The narrow streets of the city of lakes and palaces are cold for the sun is only beginning its morning journey from behind the surrounding hills.  We walk swiftly over the bridge, past quietly ruminating cows and through the small groups of people chatting at the beginning of the day.  Today we are being taken out into the hills to meet a remarkable group of young people who are gathering together to share their stories of their own routes that have taken them away from conventional education.

To feel the sanctity of life is to acknowledge the sacred in all individuals.  In language that is free from any religious associations we might phrase it as the observation of the unique qualities of each individual.  Educating the spirit is about ensuring that these qualities are able flow, in a way that is not destructive to other living beings, that connects freedom with responsibility and encourages a life worth living.  It seems to me that to enjoy one’s humanity is to be learning about oneself: to be exploring all humanity through oneself.  This is a long way from the pursuit of success and the need to validate oneself through achievement which appears to be the motivation in life currently being encouraged; this invariably leads to self-absorption.

‘Do not believe a thing simply because it has been said.
Do not put your faith in traditions only because they have been honoured by many generations.
Do not believe anything because the general opinion believes it to be true or because it has been said repeatedly.
Do not believe a thing because of the single witness of one of the sages of antiquity.
Do not believe a thing because the probabilities are in its favour, or you are in the habit of believing it to be true.
Do not believe in that which comes to your imagination, thinking it must be the revelation of a superior being.
Believe nothing that binds you to the sole authority of your masters or priests.
That which you have tried yourself, which you have experienced, which you recognize as true
And which will be beneficial to you and to others;
Believe that, and shape your conduct to it.’                           Buddha

We are sitting in a circle; threadbare carpets have been put down for us to sit on and we are exposed to the sun as it is still morning and the warmth is welcome.  In the sky above the bare hills soars a majestic bird, its wings hardly move as the warm currents of the emerging day carry it upwards.  It is joined by another and together the birds land by the lake, their vast wings flap slowly and their heavy bodies hop ungainly on the rough ground as they settle.  The circle is made up of young women and men, mostly in their early to mid twenties, their smiles are friendly and they are affectionate with each other.  We hear the accounts of their individual experiences of freeing themselves from the accepted system of school-college-university to learn what they want, to be involved in those things that are fed by their interests and their particular concerns.  Some of them have parental support; others have had to justify their actions to both friends and family; some come from comfortable middle-class families and others have emerged from the margins of society where survival is always an issue.  All of them are driven by a passion to make things better for others, environmental and social concerns at the core of their lives.  One girl has made a film about the only female rickshaw driver in Udaipur; a boy is studying community theatre and is involved with a group of social activists; all are active with their own and often wider community.

‘Most parents unfortunately think that they are responsible for their children and their sense of responsibility takes the form of telling them what they should do, what they should not do, what they should become and what they should not become.  The parents want their children to have a secure position in society.  What they call responsibility is part of that respectability which they worship; and it seems to me that where there is respectability there is no order.  Do you call that care and love?’                J Krishnamurti

Some days later we are further north in a village in Rajasthan sitting in a small, dark room lit only by a single solar lamp.  There are two men and we are joined by a succession of young children who are here to learn to read and write; we have come to one of the night schools run by the NGO we are staying with.  These girls and boys aged from about nine to twelve years have been out in the fields, helping at home, looking after animals, taking care of siblings.  They are huddled in coarse, tired looking clothes as the evening is cool.  One of the children is the Prime Minister of the Children’s Parliament; she is a stern girl coming up to thirteen years old, straight faced and eyes that hold an understanding beyond her years.  We have a question and answer session: we ask of their lives and their concerns, they ask us about farming and land use in our country, showing what is really important in their lives.  Before we leave the children sing to us and we walk out into the dark having been part of another world, touched by sincerity and thoughtfulness often difficult to find in the prosperous parts of the world.

In her book, ‘Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator’, Kathleen M O’Connell writes about Tagore in the context of Western progressive-humanist education and describes this type of education as using ‘an organic model of education that emphasizes individual independence and focuses on the unfolding of a child’s personality in a non-threatening environment’.  This is the basis of self-directed learning: the preservation of natural curiosity, the exploration and expansion of individual interest, and a continuing sense of connection with nature and, thus, humanity.  Certainly this cannot take place in large authoritarian institutions based on hierarchical decision making promoting competition, conformity and uniformity of thinking.  So do we look to create different kinds of institutions or, perhaps, no institutions at all?


The young people we met outside Udaipur are part of Swaraj University.  Swaraj being the term used by Gandhi regarding not just self-determination for India, but self-direction for the individual.  More can be found out about Swaraj University at www.swarajuniversity.org.

The NGO that organizes the Children’s Parliament, night schools and many other things is Barefoot College.  Also much influenced by Gandhi’s outlook there is a policy of encouraging grassroots participation whilst actively discouraging the input of highly qualified experts.  Barefoot College website is www.barefootcollege.org .