On May 25 and 26, educators gathered for a conference on Peace in Education 2018, organised by Vidya Vanam, a school catering to the educational needs of the local tribal population in and around Anaikatti. Education-enthusiasts from across the country and the world were present.
Prema Rangachary, founder and director of Vidya Vanam, was taken with the quiet dignity of Prof Samdhong Rimpoche. “He gave us perspectives of peace born out of compassion, which contrasted with the scientific perspectives of Dr VijayRaghavan” said Rangachary. The highlights for her were Praveen Kumar’s bold and honest biographical notes on day one and the students’ panel discussion. “I am personally happy with the diversity of people who were present both on stage and in the audience. What matters in a conference of this nature is the receptivity of the people, which enriches the dialogue.”
Writer Perumal Murugan and Dr N Markandan former Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram Rural University, highlighted the responsibility of teachers to communicate mindfully with their students. “Poor communication leads to the creation of irresponsible citizens,” said Markandan. Murugan spoke of a hierarchy similar to the caste system that operates within many classrooms in our country — a system where teachers ridicule and silence students who ask questions. He said that pre-conceived notions, judgements and biases come in the way of mindful communication. The teachers must read and be aware of what is going on these days. That is the only way they can make an impact irrespective of what subject they teach, he reiterated.
At the panel discussion on ‘Negotiating Power and Privilege in Education’ with IPS officer RS Praveen Kumar and peace educator Chintan Girish Modi in conversation with academician Gita Jayaraj, each one drove home the point of how power and privilege manifests in schools — whether it is caste or class-related or even pertaining to language and food. Praveen Kumar said, “We talk about peace only when there is war. The battle for opportunity within education hasn’t begun.” He believed that those who escaped the trap had to go back to their roots and make a change.
Modi echoed Prof Rinpoche’s words as he spoke of inner peace and the need to think carefully about the violence we inflict on ourselves and our surroundings through our day-to-day customs and taboos. He emphasised the need to listen to other points of view.
On Day Two, Dr. S. Sriram, President of the Bhuvana Foundation, led a discussion, asking, ‘Can we Synthesise a Non-Violent Brain?’ He held that early childhood nurturing and mindful meditation could help with that. He cited studies from Europe that have shown strong effects of mindful meditation in the domains of cognitive performance, resilience and stress management.
The session on ‘Free Speech in the Classroom’ had a panel made up of Yellow Train School’s Director Santhya Vikram, Dr Sambiah Gundimeda from APU, Dr A R Venkatachalapathy from the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and Banu Nagesh, Principal of Vedavalli Vidyalaya, Ranipet. They agreed that “a noisy classroom is a learning classroom” but how “setting certain norms and supervising them was also important”. The discussion ended with the question: “What about free speech in the staffroom?”
Fact, opinion and bias cannot be demarcated, Vidwan TM Krishna declared in a discussion with V Vasanthi Devi, former Vice Chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli. Both speakers agreed that challenging our own biases in a public forum was the need of the hour. Attention was drawn to the dangers of creating homogenised schools where everyone spoke the same language and came from the same background.
A conference on education would mean little without the participation of students and the panel discussion with the students of Vidya Vanam turned out be the liveliest. Seeking their opinion on free speech was not only entertaining, but also thought provoking. Students Durka Devi, Nitha Pullooni, Abhijit Anoop and M Praveen Kumar were in conversation with Vidya Vanam’s Academic Director TM Srikanth.
When asked who should draw the line when it comes to the freedom of speech, the girls answered that when students draw the line, the option of free speech still exists; but when the teacher does so, it doesn’t. The boys disagreed saying students can’t always draw the line and that, sometimes, restrictions are required. Pullooni responded with “There is a difference between restricting and guiding”. Ego and authority often make teachers restrict the freedom of speech within the classroom, added Durka. Anoop stated that Vidya Vanam considered its students mature enough to know what and when to say something. They, however, honestly admitted that they would find it difficult to accept a junior challenging them but, if the case was strong, they would give in! Anoop wrapped up the discussion with a powerful: “Every revolution begins with indiscipline.”
Problem of plenty
There were four workshops on each day. Participants found it difficult to decide which one they wanted to attend.
Language and Conflict Resolution by Dr. Kathy Ganske was on how teachers should use language, engage the classroom space and strategies for classroom learning. Some takeaways: Use the appropriate tone and be specific; If there is disruption by a student, focus on the action rather than personalise the incident; Be aware of gender discrimination and fix it
Inclusivity for Peaceful Education by Prema Rangachary explained that exclusion of any kind is an act of violence. Key points were: Do not judge; accept and acknowledge students’ strengths; Encourage spirit of freedom; Do not let fear and hierarchy enter the classroom
Reflective Writing by Dr Neeraja Raghavan encouraged participants to put themselves in another person’s shoes and look at conflict from a different point of view. Dr Raghavan pointed out three questions one needed to ask oneself to help us arrive at rational solutions to conflicts:How would a benevolent third party would view a particular conflict?; What were the impediments a third party would face while observing the conflict?; How to overcome these difficulties?
Living In Sync with Nature by Dr Sanjay Molur, Payal B Molur and Priyanka stressed the importance of scientific temper and reasoning. Diseases are caused by destroying biodiversity, said Molur, giving the example of viruses and fungi that cause diseases like HIV, Ebola or Nipah virus. He spoke of how these co-evolved with mammals and the gradual decline in the population of these mammals due to the destruction of their habitat and the slow deficiency in human immunity have caused these diseases. Payal B Molur shared her experience bringing behavioural change through wildlife education in Nagaland. Priyanka spoke of how wildlife conservation can be done in our own neighbourhoods