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Text of Report to UNESCO on Education in AV

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Auroville's 40th anniversary celebrated at UNESCO

 

An Integral Education for Ever Progressing Human Beings

Report presented for the Round Table of UNESCO :

 

Auroville, an Emerging World”

Organized on the occasion of the 40 th anniversary of Auroville

October 10 th , 2008 - Paris

 



Jean-Yves Lung in UNESCO

 

According to Auroville's charter, Education in Auroville is to be envisioned within a society which is itself defined as a learning society: a place “ of an unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages ”, dedicated to “ a living embodiment of an actual human unity ”. The ideal is very attractive, its realisation rather approximate but still, there is a difference between a society aiming at unending human development and a society aiming at constantly improving professional skills so that the labour force can evolve in phase with the technological needs of a competitive economy. Both can be called a learning society but they actualize two different paradigms. The first puts the unfolding of the multifaceted human consciousness at the center while the other subordinates education to employability and economic performance.

Competitive Economy versus Education

The world lives today within an economic paradigm which has been set by Adam Smith at the end of the 18 th century: the pursuit of individual interest is the very mechanism by which collective harmony and happiness are to be achieved. The individual is therefore invited to foster his desires for satisfactions of all kinds, so that the economy may produce and provide a growing mass of goods and services, thus ensuring economic growth, employment as well as health and education for all.

The consequence on education is that the school system is oriented towards “producing” highly performing individuals, able to cooperate within a group which itself is engaged in a severe global competition. For the youth, haunted in many countries by the prospect of unemployment, the first aim of education is to provide employability. Even the attempts to foster more creative individuals seem to remain subordinated to the search of performance in the context of global competition. This might seem first to boost human development through the “search for excellence” but finally ends into the “burn out” syndrome, an exhaustion of the human resource rather than its blossoming.

In Auroville, the aim is the integral development of the multiple personality of each individual. Education is not so much a matter of training of skills than of awakening to a process of self discovery, self-becoming and self-perfecting. It is the only way to foster creative individuals who can work in a dedicated manner without “burning themselves out”: whatever excellence they may have comes from the development of their inner personality which has been allowed to come out and not from the pressure of a competitive environment which exhausts their faculties without enriching them.

The Human City in the Building

In Auroville, the youth live in a new society in the building, where people from more than 50 countries have come together to be part of this attempt towards human unity. There is no past, except the one we bring with us (and sometimes recreate), only a future possibility to be made real. Everything is to be invented. This has an educational impact of its own, which supports the growth of the children: The doors are opened to go towards new manifestations and unachieved dreams. They are invited to believe in the future, to be part of its creation, and this invitation awakens the best of what they are. Without hope and faith in a positive future their potential could not be awakened and activated. Maybe that is why Jacques Delors's introduction to UNESCO's report on Education for the 21 st Century was called “ Education: the Necessary Utopia ”. It is in this privileged context that Auroville has developed an education which aims at the integral development of human consciousness, which might extend beyond school to the whole life.

Education as a Process of Self-Becoming

Our forty years of experiment in education within Auroville can be seen as an experimentation of two important reports of UNESCO: Learning To Be (Edgar Faure, 1972) and Learning, The Treasure Within, written by the Task Force on Education for the 21st Century, under the direction of Jacques Delors (1996).

What we have observed is that education is first of all a matter of awakening and bringing out what is already latent in the child. Once the fire of aspiration to know and to master has been awakened, the greatest part of the educational process is taken up by the student's mind itself. The input given by the teachers then falls on a fertile ground instead of running off for the most part of it. Here as in many domains, the intangible values are the key to the tangible ones: The productivity of programs, budgets, books, software of all kinds, infrastructures and teachers depends largely on this awakening of the will of the student to discover and perfect the faculties of consciousness that are latent in him. In that sense, education is a double process: of self-discovery and self-becoming on one side, and of cultivating the skills of the instrumental nature on the other side. But if these two elements have to be distinguished, they cannot be separated: even the efficiency of skill acquisition depends on a process of awakening of consciousness, without which it remains mechanical in its process and uncreative in its results.

Integral education aims at developing the multifaceted personality of the children and thus encompasses the body, the life-force and the mind. Remains a central question: development of faculties but at the service of what? To what call shall we respond, to what principle or ideal shall we offer our lives, and what kind of being do we want to become? For here lies the central issue of education.

Physical Education

Auroville puts a lot of efforts on this physical dimension, through daily sport activities as well as a special program of Awareness through the Body applied at the primary school level. For the basis of all our activities is the physical body and building up a vigourous, well balanced and healthy physical life is the first necessity for a sound development of our faculties. Physical education develops also indispensable values like disciplined effort, team spirit, the joy of progress and self-exceeding, and also more essential ones like sincerity, honesty, courage, and perseverance. The physical thus awakened and cultivated constitutes a stable basis and a constant support on which it is easier to build up other faculties, for the body never forgets what it has learned.

Education o f the Life Force

Our next natural instrument is the life impulse, what we call the vital being. From it we draw the impulse to spread and conquer, to enjoy and possess. It can bring motivation, energy for achievement, enthusiasm, heroism, generosity, but also great desires and ambitions, domination, frustration, depressions and anger and the possibility of a destructive power. Therefore it cannot be left to random development and has to be included in order to be refined, deepened, disciplined and enlightened. Here, History can offer a great help, when taught with a sense of the human adventure, of heroic attempts and the dreams of great ideals still to be achieved. But the greatest help comes from art, poetry and music, which address directly the emotional part of our nature, deepens and refines it and cast a sense of harmonious and meaningful order on the rest of our nature. Art liberates also the creative energies of the students who then learn how to tap this resource and to act creatively each time an issue comes to their attention. These activities reinforce mental education by giving to the mind a capacity to discriminate and the sense of shades and subtlety. It also supports the building of the ethical being by the exigency that is inherent in them. We have observed a direct correlation between the development of art and the improvement of self-discipline and the capacity of self-determination in the students.

Education of the Mind

The education of the mind is now everywhere understood as a necessity with a stress on the faculty of analysis and critical judgment. The capacity to discern and judge with clarity is always the first step of a sound mental development but it is not enough anymore. For the world in which we live reveals more and more that the very nature of reality is an intricate complexity which the simplifying analytical mind cannot grasp. Moreover, changes are now happening so fast and diffuse themselves on the global network so rapidly with unpredictable emergent properties that a new way of knowing is needed, more holistic and intuitive. One of the great lessons we can learn from the global warming is that while we act on nature in an analytical way, it responds in a systemic all embracing way that overcomes our capacity to understand the simultaneous complexity of its changes.

 

But the greatest need in this time of unification of humanity, which is also a time of intensification of cultural divergences, is the need for a synthetic method of thought that can reconcile the different cultures. For either synthesis is possible and humanity will find a way of harmonizing its diversity within a common all-including vision, or it is beyond our grasp and the clash of civilisation, the conflict of mutually excluding values and identities will be our next future. The emergence of a vaster and more comprehensive consciousness in humanity, where every point of view could find its place in a synthetic vision is therefore a survival imperative and should be the common effort of all cultures. This point is most important in countries where traditional values are met by the model of a conquering utilitarian rationalism which ignores them and destroys many of the resources of their cultures and identities. Therefore it is important to include in our training of the mind the exercise of finding how two points of view that seem antagonist to each other can appear complementary to each other in a deeper view of things.

But it is here also that our progress i s the slowest and we cannot pretend that we have yet validated our methods. For many parents want for their children the possibility to go to university and join the mainstream. These students then have to go back to traditional programs where they will not hear of synthesis of culture because this is part of no program in the world. In a way we have the program for it but only a handful of students, the majority preferring to follow normal academic programs. Nevertheless, it remains that Auroville has created a solid infrastructure for a value oriented education in an international environment, where the coexistence of different cultures and languages within a common human family has become a natural fact of life.

Education in Auroville and its Direct Environment

There are 400 students in Auroville covering 24 nationalities from the pre-crèche to the secondary level. To this we have to add seven village schools sheltering also 400 students and an evening school whose program touches more than 700 village youths. It is to be noticed that one of these schools, Isaiambalam, has evolved several alternative methods of learning, one of them having been adopted by the States of Pondicherry and Chatthisghar for their primary schools. The interaction between Auroville and the surrounding villages is therefore significant (28% of Auroville educational budget is allocated to village education).

One of the consequences is that many young Tamil s have applied to become Aurovilian which has produced a demographic change within the community. In the primary schools of Auroville, already half of the students are Indian (mostly Tamil) and at the end of the secondary school, we observe that many non Indian students go abroad to follow further studies while the Tamil students enter the different services of Auroville. The number of Aurovilians coming from the local area is therefore growing fast, which on one side increases the possibility of an organic interaction between Auroville and its bio-region but might affect on the long run the international character of the community.

Another consequence of this demographic change is that if will bring out the issue of Indian culture in the program of Auroville schools. The official programs of India ignore the main elements of Indian cultural heritage, which is not being transmitted to the Indian youth. The rush towards Business and Engineer Schools have made the situation worse: India produces huge numbers of specialized professionals without enough cultural background and no sense of the historical depth of their own civilisation. In Auroville, the first settlers were Westerners and our programs have therefore a western connotation attached to them, and for those young Aurovilians who wish to pursue further studies, we prepare them either to the Bristish exam system or to the Indian one (which is also quiet westernized). We have therefore not yet succeeded in evolving our own program (except for a very small minority). The work of Sri Aurobindo, which is at the basis of the foundation of Auroville, and which combines the western and eastern civilizations within a new creative synthesis that would allow the implementation of a genuine human unity, has not yet found its full recognition within our educational system.

But this is not irreversible and might be evolved out progressively in the future. The solidity of what has been created so far offers a good starting point to go farther. Auroville has a good record in implementing integrally the instrumental skills of the students in the domains of mind, life and body. But what about the person who will play the instrument?

The Emergence of the Sovereign Subject

It is not enough to think of education in terms of instrumental skills. We have to postulate the existence of a sovereign subject in the child, capable of self-determination, which has to emerge, come in front and take the lead. In order to facilitate this process, we shift the accent from ‘the obligation to learn' towards ‘the freedom to progress'. For when the child is given a guided freedom to discover and progress on any fields of his choice, his faculties develop much faster, more integrally and they then can be applied fruitfully to other domains. This has been verified and assessed even by external observers: the students who follow a “free progress” way of learning show more adaptability and readiness to find new solutions, more capacities in natural leadership as well as in cooperative work than those who followed more traditional methods. This is true also for the village schools around Auroville where new methods are being implemented (cf. in Annex “Innovating in a Village School: Udavi, a Case Study”).

 

Spiritual Values and Self-Becoming

Auroville is highly heterogeneous in terms of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. There are no common codes and systems of belief, no pre-established patterns of understanding. Therefore, each issue addressed is an occasion of divergences and misunderstandings. This would be inherent to any type of experience in human unity starting with a high degree of diversity. But then what is the source of unity, if it cannot be found in the homogeneity of cultural forms, ethical codes or life styles? It must be something which is not dependent on any of these forms but is yet the secret source of them all in the authenticity of their movements. The search for human unity therefore leads naturally to the search of a common spiritual truth beyond phenomenon, which could contain and foster all these different forms within a common underlying unity.

But even when education is considered as the development of consciousness and of its faculties, there is necessarily a spiritual dimension involved. For we discover that we grow by offering ourselves to higher or deeper domains of consciousness: It is by offering continuously our energies to scientific knowledge that we become a scientist; it is by offering them to music that we become a musician. Any domain that we approach in this way becomes a part of ourselves. The offering is a process of self-becoming. That is why and how the whole life can be turned into a continuous process of self-education, self-becoming and self-perfection, a continuous growth into deeper or higher truths of ourselves. And this is the first step on the spiritual path: an opening to an unending self-transcendence. It is here that the most ancient knowledge of the East about self-discovery and the more recent aspirations of the West towards a Learning Society can meet, find a mutual confirmation and combine each other for the creation of a more comprehensive approach of education.

Because spirituality refers to our relation with the infinite and absolute transcendence, it might foster mental exclusivism and thus increase the spirit of intolerance, by attributing an absolute character to relative truths. The re-introduction of a spiritual meaning within the collective life can have a regressive or a progressive consequence. Too often, in Auroville, our conflicts have led to a regressive clash of exclusivisms rather than to a progressive line of harmonizing synthesis (but never enough to shatter an underlying sense of togetherness). It is most difficult for the mind to renounce its own exclusive convictions and to widen itself to include its opposite, for the reconciliation between two points of view cannot happen at the level where they appear antagonist: we have to deepen our vision and understanding. It is this change of level which is difficult. Spirituality can be safely approached only if we keep, in our mind and heart, the search for an all-including spirituality. The only Truth that can help our growth is the one of which each separate truth is a living part and which can reconcile all of them in its progressive and ever evolving movement of synthesis.

S pirituality is a domain that can hardly be taught as a “subject”. It can exist as a living influence in so far as it is a living reality in the environment of the child. But it can be referred to as a vast domain open to exploration, an inner discovery that each one can attempt in his own way. When we deal with the Infinite, a vast all-including liberty must be always the law of our search.

Conclusion

This approach of education requires a lot of faith, for it means leaving the existing programs and methods for new ones, and there is always the doubt that it might be too experimental and thus jeopardize the future of the children or their freedom to choose. We want to innovate, but we also want the apparent security of the mainstream. We want to create the future, but we also want for our children the possibility to go to university or to get jobs. We feel the appeal of the adventure into the unknown but also long with nostalgia for the security of the well trodden paths. Auroville is a laboratory where exceptional conditions have been given for the opening of new ways in many domains; it is therefore particularly interesting to observe what happens when such conditions are given. It shows that human beings, when confronted with the possibility of innovation they have asked for, finally hesitate and give themselves only half way. The advantage is that nothing is forgotten, each objection being worked out in detail; the disadvantage is that we might not be ready for the times that are coming.

For o ur world is going to confront formidable challenges in the next decades, for which the present existing educational programs offer no preparation. Our planet and its humanity are in a situation of acute disorder created by experts loaded with academic titles of all kinds. We need something else than these uninspired instrumental skills, which are locally competent but visionless and globally incompetent. We see also more and more people in all countries encouraged to run blindly after money and consumption, not realizing that the western model of development which feeds their expectations is unsustainable, cannot be extended to all, and might very soon offer no future to those who have bet on it. What we shall need more and more are men and women capable of thinking creatively, intuitively and synthetically, of finding in their inner self the soul-force that can alone confront the needs of the hour, and of inventing a new thought, a new life, a new world, if humanity is to survive. The mission of education can no longer be to produce ready-made citizens for a system that cannot find solutions for the problems it has created; it is to help the emergence of men and women able to consciously build themselves on a truer basis, while building a new world in which they choose to live together without exclusion, around common aspiration and common aims. It is for this global possibility Auroville has been created, as a necessary utopia in the future of man and a call to all humanity to a higher and truer life.

 

Jean-Yves Lung

SAIIER, Auroville.

 

Annex

Innovating in a Village School: Udavi, a Case Study

In 1999 the Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER) took over the management of Udavi school in Edaiyanchavadi, a village bordering Auroville. Sanjeev, who became Udavi's co-director, describes his experience of the last eight years. This experience is very representative of the difficulties but also the promises that lie in a new educational approach.

 

Udavi Gentillesse School was one of the first schools started in the Auroville area, on the outskirts of Edaiyanchavadi village. Presently it has two hundred and seventy students from the age of three to matriculation (10th standard). Studies are conducted in the English medium. Students also study Tamil and some opt for French as a second language in the sixth grade. There is an almost equal mix of boys and girls and most of them belong to Edaiyanchavadi village.

When SAIIER got involved, the school was like most other Indian schools, the only difference being that once a week there were creative activities. There was a daily sports program and a morning assembly dedicated to prayer. The stress was on rote learning. The redeeming factor was the kindergarten section where teachers prepared innovative learning games and used them in the class.

The challenges we faced were to create a beautiful environment and change the expectations of the parents and the underlying assumptions of the teachers about what they are supposed to be doing and their expectations of the children's role as students.

The physical environment of a school plays an important role in the education of children. Udavi is blessed with a very big school campus with a large number of beautiful trees. But the boundaries of the school were poorly fenced: goats, cattle and thieves easily intruded. This changed when we created a compound wall around the entire campus protecting the area. After we trimmed and cut a few trees, a clean and beautiful environment was created which stimulates the aesthetic sensibilities and nurtures the inner being of the children.

A major challenge was to change the system of education. When SAIIER took over, exams were held every month to check on how well children had studied. Children were always walking around with books memorising their lesson for the pending exam. We considered this contrary to all that Sri Aurobindo and The Mother stand for.

 

The first thing we did was to stop all the exams. This brought a furious response from the parents who could not understand why this was being done. After some meetings with the parents and their representatives and by way of compromise it was agreed that a mid-term and a final exam would be held and that report cards would be issued to the parents so that they could see how their children were doing in their studies.

 

The next change we introduced related to the curriculum. It was a school tradition to follow certain text books in every subject starting from second standard. The teachers would cover the course by simply going through the books with the students; this was their whole work.

 

Fortunately the situation changed. Many teachers trained in the traditional methods secured government jobs and left. We replaced them with teachers who had been trained differently. A number of teachers from Mirambika joined, a school dedicated to free progress education which has an extensive teacher training component and is part of the Delhi Branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. They use the ‘project method' at all levels of schooling except for the ninth and tenth grades, at which time the focus progressively shifts to preparing for the State Board exams. Through the ‘project method' children start taking responsibility for, and finding interest in their learning. In this way we did away with the traditional textbooks.

 

Once again there were objections from the parents. They could not understand how learning could take place without these books. Many parents offered to pay for the books, thinking that we were trying to save money by not buying them for the students. Some even complained they would go to the School Board authorities to complain, as what we were doing ‘was not permissible'. Fortunately the matriculation system gives a lot of freedom to the school to teach the subjects in the way the school wants until the 10th grade level when there is a prescribed curriculum to follow. We did not compromise and explained to the parents the reasons for what we were doing.

The next difficulty came in relation to crafts. As part of the integrated learning program, we introduced many crafts like carpentry, clay work, tailoring, and electrical work. Once again, there was a lot of resistance from the parents. They said that they had not sent their children to the school to learn things like that. Also the children felt that they had not come to school to learn manual skills. Other schools do not do it, so why should they have to?

 

We had also invited the children to take responsibility for the maintenance of the school and participate in the cleaning of the school compound and watering of the plants and here too there was a great resistance. Once again we did not compromise. We discussed the issues with the parents explaining why we did this and the positive benefit of this education for their children. Slowly the resistance lessened.

About three years ago we identified certain students who were academically weak. We felt they would not have the capacity to prepare for the matriculation exam and that we would be forcing them to learn subjects in which they were not really interested. We invited these students to follow a different scheme of education where they could learn things that they really wanted to learn and also master some manual skills so that they could prepare themselves for their future working life. Six students joined reluctantly. The parents opposed the scheme vehemently but accepted only when faced with the alternative that their children would have to leave the school as they had been regularly failing to secure pass-marks in the examinations. However, these six students found themselves stigmatised in the school and the other students considered them dull. They also started to think of themselves as inferior. This programme had to be dropped under the cumulative pressure of these attitudes.

 

It became clear to us that we had to deal with the attitudes of students who believed that education is all about passing examinations and ultimately getting a certificate, which will allow them to take the next examination, the next certificate, which will enable you to secure a good job. It has taken us a long time – and we cannot say that we are fully successful in our endeavour to change this belief. We introduced the idea that there is a value in many things apart from doing well in examinations. The idea that different students are good at different things like games, athletics, gymnastics, clay, tailoring, or carpentry or that there are students who have a spirit of adventure or are good in music, dance, painting or theatre has been fostered in our school by giving a good amount of time to these activities and properly honouring the achievements in all these areas. Slowly the children are experiencing another meaning of learning and going to school. They experience learning as joyful and as making some progress in themselves. They learn the art of concentration and the need to make an effort and persevere if they want to progress. They begin to have a relationship of trust and friendship with their teachers.

The students understand now that the school is meant for them and that it is not possible to live and work here without a basic collective discipline. What follows from this is that the students now discipline themselves and there is almost no necessity for teachers' supervision. This has come as a great relief as the school campus is very large and to supervise every corner of it is next to impossible.

One of the handicaps the village children face is their lack of exposure to a lot that is going on in the world. The introduction of DVDs and cable T.V. has made some difference, yet what they see on the screen is not part of their life in a living way. Their attitudes tend to be narrow, their concerns very limited and their aspirations, if any, are determined by the films – wanting to be a doctor and help the poor – which wear off quite soon. We have used the morning assembly to introduce many new types of ideas and people into their lives. Interesting personalities from the Ashram, Auroville and Pondicherry have addressed the students. People from different cultures have presented special features of their culture. Serialized versions of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bible and Krishna's stories. We have discussed issues as they come up either in the village, the country or the world. And students have presented their work to other students and answered their questions. We have practiced making their minds quiet for a progressively longer time. In this way the morning assembly of about twenty minutes has been used to enhance their sensibilities.

We also observed that the children were not eating properly. The lunch they brought was, in most cases, very meagre and their diet was not balanced. For the last year and a half we have provided lunch to the school children. They also receive a morning snack and an evening snack. We find this a basic necessity in the context of a poor village like Edaiyanchavadi.

 

The effort to bring the educational principles enunciated by Sri Aurobindo and Mother to the village children has been rewarding and fruitful at one level but frustrating at others. During the first ten years in school the children begin to flower and with proper observation and guidance are nurtured in the direction of their swabhava (their unique path). But this changes as soon as learning starts for the State Board exams. Then the students are pressured to learn only a few subjects by rote, to be literally reproduced at the examination. This precludes the possibility of experiencing and understanding this knowledge. It is unfortunate that we have to subject our students to this.

 

But our hands are tied as any effort to de-link ourselves from the State Board examination will make the school and its program quite useless in the minds of the parents and they will remove their children from the school and put them in some other school offering certificates of the recognized boards. The gains of the first ten years still justify the problem of the ‘exam years' at the school. It has been observed by many who visit the school that the children exhibit openness, have a capacity to think for themselves, are able to express themselves in English quite well, and are capable of taking up responsibilities. All these achievements are quite unusual for village school children.

 

We can only hope that the possibilities of a free progress system of education will be available to students in India in the near future, and that a united plea is made to the government to do away with standardized tests and make the syllabus flexible to suit the genuine and diverse needs of the students.

 

Sanjeev Aggarwal,

SAIIER , Auroville.

 

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