Manish Jain lives in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in North India.  He works with a movement called Shikshantar, ‘The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development’.  He has been working for the last 20 years, initiating many projects around unlearning, sustainable living, and Gift Culture. He is also co-founder of Swaraj University – India’s first university dedicated to localization. You can read more about his work here. He very kindly spent a fascinating hour chatting to me via Skype…

What do you think in 2018 is the relationship between our conventional approach to education and the state of health of our imagination?

In my own journey what I found out was that most people think education is a solution going forward for the world, and to deal with the different crises on the planet, and I found that the education system, the current one, is actually part of the problem.  Not only is it irrelevant, but it also is actually creating, reproducing, the same sicknesses you have in the planet.

One of the purposes of that is to destroy people’s imagination. It has played a significant role, I see it all over India, Asia too, to destroy the sources, and one of the sources, at least in India, of imagination, is local language.  Local language and culture, which is deeply connected to biodiversity.  Education has basically told people here that all of our people who speak local languages are backwards, uncivilised, not modern, and don’t have much to contribute to the world going forward.

Part of our work is to recover that wisdom and imagination, and to free ourselves from the TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’) worldview.  These go hand in hand actually.  Re-connecting to traditional cultures, and reminding people that we actually have much more than we thought we had.  So there’s a sense that imagination is connected to a sense of abundance, moving out of the scarcity mind set.  The current system is a very big culprit in limiting what people’s imagination has been, and probably filling them with a lot of fear as well.

Do you think that’s deliberate, or an accidental unintended side effect of the demands of the growth based economy?

No, it’s very deliberate.  It’s by design.  The same people who designed the army system, and the prison system, and the factory system, used the same design for the education system.  Even our government says it’s a ‘Ministry of Human Resource Development’. So they are quite blatant about what it’s agenda is.

It sees people as part of this larger model of economic growth.  It comes basically from three ways.  From stupid consumers, from people who have no regard for their ecological systems and want to mine the hell out of them, and from people who can only find happiness through addiction.  That’s a growth economy in India basically, and that’s what education prepares.

My Grandmother never went to school, but was quite a big inspiration to me in terms of her wisdom and imagination and compassion.  I learned the difference between knowing and being from her. There’s always this conversation.  In India it doesn’t exist as much in the West I think, of people who have not gone to school, or who are so-called illiterates.  I would say, “Who is wasting more water?  Is it the educated people, or the illiterates?  Who is generating more pollution on the planet?  Eating more junk food?”

It’s obvious there’s something wrong with the kind of education we’ve been given to fit us into the global economy.  What’s so curious is that it works best when you destroy people’s connection to their culture, their community, to their ecosystem.  It has, by design, done a very good job of that here, and most places in the world I’ve visited.

Historically India is one of the most imaginative cultures there’s ever been.  That’s quite an achievement, to create an education system to dismantle that.  Over what sort of time frame has that happened do you think?

The British brought it in in the 1830s, that model of education.  The post-British Indian nation state which has expanded that.  It’s really 100 years, basically, in which it’s been very active.  It’s not fully dismantled.

We have a word actually, ‘Jugaad’, which is a very interesting word you would like to know.  It means ‘makeshift’ or ‘improvised’.  Taking whatever you have and creating something more beautiful. So upcycling is an example of jugaad…

For example, in India my Grandmother, and a lot of grandmothers here, know about how to make hundreds of dishes using vegetable peels, so from watermelon peels, to peapod peels, to mango peels.  So many different kinds of peels which are thrown out. So easily we could reclaim that technology, we can feed easily another billion people on the planet with those.

Those are the most nutritious parts of the fruits and vegetables, the peels, all the vitamins are in that.  Imagination has been such a big part of everyday life.  Even down to something like vegetable peels – how can you get amazing recipes with that.  People explored.  I just met a rice specialist in India.  Guess how many varieties were there?


Documented varieties that used to exist in India? 114,000 varieties of rice.


Isn’t that mind blowing?

And now?

After the advent of modern education, there’s only 7000 varieties left.  And I would say another 80% are probably at risk of extinction in the next 20 years.  But this is what a monoculture mind does, right?

You’re involved with this idea of ‘unlearning’, and ‘unschooling’?  Could you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that?

They are two interconnected but different things.  Unlearning basically starts with the idea that the crisis that’s facing us runs much deeper than simple management shifts or technology fixes, that there’s a deeper question, crisis, around how we perceive ourselves in the world.

Many of the assumptions we’re holding – assumptions about what happiness is, or what’s developed, or what’s hygienic, or what’s dirty, so many notions that we have been conditioned with in the industrial monoculture mind set, or even how we see money, for example, or death, or love – so many of these things we’ve been conditioned with to fit in the industrial mind, we actually need to start to deeply re-look at a lot of those assumptions.  Otherwise we risk really reproducing those deeper things just using new and more sophisticated technologies and approaches to do that.

A lot of it is related to decolonising ourselves.  We say decolonisation is not just for people in the global south.  We think people in the global north have been more colonised by this system than we have actually, they’re trapped by the industrial global economy and the frameworks of separation and artificial scarcity.  Unschooling is one mode.  We are really talking a lot about self-designed learning modalities in the world, and unschooling is one mode which means that we consciously choose not to send our children to school, but also to look at the impacts – how school plays out in not only the school setting, but also how it’s infiltrated into many aspects of our lives and our mind sets – what I call the culture of schooling.

For example, the feeling of competition and comparison all the time.  That’s part of the schooled mind, you know, always feeling like you are not good enough.  Resistance to diversity.  You’re not able to hold diversity or chaos very well.  You always need to plan and control everything around you.  That’s also part of the schooled mind.  So it’s not just what you do with the kids.  It’s also a lot about what the parents have to re-look at in themselves, and the larger culture-economy within which we are embedded.

The difference between home schooling and unschooling is that we are actually trusting the children and co-creating learning programmes with each other based on their personal needs, and also based on how we try to rebuild a larger connection with community, culture and ecology.  A lot of it, at least in India, it’s different to what I’ve seen in the West because there’s a lot of individualised things there, but less sense of community building or commoning.

In India we’ve really been trying to link it to larger questions of sustainable lifestyle, reimagining economy, love, re-looking at reconnecting to a different sense of what is spiritual and sacred.  So many other questions as well.  Once you take your child out of school, what’s your alternative?  The alternative is Life.  We started wanting to live your life differently.  Those are all the sort of questions we start tackling and engaging with.

From the outside, India is a very driven, growth at all costs kind of economy.  If you choose to take your children out of that and to explore a very different paradigm for them to grow up within a very different paradigm, do you feel very isolated, at odds with the prevailing culture?

That kind of mainstream middle-class aspiration definitely is at odds with that.  What’s interesting is I usually tell people that the idea of unschooling, or self-designed learning, is at least 4000 years old.  It’s not a new idea that we’re coming up with. If you go back and look at Upanishads, Mahabharata and the Bhaghavad Gita and other sacred texts, you’ll find tons and tons of stories of self-designed learners in that, and even radical critiques of the formalised education system even of that time.  So there’s a very famous story of an indigenous boy called Eklavya.  Everybody knows that story.

It’s basically a story about a brilliant self-designed learner.  That’s a cultural reference point, it’s not outside of culture.  Then we have other people, I’m sure you’ve heard of Kabir.  He’s a 17th century poet/weaver.  He never went to any school.  He’s a self-designed learner.

There are lots and lots of examples historically of people like that, even then going into the works of Gandhi and Tagore, and other inspiring leaders.  Most of them are advocating this much more radical approach to learning, but it’s definitely at odds with the middle class aspiration that has been fed to be part of the global economy.

But we’re finding more and more people, since we’ve been doing it for 20 years, are opening up to the idea.  There are various factors which are probably making people a bit more receptive to that, particularly a lot of the people who are the IT geeks.  They’re tired of running the rat race.  They are very open to looking at not only unschooling kinds of ideas, but connecting to farming again, natural building, different lifestyles also.  So there’s a countermovement even amongst the middle class around that.

It’s very tempting, writing a book looking at the need for an urgent great re-imagining in our culture to say, “we need to shut down all the schools!”, and, “We need to design a completely different system where people don’t go to school but they have a very different kind of experience.”  Which, in the UK in 2018, doesn’t feel very realistic. There are many, many schools and a lot of them really aren’t very great at all, but they’re what we have, and they’re where kids go.  Is it a yin and yang, you go to school or you unschool?  Is the education system capable of reform to a degree that is useful, or is it all or nothing?

Well I spent several years in UNESCO and UNICEF and the World Bank, so I would say it’s all or nothing. Which is why I resigned from those places because I didn’t see any hope for the reform.  There’s a vested interest, right?  If people go through a different kind of education process and they become caring, creative, imaginative, sensitive human beings, what’s going to happen to the global economy?  It will come crashing down.  They’ll say we’re not going to give you our rivers and our lakes.  I’m sure you know Niyamgiri in Orissa?


Niyamgiri, if you look it up, there’s a tribal indigenous community there.  They had a historic victory a couple of years ago, they stopped Vedanta, a mining company.  These are people who have never gone to school.  They said, “you can keep all your money.  We’re not giving you our mountain.   Our ancestors live in this mountain.  It’s a sacred mountain.”

There was an article I read, where they’d interviewed somebody from the movement, and you know what their last line was? “We are saving it right now, but I don’t know what’s going to happen after 10, 15 years because all of our children are going to school.”

The vested interest is to keep the growth as it is.  Unless there’s a visionary new teacher or government that comes in and says we actually are willing to compromise all of our economic growth models, and really actually let people be free and think and be sensitive and develop themselves.

This is where my interest in Transition Town initially came from, because the solution to the educational crisis is not reforming schools.  It’s actually re-building, re-engaging healthy community life.  Where my kid can walk throughout my neighbourhood, and I don’t have to worry whose house she’s going into, because everyone knows everyone.  My kid can walk down my street today.  In a small city she sees a fresh dairy where milk is being brought fresh every from nearby farmers.  She sees a flour grinding mill; fresh flour every day being produced.  She sees a barber shop here. She sees a tailor where clothes are being produced. She sees a little shop where they’re producing stuffed blankets and stuffed mattresses.

One of my friends says that in villages, kids grow up seeing processes; in cities they grow up seeing products.  So where we need to invest our energy and time, my argument is it’s not in trying to fix schools but actually building communities where kids can wander around, they can find people to mentor them, they can find people who are passionate about life, they can have space to do experiments.

This is actually what we’ve been working on a process for the last 15 years called ‘Udaipur as a learning city’.  We have created a lot of these kinds of spaces.  There’s lots of these neighbourhoods where those things are happening now.   At least, you know, in our life, right now, this year, probably ‘shutting down all schools’ is not there as an option, but can we start to invite people to say no for a year to school?  Actually it would be interesting.

Gandhi, at the time of 1947, when the British left, you know what his proposal was?  He said, “Shut down all the schools for 3 years.  And let us reimagine what we want.”

But nobody had the political will to follow through on it, right?  That was what he said.  He said, “We need to really spend time reimagining the system.”  And we’re not giving our kids that time.  And most of the people who are school teachers should have never become school teachers.  This is another problem that we have, right?

In India it’s really interesting.  We’re told there’s a shortage of teachers everywhere in India and every other country.  But if you go on the streets, there’s so many people who know how to do things.  Who are brilliant, amazing, doing beautiful things.  Our spiritual gurus, awesome mechanics, who know how to fix everything you bring them, who are fantastic artisans, farmers.  But none of these people are regarded as teachers by the existing system.

We find that once we step out of the boundaries of school, we’re no longer poor, backward, underdeveloped people.  We actually have very brilliant, abundant resources of learning all around us.  For us at least it’s very important to step out and see that we have so much potential.

In India, the apprenticeship learning system is humungous.  If we had to create it from scratch, it would probably cost trillions of dollars.  But none of our educationists, nobody can see that this is an entire system that’s working in parallel in this country to support young people’s learning.  So we have a lot of other resources.  Part of our work is an imagination census to know that we have much more than just working with this month’s system.

Other people say, “Oh the school system is so big in India, so we need to focus on it”.  I tell them, “The forest system is bigger.  Nature is much bigger.”  How many educators are actually really looking at going and getting more kids exploring into nature, farming, all of these things?  So we have actually many parallel systems that are functioning for learning and a different kind of knowledge production, one that is more ecologically rooted for sure.  And local language, there’s so much cultural production that happens still, even if hasn’t been wiped out by the education, in local language.  None of that has anything to do with schools.

One of the debates that has been happening here over the last couple of years is kind of saying, “Well, India and China are getting better at making everything, so what’s our unique thing? – our unique thing should be around creativity and imagination”.  But those debates are always about harnessing that creativity and imagination in the pursuit of economic growth, that we should be the best at designing apps, and all this sort of stuff, not the kind of things that you’re talking about…

The problem there is what Gandhi talked about, “Head, heart, hands, and home.”  Real imagination would have to be deeply engaged in all of those to generate real imagination.  If you’re thinking that you can do it perhaps without using your hands, without creating things, without having a lot of space for compassionate relationships, I don’t think that you’re going to get very far in creativity and imagination.

I wonder what your thoughts are on the impacts that you’ve seen in Indian culture of digital technologies on attention span and imagination, particularly over the last 10 years or so and the introduction of smart phones and social media?

The impact is growing.  In most places it’s still not like you walk into a train and everybody is glued to their smart phones.  It’s not that bad yet.  But that growth, in terms of how many people are using it and I guess on video gaming culture, and pornography, for sure are huge sources of that.

I wrote an article called ‘TEDx-itis’.  In modern young people who are using some of these a lot, the more sensitive ones are going into TEDx and these spaces which is actually having a very negative impact on young people.  Beyond the obvious things which you were referring to, which is growing in segments in India – it’s more an upper middle class phenomena still, or middle class actually where kids are using a lot of these smart phones and glued to it.  It’s creating behaviour where less kids are outside playing, and they’re less social also with relatives and babysitting…

All those things are there, but I would even question the so called good things that people are getting out of it, in terms of TEDx talks and things like that, you know, where they get a very overly romanticised version of what social change can look like.  And are quite comfortable being armchair supporters of those kinds of things, rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting into actually creating things.

If you were to compile a list of the ideal conditions for a really vigorous imagination, what would they be?

We actually did start up a project 2 years ago in a government school.  Up to now we’ve done a lot of things basically outside of school.  Community learning spaces, centres.  We have our own alternative University.  You probably know about it, Swaraj University.

But we took on a government school, and what we did is we’ve created an unschool in the government school.  It’s a parallel system to introduce a virus, a spirit of pure learning virus, a self-design learning culture virus into government school.  So it runs every day for four and a half, five hours a day after the school hours, but I wouldn’t call it an after school programme.  I would call it an unschool because it seeks to undermine everything schooling is doing.

It’s not an add-on to the school, but the entire culture of competition, labelling, stress, textbooks and examinations.  It actually tries to undermine all of those things and let kids have time and space to just be themselves.  The reason I refer to that is, so one of the things is having time every day.  I’ve been quite critical recently of a lot of people who go and say we’ll do a little workshop in the school.  You know, a 2 hour workshop or a 2 day workshop, and they feel very good, “We’ve introduced something about gender, or about Transition Town, or this or that, or design thinking, or solar.”  A 1 or 2 day workshop or module.

I’m saying that kids need real time and space to be free and experiment and explore.  So at least 3, 4 hours a day to freely explore, engage, use their hands, connect, collaborate.  Do that kind of thing, without any kind of intervention from any kind of professional teacher or anything.

How did you get them to let you in?  When you are so actively undermining the very assumptions underpinning the whole system?

I know, it’s great.  The funniest thing is that I have a corporate social responsibility project supporting it too.  It’s a strange unholy alliance, but okay, let’s play along with it.  They’ll kick us out any day once they figure out what’s really happening, but let’s play with it for as long as we can.

Some people in the government, a local member of legislative assembly was a close friend, and a corporate guy who’s an old friend said “Let’s do something”, so it’s there and running.  I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s been two years and it’s amazing, amazing kinds of things we see the kids getting into.

The first thing is really time and space to create, and daily, because it’s not just a few days a month.  Having this every day is necessary.  The second thing is connection to nature, in different ways.  In the UK the thing I found the most interesting is Forest Schools in the mainstream. We need space  also to use your hands, make things, build things.  So in this government school we have a Maker Space there also.  We have a slow food chef’s academy and urban farm.  This is in Delhi, right in the middle of Delhi.

Then there’s a community media centre there, so kids are making films and doing all kinds of projects out of that.  There’s a hub on arts and music.  So kids have formed a band, there are dance groups, theatre.  All kinds of stuff they’re doing.  So every day, 4 hours a day they get to do it.  And they get to move around.  It’s not like if you’re in one thing, you just sit and do that one thing.  So this idea of cross disciplining, multi potentiality, being able to dabble in many things, and not just get stuck in one.  That’s also important, to have that freedom to make decisions.

It sounds like it feeds your curiosity; really a lot of it is around curiosity.  You are feeding their curiosity.

And having a culture of collaboration, where it’s not about being the best or the first, or whatever.  It’s having that culture really which is about open source sharing.  So that’s a lot of unwiring that’s needed for that, you know.  The same thing in our University.  I would say it’s one of the most interesting, because we have 20 people in each cohort, who are doing all kinds of different things, but if you bring them together in a collaborative spirit of friendship, then in one year you know about 20 different things, just because they’re friends.

You’ve never studied it or you’ve had to do anything but you’re talking, you’re listening to them talk about their stuff, just helping them out sometimes, so you actually pick up across farming, eco architecture, art of holistic facilitation, non-violent communication, all of these things, just by hanging out with people.  Without necessarily having to teach them anything.

A question that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed, and they’ve all come up with really fascinatingly different answers to this, and you may have partly answered this already, but if you were elected as the president of India, and whereas Donald Trump ran on a ‘Make America Great Again’ platform, if you had run on a ‘Make India Imaginative Again’ platform, what might be some of the key things that you would start in your first 100 days in the job?

I would try to really put a lot of effort into going and learning some indigenous cultures.  Supporting people to go and re-look at a lot of the traditional wisdom.  Anupam Mishra passed away recently.  He’s a Gandhian.  He did a lot of work on traditional water harvesting systems.  Being in Transition, this would blow your mind actually to see the kinds of things people created a thousand years ago.

Without any tractors, JCBs, without cement…  What people were able to create, it’s mind blowing.  Whenever I hear it, I get goose bumps.  How did people do that?  How could they? They’re so aesthetically beautiful structures.  Nothing can match that today.  I would really encourage people to go and look at that.  Or these thousands of varieties of rice.  That just blows your mind.

Or the Living Bridges.  In the north east of India, Shillong, Meghalaya, they have these things called living bridges, amazing bridges with living root systems. They take about 15 years, 20 years to make, but they last 500 years.  There’s this amazing human/nature partnership that’s possible, with water systems, with bridges.

Living Bridge. Image credit: Imgur, via

It feels here to me like a lot of climate change activism, we’re trying to engage and inspire a lot of people whose imaginations are shot to pieces, and whose attention spans are shot to pieces, so they won’t read anything, because they can’t focus.  Basically what we’re trying to do is invite them to imagine something other than business as usual, because business as usual is going to kill us all, but people’s imaginations are in pieces.  What for you does activism look like that really connects with and feeds the imagination?

In India we are still predominantly an oral, tactile, visual culture.  So my activism would actually start with recognising that.  So right now for example, the local languages are full of wisdom and imagination of people.  Like all those examples, the bridges, the water harvesting, all the knowledge about plant medicines.  All of this actually derived in each local language.  You know we have a museum here.  This will blow your mind too.  A museum a friend created, who was an ethnomusicologist, around brooms.  They have 5000 different kinds of broom.  And each broom is made with a different kind of grass, from a different ecosystem.


And that knowledge of that is in the local language, which is rooted to place, which is rooted to spirit, which is rooted to community.  So my activism is actually connecting to that, in different kinds of ways.  With a lot of activists here, it’s very tough, because a lot of activists are disconnected from that, and they’re very suspicious of that, which is a colonial hangover.

They don’t have respect for the diverse local knowledge systems of people.  Still in India, people think that tribal communities and indigenous communities are stupid and backwards, and you know, tribal culture should be wiped out.  That’s the mainstream perspective, even the government perspective around these indigenous cultures.  So it’s difficult to do that, but in a lot of the languages there’s still this incredible capacity to imagine a different reality.  I experienced it with my Grandmother actually.  That was my first real way to actually start to see that.  I’m working on a film, I don’t know when it will come out, but on how many ways humans use animal shit.

That’s going to be a big museum!

Cow shit, buffalo shit, donkey shit, horse shit, squirrel shit.  There’s so many ways that people thought of shit, not as a waste thing, but they actually were using it in everyday life, to solve problems that they were facing.

It’ll be a very, very big museum that nobody will want to go to.  “Let’s go to the shit museum”…

It’s all shit someday Rob!  So anyways, what I’m just saying is that for me, a lot of it is embedded in language, and culture would be place.  I’m sensitive, because a lot of people say language and culture, and then get labelled as fundamentalists.  So we walk on a very delicate line when we talk about this.  What’s happened, the problem is if you talk about anything “Hindu”, you’re a right wing person.

Yeah, of course.

People are working on it.  I know a lot of friends who are working on this, but to reclaim a lot of those things is very difficult, because of this modern scientific outlook which says all of this stuff is irrational.  When people start talking about spirits and stuff, which is also there, right, then people get worried, what’s going on here?

I don’t know if you know this tradition of ‘Langar’?  Have you ever experienced that?  Sikhs have this amazing system of community kitchens.

If you go to London, find out where the Langar is.  There’s open community kitchen.  Anybody can come there and eat for free.  People come and volunteer there.  It’s all run by volunteers.

I’ve been looking for where are the spaces and traditions alive, where people are driven by something that is not controlled by the money system.  The logic beyond the money system.  So those are the other spaces I would at least try to engage with, in trying to find those.  You’ll find then, even in the UK you’ll find people where some aspect of their life, something they’re connected to, is beyond the money system and is not dictated by the logic of the money system.

I think those are the spaces.  It’s interesting in Swaraj University we’re doing two things at the same time which are paradoxical.  We are telling young people how they can become entrepreneurs and make money when they need to, and we are also sharing with them that the good life is actually when you can free yourself from money.  That’s when you really start living and evolving towards your deeper purpose.

We do something called a Cycle Yatra where we take them for a week without any money, no food, no technology, nothing, and they have to just live with communities and experience the gift culture.  There’s huge amounts of freedom that then starts to emerge, right, because one of the other things for imagination is to free ourselves from the logic of the money system.  It tells us you have to things and perform and be practical in certain ways, you know.

You mentioned the loss of languages.  I was in France recently and a friend of mine was talking about how at the time of the French revolution there were regional languages all over France, and one of the things that followed after the French revolution was they said everybody has to speak Parisian French.  All across the country, and all those languages died.  Here we had Scottish and all these different languages that were spoken; the loss of those languages is further back in our history.  It was around the enclosures and all of that history that has been kind of forgotten about.  But I wonder if three or four hundred years later, the loss of those languages is one of the factors that is at play in the loss of imagination here I suspect.

Yes, definitely.  And the other thing is that, you know, if you walk down Udaipur, walk down my street, right now, if you just walk maybe 10 metres from my house, in the middle of my street you’ll see at least 30 cows hanging out, having a party.

I loved that about India.  It was fantastic.  And the cows are more important than the cars.  The cars wait.

Our human imagination and intelligence is expanded when we are living with different life.  In Udaipur you’ll find cows, donkeys, goats, buffaloes, pigs, elephants, camels, monkeys, dogs and cats walking down the street.  So there that’s what Transition Town has to aspire for.  Our own intelligence expands exponentially with having all these animals living with us.  Our imagination can then be freed from the limitations of the anthropocentic mind.

Well and conversely there was the research published here in Europe about the decline of insects, what they call ‘insectageddon’.  An 80% decline in the number of insects over the last 30, 40 years, which, as the converse of what you’re saying, also must have a very harmful impact on our imagination.  As we start to see biodiversity decline, our imagination goes with it.

Definitely, definitely.