“Nobody can teach me who I am.”

― Chinua Achebe

A different story about learning

Around the world, in puddles of silent reclamation, young people, communities and inspired collectives are co-enacting a radically different narrative about education and development – one which undercuts some of the fundamental and hitherto unchallengeable assumptions about what it means to learn, what is worth aspiring to, and what is possible (perhaps, even imperative) today. This chapter is about these new stories.

As persons undertaking pilgrimages of sorts to emancipate our senses of the ‘textual’ from the strict confines of academic communication (Bayo, a former professor of clinical psychology, describes himself as a ‘recovering academic’; while Manish, an alternative education practitioner, left a high-powered career with intergovernmental agencies and the financial world to rekindle his learning journeys with his grandmother and his community in India), we tell these stories in the language of the poetic. That’s probably because what we attempt to describe, what we can only hope to allude to, lies beyond convenient cognitive grasp, and transcends rigid intellectual discourses and disciplinary confines. There is still no lexicon or approved set of terminologies to capture the many ways our experience of the world (as well as established patterns of knowledge-making) is disintegrating. As such we speak from what might be described as an ‘indigenous orientation’, with a sense of solidarity with disenfranchised peoples (hence, our profuse use of the term ‘we’), with a subversive non-formality that liberates hidden meanings and subtexts, with playful word-hybrids, intriguing gaps in the body of the text, and turns of phrase that hopefully invite readers to query their own learning experiences.

This chapter is dedicated to exploratory spaces around the world where new notions of learning are being co-enacted. One such experiment, Swaraj University, was started in Udaipur, India in 2010, in the spirit of a ‘peoples’ university’. It is an attempt to reclaim and re-situate diverse ways of knowing, spaces for intellectual discourses and radical notions of power back into the everyday lives of communities and in service of the new politics, economics, and spiritualities of localization. The idea of swaraj (rule over self, or recovery/harmony of the self) was invoked by M. K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore as an essential part of the Indian freedom struggle. Swaraj University invites khojis (seekers/explorers), ages 17-29, from urban and semi-urban backgrounds to participate in a 2-year self-designed learning program.[1] While supporting each learner in exploring their personal passions and dreams, the program focuses on unlearning, gift culture[2] and regenerative livelihoods as part of its efforts to create conditions for rethinking development in more radical and imaginative ways.

New frontiers for who we learn from, how we learn, where we learn, when we learn, what we learn (and unlearn) are being opened up. Spaces for holding the messiness of decolonizing and healing ourselves are being hosted. Many new rites of passage are evolving to help shift our consciousness about our deeper role, relationships and purpose in the world. Intimate questions of what constitutes the ‘good life’ are being invoked[3]. Stories of khojis from Swaraj University like Anant’s, a 20 year-old young man, are exemplary of the kinds of seismic shifts disrupting the monoculture narrative of success, happiness and progress posited by the development and education industries:

*Embedded in a globalizing culture that has conditioned his peers to look forward to ‘glamourous’ air-conditioned jobs, Anant chooses to move from the hectic Mysore city back to his grandmothers’ village farm to start farming as a full-time livelihood. He wants to experience the joy of working with his hands, reconnecting with the land, and figuring out how to live and make a ‘sustainable life’ economically viable.

Anant is not alone in his quest to walkout of the old story. Many others are joining him in questioning the Global American Dream.

*Sakhi, 22 years old, tries to build a collective movement for slow communication through reviving the ancient art of letter-writing called the ‘Prem Patra Project’ (Love Letters). While she still uses Facebook, email, and mobile phones[4], she has strong concerns about what space these technologies leave for expressing our deeper feelings, relationships and experiences. She also engages in techno-fasting from time to time and a deeper conversation about the role of technology in our lives.

*Malhar, a 19 year old son of community activists, is interested in marine biology and environmental conservation, and opts to spend a year learning from a community of indigenous illiterate tribal fisherman and women. He has read a lot of books and done a lot of research on the internet, but he is keen on trying to understand life, relationships and nature from their so-called ‘non-scientific’ perspectives.

*Rahul, a 25 year old aspiring poet from a small town, chooses to spend 1 month travelling on a bicycle with no money or technology in his pocket in order to engage more authentically with rural peoples. He would like to understand the culture of generosity, trust and care that still exists in Indian villages, as well as face his own colonised fears around money. He is now planning a 1 year journey to explore 52 different eco-careers as alternative livelihoods for youth.

*Ritesh, a 24 year old woman from a conservative family background, chooses to design/upcycle a line of jewellery made out of seeds, leaves, twigs, clay, and waste materials. With friends, she initiates a social business with a larger vision to engage with and re-define modern, corporatized notions of beauty and waste. She starts to connect and learn with many traditional artisans who are facing the onslaught of industrialization. She uses her jewelry to raise many questions around who controls the definition of what/who is beautiful outside the advertised corporate billboards of ‘Fair and Lovely’ whitening cream advertisements as well as the violence associated with the mineral mining industry.

*Dhaval, 22, chooses to leave a promising career opportunity as a leadership facilitator/coach for a year to take care of his father who is dying of cancer. They have a very tumultuous relationship which he tries to come to terms with as well as find ways to emotionally support his mother. He also goes through a deep spiritual journey as he engages with and encounters death for the first time.

These stories introduce turbulence to the linearity and one-dimensionality imposed by globalizing narratives about life-trajectories. They are not the kinds of decisions one would expect young persons to make in a cultural milieu increasingly defined by rapid urbanization, internet-mediated social networks, mushrooming shopping malls, and budding incentives to escape the boredom of village life – especially in India which has at the time of this writing been described as one of the world’s fastest growing economy, posting a 7.5 percent growth in GDP and beating out China’s 7.4 percent (for the January to March 2015 period)[5].

Anant’s learning journey, like those of his peers in Swaraj University and in other such radical deschooling experiments across the world, is remarkable because it breaks through the impenetrably dominant logic of development. Further still, it dismantles the supportive frameworks that make perpetual ‘progress’ – materially configured by altered landscapes, a rejection of self, community and the power of the local, as well as an ideological flattening and de-contextualizing of experience for the economic-political convenience – a quest worth pursuing.

These groups of people are challenging the language, lenses and labels of deficits, arrogance and inadequacy such as ‘poor’, ‘primitive’, ‘illiterate’, ‘first-generation learners’, ‘backward’, ‘dropouts’ which permeate the development discourse. They are unlearning the doctrines that forced them to see nature as monstrous and mute, needing the salvific intervention of technological convenience. They are holding a mirror to the face of their internalized ‘white man’s burden’ which tricked them into continuing the game of ‘othering’ their own people[6]. They are challenging sacred cow categories of nationalism, ownership/copyright, science, growth, technological utopianism, monoculture beauty, etc. They are choosing not to cooperate with the established rules of the game and finding ways to hack the system. With memory, new and old rites of passage, and an improvisational prolificacy that is perhaps unprecedented in modern history, small communities, movements and local practitioners are reconceptualising learning in terms of a re-entanglement with land and place, with story and story-making practices, with gift culture as a touchstone for community living, with collective intelligences and subtle forms of consciousness, and with the messiness that comes with being in tune with oneself, one’s roots and with plural ways of knowing the world. In short, they are discovering many paths of walking out and walking on to possibilities for living beyond TINA[7]-development.


Education for What?

The advent of modern schooling and the entire educational-industrial complex was heralded by claims that it would usher in a brilliant age of freedom, democracy, equality and enlightenment for all. Modernity became the principal doctrine, premised on the conviction that rationality and the triumphal rise of science represented an irrevocable separation of the human from the nonhuman world – as well as the compartmentalization of science, politics, economics and religion as self-contained aspects of human civilization. With colonial force, indigenous peoples and their more intimate ways of knowing[8] and being with the world were subjugated by the faith that the world only made sense through the lenses of scientific method. In place of cyclical timelines and rich entanglements between ‘man’ and ‘nature’, the colonial incursion introduced a theo-classical notion of flat time (or the idea that time is a progression from an undifferentiated past to a sophisticated future) and the evolutionary scales that dropped cultures in a never-ending race for adequacy. In one fell swoop, diverse indigenous peoples became illegitimate children of the earth. Their histories, cultural technologies, social systems, diverse learning processes, rituals, worldviews and dreams were summarily replaced with the urge to ‘catch up’, to purge the planet of its bumps and grooves, and to replace real diversity with an easily administrable and package-able one.

Schooling has probably served as the most formidable weapon in the quiver of modernization. It helped create a category of global ‘uneducated’ victims who needed development to come and save/civilize/develop them. It also became a panacea to be spread as it held the elusive moral promise of socio-economic advancement and equity for all. Through mass schooling, we could finally ‘catch up’. However, most schools are still the sites where our children are essentially told that the learning cultures and expressions of our own peoples and ways of living are inferior, and that we have no value in the world until we compete against one another for a limited number of seats/labels in the global rat-race. We are taught that the only way to progress is to get on the chariot of mobility and leave one’s community for the promised life of global citizenship. We are told that our lack of success in the system is due to our laziness or some cultural defect. If one cannot escape, then at least we can learn to consume and brand ourselves like our white masters. By divorcing our children from the ‘real world’ so that they could ‘study’ it and colonizing their timetable, mass-schooling embodies the deep fragmentation, dislocation and irony that haunts the modern project.

One might presume that this critique of the formalized education-development paradigm emanates solely from the Global South, and that in the ‘North’ schooling is innocent and incontestable. However, as higher education becomes increasingly oriented toward, and indistinguishable from, ‘instrumentalism and consumerism, and as the discourses of marketisation, increased competition, student/consumer ‘choice’, graduate attributes, skills and employability, and the national measurement of student satisfaction take increasing hold’[9], disturbing questions are emerging about the relevance and need for these ‘conventional’ educational paradigms.

For instance, as children in the United States boycott tests in unprecedented numbers – a silent testament not only to the immense psychological pressure and repressive dynamics of the ‘educational system’, but to the evolutionary urges now tugging at the walls of traditional schools – parents and concerned groups are asking: Do we still need grades and batteries of standardized tests? What are we excluding or missing by framing education this way?[10] The reasons parents and potential test-takers are walking out of programs like ‘No Child Left Behind’ are seemingly ‘non-revolutionary’ motivations like the demand for a ‘richer curriculum’, but it exposes how schooling is not about learning per se, but developing human resources and accessing the job market[11].

In short, not only in the Global South, but in the North as well, the dominant narrative is perhaps the McDonaldization of education[12] (or ‘McEducation for All’), which is the efficient capturing and streamlining of diverse learning, knowledges and aspirations to fit the demands and requirements of modern, techno-economic, consumer-mediated global citizenship.

An important aspect of that conversation is the growing acknowledgement of the kinds of damages that have been inflicted on cultural and ecological diversity. It is now easy to see how centralized ideologies and schemes pay homage to intergovernmental agencies, while silencing multiple ways of being in the world with the language of efficiency and rationalization, standardization and scale, surveillance and control – and, with a sustained hope in the market place and a de-rooting of identities. Perhaps in no modern document has this ‘disembodiment’ been more forcefully evident than in the published findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which revealed, via 6,750 interviews, how Indians and Inuits underwent physical, sexual and cultural abuse while compelled to attend school[13]. Their training was intended to break and assimilate them into mainstream white culture so that their lands and resources could be easily brought into control of the State.

Yet, as is evident in the crisis of mounting student debts, unemployment, suicide rates, escalating price tags associated with ‘quality’ private education in both the North and South, and the accusation that education now serves an insidious economic (corporate) bottom-line[14], the narrative of development is slowly buckling under its own weight. It is no longer able to accommodate the changing experiences of millions of disenchanted people across the globe. Intergovernmental organizations like the UN seem to recognize, with every new technocratic adjective used to qualify development (the current one being ‘sustainable’), that development alone as a paradigm is endangering the planet and fueling an untamable crisis. Yet, every ‘new’ solution to control it and rein it in, while continuing to desacralize our homes, has proven to be counterproductive. One wonders in hushed tones whether even those in power today can stop its heralded march: in recent years, we are witnessing (and have personally experienced) how anyone who tries to question its inherent logic or sanctity is crucified by the State-Military-Academic-Corporate-NGO nexus as ‘anti-national’, ‘anti-equality’, ‘terrorist’, ‘anti-progress’, ‘romantic’ or just plain ‘impractical’.[15]


How we are unplugging from a dying narrative

To these times of repressions and upheavals, the so-called global South – still largely at the receiving end of development aid and foreign direct investment – offers Anant’s learning journey as an invitation to reimagine development, to overcome our conditioned fears, to listen closely to what the earth is trying to share with us, to dismantle the limiting assumptions that imprison us in concrete gutters, and blind us to the wealth of our histories, the magic of gift culture, and incredible learning adventures we can undertake outside of the structured frameworks of schooling. Many new self-designed learning experiments for children, youth and adults from around the world such as homeschooling/unschooling, alternative free schools, transition towns, indigenous healing rituals, eco-villages, deep dialogue processes, spiritual meditation practices, voluntary simplicity resistance movements, etc. are inviting us to embrace a space between stories – where the fundamental truths and expectations about the world are hollowing out and giving way to a ‘new story’.

One common aspect among all of these diverse experiments is that, at their core, they are interrogating three assumptions about the ‘self’, which have dominated and fueled modern development thinking:

  1. Institutionalized expertise is the only legitimate source of knowledge: Ph.D. experts, with their rational frameworks and hi-tech quick-fixes, are the only ones who can solve our problems. Local communities are poor and don’t have the intelligence, tools, resources or capacities to re-frame the game, much less solve their problems. Our ancestors were ‘uneducated’ and did not have any meaningful knowledge.
  2. We live in a world of scarcity. We need continuous economic growth through the conquest of nature because there is not enough for everyone to live peacefully on the planet. This is most actively perpetuated through the racist myth of the ‘population bomb’ – which disassociates questions of population from systemic questions. Greed, competition, violence are thus regarded as natural phenomena. Along with this is the notion that more money and consuming more and more stuff will give us more happiness, security, convenience, leisure, and comfort so we need to strive for unlimited economic growth.
  3. We are alone, and we are all we have: By some freak evolutionary coincidences, the human race alone came to be invested with sentience, agency, intelligence, consciousness and culture. The rest of ‘nature’ is a dead template that is at best a cosmic blank canvas recording the ameliorative activities of our species. What we do to each other or the planet does not impact us. Each individual is seen as separate and irreconcilably distant from the ‘other’, competing and maximizing as much as he can for himself. Our choices and actions are seen as ‘tiny’ and insignificant in the face of huge institutions.


These assumptions have conspired to form a narrative which teaches us that there is no alternative to the game of development and that, despite its flaws, the model is ‘fixable’ and must be fixed at any cost. It is believed, as exemplified in the case of the Millennium Development Goals and now Sustainable Development Goals, that if we keep expanding more of the same and making it more accessible/efficient/effective, we can achieve the dream of equality, opportunity and human rights for all. We are told that there is no need to think beyond an agenda of expansion, reform, redistribution, empowerment and inclusion vis-à-vis the dominant development model. We must all work within its safe and controllable confines.

However, there is a growing movement of radical educational practices and platforms around the world which are seeking to explore and play in the unknown wilderness beyond modernity’s narrative and structure. As opposed to most freedom movements of the 20th century, there is no clear predetermined destination or ideological utopia driving these. One such ‘living experiment’ is Swaraj University. The 2-year program of self-designed learning includes several different co-created processes: unlearning encounters, apprenticeship learning, peer-to-peer co-learning, community living, short workshops, learning journeys, do-nothing and unplugging periods, reconnection to family/roots and starting their own local enterprise/movement. Embedded in these different processes are attempts to recover and redefine a more authentic sense of self.

Through intimate reconnections with our indigenous learning traditions and mythologies, and a sense of rooted-ness and trickster-like playfulness, we are reclaiming our strengths, our imperfections and the beauty of our shadows. We are re-appropriating various spaces/contexts, ways of knowing, stories and relationships that have either been rendered ‘invisible’ or ‘not of any value’ by the education system and recovering a new sense of our ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. We are engaging with spaces like dump sites, mining companies, prisons, and displaced communities to more deeply understand the costs of our modern lifestyles. We are re-entangling learning questions with everyday life – our food, water, shit, and waste – and reconnecting education with a humbler story about our place in the web of life. We are experimenting with the gift culture through processes of care, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, commoning, and empathy, and attempting to re-weave a field of co-creation, dialogue and trust. With new rites of passage, for example, ‘cycle yatras’ – bicycled expeditions that invite participants to trust in the abundance of the cosmos by letting go of money, phones, plans and other modern life support tools – we are slowly learning how to make ourselves vulnerable again and beginning to trust in the power of the unknown. We are re-discovering localized livelihoods, regenerative economies and notions of community which help heal the planet and provide us with joy, security and meaning. In short, we are unlearning to put our ‘heads’ back into right relationship with our hearts, hands, and home.

Swaraj University is committed to exploring the vast possibilities of informal learning. This is the wild world that exists beyond the borders of the formal/non-formal educational structures. It is not trying to graft additional courses, tools or processes on the mainstream structure, its academic disciplines and its ‘hidden’ curriculum. It has designed its own operating system and values to create greater autonomy, integrity, creativity, inter-connectedness and abundance, which is worth taking note of:

* Faculty: The basic operating premise is that we can choose our own gurus, or sources of inspiration, regardless of their academic background. This has several implications. First, we have shifted from a conventional scarcity-driven model of a few good Ph.D. professors to an abundance of over 300 ‘non-certified’ mentors around the country who have deep experience-based perspectives, strong skills and care for youth. The ‘khojis’[16] and mentor mutually negotiate the terms, tenure and conditions of their learning relationship at the home of the mentor. The khojis are again able to see our ‘illiterate’ elders and many others with practical know-how (who had been rendered invisible) with new appreciation, respect and connection. Even the animals, trees, mountains, rivers, soil and children can be our gurus.

Khojis in Swaraj University are also turning to each other to build new models of co-learning, sharing, collaboration and community living as they learn to connect the dots towards more holistic ways of life. They are reclaiming the power to construct their own frameworks of understanding vis-à-vis their communities and realities, which transcend the boundaries of established disciplines. Underlying this are many radical conversations about compulsion and authority. They are learning to see ‘mistakes’ not as something bad to be feared, avoided or punished but as a tremendous source of learning. Khojis are encouraged to use a range of assessments, from self, peer-to-peer, mentor, guide, family, friends to gather feedback and perspectives on their learning process.

* Campus: The basic operating premise is that the world is our campus. The khojis are encouraged to reclaim the many diverse spaces and processes where learning happens in their community and the world. Swaraj University also occupies a 15-acre organic rural farm space where the khojis collectively meet from time to time. In this space, khojis are invited to engage in reclaiming the joy of physical labor and body wisdom through cooking, cleaning, farming, natural building, and natural ways of self-healing. The kitchen is a space for vibrant conversations and creativity. There is poor internet connection on the campus, by conscious choice, so the khojis are exploring the power of unplugging from the digital world and discovering time to listen to their inner voice. There is a lot of wilderness outside the campus so the khojis are also learning to re-listen to the feel of soil and trees, to the taste of wild forest foods, to the sounds of snakes and the birds, to the smells of different seasons, to the vibrations of subtle realms. Several khojis experiment with the expansive practice of silence and its ability to heal ourselves, create new space within us, and re-awaken us to our vast powers of imagination. Khojis are also encouraged to build a local learning directory (featuring interesting people who know how to do different things) of their home community and host others to experience a learning journey there. This has proved to be very powerful in building links between the world within Swaraj University world and life in communities.

* Certification: There is no certificate required to join Swaraj University and no certification is given on ‘completion’. The basic operating premise is that each khoji will develop their own portfolio and present their 2-year journey to the Swaraj University community. As a matter of policy, the University is also not certified by any national or international board. Certification embeds standardization, approval and control from an outside authority. In this sense, the khojis are healing themselves from what is colloquially referred to as the ‘disease of diplomas and degrees’, and drawing attention to the subtle ways these tools have branded millions as failures because they didn’t fit an absurd system of monoculture assessment (or because those unfortunate students were busy exploring other learning paths not recognized by schools), and have created a new ruling class of ‘educated’ experts and a new rationale for socio-political discrimination and control. The University has built a parallel network of over 500 small businesses, NGOs, and movements who are willing to give people without a degree a chance to work and learn.

* Fees: The basic operating premise is that we all belong to ‘gift cultures’ and need to actively contribute to rebuilding it in our lives if we aspire for freedom from the global economy. In an attempt to decommodify education visions, there are no fees for the learning processes at Swaraj University. All of the faculty are also connected to Swaraj University in the spirit of gift culture. The khojis are asked to contribute what they can for their food, stay and travel costs plus a little extra to help support costs for another friend. Those who need additional financial support can also request that. They don’t have to pay us back, rather we request khojis to see how they can pay forward their resources in the future to help others they meet.

* Curriculum: Swaraj University is a living, evolving, co-created, curricular framework which is inspired by the spirit of slowing down and reclaiming our notions of time from the Machine. It is trying to provoke and engage learners at the personal level, the community level, the systemic level and the spiritual level. At the same time, it is offering space and acceptance so that they can re-discover their inner motivations and sense of wholeness, and not be driven continuously by the carrot and the stick.

As we navigate the somewhat harsh contours and complexities of tradition and modernity, a good amount of time goes in exploring the various labels, boundaries, shame, guilt and fears – such as the fear of being punished, ridiculed, rejected, being not good enough or not having security, not being loved, and fear of what others will think of us – that have been conditioned into us by McEducation. It is interesting to note that oftentimes, the so-called ‘winners’ have more fears than the ‘losers’ in education. There is a lot of exploration around our real needs, addictions and desires, what we are grateful for, and the larger question of what will bring us happiness. The question of love is also a very potent area for conversations. The personal lives of facilitators, founders and faculty members are opened up as grounds for learning, what with all their contradictions, struggles, hopes, anger and disappointments. For example, the death of one of the founders’ mother became a rich area of exploration around our feelings and notions of death.

There is time for taking care of each other, relying on one another, and reconnecting to the spirit that your well-being and my well-being are interconnected. Cooking together is one important opportunity for this. This is particularly important given the amounts of processed foods that have infiltrated into the diets of young people across India. Conflicts that occur between khojis while living together are not seen as a ‘disturbance’ but rather a rich area of exploration. There is time to let life reveal itself, and to sit in the uncomfortableness of the unknown, where plans don’t make sense or don’t need to.

The experiments at Swaraj University are not just an isolated attempt in India. There are many kindred initiatives that are loosely connected to, and supporting, each other (they are critical to the viability of Swaraj University). These projects are slowly rekindling collective imaginations about learning. Experiments like Swashikshan, a vibrant movement for homeschooling and unschooling children in India, are more visible in the urban upper middle class, but there are also rural and indigenous families who are learning to prioritize their own traditional learning processes and local economies over school timetables. The beauty of this emergence is that there is no standardized model; each family is co-creating their unique learning journey and, at the same time, regenerating their wider learning commons and a new sense of joint/extended family.

The indigenous African proverb that says ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is taking on new iterative signification in the idea of Udaipur as a ‘Learning City’, and in Europe, where vivacious Transition Town movements and Ecovillage movements are underway. These efforts to activate knowledge and power of the informal sector seek to redefine existing notions of space and relationships outside the dominating frameworks of the industrial mega city. Questions about how we understand and relate to the concepts of ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘money’, ‘ownership’, ‘nature’, etc. are driving these efforts.

Also noteworthy is the emerging Ecoversities Network, a planetary network that comprises over forty alternative higher education projects working with youth and adults in 20 different countries. These are emerging from indigenous movements, social justice movements, ecological movements, and artist movements. Each of these new universities is working on their own diverse strategies for healing the self and our web of relationships, for engaging with the surrounding layers of violence, and for reclaiming and regenerating their cultural and ecological resources. At the core of all of these efforts is a deep spiritual recognition that inner change and outer change are inter-connected.

Through these tiny efforts, the syllables of a new language of development are slowly forming – quietly sidestepping the little boxes of top-down evaluation and international rankings, and disturbing the canon of funded development. A decentralized, diverse and many-headed/hearted localization movement is gaining grounds, changing the very conditions of ‘expertise’ (what modern culture presumes is premised on the acquisition of degrees in an isolated, controlled and sterilized ‘educational environment’), and unleashing an unlikely generation of new ‘explorers’ learning to come to their senses – a sense of connectedness with land and ‘other’, a sense of sacred entanglement with the wild, a sense of stretched accountability in a world that cannot possibly be anthropocentric, passive, or mute. These people and projects are slowly learning to develop a new appreciative language to support deeper intercultural dialogue and partnership across race, gender, class, caste, urban-rural, cosmological margins. Much of these are without the classical organizing frameworks of the State or Market.

Summarily, people are slowing down, and circumventing the idea that we are alone, separate, poor, stupid and undone without the interceding presence of banks, schools, armies and malls. The meaning of what is activism and who is an activist is being cracked wide open. By planting their own food together, and reclaiming the soil beneath curbs and asphalted terrains like highways, they are retelling the story of hunger and showing how food need not be scarce. They are dodging the heavily modified foods that have to be chemically compromised in order to traverse long distances and escape decay. With local currencies and sharing economies that operate on the assumption of abundance, instead of artificially induced scarcity, they are reenergizing money as gift and flow, not capital and fixity. In fits and starts, they are re-weaving the webs of community through processes of co-creation, transforming conflict and regenerating the commons. The new imperative is slowing down, unplugging and scaling down. This brings a new wisdom of resiliency and freedom that cannot be achieved with scaling up, expanding and speeding up. Our very existence is being reworked in these small acts of re-enchantment.


Conclusion: Our ways of dealing with the crisis are part of the crisis

If at all mechanical metaphors could be employed to describe the remarkable shifts now mattering across the globe, then it might be appropriate to say that the ‘restart button’ has been pressed, and what it means to be human, where humanity stops and the non-human begins, how we relate to the ‘world around us’ and ‘in us’, how we make sense of space-time, agency, causality, being alive and worthiness are all being rebooted. These efforts to rekindle a world we can all find a home in are not ‘human’ efforts, but describe the ways our ‘intra-actions[17]’ are reconfiguring the very nature of reality. With fragile tools and ‘imperfect’ efforts, our connection with the world is being stitched back together.

Today’s multidimensional crises require a re-imagination of development and education. Nothing short of the dismantling of the material-discursive apparatus that makes the devastation of lands, peoples and diverse ways of co-constituting the world will address the critical urgency of the moment. As a climate crisis, deep economic inequality, ecological devastation and counterproductive activism force us to confront the limits of our imagination, we can come to terms with the ways development and the tired language of progress and technocratic solutions exclude other forms of learning and other material possibilities for reshaping how we live.

It is important to note that while there are no final methodologies or frameworks for rekindling our connections with land and people, for decolonizing ourselves from the anorexic confines of development thinking, it is worryingly clear that perhaps how mainstream culture has learned to think about our many crises may be part of the crisis. The linguistic paradigms that urge systemic shifts (as if the world works in perfunctory ways – with fixed variables and constants) and distant ‘solutions’ or quick fixes are too often blind to the erratic, queer, ironical and entangled nature of the world. One is forced to think of the global response to terrorism and the doctrinal refrain that the violent and unfortunate activities of groups like Boko Haram (literally translates as ‘Western Education is Sinful’) of northeastern Nigeria are attributable to a corrosive form of religious fundamentalism and/or economic marginalization and bad governance. The architecture underneath the ways global leaders commonly conceive the world parses the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them’, those on the inside and the mad and monstrous ‘outside’, to such an extent that it shuts down our capacities for deep listening. What is excluded from the discourse on terrorism is how impoverished and hyperopic a counter-terrorism that focuses on retaliation or pre-emption is; how insidiously the system hides our complicity and fuels injustice; and, how disruptive ‘terrorism’ is to the modern notion that economic development and literacy are a blanket answer to all possible questions about how we can frame our lives.

Stretching the discourse on development and education means being responsible to what is excluded from mattering; it means disturbing not only what is said but what is allowed to be said. It means noticing how re-looking at the wounds of socio-economic inequality, ecological devastation and terrorism can open up new questions, new paradigms of learning, and new emancipatory experiments in rekindling our entanglements with land and people.

As feminist theorist Barad states, ‘there are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly.’[18] There are no final utopias or master plans. We will make our way with a jugaad [19] of approaches, a quilt of intimate reckonings, a politics of small acts of kindness, ‘doing nothing’ and listening to the silences to give space for emergence.

In those small spaces, in the borderlands of development, we will happen upon the quiet magic now afoot, the fragrances now adrift, the revolution that will not be schooled.

Our journey is urgent, and so we have placed the swift and the strong at the backand the frail, the toddling, the elderly, the slow, the uncultured, the unfettered, ahead of us for we’ve long realized that, unlike the exodus of that legendary age, our quest is not for new lands flowing with milk and honey. Our quest is for new ways of noticing. And unlike that ancient collective, our form is not a stretching line, but a dancing circle. In our stuttering, bovine steps, we will unravel new continents beneath our feet, subtle worlds with wild treasures; in festivities of love and spontaneous surrender, we will dance new worlds into our reckoning. A humming exodus is now underway, and our home lies in the shimmering distance: the kind traversed with an embrace.


[1] Swaraj University learners come from a variety of experiences: there are youth who have failed 10th alongside those who have completed masters degrees, they come from a mix of class, caste and regional backgrounds, some have parents who are activists/NGO leaders while others have had no deep exposure to social initiatives, there is a 70:30 male-female gender ratio. There is no paid advertising about Swaraj University to recruit students. Rather, we reach out to an extensive network of social movements, NGOs, alternative education practitioners, youth groups and Facebook friends for spreading this opportunity by word of mouth. The program is facilitated in Hindi to encourage accessibility to a wider range of backgrounds. Also, financial scholarships are available for those who need support. Surprisingly, our experience has been that youth from lower economic class backgrounds are oftentimes more willing to take a risk with an alternative learning program than those from more established middle class backgrounds.

[2] The idea of gift culture seeks to challenge the dominant framework of commodification of life. It is based on modes of sharing, trust and a common understanding of interconnectedness – which contrasts with capital-dominated economies.

[3] The more conservative doctrines of economic growth assert that people become happier when they consume more – thus correlating the commoditization of the commons and growing GDP indices with wellbeing. Developments like Bhutan’s GNH (Gross National Happiness index) challenge the primacy of GDP as a measure for happiness. The philosophies of ‘Buen Vivir’ and ‘Ubuntu’, situated in Latin America and Africa respectively, deepen the conversation about the limits of capitalism and invite explorations of how community, harmonious living with one’s environment, and alternatives to development constitute the good life.

[4] There is greater access to cell phones than toilets in India. A recent UN research in India shows roughly 366 million people (31 per cent of the population) had access to improved sanitation in 2008. Other data, meanwhile, shows 545 million cell phones are now connected to service in India’s emerging economy. The number of cell phones per 100 people has exploded from 0.35 in year 2000-01 to about 45 today.


[5] http://business-news.biz/data-shows-indian-growth-outstrips-chinas-but-economists-doubtful/

[6] Perhaps the heart of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ (as well as the heart of a strong decolonization agenda now inspiring a turn to indigenous wisdoms, and restoring confidence in local mythmaking practices) is to make explicit ‘the white man’s burden’ – or the belief held by ‘white men’ that the way life, learning and knowledge are articulated in Africa (and indeed, the Global South) needs to be augmented by an implicitly superior culture. By bringing attention to how missionaries introduced Christianity to an Ibo village, established a new court system, and went about the task of cleaning Negroes of the dirtiness of their own kind, Achebe’s story taps into the deep experiences of nonwestern peoples. Nothing much has changed since the time Achebe wrote Africa’s most prestigious novel (except, perhaps, the language coating these practices). In the experience of people in the so-called Global South, development remains a civilizing mission combined with the techno-economic-political configurations of a globalizing market-place. This agenda is not only carried out by the white man, but now has been conveniently internalized by his little brown and black NGO brothers who carry it out even more aggressively than their masters.

[7] ‘There is no alternative’. An assertion often shortened to the slogan ‘TINA’, and based on an assertion made by Conservative British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, about the primacy and inevitability of free markets, free trade, neoliberal capitalism and growth. The phrase, ‘walking out and walking on’, is referenced from the book of a similar name, ‘Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now’, which features one of us (Manish Jain).

[8] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in her book ‘Decolonizing Methodologies’, shows how indigenous peoples frame knowledge outside the Cartesian coordinates that animate scientific materialism and ‘rationality’. Because these knowledge-making performances are ‘intimate’ – in the sense that they do not presume that ‘truth’ lies at an epistemological distance from the knower – ‘history’ and development has written out/silenced indigenous perspectives. Yet non-western systems insist that the world is not parsed into ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, so to speak: the world is storied, participatory, and material. Linda thus writes: “Indigenous people want to tell our own stories, write our own versions, in our own ways, for our own purposes.”

[9] Barnett, R. and Coate, K. (2005; p.16). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Berkshire, GBR: McGraw-Hill Education

[10] USA Today reports that 155,000 children in New York alone boycotted state-run standardized tests this year (2015). The report states that ‘Such a reaction to standardized testing not unprecedented, but the size of the boycott is’, making more poignant the statement of an Education Department official, who noted: “These refusals are meant to protest a system that is currently failing our children and educators.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/16/parents-opt-out-standardized-tests/25896607/

[11] It seems this ‘fact’ has never been lost on peoples in the ‘Global South’: the fault lines on the education landscape have always been quite bare. In the first quarter of 2015, parents in eastern India made news around the world when they scaled walls, windows, and buildings to supply cheat answers to their wards taking 10th grade examinations. “They’re make or break exams in a student’s career.” Rama Lakshmi, a correspondent and Washington Post social media editor, tells As It Happens host Carol Off. “It determines what stream you take, what college you get into — whether you take science or commerce or arts or another humanities. So you have to score. Competition is just huge and cutthroat.” http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.3003183/indian-parents-scale-building-to-help-kids-cheat-on-exam-1.3003755

[12] McDonaldization is a term used by sociologist George Ritzer in his book ‘The McDonaldization of Society’ (1993). He explains that it becomes manifested when a culture adopts the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant. McDonaldization is a reconceptualization of rationalization, or moving from traditional to rational modes of thought, and scientific management.

[13] http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890

[14] http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/rudy-fichtenbaum/9691-higher-education-crisis-causes-and-solutions

[15] The recent case of the Indian government cracking down on ‘activist’ NGOs who are trying to challenge industrial development projects like nuclear power plants, mining, big damns, GM seeds, etc. as inciting ‘anti-national activities’ is a good illustration of this.

[16] Instead of the term ‘student’, Swaraj University uses the term ‘khoji’ or ‘seeker’ or ‘explorer’ to invite people to enact a different kind of learning journey – one which is largely self-designed, community-supported, transdisciplinary, and de-linked from the linear passivity of studentship in orthodox learning places.

[17] A neologism introduced by Karen Barad, which challenges the metaphysics of separate, nonrelational entities interacting with one another. Barad insists that things that relate do not precede their relationships; in other words, the world isn’t comprised of things but relationships. Everything is entangled, and nothing stands as a given or individual entity – hence the idea of ‘intra-acting’.

[18] Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (p. 10)

[19] ‘Jugaad’ is a layered Hindi-Urdi word, used colloquially, which is thought to be untranslatable but is often employed in the sense of a ‘queer’, playful, improvisational, ironical solution/response to a challenging situation – one which might call on nonlinear modes of approaching problems, as well as one’s assurance that things will sort themselves out in ways intellection may not account for.