Alternative education pioneer Manish Jain believes in moulding students who create jobs instead of seeking them

Unlearn everything you have learnt and you might stumble upon a whole set of new truths about yourself. Stripped of social conditioning, the world would seem a much better place, says Manish Jain, co-founder co-ordinator of Shikshantar Andolan, a people’s institute for rethinking education and development.

Manish spearheads an “unschooling movement”, which has been steadily garnering followers across the country. “The school system has systematically killed our imagination,” says Manish, who believes that learning cannot be equated with school.

In Kochi to participate in ‘Giftival’, a Gift Festival, which discusses the spirit of sharing and community living, Manish demystifies the established tenets of education. Unlearning his own Masters Degree in Education from Harvard, Manish says reconnecting with local culture is far more rewarding. “It brings with it a wealth of knowledge. You know, one of the biggest lies we have been taught in India is that we are a poor country. We have different knowledge systems, our cultural wealth is immense. But our education system has led us to internalise our ‘poverty’,” he says.

Swaraj University, which Manish co-founded, in Udaipur, is one of Shikshantar movement’s many projects. A one-of-its kind university, Swaraj offers self-designed learning. For students between 17 and 30, the university functions as a facilitator for personal development. “We call our students khojees. (Khoj in Hindi means search). Each of us has a search embedded in us. We help our students understand the search. What goals they have and what skills they need to attain them.”

The system also motivates students to be aware of the developments taking place around them. “Feedback plays an important role here. How to give and receive feedback is very vital for the learning process.” The first year at the university covers “unlearning”, which includes self-assessment skills, workshops on non-violent communication, research skills and perspective building among other things. “We initiate discussions on what the big questions of our times are. There is no black and white here.”

The university, which is set in a forest area, also makes a point about connecting with Nature. Manish, who is passionate about organic farming, healthy cooking and zero-waste living, banned dust bins on the campus. The students were asked to keep the waste in their rooms. Surprisingly, they became careful with the materials they used. “We have forgotten how to live together. At the university, the students are required to do that. Any solution for the future has to be based on collective intelligence.”

The second year on campus (it is a two-year programme) introduces a concept that Manish calls ‘pedagogy of mistakes’. “The students have to set up social entrepreneurship start-ups and learn through making mistakes.” There is a huge potential in informal learning, Manish feels, unlike schools which promote “hyper specialisation”. “We want our students to be job creators, not seekers.”

In the last four years since Swaraj was set up, about 65 students have passed through it, some of whom stay for more than two years. Fees are voluntary.

Before Shikshantar, Manish was principal architect of the UNESCO ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ initiative. He also worked as an investment banker. One of his dreams is to have about 10,000 organisations offering jobs to students without conventional diplomas and degrees. “This is ‘healing ourselves from the diploma disease’. We already have about 300 organisations that are willing to give a chance to students without a degree.”

Shikshantar, in its 15 years of existence, has helped bring about a certain degree of respectability to home-schooling, Manish says, as a lot of parents have taken to it. “I’m not saying it’s a flawless system. Those who have tried it are living experiments. We learn as we go along.” Manish and wife Vidhi, too have tried homeschooling their children.

Another of the campaigns, ‘Year On’, encourages students to take a year off from school. “It is more targeted at parents. To tell them that they are not actually losing a year, but gaining.”