Saturday, 28 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part III

[In this section we report on indigenous resistance to plunder of the planet. The resistance includes natives in Canada resisting extraction of shale gas, and adivasis in Niyamgiri opposing mining of aluminium. It appears to be a conflict between two systems of knowledge]

Indigenous resistance
Most importantly, for our purposes, Chomsky also sketched an alternative to these entrenched ideologies by applauding the resistance against these policies raised by the indigenous people congregating at the margins of Canada’s much-flaunted multicultural society. ‘It is pretty ironic,’ Chomsky remarked, ‘that the so-called “least advanced” people are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us, while the richest and most powerful among us are the ones who are trying to drive the society to destruction’ (Cited in Lukacs 2013).
The general lesson is hard to miss. Notice the expression ‘all of us.’ The resistance by the indigenous people to the extraction of hydrocarbons not only saves the environmental niche of these people in New Brunswick and Alberta, it is protecting all of us, the species. In contrast, the rational choices enforced by the ideologies and the institutions controlled by the rich and the powerful are driving the human race towards extinction. It is, thus, an issue about the salient authorship of knowledge.
The issue of knowledge emerged vividly nearer home in the jungles surrounding the Niyamgiri hills in the state of Odisha. These hills contain about 1.8 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, the source for aluminium, which a mining giant—euphemistically called Vedanta—wants to extract to feed into giant factories built on this land. As they were pushed out of the plains by the thrust of mainstream civilisation, the local poor, mostly tribals, had lived on this hilly land for thousands of years. After years of resistance by them—and much manipulation and show of muscle by the state, financed by the mining oligarchy—the government was compelled to organise a referendum for 12 carefully-selected villages when the fate of hundreds of villages was involved (Kothari 2015; Vanaja 2014).
As one of many moving studies reports (Bera 2013), using the democratic and peaceful resource of their own panchayats—units of local self-government—village after village gathered en masse amid heavy security cover of central paramilitary and state forces. Ignoring the guns and bayonets, ‘unlettered’ forest dwellers—Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribals, and Gouda and Harijan non-tribals—spoke of a religion embedded in the hill’s pristine ecology. They told the district judge, appointed observer to the meetings by the apex court, that mining will destroy their god and their source of sustenance:
Over 100 perennial streams, fruit trees such as jackfruit and mangoes, spices like turmeric and ginger, wild roots, tubers and mushroom; apart from the land for shift and burn cultivation—dongar—where they grow an enviable mix of native millets, pulses and oil seeds (Bera 2013).
Having said this, each village unanimously rejected the Vedanta project. Niyamgiri hills survived. For now. Mark the word unlettered, as was used by the reporter. The people themselves ratified this perspective of illiteracy. Tunguru Majhi, a Kutia Kondh tribal, declared at the Kunakadu palli village council meeting,
We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi [both Munda and Majhi led tribal uprisings against the British] if you don’t give up now. We are a murkhya jati [illiterate people] who will never listen to you (Bera 2013).
This illiteracy, the absence of letters, the stupidity of the ancient belief in a caring and protecting god of the hills, might just provide the answer to the question of whether the species will survive after all.

Questioning liberal pedagogy

Recall that when he mentioned the resistance by the indigenous people of Canada, Chomsky used the expression ‘so-called “least advanced” people’ (Lukacs 2013). He is not only referring to their action of resistance, but pointing at their intellectual achievement, without which the action of resistance would not have followed. In contrast, the ‘rational decisions’ reached by formidable intellectuals serving the rich and the powerful lead the species to the verge of extinction. The contest is, therefore, between two opposing systems of knowledge in two different intellectual traditions.
Moreover, Chomsky’s contrast between the two traditions implies that, in a crucial historical sense, elite intellectual traditions have failed the species, while the indigenous traditions, in almost total isolation from the elites, opens the opportunity for the continued survival of the species. In the same historical sense then, survival of the species now depends on incorporating marginalised indigenous systems of knowledge into the mainstream. At the same time, there is a need to severely critique and progressively replace entrenched aspects of elite intellectual traditions, which have ruled the world for at least the last few hundred years in the garb of liberal pedagogy.
What does this scenario mean for education policy? What does it mean exactly to prioritise and adopt the knowledge systems of the murkhya to save the species and the planet? In the limited space available to me here, I will focus on the prospect of incorporating indigenous knowledge in the mainstream education policy. In the process, I will be able to touch barely upon the related, but wider issue of dispensing with much of the current liberal curriculum that generates the mindset for plundering the planet.

Ever since liberal education became the agenda at the turn of the last century, education of the poor and the marginalised has concerned a range of progressive thinkers. I will briefly touch upon two of them—Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire—to suggest why these responses to the issue of the survival of the species are inadequate. There are two reasons why I wish to focus on these authors. First, given the historical problems of modernity, there is already growing awareness that Western liberal education has not lived up to its promise of enlightenment, as noted above. In that context, it is of much interest that both Tagore and Freire are non-Western critics of Western elitism and are well-known for their views on education policy. Second, both direct their attention to the education of the marginalised as a form of universal welfare. How do their apparently egalitarian liberal views fare with respect to the issue of indigenous knowledge?

(To be continued)

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