In 2012, when our first-born one was a year old, one of our friends, Aravinda, had invited us to join the “Learning Societies Unconference” (LSUC) that was happening at a farm near Palghar, about 100 km from Mumbai. Aravinda was homeschooling her child and had introduced us to the idea that school education is not the right way for children to learn through the writings of John Holt and Daniel Greenberg (of Sudbury Valley School). The thesis is that modern education is designed to create workers not thinkers. Schools are structured for teachers to complete a particular “curriculum” whether children are interested in learning or not. Learning is a spontaneous process that cannot be instilled through a “factory” process.
At the time, it sounded like a very fascinating idea, so we decided to go and visit people who were actually practising this. Along with another friend, we drove down to the farm at Palghar to attend LSUC 2012. The place had a relaxed atmosphere and there were people discussing unschooling, a term I had heard for the first time. Unschooling roughly means that the child must not only not be sent to school, but be left free to do whatever they like without judgement. It felt like a really radical idea at that time. Someone asked, “what if your child ends up playing video games all day?”, to which the parent replied, “We trust the child to do best for them. They learn a lot through games. As far as addiction goes, they have to go through the depth of it and come out stronger”. I was inspired by the poise and the calm confidence with which these parents spoke.
11 years later, I got another chance to attend LSUC, which was happening at Sardarshahar in Rajasthan. After having pulled out our children from school in 2019 and starting a self directed learning centre, Sadhana Learning Centre (LC), we landed at LSUC with a gang of 40 children and adults, way past midnight. To our surprise, we were warmly greeted by a few volunteers who were staying up to welcome us. Our learning centre is one of the probably dozen centres of this type where there is no curriculum being taught, and children are equal participants in their learning journey. Our model is loosely based on the Sudbury Valley model where each person in the school (child or adult) had the same rights and power. The four year journey of running the learning centre was an exciting and liberating one for all of us. Now that we had exited the system, a lot of the parents and children were now curious to meet other people who had taken this journey and learn from their experiences.
All of us were put in a dormitory room where we quickly settled in and crashed for the night. Next morning we were up and went out to explore what was happening outside. The unconference was starting that day, and people were streaming in all morning. We just lazed around and soaked up the atmosphere. There was a large open area, part of which was enclosed in an open tent (shamina) to keep out the sun and people had formed small groups. With an attendance of 600–700, LSUC was a riot of colour, diversity and energy. There was a group of people sitting in a circle playing traditional drums and singing folk songs. All of us were given large yellow name tags where we could write our conversation starters. People made all kinds of creative use of the name tags which led to some fun conversations.
There is no “schedule” at LSUC, so it was early evening when the “opening ceremony” started. People were asked to gather in circles and participate in a ritual of music and dancing. Hugs have a central place in the LSUC culture, so we randomly hugged as many people as possible. While it did feel awkward, this being my first LSUC, I decided to join the flow. We went around in circles talking to random strangers (which was fun). The highlight of the opening ceremony was when the head of the hosting university Gandhi Vidyamandir was solemnly speaking about the vision of the university, a 3 year old kid stood up, picked the mike and started singing “Astronaut in the ocean”. No one asked the child to sit down and he was allowed to complete his song. This is the exact kind of chaos that helps you question everything that happens around you.
Apart from the singing, dancing, yoga, acrobatics, the other part of LSUC is the discussions that happen, both planned and unplanned. There was a large space on one of the walls where time slots were defined and people could book a slot for a session. There were 12–15 sessions that happened in parallel, mostly in the open space sitting on the grass, with music playing in the background. I was very interested in what “liberated” people are up to, so I tried to attend a few of them. LSUC seemed to attract all kinds of people. Families who are unschooling, creative types in art and theatre, people who have left their jobs and cities to live in farms, people aspiring to start their own farm or farming communities (eco-villages) and a whole bunch of conspiracy theorists, psychics and spiritually inclined people. While the place had a strong sensual vibe (with a lot of music and dancing), I was primarily interested in the discussions.
Over the next couple of days I had a chance to participate in a few sessions on topics ranging from consciousness, unschooling, starting learning centres, eco-villages, etc. Due to the large variety of people (there being many first-timers to LSUC), the discussions were primarily around mainstream vs alternative lifestyles. I also had fun one-on-one conversations with many people, trying to understand people’s journeys and experiences.
The fountainhead of the LSUC community is Manish Jain, a brilliant Harvard trained radical thinker and leader who runs non profit called Shikshantar. Manish and his wife Vidhi both left the United States and settled in India to unschool their daughter, nearly 25 years ago. Disillusioned by global capitalism, he came back to his village near Udaipur to find an alternative way of living. He became a vocal critic of “factory schooling”, which he calls the “greatest crime on humanity”, similar to slavery. Taking away the freedom of children at a very young age and forcing them to lose their creativity in order to become domesticated workers for global capitalism. As his daughter grew older, he went beyond just unschooling to creating new models of learning, which he calls “eco-varsities” to get rid of what he calls the “diploma disease”. To him, all traditional forms of knowledge should be acknowledged, not only those approved by certain academics. He even worked with the local Jail to start a “Jail University” to learn from those who have been punished by society.
Manish is not only a great thinker but a very charismatic leader. You can feel a genuine warmth when talking to him. Manish was all around LSUC and I was looking for opportunities to have a dialogue with him. “You have to start with a mindset of trust and abundance, not money and scarcity”, he told me. He said that he had experienced things that “science” could not effectively explain. Even though he was suffering from a backache and sore throat, he was kind enough to share his ideas and answer my questions. “When evaluating an idea, I look for two things, imagination and courage. I measure my success by how many people are leaving their jobs, pulling out their kids from school”.
I fully agree with Manish on his critique of modern life. We are too constrained by how we should think and behave by society. We have been indoctrinated from early childhood and the pervasiveness and depth of technology has made us blind to nature, both human and ecological. I was still finding it hard to reconcile this with the kind of rituals that were formed as a part of the LSUC community. The LSUC rituals were designed for extroverts with a lot of positive affirmations given to each other. I questioned Manish on those too. While there was a genuine warmth going around, I saw a lot of signalling and posturing as well. There were inner circles and outer circles which I found hard to be a part of.
There was also an overload of activity and sensation. It seemed that people were here just to have a lot of fun. I felt a distinct lack of intellectual rigour in the community. One of the questions I asked Manish was his views on violence and justice. If we look at our history, we have fought innumerable wars and unleashed unthinkable violence on fellow humans driven by a scarcity mindset. I asked Manish how he reconciled his model of trust with justice? I also shared some of my own experiments with trust at Frappe (with allowing everyone to pick their own pay) and my struggle to balance this with fairness. To this he replied that, “You cannot start with trust, first you have to invite and invoke a feeling of gratitude in people and once they connect to the feeling of abundance, then they are ready to play the trust game”. And in a way, this would mean creating a series of rituals so that people joining the community get the feeling of gratitude. “You cannot make this happen unless you surrender temporarily”. For me this felt like coming full circle. It is because we refused to surrender to the temple of capitalism is why we are here looking for answers, and the answer it seems is to surrender to another temple of gratitude. Maybe I will need time to process this.
Over the last couple days, I had some great discussions with Pankaj, a co-parent, who had a much deeper understanding of the intellectual traditions that have brought us here. Being part of a creative community, he said that he has seen this kind of delusion before. “LSUC feels like an utopian community (a rave party without drugs), but it will not end up well with a lot of people”. He had seen a lot of creative professionals end up in misery. In a way I agreed with Pankaj’s pessimism as well. Just because modernism has its flaws, does not mean we should fall back to traditional systems. They had their flaws too — violence, patriarchy, discrimination, slavery. Looking from another lens, we are living in the most prosperous, peaceful times ever in human history. People live longer and have a greater chance of finding fulfilment than ever in history. Thanks to the application of science and technology, our lives are no longer “nasty, brutish and short”. At what cost was this achieved is a very valid question to ask. The idea that we have to “turn back the clock” to some kind of a natural utopia feels eerily close to right wing ideologies of a glorious religious past, without the coercion and violence.
Putting creativity above all else also has a flaw. Art is primarily for the artist’s need to express. While art is primary to being part of society, so is being useful to others. A person dedicating their entire life to art means that they may struggle to be useful to people and be accepted in communities. This question was also asked by a few people, but I did not hear a rigourous discussion on this either.
In many ways, modern day living feels mechanical and bereft of spirituality. We disregard our human nature and consciousness. We seek to replace “flow” with material wealth. Our thinking feels incredibly selfish and short sighted. I too believe that we should listen more to our hearts (instinct) rather than minds (cold logic). Human life and society is a complex, multi-dimensional, dynamic system that can’t be controlled. There is a joy in doing what you want in the moment, rather than pondering about the past and planning about the future. I believe that our sense of the moment automatically instructs us about the past and the future. Even though I am grateful to the LSUC community for creating this space, I cannot say I felt lighter and liberated after attending it. If anything, it has made me question my own questions about modern society. Is there a respite after all?