I am just returning from the Indian Multiversities Alliance gathering, recently held in Nagpur, India, co-created by over 30 radical higher education projects from around the country. Every year, more than 5,000 autonomous learners attend programs hosted by the Multiversities across India, which seek to de-center, pluralize, regenerate, and connect diverse learning processes, types of knowledge, wisdom, meanings of love, power, and economies outside the realm of official universities and the global economy. They are involved in many spheres such as sustainable living, social justice, compassion, dance and music, healing, community media, spirituality, activism, etc.
As I sit to write this note, I still reflect on one of themes that emerged as a common concern in the gathering, which was about the recovering and expanding of the Self from modernity. In many different ways, this is an exploration carried out through the Multiversities: healing from past trauma; decolonizing our perceptions of Self, including notions of body, senses, purpose and spirit; remembering our vernacular knowledge systems; re-rooting to a sense of “home,” reclaiming love, trust, and compassion, re-imagining larger political-economic systems.
The notion of swaraj (rule over the self or harmony of the self), posited by M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore during the Indian freedom struggle, helped to guide our enquiry into the notion of Self—one that is simultaneously unique and inter-connected, local and transcendent, time-bound and timeless, being and not-being, holistic and dynamically evolving. Many of the questions on “decolonization and entanglement” referred to by Vanessa Andreotti in her text “Multilayered Selves” also showed up in our enquiry. During this process, I could see that we were struggling with the messiness of our own “undoing,” an idea Vanessa writes so eloquently about.
In her piece “In the Cracks of Learning,” Alessandra Pomarico discusses the need to move from “safe spaces” to “brave spaces,” a question I very much resonated with.
Through our project, Swaraj University in Udaipur, Rajasthan, we have intentionally invited in conflict and chaos, seeing them as gifts that can open up new explorations within us as they tend to surface our deeper fears, dilemmas, and shadows. It is often challenging because our institutional conditioning is usually towards blaming, avoiding or running away from these potent learning opportunities.
Our experiences of community living as a core radical pedagogy, align deeply to what Alessandra discusses in her text. The recovery of everyday acts of cooking or cleaning together become important processes for triggering both disruption and deeper healing and connection. At the same time, we feel it is important to challenge the false divide between “intellectual activities” and “physical labor.” We also have tried to expand our notions of community beyond just other humans to include our neighbors in nature. We ask the khojis (seekers) to empathize (even speak to) and reflect on how our neighbours in nature such as the trees, the birds, the snakes, the butterflies, and the mountains would view a particular issue or incident.
I also resonate with Manolo Callahan’s text “Insurgent Learning and Convivial Research,” where he emphasizes the need for engaging everyday realities, reclaiming public spaces and the use of a wider variety of cultural and social resources and tools, as we re-imagine pedagogy.
It is a powerful rejoinder against the “deficit” frameworks of development and modernity which keep teaching us in India (and the global South) that we are “poor,” “uneducated,” and “backwards,” and instruct us to look down upon our own “informal” or “local” social spaces and tools, with an elitist arrogance and disdain.
In Swaraj University we invite the khojis to play a game, a “treasure hunt,” whereby they try to “re-discover” many people, places, and processes for learning and unlearning in their own local areas such as potters, farmers, artists, musicians, chefs, etc. They quickly discover that they are living among a “rich” web of learning resources and don’t need to travel to faraway Western countries or big metropolitan cities to learn. In this way, they start to shift out of the artificial scarcity paradigm that has been induced by modern education.
When we seek to invite in and engage different cosmologies and worldviews, we face a deeper challenge: how to host and sustain inter-cultural and inter-species dialogues in meaningful ways, where we are neither over-romanticizing or over-dominating the “Other.” This is a constant struggle, since the violence of modernity runs deep within us. Letting go of the rational, linear, anthropocentric, fear-based, and anxious mind (and the tools that shape it) is a major challenge and an important step. Are we really willing to let our bodies, our intuitions, our friendships, our spirits, the non-human animals and the other species guide us? Are we really willing to walk into the co-creation of utopias without a map or a master-plan? Are we really willing to give up the power—in the form of degrees, money, identity—that has been bestowed upon us by institutions?
At Swaraj University, we offer a radical pedagogy called cycle yatra (outer and inner pilgrimage), in which we invite khojis for a one week cycling trip without any money, without any food or medicines, without any technologies, and without any plan about where to go or with whom to stay.
This is an attempt to strip away many of the symbols of modern institutional power in order to enter more humbly into and experience another worldview of local villages, as much as possible, on their terms. One powerful dimension of this involves exploring life from the perspective of gift culture rather than from capitalism, hyper-consumption and transaction-based relationships. Khojis of the cycle yatra are invited to experience what it feels to co-create a powerful field of trust with each other, and with the communities and ecologies they encounter as they travel.
My own journey in the search for radical pedagogies leads me to agree with Andreotti’s call for “epistemic reflexivity”—to induce and dance with disenchantment, hopelessness, disgust, and disillusionment of our modern systems. I have found that this practice can help us free our imaginations from always trying to reform or resort to problem solving within the existing frameworks of the dominant education system. Being fully present and courageous in this space can take us into to exploring other worlds of power and possibility.
At Swaraj University, we try to support a radical pedagogy of slowing down, scaling down and unplugging in the spirit of a pause. These notions appear to be ridiculous paradoxes in the modern world which stresses urgency, speed, scaling up, and non-stop technological communication. We have found pedagogies of techno-fasting and collective silence to be powerful tools for a deep kind of unraveling and opening ourselves to new explorations as they help us reclaim different notions of time and place.
In conclusion, I am quite inspired and challenged by this collection of essays. They provide several very meaningful mirrors to examine and deepen our efforts. Radical pedagogies and radical learning spaces are living experiments and therefore messy affairs and always a work-in-progress. As we continually experiment and reflect on ourselves-in-them, we are slowly learning to better hold our contradictions and failures with love, joy, forgiveness and care, and trying not to get overwhelmed by the intellectual purities that exist in the world of text and theorization. It is important to keep reminding ourselves of the need for both fierce patience and wild gentleness in the border-crossing, collaborative journeys that unfold ahead.
 Swaraj University is a self-designed learning program. There are no degrees, no exams, no textbooks, no classrooms, no competition, no imposed teachers, no fees. Khojis (seekers) from ages 17-28 come together from all over India for a two-year initiation.
First published: http://artseverywhere.ca/2018/04/06/living-experiments-messy-affairs/