Lessons I Learnt Outside the Classroom

I grew up in Mathura in the early 1990s. After some deliberation and community support, I was enrolled in the only convent school in town. Some of my neighbour’s children went to the government school where my mother taught. I would attend her classes sometimes, and it was there when I first became aware of social segregation.

We moved to Gujarat at the start of the new millennium. The state provided free higher education for the girl child – a much needed financial respite for a family with two daughters.

When the 2000s got hailed as the start of a new liberal India, I too found myself excited about being liberated. I was now in a modern city, in a bigger house, and even though I was being constantly bullied for being an outsider, I was happy. I had access to dial-up internet and I could talk to my friends day and night; sometimes, even to strangers from the other side of the world.

Life felt quite wholesome, and I was in love with my life as a teenager.

But then high school unleashed a weird hormone monster in all of us. I don’t know how we all became these insecure beasts full of reactive power. We secluded ourselves into cliques and slowly turned into political adults. Everyone applied for colleges based on their immediate group’s choices – which often had to do with their financial means. Ultimately, we all took a decision and went our own way, accepting that higher education would shape the rest of our lives.

For me, graduation meant a government engineering college in Gandhinagar. I found myself enrolled in an institute where we called a piece of land with square buildings ‘campus’ and professors chosen by the local political goons ‘faculty’. Not to say it was not good education, but I mention this just to put into perspective for some readers as to how institutional education really operates in India.

Also read: A Former Teach for India Fellow on the ‘Overambitious’ New Education Policy

Otherwise, being in a government college was incredibly educational. My batchmates were people from some of the remotest parts of the state and I lived with them in a girl’s PG because it had fewer restrictions than the government hostel did. We taught each other subjects before examinations and learnt a lot more from just being there for each other.

When our campus got boundary walls and WiFi in our third year, life completely changed. With access to the internet, we were now connected to multiple campuses – not just in the state, but around the globe. And for a campus full of engineering students, that was wild.

We were now not just pursuing formal education in our classrooms but learning whatever we wanted to online. The tragic death of Aaron Swartz in 2013 also brought us the global movement for open access. Internet nerds have since unequivocally rallied behind the need to keep educational resources in the public domain.

After graduation, people took up jobs or decided to study further. Many got married. But everyone now had access to free online courses, which changed our entire approach to higher education. People were enrolling in distance learning courses in subjects they never had access to previously.

This dramatically improved people’s chances of getting a job and a better income. It also provided choices they did not have before.

Also read: COVID-19: On Missing the Warmth of Campus Life

I definitely benefited a lot from this. Online courses supplemented my personal desire for learning things which institutional education could not provide.

However, over the years, it has also meant that apart from the opportunities offered exclusively at campuses, we have to compete openly in the global job market where there is always a preference for people who come from a robust institutional background – even if one claims to be of the same skill through alternative education. And there is an invisible but powerful pushback to this sort of equality, which Swartz was not alone in experiencing.

Simultaneously, over the past decade, Indians have felt so starved for representation on an international stage that we let anyone wield the mantle in the name of ‘diaspora’. So here we were with an Indian ‘diaspora’ fleeing neither persecution nor poverty but who are simply unwilling to live in a developing country. Many Indians who graduated from reputed institutions abroad are dramatically disconnected from Indian reality, but are determining what it means to be Indian. And it breaks my heart when I see these qualified individuals sharing images of a tacky billboard in Time Square from their social handles, as if it were a moment of triumph for India, celebrating the bloody history of a city they have never lived in or will never visit. I cannot feel more distanced from their idea of India than this moment in our history.

Every day, I discover something new about this game of selection and elimination in our education systems and how it has affected different people differently in our society. Still, I am glad that we can talk about it online. I am glad that even if I do not have the impressive letters of an outstanding collegiate affiliation in my bio – people are listening.

But as internet sanctions are being used to silence people in the country, a ‘new’ education policy is also being introduced.

We must acknowledge that the internet is a powerful alternative to institutional education. As we look to the future, we must consider our past and accept that institutions have not been the champions of the people that they were expected to be. Their students are not well informed about the barriers that most of us face in Indian society, yet they hold the positions of power with the tools to create change.

So maybe we must consider the lessons we learn outside the classroom and redefine what we understand of ‘education’.

Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady.

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