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Auroville Adventure

December 2003

The evolution of education
in Auroville

- by Svante

Through a succession of educational initiatives, Auroville keeps on educating itself in how to educate.

“Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.” These words from Auroville's Charter and the principles of education outlined by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are shining beacons for Auroville's attempts to organize its education. Along with the vision, however, constraints and obstacles are part of the reality from which education in Auroville is being created. In this article, we take a look at how challenges of shaping Auroville's education have been met from the early days till today, and glance into the crystal ball of the future. A future article will deal with the development of the education for children from the surrounding villages.

Individual tutoring at Transition. Photo: PinoThe history of education in Auroville can be broken up into two periods, before and after the creation of the Sri Aurobindo International Institute for Educational Research (SAIIER) in 1984. The first period saw Auroville's first school, Aspiration School , being born in 1970, live and change during a little more than half a decade, and close in 1976. Aspiration School had more than 150 students, about one third Tamilian, one third from the rest of India , and one third Western. Shraddavan, one of the teachers, in 1990, remembered: “I think there was a lot of honesty between the adults and the children. Whenever a child came from outside, it was immediately obvious: in other schools the lesson they had learned was to deceive their teachers. Here they didn't have to, and partly because of this the children's individual capacities were really able to develop.”

Partly as a reaction to criticism of Aspiration School having become too conventional, the period which followed its closure was mainly characterized by informal educational attempts. The best known of those was Johnny's initiative in Fertile. His educational philosophy is reflected in his idea, expressed in 1992, that credits for croissant-making, or bicycle maintenance or tree planting, for instance would be equally valid as academic credits, and together with these serve as the basis of an Auroville diploma which could slowly gain international respect. Despite Johnny's initiative, and the primary education provided from 1981 in Centre School , many children were never offered formal schooling and came to be called ‘the lost generation'. One of them was Binah, who was seven when On the way to schoolAspiration School closed. In the absence of schools within Auroville, she was sent by her mother to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram school in Delhi . “This was really hard and very disciplined”, she recalled in 1993, and added that, upon returning to Auroville, she found that “the children of my age group (‘the lost generation') had turned into quite a rowdy bunch”.

SAIIER, with its role of coordinating education and generating educational research, slowly brought an increasing number of educational initiatives. With the help of funding from the Government of India, Transition School started in 1985, and has since then been the main school for children up to 14 years of age. The rickety Centre School buildings at Centre Field received a coat of whitewash and new keet roofs, and became the Kindergarten. As the first organized initiative of secondary education, Last School began in January 1985, in the Swagatham and Last School buildings next to Aspiration. The adjacent, dilapidated and unfinished buildings of the Pyramids were eight years later to become a place for art classes. The start of Last School came about due to the demand from the frustrated youth themselves, who were longing for a ‘real school'. A necessary prerequisite was the fact that SAIIER was granted financial support from the Ministry of Education, which has been providing a substantial part of Auroville's educational budget ever since. The Kindergarten obtained new buildings in 1993 thanks to government money, and so did Mirramukhi (now Deepanam). Some buildings at Transition, the entire Future School , and the re-building of the Pyramids were, however, financed by private donations.

The free soul of Auroville Group singing at the Kindergarten

As Auroville is a unique place, thiscould be expected to shine through in its children. Deepti at Last School commented in 1990 on her experience of Auroville children as “deeply honest and frank, direct and giving immediate feedback”, with a “sweetness and soul quality just beneath the outer crust”. In contrast, a teacher at the Kodaikanal International School , said in 1994: “The main problem of Auroville's children is lack of discipline.” She was quick to add, however, a comment about their “wonderful free spirit”. These statements give an idea of the range of adults' perceptions of Auroville children throughout the years. Growing up in Auroville, close to nature, immersed in the cultural variety of a community aspiring for unity, and with more freedom than in most other places, appears to foster certain qualities, and these are enhanced by the teaching methods practiced.

Teachers ought to “suggest and not to impose” as “the idea of hammering the child into the shape desired by the parent or teacher is a barbarous and ignorant superstition”, said Sri Aurobindo. Heidi Watts, an American teacher trainer from Antioch University , has been visiting Auroville more or less yearly since 1993 to share her deep knowledge and passion for education. Already during her first visit, she felt how Sri Aurobindo's words were very much alive for the Auroville teachers, saying: “I saw a sense of wonder and delight and respect for childhood which is transmitted even in the most traditional kind of classrooms. The children must feel that.”

The notion of Auroville as a ‘univer-city' where everybody is taking part in a lifelong learning adventure, has been a powerful ideal since the start. Many of the first settlers in Auroville were children of the sixties, a decade which saw a deep-seated revolt against the established norms of the West, and the prevailing ideal of early Auroville was that youth has to grow up without losing contact with their souls. In addition, according to Deepti in 1998, Auroville was a typical example of a pioneering society which settle on inhospitable terrain, where the typical first phase is one where the ‘man of action' is the role model. It was also a place of coexistence of strongly contradictory attitudes lacking the stabilizing factors of established societies. These facts, taken together, go a long way towards explaining the resistance against formalized education and enthusiasm for experimentation of the early days.

But the picture has changed since then. Suzie, who has been living and teaching in Auroville since 1980, observed in 1999 that the mandate of education in Auroville had shifted from experimentation as the first priority to a more formalized academic system with the consequence that, in her view, Auroville is sliding away from the mandate of soul-centered education given by the Mother, a mandate to aim for “what others cannot even conceive of”. Suzie identified two main reasons for this development: an insufficient level of collaboration between different educational initiatives, resulting in a badly integrated educational system, and “the push towards examinations”.

Diplomas or not?

For many years, discussions about examinations and certification focused upon Last School , as it was the only high school in Auroville. In October 1994, an Auroville Today article heading articulated a question which was hovering in the collective mind of Auroville: “ Last School – lost school?” The issue boiled down to many children having turned their backs on Last School in favour of secondary level studies at the Lycée Français in nearby Pondicherry, or at Kodaikanal International School, or other schools offering formal certificates. The question of how Auroville schools could find an acceptable way to offer diplomas that would open the door to higher education elsewhere has remained central to this day. Since non-Indian passport holders won't easily get admission to Indian universities, they have to study in their country of origin, or elsewhere. The French ‘baccalaureate' and the international ‘baccalaureate', offered at the Lycée Français and the Kodaikanal International School respectively, guarantee admittance to most universities in Europe and the USA . But on the Auroville educational scene no similar opportunity has been offered – until some years ago.

In January this year, the Center for Further Learning (CFL), created in 1996, was transformed into Future School , and moved into a newly erected building near Transition School . While a possibility of examination through correspondence courses has been offered for some years at CFL, Future School now gives Auroville teenagers the choice to study for British ‘O' or ‘A' levels, the Indian National Open School certificate or to study mainly subjects of their own preference. The school wants to provide a student-centered, integral education for Aurovilian youth between the ages of 14 and 20, who each choose a personal mentor from the school team. The goal is to achieve an Auroville educational program of international standing which, while being universally accepted, would also be in keeping with the unique Auroville educational philosophy. Whereas different opinions of whether formal certification interferes with the educational mandate given by the Mother may remain, with this policy of Future School the long-standing issue of ‘diplomas or not' may finally be ready to be taken off the agenda of Auroville's educational discussions.

Education of the whole being

It can be claimed that Auroville schools offer a curriculum which caters for the development of more parts of the being than most present-day educational systems. Attempts are made to provide an education not only for the mental, but also the vital, physical and psychic aspects of the being. Traditionally mental education, like language learning, is given another tone in Auroville, where children are exposed to several different languages from an early age, and ‘creole languages' such as Tanglish (a mixture of Tamil and English) develop. Already at the Kindergarten, the children learn songs in English, French, Tamil and Sanskrit. While language education continues at all school levels, it is given a scientific form at the Auroville Language Laboratory, which has existed in a more organized form since 1999. This laboratory not only offers individual language teaching in many languages, but also researches new teaching methods. It intends, for example, to import a special machine called ‘the electronic ear', developed by the French scientist Tomatis, to enhance language learning in Auroville.

Education for the vital is emphasized in places like the Pyramids Art Center , where art is recognized as a means to develop the personality rather than as an end in itself. Through art, children from all Auroville schools are invited to develop their aesthetic sense and their concentration, as well as train their endurance to manifest an idea. To the teenagers of Last School , who are the ones allowed most time at the Pyramids, the last point is often the biggest challenge. Education of the physical being, the body, which was strongly emphasized by the Mother, is pursued in the ‘Awareness through the Body' programme of Joan and Aloka. Since 1992, they have been offering their work to children as well as – more recently – adults, and since 2000 they do it in a specifically designed hall in Transition School . With the body as an entry point, this work actually helps develop an awareness of the whole being, as well as its place in relation to others and the environment. The Dehashakti sports complex in the Cultural Zone has been training school children since 1992, aiming to develop qualities like team spirit, fairness in play, and the right attitude during competitions and games, as well as encouraging weaker children to participate actively.

Marguerite Smithwhite in Pondicherry has, on the basis of 22 years of research, developed a curriculum for an “education with a soul”. She welcomes groups of teachers from Auroville, and through them her methods are being put into practice in Auroville schools. In general, attempts to provide education for the psychic part of the being are – presumably – greatly helped by the largely individualized system of education. At the Deepanam and Transition schools, for example, on average two teachers run a class of maximum 18 children. At Future School , the ratio is often as low as one teacher to two students. Then, not to be forgotten, a few Auroville parents prefer not to send their children to school, but to take care of their education themselves, naturally entailing a very close contact with the learning process of the individual child.

Voices from outside

For many years Auroville has been receiving visiting teachers and educators both from India and the world at large. Aurovilians engaged in education have also directed their attention outwards, for example taking part in events such as the 1992 international conference on experiential learning in Pondicherry , or special teachers' trainings. For most teachers in Auroville lack professional qualifications. Is this a limitation? Heidi Watts, perhaps the person with the deepest insights into Auroville education from an outside perspective, considers it a “great advantage that they have not been spoiled by professional training”. In a comparative study of education in Auroville, Montessori, Waldorf, and other progressive schools, written on behalf of SAIIER, she concludes that the Auroville Kindergarten has something of all the other kinds of school. As in progressive schools, experiences are carefully constructed to be relevant, developmentally appropriate and educative, the whole child is addressed, there are many opportunities for choice, and children learn from an active engagement with the environment. Similarities with Montessori schools are found, for example, in the development of the senses, and with Waldorf schools in the spiritual approach. Heidi finds that the Auroville Kindergarten resonates well with the three principles of education enunciated by Sri Aurobindo: “Nothing can be taught. Work from the near to far. Mind must be consulted in its own growth.”

Outreach and higher education

Auroville is today a place where many students, such as budding architects and engineers, come to explore their subjects in practice. Since 1991, groups of students from India and abroad have been spending study weeks in Auroville. The first group of students from the Gaia Education Outreach Institute (GEO) in USA , for instance, came in 1991, and now GEO sends two groups every year. Professionals, voluntary organizations, and students take part in the courses of the Centre for Scientific Research in environmental and sustainable technologies, where knowledge based on field experiments in Auroville is transferred. Palmyra , Pitchandikulam, Water Harvest, and the Botanical Garden offer training and education in subjects related to water management, organic farming, and the protection and use of medicinal plants, reaching out to the bioregion as well as to India as a whole. Auroville has recently been hosting workshops ranging from one for Indian fashion students learning to design with waste materials to those on ‘creativity' and ‘innovation' held for people in the field of rural development.

Apparently, among these examples of educational initiatives, as well as the diverse research projects conducted in Auroville, seeds of higher education can be found. Lacking so far are the central structures to let them grow into complete educational programs to be offered in and by Auroville. The Center for International Research in Human Unity project (CIRHU), with its roots as far back as 1986, this year, through SAIIER, received substantial funding from the Indian Government [see AV Today June/July 2003]. It has an ambition to become a synthesizing center for research and higher education..

Daniel Greenberg, the executive director of the GEO program, says: “Auroville is a real-world model of sustainable development experimenting with integrated human-scale solutions. … I believe that Auroville will continue to host international educational programmes like ours and also that it will eventually develop its own university.” And so, Greenberg – presumably unknowingly – echoes the Mother: “The permanent university will be the key to Auroville's raison d'être.” Thirty four years after those words were spoken, many steps have been taken towards the beginning of their manifestation.

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