Change in the content of the curriculum is needed because the formal education system has failed most rural children who have passed though it. Those who completed the course find themselves displaced, unemployed – in limbo; few jobs in their localities could utilise their clerical skills and they have not acquired the knowledge needed to cultivate their fields or practice the artisanal crafts.
As valuable traditional culture, knowledge and practice is being lost due both to the formal education process and migration to the towns and cities, we need a form of education which will strengthen and support a just and environmentally sustainable local economy. Placing this at the heart or core of the curriculum will ensure and reinforce the transmission of this knowledge and skills, giving rural people the confidence to confront the threats from the market economy, its alien values, monetised culture and its assault on the forests.
The body of traditional knowledge available, though incomplete, is rich, varied and relevant to the lives and needs of local students and their families. Most formally-educated people have no understanding of the knowledge required to grow crops, tend cattle, build huts or to make the thousands of varieties of handcrafted articles which are so widely appreciated. Rural people learn for living; all this knowledge is orally transmitted, and communicated through everyday example and practice.
It can never be emphasised too strongly that it is the vast knowledge, together with the toil and sweat, of these supposedly ignorant rural millions that is feeding, clothing and maintaining all of us. Those who speak glibly about making a living in industry and commerce fail to observe or admit the extent to which their life is dependent on those who tend the earth and nurture the soil.
We have been studying and collecting traditional knowledge from Adivasis and other people for many years. Formal education systems disparage the Adivasis’ detailed knowledge of agriculture and their forest environment: in so doing they throw away our richest resource, which is the people’s knowledge. Much of it is being lost because of the belief that what comes from the schools is better and so, at a time when even the most ardent proponents of the industrial way of life are recognising the necessity of conserving resources, we are wasting this precious human storehouse with reckless prodigality.
An example of the difference between the knowledge of the West and that of the Adivasis illustrates the point: Westernised botanists can describe the leaves, flowers, fruits and other parts of plants, and are able to tell you the family, genus and species to which they belong. But put them in a forest and they probably will not be able to identify most of the plants, unless they examine the flowers and other parts. But an Adivasi child can identify most of them, seen from afar, even when they are bare of leaves and flowers. The Adivasi “reads” trees as a good reader reads words: in their entirety, at a glance. The botanist, on the other hand, reads trees as a neo-literate reads words, letter by letter. The botanist deciphers trees but cannot read them fluently. The Adivasi can also list the uses of each plant, but the botanist will refer you to an economic botanist or chemist for that. A botanist or a forester confined to a jungle would not survive for more than a few days, yet our education system validates only the botanist’s approach, ignoring or suppressing that of the Adivasi.
This does not mean that the knowledge and methods of the West have to be discarded entirely or that all our traditions are good. We must be more discerning in our response to both. This may require that we slow down our pace, retreat into the forests of the mind, in order to read the signs of the times and to interpret them correctly.
Winin Pereira and his colleagues set up school in Andheri West devising the curriculum in accordance with some of these principles, including mother-tongue education but it was later taken over by those delegated to run it as ‘St Catherine’s’ and conducted along conventional lines from that day onwards.