This Saturday, three friends and I set off on an early morning Rajiv Chowk + Blue Line adventure to attend The Noida Learning City Unconference. Hosted jointly by Shikshantar and the Prakriti learning community, the event was a day-long coming together of 400+ people taking a shot at reimagining what a learning city could look like.
The day started with a pay-as-you-wish registration, and lots of free hugs. For the first few minutes, the four of us were visibly uncomfortable in this environment — thoughts in my head ranged from “This is so hippie!” to “Is this safe?” But the energy around was infectious, and the space felt safe enough to let go, so after a few moments of hesitation, I did. Some faces at the event were familiar from Facebook groups and conversations, mostly friends from the Swashikshan Indian Homeschoolers network. Any other setting would have necessarily included the awkwardness of “I know you but I’ve never actually met you”. Here, we met as familiar friends, exchanging hugs and introducing our friends to each other.
While people were still trickling in, a gameathon took off in the courtyard. Apples and coffee made their rounds, as people of all ages made the gradual shift to playing Simon Says and some really active storytelling.
Among the many stalls surrounding the courtyard was a pop up shop built on the concept of gift culture: “Take what you need, leave what you don’t!” — there is no money involved in the exchange. The Dariya Dil Dukaan set up by the altogether fabulous Deepa has popped up regularly in last few months, and grown into a pan India online community for people to freely request and offer things. Child has grown up and you don’t know what to do with the pram? Dariya Dil it.
We then headed to the amphitheatre where Mridul and Manish laid out the structure of the unconference for us. Read more about what this is here. The agenda for the unconference was set in the weeks leading up to it, by who was attending and what workshops or sessions they wanted to offer. A large whiteboard near the main entry had the agenda — sessions on learning, dance, design thinking, parenting, games, slow food, non-violent communication (NVC), pottery and much more. The spontaneity showed in the usage of erasable markers, and in the new tables and benches that were being fashioned into new corners and showcases.
The stage was set, and the next thing we did was to get into groups of four, with strangers, and talk about our journeys and what brought us to the conference. At this stage the ease of opening up was getting better. But the hesitation during the shift was palpable — what was it that made playing and speaking to strangers and just being free so difficult?
A range of perspectives can tell us why, but one answer comes from a paper I have been reading for my sociology course titled Conceptualising Rural and Urban Societies. Louis Wirth, with a cautious but comprehensive prescience wrote in 1938 on Urbanism as a way of life. (View/download the paper here). He provides a sociological explanation of how the city shapes human interactions:
“Characteristically, urbanites meet one another in highly segmental roles. They are, to be sure, dependent upon more people for the satisfactions of their life needs than are rural people and thus areas associated with a greater number of organized groups,but they are less dependent upon particular persons,and their dependence upon others is confined to a highly fractionalized aspect of the other’s round of activity. This is essentially what is meant by saying that the city is characterized by secondary rather than primary contacts. The contacts of the city may indeed be face to face,but they are nevertheless impersonal, superficial, transitory, and segmental.The reserve, the indifference and the blasé outlook which urbanites manifest in their relationships may thus be regarded as devices for immunizing themselves against the personal claims and expectations of others.
The superficiality, the anonymity, and the transitory character of urban-social relations make intelligible, also, the sophistication and the rationality generally ascribed to city-dwellers. Our acquaintances tend to stand in a relationship of utility to us in the sense that the role which each one plays in our life is overwhelmingly regarded as a means for the achievement of our own ends. Whereas, therefore, the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society. This constitutes essentially the state of anomie or the social void to which Durkheim alludes in attempting to account for the various forms of social disorganization in a technological society.”
The unconference challenged all of these ‘default’ ways of being, by building an intentional space with alternative ways of being: through intimate and personal conversations with strangers, through exchanges based on needs and not money, and through a common goal of reimagining learning.
During the morning, I attended a workshop on Sociocracy that was being offered by Shammi Nanda, a practitioner of non-violent communication (NVC) whose work I have been following for the last year. In his intro to the workshop, Shammi said, “We try and practice alternative education, eat alternative food, lead alternative lifestyles, but when it comes to decision-making, hum usi sade hue conflict-resolution systems ka istemaal karte hai. (we end up using the same rotten systems of conflict-resolution).” In the setting of a social organisation, NVC and Sociocracy operates on consensus. Even if not the needs of all members cannot be met, the process gives an effective voice to everybody’s needs. (My two-line summary does not adequately capture the process, making it sound instead like a sterile communistic practice. Read about it on Shammi’s blog.)
If these labels — slow food, non-violent communication, unschooling — arouse skepticism, I think that is completely warranted. But what we should avoid, is an outright dismissal of alternative movements because, at face value, they do not seem to be a ready-to-apply solution to our broken systems.
I am going to take my unschooling as an example. The two years I spent outside of formal education institutions taught me a lot about pursuing interests, autonomy, discipline, experiencing failure, emotional adequacy etc. Gradually, my interests moved to reform of mainstream formal education. Unschooling and mainstream school reform? Where is the relevance? Not in the assertion that such a way of learning is a solution for every one of our 400 million young citizens. But that:
- There are elements of unschooling that are extremely relevant in helping us reimagine a system-wide solution eg: autonomy of the learner, experiential learning, activity-based learning.
- In specific contexts, such a learning structure might consciously be a good idea, or unwittingly turn out to be a great experience.
Bridging sensible links between the alternative and the mainstream has been a constant struggle, because of the appeal of the former, and the compelling pull of the latter. But the example above feels like a good template to work with in the future. So I am going to do the same with, say, an exploration of Sociocracy. Instead of dismissing it as idealistic on the account that it won’t replace voting as we know it, I want to understand its premise and processes, assess which contexts it could immediately work in, and consider elements that can be used in system-wide change.
But the biggest highlight of the day was finding great common ground with a friend that a friend had brought (Hello, Devika!) and seeing my other two friends have a good time. We hope to be able to bring back some of this spontaneity to AUD!
Here are some more pictures of the heartwarming space and community that came together on 19th September, 2015, at Prakriti. (The Mi 4i’s camera has made me very happy!)