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The first and last learners

By Rahul Goswami

If anybody knows about education for a sustainable future it's young Kelechütsü  and Megozokho in Khonoma, Nagaland. They are free to learn as and what they will, without fear of examinations and admissions, with the freedom to experiment with a curriculum that reshapes itself every day

Kelechütsü  Tho-u is an Angami Naga youth in whose quick mind resides a formidable database of herbal and plant lore and practice. Such knowledge makes it impossible for him to remain hungry in the rugged, heavily forested hills that rise up around his village of Khonoma, in Nagaland, North-East India. He is partial to chicken, beef, pork and - feasts permitting - some mithun [1] meat too, but is otherwise botanically equipped to spot the edible vine, creeper, succulent, bush, fruit, berry, leaf and tuber to add to his cooking pot.

All of which he does regularly. To walk the Naga hills with Kelechütsü  is to understand a mind and a community that is extraordinarily attuned to the environment in which they thrive, and which has as its fundament the concept that we know and call sustainability. That, when linked to the catch-all word 'development', such a concept is the subject of innumerable working papers, seminars and conclaves, and otherwise provides brigades of 'development professionals' a livelihood is seen as hugely amusing by Kelechütsü  and his friends, but their amusement is also tempered by a distant alarm, for they are all too aware of the might and reach of the development industry.

Among these comrades is Megozokho Meyase. If his friend can spot a promising clump of livino - a leaf which tastes best, they say, with the meat of the free-ranging mithun - at 50 feet then Megozokho's super-sharp eyes can pick out against a densely wooded backdrop a honeybee speeding home, accurately deduce the hive's location, and look forward to later relieving it of its rich lode of honey [2].

These are resident skills in the Naga hills. Other members of a research team we worked with on a recently-released environment impact assessment study [3] are able to accurately map - with no mechanical or magnetic aids whatsoever - their village habitat or assess, from a glance at a pile of firewood, whether its moisture content allows it to be used today, next week or next month.

Witnessed in context, these skills appear extraordinary to the untrained (uncultured even) mind and eye and comprehension. One experiences a sense of wonder at the education that has nurtured such talents. Yet the youthful practitioners of such arts wear their prodigious learning lightly, with humility, and unselfishly share what they know with their communities. Theirs has been (they add to it every day, for the 'lifelong learning' that is now the fashion in the West is in fact a well-worn consciousness here) a privileged education - free to learn as and what they will; to associate that learning with their village and clan, family and friends; without fear of grading and examinations, admissions and certificates; with the freedom to experiment with a curriculum that evolves and reshapes itself every day.

Contrast this world with another. Early last year (2004) a young tribal girl in the district of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, had this to say about the 'education' she was expected to go through: "I go to school as often as I can. I get bored when I go, and they shout at me. They don't teach me about anything around me." Tribal societies both - one in the Naga hills, the other the guardians of the dense central Indian forest tract of Dandakaranya - and in their own ways, exposing the hypocrisies of our education systems. The young Nagas will privately critique the systems posing as education just as Gadchiroli's tribals do, but the 'right' to 'compulsory education' steamrollers on, uncaring of cultures, contexts and futures. 'Compulsory education' is the legitimisation of an absurd terminology - do we talk about compulsory eating or compulsory sleeping? If it is a truly natural need, where is the need for compulsion?

Compare this approach with that of the indigenous. In Naga villages - as in many tribal societies worldwide - the youth are housed and taught in institutions usually referred to as dormitories. When they reach puberty, boys and girls are admitted to their respective dormitories. But even at the age of five, these young boys and girls have already been through an extraordinary education compared with their peers in 'our' societies. From their birth, they are bonded to the community and to their habitat - continuously cared for by mother, father, sisters, cousins, uncles, grandparents, clan, and extended tribal family.

This is all done in order to introduce them properly into the new and natural world, not the world of artificiality, and to protect their sensitive and delicate souls. While the outside world feeds itself on a multiplicity of methods to help motor-skill development and abstract reasoning, Naga children quickly learn to develop their intuitive faculties, rational intellect, symbolic thinking, and five senses. Their educational setting - close to parents, close to clan - is not only a 'secure' environment, but also a very colourful one - complicated, sensitive, and diverse. They are with their mothers at the pounding of rice and the hewing of firewood, with their fathers at weaving of baskets and the tramps into the forest, with the family while transplanting paddy and in the upslope jhum [4] fields, with their uncles and elders around the fire of a morung (dormitory) at the telling of stories.

They are given the time and space for inward journeys that allow them to reflect on what they have learned, and to carry that new knowledge deeply into the unconscious. They learn to count by watching their parents sort the materials they use for craft and for work (shells and beads for traditional ornaments, the measuring of bamboo and cane for the construction of baskets and other household and agriculture-related items and tools), through the surprisingly complex games that need but a pattern scratched into a stone and a few pebbles.

Activities in the morung were not usually organised; most were spontaneous and members (young learners) responded naturally. Much of the Naga culture, its customs and traditions, has been transmitted from one generation to another through the media of folk music and dance, folk tales and oral historical traditions, through carvings of figures on stone and wood, and patterns for weaves. This teaching-learning process has usually taken place in the female and male morungs, and a great deal of it while around a hearth and as song - many folk songs contain tribal histories, also histories of the village, clan, and model (and not so model) individuals. There are songs composed in certain seasons and sung only at an appropriate time. In the absence of a practice of writing and documentation, folk tales and oral historical traditions remained the sole links between the past and the present. Young people acquired the skills of learning their histories, their systems of knowledge, by listening to the songs and the folk tales, and thus developed prodigious and utterly reliable memories.

From early years spent in such an environment the transition to the 'education system' as we know it is traumatic. Today, under the pressures of globalisation and regimes like the World Trade Organisation, the education system is being ever more skewed in the direction of investing the resources of societies to produce production digits for the global production machine. The more young people are sucked into it, the more the prospect of challenging the present model of development or the globalisation of the economy recedes, and what is more, the quicker the destruction of traditional systems of instruction that are, in every sense of the word, sustainable.

We cannot reverse or even halt this process without also beginning to dismantle the education system in which the global, homogenous consumer is created and nurtured. The intent of the current countrywide system appears to be to demoralise human beings. It undermines the young person's grasp of reality, cuts off their links with the natural world, seeks to inculcate within the victims a contempt for the history of their own peoples, traditions or ways of being.

There is international consensus that we are facing multiple crises in the areas of environment and development - loss of biodiversity, escalating poverty in the face of globalisation and the rapid movement of capital, the marginalisation of peoples are but some symptoms. In all these crises, education is a common denominator.

In the South, adult literacy and basic education are the goals that many policymakers strive for in their efforts to meet the 'Education For All' goals while at the same time holding the firm belief that education must contribute to 'modernisation', and this in the mould of the North, which has generally proven to be socially, environmentally, economically, politically and culturally unsustainable. Such a trajectory degrades, erodes and ultimately destroys ecological and human diversity, cultural diversity and diversity of knowledge. Without these ingredients, what 'sustainability' can there possibly be?

Naga society, and mountain communities, need the learning systems that seek to bring change and 'development' to their lives to be oriented once again towards life, to be open-ended and creative. A re-evaluation of how our current education systems affect such communities needs to recognise that learning must be separate from job training (and it is the tragedy that befalls millions upon millions of young Indians that these are taken as inseparable); that the primacy of print media as the media of instruction must end, for knowledge generated in the form of audio-visuals, music, theatre, artwork, and other media be listed, supported and circulated to break the stranglehold of the printed textbook (and the great tendency for it to be misused) as the sole repository of learning resources and as the primary means for dialogue; that local languages and dialects be used for instruction with just as much emphasis as our 'official' languages.

For Megozokho and his friends, there is enough that can be pointed out as being palpably, indisputably, wrong with the industries of knowledge and education as we know them, but it is the lack of intellectual honesty that disturbs them most. Giving a number or a letter to measure a human being is dishonest and inhuman, in the context of an indigenous upbringing and education. It is degrading, this process of grading, this obsession with ranking and percentage, first and last, a hierarchy of numbers, whose human origins have been lost and forgotten. As long as such values remain governing values, education will continue to be an obstacle to learning.

It is such dishonesty which characterises our methods of education, the development, production and dissemination of knowledge. It is far removed from not only the mountain people like the Naga, but also from the Madiya Gond of Gadchiroli, and from the humble schools that are to be found in hundreds of thousands of our villages. The dishonesty is connected to the values which govern thinking and practice in the fields of education, knowledge and development (mirroring the values in dominant societies and serving mainly the lifestyle of consumerism).

The keywords that govern this universe are control, winning, profit, individualism and competition. Having a syllabus and textbooks, and evaluating and judging people (students, teachers, administrators, and academics) through linear forms of authority and through symbolic values (such as arbitrary letters or grades or preferential labels), almost guarantee cheating and manipulation, and foster an absence of relevance that is so very naked - a clear-headed tribal girl can so simply and distinctly identify it.

In her world, learning should not mean alienating the learner from her own cultural identity. Instead, the learner affirmed such an identity, quietly and humbly, as part of her learning process. The components of this learning include various skills for survival (handicrafts, knowledge of medicinal plants, an understanding of traditional agricultural techniques, the ability to improvise during times of hardship) and an exposure to a variety of collectively-held and dynamic community databases, rich with experience and lore. Her system also had a distinctly native institution of education (called gurukul or its equivalent) which, as is well known today, was suppressed by India's colonial rulers to advance their own interests.

There are not enough educators and policymakers who recognise that the vast majority of rural communities live far more sustainably than urban areas and have a wealth of experience and knowledge to contribute to our understanding of sustainable community development. Globally, although there is the realisation that organisations and communities in the South have a great deal to contribute about living sustainably and that formal education systems desperately need their input, such realisation has still to make an impact on our 'formal' systems of education.

Yet our knowledge base in every discipline has been skewed, our development theories have been dominated by imports, our academic research has drawn very little from marginalised sectors of society, women and indigenous people, in particular. If these gaping chasms in our understanding are not recognised, addressed, and repaired, our efforts to achieve 'sustainability' or 'sustainable societies' will achieve little.

Every day, Kelechütsü  and Megozokho see the effects of the collision between their sustainable, holistic world and the expectations of the 'mainstream' towards which they are sought to be herded. It is an unequal contest and during our field visits [2] we witnessed the stresses the hill village society is subjected to. Traditional patterns of agriculture and cropping, craft and weaving, are already seeing not enough practitioners to reliably ensure their survival two generations hence.

The alternatives that present themselves to the Naga young are not sustainable in their own eyes. Traditional village institutions are still strong enough to counter the push (away from the hill communities) and pull (towards urban homogeneity and the dilution of identity), but these depend on the cohort of elders who shepherded the community through the turbulent transitions of the last half-century. For now, these sensitive mountain youth are all that stand between 'sustainability' and the Gadarene rush of an over-consumptive society.


[1] The mithun (bos frontalis) is a semi-domesticated variety of bison kept by several North-Eastern hill tribes, mainly for sacrificial purposes and whose meat is used for festivals.

[2] These paras are modified from an article that originally appeared in The Hindu, March 28, 2004.

[3] The environment impact assessment and natural resource management study, for a Naga hill village, was released by the state government of Nagaland in late-November, 2004.

[4] Jhum or shifting cultivation is the traditional means of agriculture based on indigenous knowledge systems. Produce from the jhum fields form a significant portion of the livelihood for indigenous communities of the North-East.

(Rahul Goswami is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Goa. He was a member of an environment impact assessment study team analysing a Naga hill village. This paper was presented at 'Education for a Sustainable Future', the first international conference of UNESCO's Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, held in Ahmedabad, India, January 18-20, 2005)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005