Thursday, January 31, 2008

Auroville: an experiment in Education


By James Travers-Murison

Noddings (1992 Ch.4) states that the spiritual dimension of schooling is lacking in today’s policies for education. In the 70s alternative schools based on an open classroom flourished on the policy that we cannot teach, it is for the learner to grasp the principles (Musgrove 1975). Ungraded classes, combined ages, and voluntary participation were aspects of this ethos (Hainstock 1978). However by the 80s falling academic standards turned parents away from this approach. Globally government and academics demanded proper evaluations to determine teaching methods success or failure, to stop the adoption of mere fads (Worthen 1987). Most alternative schools closed, however in India, I visited one place that survived and I observed the teaching of children there based on an integral yoga system.

Auroville is a community like no other. It was created as a prototype Utopia for a global community – an evolution of humanity to a higher spiritual consciousness is its goal. Auroville was inaugurated on the 28th February 1968 when one representative from 120 countries and 23 states of India began the brainchild of a woman called ‘the Mother’, Mirra Alfassa, who was a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual guru in India based at Pondicherry.

The events that lead to the establishment of Auroville and why it took the form it has begin with Aurobindo’s ‘integral yoga’ which saw “man as a multilayered being composed of the physical, vital and emotional, mental, psychic and spiritual personalities. Each of these is further sub-divided, and each has a counterpoint on subtle planes surrounding the body. There is within man a spark of the transcendent divine, and the aim of human existence, as seen by Auroville’s founders, is to become conscious of this reality and unite with it. Each human being has his or her unique path to arrive at this union, and this can be done in life, in matter itself, and not by removing oneself from life as advocated by traditional spiritual practices” (Overview, Education, Auroville.org).

To test Aurobindo’s theories, as an experiment, the Mother gave the go-ahead for the creation of a city near Pondicherry in India. It was designed in the form of spiralling galactic arms of the Milky Way, each arm representing a different sector of human development, technology-industry, culture-education, international etc. It started from the barest resources with largely disenchanted Westerners seeking an alternative lifestyle with a spiritual basis. One thousand eight hundred people from thirty countries now live in this community, it has schools from kindergarten to year 12 and a super school beyond that. Auroville has been stated as a plan for “a univercity”, literally a universal city of education where we are all students and teachers.

In its broadest sense Auroville’s educational policy enacted into its charter in 1968 is spiritual research into “a living embodiment of an actual human unity”. Education is based on ‘free progress’. This approach “is to help the adolescent find that part of himself that can then take up his own education… The teacher’s task is to suggest, not impose, and a broad process of consultation is fundamental to the school’s approach” (Schools for Auroville, Education, Auroville.org). The utilitarian and liberal perspectives are not rejected by Auroville, but they are considered a small part of the total vision of education, “which is based on a deep understanding of human personality, of man’s place in the world… of the nature of creation – and deriving from all these, the aim of human existence” (Overview, Education, Auroville.org).

Auroville’s schools have been created through a broad process of consultation with all members of the community within the underlying framework of Aurobindo’s spiritual goals, it has been overseen by management committees and the board of trustees that are the overriding authority within Auroville and ensure it complies with its charter. The schools are run by SAIIER, which is principally a research centre and envelops all the faculties in Auroville including University education. SAIIER was started in 1984 and comes directly under the Ministry of Human Resources and Development, of the government of India. The schools receive grants from them periodically and also depend on fund raising capacities to sustain the community. The government requires that curriculum standards of the state are met and may have influenced the creation of After School, a more traditional based teaching program within Auroville. On the whole the government is very interested in the methods being used within Auroville’s schools and is encouraging further research. In 1997 the Indian government invested heavily in a Centre for Research into Human Unity at Auroville whose focus is advanced educational research, seven faculties were created with 150 staff connected to 30 centres. A Visiting Committee of external experts including the government oversees the development.

The schools try and have a one on one relationship between teacher and pupil to ensure the student develops according to his individual personality, so student teacher ratios are very low. Kindergarten alternates between rigorous and quiet activity, directed activity and free choice. The aim is to develop the whole child, their concentration and each of their senses. Primary or Deepanam school has a formal curriculum but also painting, dancing, singing, drama and gardening are considered of equal importance and multiple languages are taught including Sanskrit. Last School or secondary follows Mother’s free progress more closely. Programmes are therefore diverse yet supple enough to remain ‘plastic’ to respond to each adolescent’s line of progress. Students are taught to be self-motivated, involved in school decision-making process and their opinions are valued. Super school is connected to last school and the students are linked more closely to the larger collective through field training and apprenticeships. The aim is for accelerated learning treated in a holistic manner and “prepares the being to enter ‘No School’ which is the condition when the instrumental nature is fit to pursue on its own integral growth so as to create the four fold personality – wisdom, harmony, heroism, skill in works” (Schools for Auroville, Education, Auroville.org). However most Aurovillians have chosen to send their children for their final secondary education to Future School. I observed classes here and found them to pretty much follow the UK 'A' and 'O' level system, with the usual cramming for exams to get into foreign universities. They were lacking some of the facilities that normal Western schools have and the teachers were not always up to date with the latest teaching techniques and methods now used in Western teaching, nor academically trained and qualified in these areas particularly in the sciences. Though in other areas they were more advanced, particularly in humanities areas such as English literature where team teaching and many interesting and imaginative innovations were in use - such as holistic integration with other subjects such as media, video and development of magazine and journalist skills. Still it appeared their academic results were higher than normal schools in all exam results for univiersity; largely attributed to the freedom of thought and self responsibility encouraged in the integral yoga system taught here.

Auroville’s education policy is somewhat at odds with current views on education which have stepped away from the progressive or child-centred approaches adopted in the UK as a result of the Plowden Report and also in Australia (Re-thinking today’s secondary schools, p.22 Reader week Two). A general feeling in the late 70s that education was in crisis and standards falling (Dale, 1983 – Introduction to Education Studies p.216 Reader week Five) gave rise to neo-Liberalism and neo-Conservatism particularly in Britain, although also in Australia with John Dawkins, economic rationalism under Hawke in 1987, then Kemp under the Liberals in 1998. The importance of free market economy producing students fit for a competitive workforce and traditional values and discipline with a general standard of curriculum to promote economic growth were part of this. Recently in Britain there has been an idea of social democracy and partnership, but the setting of targets for standards and accountability to parents and the community for results has reinforced many of the materialistic principles of the neo-Liberalism (Davies and Edwards 1999 – Introduction to Education Studies p.238 Reader week Five).

Auroville’s education policy is regularly reviewed by a number of bodies within Auroville including SAIIER, but in keeping with the charter it has consciously and consistently made a stand against this form of economic profit driven education seeing education primarily for the development and refinement of one’s personality. This is in contrast with the Western school system in which Richard Teese says “the major challenge will be how to develop economic benefit within the senior secondary curriculum for all young people… and to communicate the intellectual demands of school subjects through more inclusive and pedagogical effective designs” (Teese, R., Post compulsory education and training, Reader week Six). In this respect of seeing education for the development of a well rounded spiritual individual rather than for economic benefit, Auroville shows a more traditionalist view of education.

The success of its education policy is hard to evaluate however as Auroville has refused to disclose student results claiming the issue was too sensitive when I inquired by email, in 2004, however the Indian government seems satisfied with the operation of the schools and this suggests that there are positive results coming from them. One observation is that the primary school only has 30 students with 8 teachers, apart from the very high student to teacher ratio, the number of students for a community of 1,800 seems very low. I could not obtain figure for the secondary school, but it seems that some community members must educate their children outside Auroville and this suggests negatively against the success of the schools. However I was told when I was observing there in 2006 that in Future School academic exam results were well above Western average and this appeared to be true; in fact some semi-permanent Aurovillians were specifically bringing their children from Europe to study here which was causing conflict due to increased costs to deal with the increasing student numbers - 20-30% increase per year. Certainly all the students I spoke to wanted to stay and study here and had no wish to return to the typical Western education system. Still it must be remembered that Future School is only partially representational of Integral Yoga and the Mother's vision of education and in many respects I was disappointed at how traditional its methods were following regressive Western education processes and consequent pressures including teaching for the British 'A level' exam system. In this respect Auroville's schools are weakened by the fact that they do not have the funding of government schools in the West, so that infrastructure resources for particular the sciences are lacking both in technology and technique. This weakness means that science students suffer a severe impediment to learning in Auroville based upon infrastructure and teaching knowledge. This will have to be overcome before Auroville can really be taken seriously as a superior alternative to Western schools, despite its advantages in lateral thinking.

Some frustration on the part of teachers and community members has been expressed and Auroville does have issues with retaining Indian students, one of their teachers said, “most (Western) teenagers coming from Transition have opted for the Centre for Further Learning (CFL) method while the Indian kids go to After School (another type of more traditional school offered by Auroville) where they follow the Macaulian system, of students having to memorize vast quantities of texts for their exams” rather than encouraging the child to think and experience for himself , or learn to analyse which has already been adopted in Western Education. Auroville does not like the exam system of evaluating student performance, but will take the best from a system including teaching ‘A levels’ thus it sees itself as gleaning the best from both worlds. “But since we are not bound by any existing syllabus we can let the children drive us, within a certain frame, which will not be possible in the other systems.” (Transcript, Auroville ezine http://users.iafrica.com/b/be/belomb16/transcript/ts4/ftdepti.html) So in summary the teachers seem determined to continue the school’s policy and see it as most beneficial for the students even if perhaps it does not always produce the highest academic results. In one reply I received from Auroville it was stated the student should be “also capable of fulfilling his/her basic needs without the aid of academic qualification certificates”.

In 2008-9 I returned to Auroville and tried to teach in New Creation Primary School which is an alternative school for underprivileged Tamil children. This school is run by a Frenchman called Andre and is well funded particularly in computer equipment. Again it tends to follow a traditional model rather than the Mother's vision, however Andre is actively seeking to evolve this and was open to teaching the children meditation and yoga. There is a bi-lingual French school attached as well. Auroville, therefore, is not neglecting the local population and is trying to bring them into the Integral Yoga. In these schools it appears that the local Tamil children receive a significantly more rewarding schooling and achieve higher results than other local children. Perhaps this is the key to advancing Auroville's vision for a new species of humanity based on unity and not division (between races or classes).

References:
Auroville website www.auroville.org.in
Hainstock, E. (1978) The Essential Montessori, Mentor
Musgrave, P.W. (1975) Alternative Schools, John Wiley, Ch. 2
Noddings, N. (1992) The Challenge to care in Schools, Teachers College Press, Ch. 4
Reader, Global Education Policy, Semester 1, 2004, ACU
Worthen, B. & Sanders, J. R. (1989) Educational Evaluation, Longman