of hope, as a means to promote this one single monoculture. Why else would a child in Ladakh, a child in Kerala, and the one in the Rajasthan (and possibly in Africa and Europe too) be studying exactly the same stuff, which has less to do with their own culture, their own little place and their own language and geography.


Like the Yanomamis I see that there are innumerable cultures, ways of living thriving in just nearby regions of where we live. I am not saying at the least that these cultures are perfect. No they are not. All I am saying is that all of these exist and all are special in their own way. However, as we talk here we can see a lot of them being schooled and homogenized in the name of development and modernization.

As I say all this please do not understand that I am against any form of teaching. I love teaching and I have enjoyed learning from some fabulous people. All I doubt is the space for it when the person being taught is not even asked or consulted – the space of ‘I’m doing this for your own good’ type of teaching. This kind of teaching might deem necessary sometimes, but to think that whole education environment should revolve around it, does not seem right.

One of my favorite quotes on Education is by Leo Tolstoy. He says “Education is the tendency of one person to make another just like himself or herself… Education is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another…”

Tagore writes of what he thinks education should be. He says, “I believe that the object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom.

Free birds

Drawing from these two thoughts I feel education would take a very different shape, if at all it does take some shape, from what it is today. If you ask me, I dream of a way of life where there is no compulsory schooling and different ways of knowing and learning are encouraged, wherein there are spaces where people come together to share and learn from one another, wherein artists, farmers, scientists, activists, musicians and people well-versed in any other discipline are willing to teach someone who wants to learn at a nominal cost, wherein the knowledge that would otherwise be freely available is not boxed in grandiose buildings and sold to people at exorbitant prices. A way of life wherein irrespective of their age everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.

At the end especially for those who think improved technology, more computers and screens, better child friendly techniques and not freedom of mind is the answer to some of these problems, let me end this by sharing with you a story that was adapted by Manish Jain from Shikshantar and then partly modified by me. The original story was written by Rabindranath Tagore, in which he had warned us of the dangers of Schooling almost 80 years ago.

Parrot's trainingIn ‘The Parrot’s Training’, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison a wild and uncivilized parrot so that she could be properly educated. In addition to the usual school curriculum, she was also expected to learn to listen and obey. She was allowed to question but within the structure and not question the structure itself. First, the teachers tried stuffing her with pages of the official textbooks. Days went by but that did not work. Then teachers, educators came together to brainstorm on some creative means to make things more interesting. More activity based things were introduced to drill the concepts in. A UNICEF project came with all kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques. The cage was decorated with all sorts of colourful pictures and charts. There was a blip in interest, but it died as soon as it came. Again the educators came together to talk again. They decided that more investment is required in the system. Then the World Bank gave a loan to the king to build a bigger cage with a nice toilet. A software company gave her a laptop with free internet connection. But still, there was no considerable difference! Finally the Harvard researchers were invited to conduct studies on the parrot’s brain and multiple intelligences. As a result many papers were published, books were written. However, parrot’s condition only worsened. As her distress increased she was given mindfulness training. They also taught her about child rights. Some concerned individual advised the parrot needs sometime alone. So an hour of silence and meditation was included in the timetable. The only thing parrot was not allowed to do was the little thing she so dearly wanted to do – to leave the cage. Whenever she tried to break out she was put in back. In fact, she was scolded for being ungrateful and impertinent. Time and again she was reprimanded, “We are doing so much for you, spending so much on you and you do not even care.”

Over the years parrot did end up learning a few things but lost the interest in learning itself. She slowly became dependent on the very cage she earlier wanted to break out from. She internalized the fact that the people around her were indeed doing a favour to her; that she and eventually her children too needs support of this wonderful cage. One day the cage was accidentally left open but she was afraid to venture out. Her dreams were reduced to being a rat in the rat-race. Slowly her spirit withered away. In the end, a lot of people made a lot of money on the parrot’s education, everyone benefited except the parrot, who just became another brick in the wall.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Suhas Kolhekar permalink
    May 23, 2015 11:20

    Hello Amol…….Where are you now?The story is good but I am wondering how you have not mentioned Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai talim.Also there are many learnings from the tribal communities in India but you mention only the International.Just to tease may I ask you,” Is this the residual effect of you IIT background?……Love Suhastai,Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements(


    • May 23, 2015 18:13

      Suhastai, Glad you liked the write up, I am currently based in Hyderabad. I have read about Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and also met people who are working with Nai Talim. However, I never got an opportunity to spend time with a Nai Talim school. That is the reason I did not talk about it. I have been wanting to spend sometime at the space in Sevagram whenever I get time. Regarding the tribal communities I also wrote about my learning from the lady who was working in Chattisgarh area. Again I realize there is so much more to learn. I liked what i had read about Yanomamis, so mentioned them there. Not residual effect of anything 🙂 Where do you stay?



  2. June 12, 2015 18:58

    It’s indeed a blessing reading your piece of writing. I feel it’s a true reflection of the present education system. I can very well connect to and understand what you have written being in the system myself. You are lucky that you are out of the system.


  3. July 31, 2015 11:55

    This was an inspiring read Amit 🙂

    I am an undergrad in IIT and I can totally relate to what you are speaking about.


  4. August 9, 2015 18:50

    Hey Amit,
    What are you doing now a days ? Associated with any school or something like that ?


    • August 10, 2015 04:32

      No, not associated with any school. Currently working with a few kids in Hyderabad. Come visit us sometime.



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