Subversion on the Hippo Rock


When Sridhar first mooted the idea of us meeting 80 Teach For India fellows, our first thought was “Where will they sit?”, and then, “We don’t even have 10 tumblers”.
But Sridhar said that those were not issues. The group would come from Vellimalai, we wouldn’t have to feed them, and we would have to have them for two hours: a one hour speech followed by one hour of questions/answers. Eventually all the numbers changed.

Last Saturday we were host to some 40 Teach For India Fellows, most of whom were around 25 years old, who have been teaching in corporation schools in Chennai for the last four months. The Hippo Rock saw its largest footfall count.

Initially we were in the unenviable position of having to hold forth a la a school classroom; but after the speech component was disposed of, and the questions started coming, the energy of the youngsters took over.
We fielded questions about home-schooling, our own childhoods, rural life, schools in various places, fear, and Sridhar even added a bit about fishing on the high seas. We have enough material there for a book.

Sonati, Varun and I had managed to make peanut laddoos the previous day, and Varun had decided to leave an auspicious number for the event: 108. These were consumed with gusto.
And then, since lemons insinuated themselves into the speech I made, we all had a shot of Nimbu Paani on the Hippo Rock thanks to Krishnan, who took on the task of squeezing the lemons.

Then the discussions spilt over to the house, all over the land, and continued unabated until Sridhar and Krishnan hustled everyone down to the buses and back to base-camp, leaving Varun, Sonati and me to debrief each other, since each of us had been having independent conversations with multiple people. And then a brief debrief to Badri baba on the phone with the promise of more when he gets back home.

Some of the responses were heart-warming:
“I want to unschool my kids…; but how can I say that, I don’t have any; in fact I am not even married”

“I wonder why my parents didn’t home-school me”

“I feel so bad that all I have been doing is to push the kids to score high marks; I will change that now”

It really was great having the group over; the energy of that age is tremendous. And we feel that some of them were touched somewhere by what they heard and saw; so that there will at least be some chinks in the citadel of school.

For the record, my “Speech for India” was as follows:

Hello everybody. Welcome to Thekambattu.

I am not used to talking like this, so consider this a conversation and stop me if you want to question something that I have said; if you want to say something; or if you just want to change the subject. I am just getting the ball rolling.

The impulse to stop the movement of your life–your career–your studies–and teach others not so privileged is commendable–something to be applauded– Not too many people pause at this stage of their lives; or for that matter at any stage.
Later, my question to some of you will be “Where does this impulse come from?”

A sense of discontent with things as they are. That’s not a nice word. Let’s coin a new word: malcontent.

We (Sonati and I)– I will use we and I randomly; but the two of us are in this together :-)– feel very strongly that if something is done with good intent, then the results will be good. However having said that, one needs to be careful of pitfalls. One great pitfall is that the system will co-opt you and make you complicit. I may think that I know best; I have thought this out: Arrogance. I may think that there is no other way: Resignation.
In both these cases I become an ally of the system.

So then our views, admittedly opinionated, definitely personal. But you need to look for the truth that may shine through for you in what we are saying.

So schools.
1. The first thing to be aware of is the seductive, lottery nature of school. This is inherent in all schools. Some kids will do well. But MOST kids? What happens to them?

2. Competition dominates: If someone else does badly, I do well. There is no place for co-operation.

3. Entitlement: I went through school and did well; so I deserve this. And Resignation: I went to school and did badly, so I deserve this.

4. When you spend a large part of your life in school doing what you are told, then you stop thinking and wait to be told what to do.

5. Irrelevance of school subjects to real life (And I am sure most or all of you will have loads to say on this subject). This destroys a lot of potential, particularly in rural areas where the irrelevance is even more stark. There are kids who end up being neither here nor there because they have lost the school lottery, and have not acquired the required skills to look after their land.

Schools are leading to breakdown of relationships due to competition. Children are being alienated from their peers, their family and their community (Irrelevance of school subjects to real life means they are relevant to some alien life somewhere else, is it not?)

Where do the winners of the lottery go? Farmers’ children to the towns; small town children to the cities; city kids to the US of A.
Maybe the losers of the lottery are better off? One, perhaps irrelevant statistic; but it comes to my mind: the number of farmers in the US is less than the number of prison inmates!

So then, what does one do? One needs to focus on the home. The fallacy that is prevalent is that everyone learns anything worth learning in school. Not true. Since children in their growing years are in school much of the time, it seems that that is the case. Think of your own experiences.

A sense of security can only develop at home. Home is inherently a co-operative place. Non-competitive. A sense of community first develops at home. Responsibility for another; for the place. Sense of people. Sense of place. Nowadays the sense of home as a place is absent for many people.

It all turns on affection. If, anything clicks in school, it is because of a sense of affection between teacher and taught. In spite of the structures of school. Think of your own experiences with the kids.

Here we can see changes in front of our eyes. Neither-here-nor-there youth. Kids who are not farmers-in-the-mind. The world has swept into a self-sufficient economy, and in a matter of a generation, changed it around. Cultures are being destroyed by the monoculture of school.

OK, I think I have spoken enough. Over to you.


12 Responses to “Subversion on the Hippo Rock”

  1. BiGyaan Says:

    My husband just left school after 18 years of institutionalised teaching to start BiGyaan Science Clubs. He still does workshops for school teachers. Plenty children out there who could do some fun in their science fun filled floundering. These underprivileged children do not have fun that home school children do and one has to something for them too. Watch his antics on the BiGyaan . Sorry we do charge some fees for the activities (except for those teaching children from weaker sections). After all we still are a part of the local economy and need to survive. At the end of the day it is a lot of fun.

  2. BiGyaan Says:

    Oh this is Rittika just realised I was using the wrong account 🙂 No netizen me.

  3. Poorvi Says:

    “It all turns on affection”. Well said. And, affection does not “scale”. A class that is too large cannot have the same affection as a small one: among students, between student and teacher, etc.

  4. Clive Says:

    Nice one S&S. Wonderful speech, and it must have been a very interesting event altogether.

    Who knows what seeds might have been sown in the minds of such a large group of young people? Good that they had the opportunity to actually see that something truly different can be done in education, rather than just reading some ideas about it.

    I feel this event adds yet another dimension to the alternative life you have so diligently and vigorously carved out for yourselves.

    If you don’t mind a pat on the back, well done 🙂


  5. Vibhu Says:

    Thoughtful writeup. Wish I could have been there. Must do this conversation in person sometime.

  6. Susan Says:

    Hope the discussion didn’t leave the young ones with an impression that we can do away with schooling … Especially when we’re talking about first generation learners!?
    But we do need educationists with a similar understanding and concern for the quality of education imparted especially to these first generation learners, so that they are not disillusioned by their own experience.
    I also think schools “can also” be an excellent space for instilling respect for diverse cultures – which unfortunately is not always the case with homes – even the very learned, higher class and caste families, where the opposite actually applies!
    Varun and Badri are lucky to have both of you as their parents… And you were lucky to have parents and upbringing and home and external experiences that you did.
    Hope you did have a more detailed discussion … Hope the T4I fellows asked you such questions?!

  7. Manjusha Madabushi Says:


    I have a different opinion on home schooling. Most of the children I have met who have been homeschooled have GK but don’t seem  to have an overall understanding of things. Also I find them pursuing things that they like. This is good and bad as the basic knowledge of maths, science and social studies is required. Its another thing that the school’s may not be doing justice to these subjects. 

    Secondly, in the cities I find that schools enable kids to make friends. Tejas has a friends circle from school that is much stronger than in college. Simply because he has spent more time at School.  I don’t see the home schooled children form a group like that. 

    Lastly, parents need to spend a lot of time with the children to home school them. Not everyone can  do this.


  8. cliveelwell Says:

     Hi Maju,

    When you write “Most of the children I have met who have been homeschooled have GK but don’t seem  to have an overall understanding of things” there seems to be an implication that children who go through main-stream education DO end up with an overall understanding. I very much question this. If this was the case, why would all these educated people create such a chaotic and destructive world? Why would they not understand that to accept divisions such as nationalism, caste, so-called religious belief, race, etc, brings about conflict and untold human suffering? With an “overall understanding of things” would people still have endless personal problems, would they still have so much conflict in relationship?

    I do not want to generalise about the qualities of home-educated children, as much depends on the adults around them, and often the values, understanding and perceptions of the parents are every-much as limited as teachers in schools. But I would suggest that no parent who really cares for their children would throw them to the wolves at an early age, and have their minds conditioned into competitiveness and selfishness.


  9. Jaydeep Says:

    Great speech, at the hippo rock auditorium. Maybe we could have the next All India Homeschoolers conference there! just kidding sunder!
    More seriously,it is great to hear the debate continuing, as the process of dialogue and idea sharing is of more importance than the final solution. And yes, affection is THE most valuable ingredient in the living-learning journey;as it is for ladoos.
    Wish we were there….


  10. Satish Iyer Says:

    Great Sunder and Sonati ! Looking forward to visiting you all in Thekambattu.


  11. Lina@Word Says:

    This was heartwarming too!

  12. Gauri Says:

    Hi Sonati and Sundar,
    It was wonderful reading your blog. It brought back memories of our unforgettable trip and I realize how time has flown. I will be back someday but don’t know when. Probably when I move back to Bangalore which should be sometime early next year. I think Sundar’s speech was thought provoking and if ever there is an expert committee on home schooling (ha ha fond hopes really !!) he should be on it. Likely heading it instead of some silly bureaucrat.
    Much love,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: