It is almost received wisdom in alternative schools and other similar communities that rules are antigrowth; they restrict creativity and stifle the true cooperative spirit. My ideal for living has always been Tolstoyan anarchy — individuals taking responsibility for their actions and watching out for their fellow creatures. It was easy to visualize a small enough community that could function this way; the smallness precluding the need to set rules which are impersonal and unresponsive to individual needs. Obviously this is an ideal, and in the school we soon found rules were necessary for smooth functioning and one tried to make do with the minimum number. There seem to be two main fallouts to framing a few rules: first, the ambivalence with which the rules are regarded, as a necessary evil, causes confusion and the rules are not taken seriously; second, the tendency to bring in more and more rules becomes very strong, the first response to a lack rather than the last. To give examples, the school observes quiet time in the evenings where everybody is expected to spend half an hour alone. The library is a very popular place to spend the time, and is not very quiet! In frustration, we debated making the library out of bounds but wiser counsel prevailed and we contented ourselves with pointing out that an adda was occurring there. Another area is dress; one feels that a dress code is the easiest way to deal with inappropriate garb. It may be the easiest but may not be the wisest. Lately, very personally, I havebeen thinking about the role of rules in living.

The message I would like to give my students is ‘we don’t need to be told what to do, we are responsible enough to see what the need is’. The ‘need’ is, however, very easily confused with what one feels like doing, particularly in a child-centred environment, and the message received seems to be ‘I should do what I want’. This confusion is not limited only to the children but also affects the adults. We all wrestle with what can be demanded, should be demanded, and how it will affect the child. The quiet time mentioned above is a case in point. The biggest argument against it is, ‘I do not feel like being quiet at that particular time, I feel like. . . ’ We have also had to point out to colleagues that they too cannot engage in an activity at this time however quietly they do it. The students will be quick to pick up what they feel is hypocrisy.

Similarly, can we demand that students greet all visitors? Does it smack of ‘Good morning, teacher’? If we don’t, they appear cold and rude. We could demand that they all exercise and play games and do homework. Among younger children, can we demand they come in to class when called, within a fairly wide leeway that is given for a young child’s distractions? These are the issues where we have been ambivalent about rules, both feeling the need for clear-cut guidelines, that is rules, and feeling that these rules will go against the grain of allowing for responsible behaviour. This ambivalence does not stop us from expecting the behaviour though, and feeling disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

Society at large does not help. Particularly in India, there are very many rules framed, all high-minded and necessary; but very few are obeyed. For many it has become very hard to obey rules and see them as functional. This, of course, has its effects on the students too, and they become cynical about all rules. The most dangerous manifestation of this, to me, is the flouting of traffic rules. In the city where I live, Bangalore, there is close to anarchy on the streets, with drivers speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road and cutting traffic lights. Traffic lights were installed at a major and busy intersection recently. Within two weeks, they had to be switched off, because they made the intersection more hazardous — vehicles, including government and police vehicles, were routinely going through red lights.

Apart from the school, I have been involved in framing rules or by-laws for the small community where I live. This is a layout formed initially by people who knew each other and still comprises friends, and friends of friends. It consists of houses, empty sites, common areas and water supplies. For about two years our association functioned with no laws. But recently it was felt that putting down rules would help in keeping relationships harmonious. We considered charges for the use of common resources, the impact of our individual activities on our neighbours, ways of keeping the community informed of our actions — and came up with a set of by-laws we felt would make it easy not to irritate our neighbours. The response of some individuals to this process was astonishing, and exemplifies our ambivalence to rules. They felt that we were making money on the resources, forgetting that the money would go to bettering the place for them. The demand that building codes be obeyed was felt to be restrictive.

We have found a similar response to the very few codes we have set for interactions with the school — such as ‘please call’, ‘take an appointment’. Parents and former students felt that the demand that you inform before coming was too restrictive and made the school unwelcoming. Another code — that they should inform particular teachers of their visit, not just the nearest available person — is also seen by some as incipient bureaucratization. There is a feeling that spontaneity is lost and that interactions become impersonal and rigid; whereas for us it seemed to make it easier to remember and handle one’s particular administrative responsibilities.

Following from this, I began to wonder whether we should change the way we view rules and the way we present them to students. Let us take traffic rules, in a way, the purest of rules. They exemplify what rules are — ways of ensuring that cooperation can occur between people who do not know each other. Stringently obeyed, they ensure that everybody is helped, though individuals are inconvenienced sometimes. There is sense in obeying traffic rules. So it is disturbing to see how often they are not obeyed, by people who don’t want to be inconvenienced even for a minute and by people who have not understood the rationale behind the rules.

So what should the message be? Obey the rules and don’t make individual judgment on situations when the rules can be disobeyed? This seems very simplistic and open to tyranny. How then do students learn responsibility and cooperation? To my mind, this learning will come in two areas: first, in the process of framing the rules itself and second, in the process of amending the rules.

Take the first — the community sets the rules and has to take all the needs into consideration. This means that people will have to speak up about their needs and put them up for scrutiny. They will have to listen to others and accommodate their needs too. The framing of the rules will also be educational: is the rule clear, that is, unambiguous? Can it be obeyed by well-meaning people, that is, it does not go very much against human nature? An analogy from traffic rules would be: the lights being switched off at night so that drivers need not wait at a red light on an empty road. But most important of all: are we making rules only to avoid any inconvenience i.e. are there too many rules? Are the rules codifying what one would do naturally out of consideration and courtesy?

The second comes in when somebody finds the rule hard to obey, because his or her needs violate the rule. If it is accepted that rules cannot be disobeyed, then there should be a mechanism for amending the rules. This will mean that a person who wants a change in the rules has to scrutinize her needs in the light of the rationale behind the rules. She has to take the trouble to present her case, work for the change. This will ensure that there are non-trivial reasons for change. At school there is a rule that music can be played only in the common rooms at particular times and students cannot bring personal players to school. This is to ensure that we do not fill our lives with ‘noise’ and activity and to leave spaces and time for being quiet. A student, who recently started learning music, found himself wanting to listen to a lot of music. His dilemma: classical music is not popular and so he could not monopolise the player at common times. Breaking the rules left him uncomfortable and he found that younger students were also encouraged to break the rule. So it was raised in the community and accepted that serious students of music should be allowed to listen at other times. We are in the process of working out the details of how it can be implemented.

During the process of framing the by-laws, and the school rules, I realized that some people found the process disturbing and the rules irksome and difficult to follow. The operational word in the above is some. I realized that rules do not bother people who consider others. They are the ones who call for appointments, asking when it will be convenient to visit; they are the ones who ask, ‘Whom should I talk to about this?’ They are the ones who ensure that their party will not disturb their neighbours. It is what they would do anyway. Rules will, however, help most of us realize that something, which may not have occurred to us, needs to be considered. But what about the few who feel that rules are a drag on their individuality? Society at large uses policing, reward and punishment, to keep them in line. In a small community there need to be other ways of dealing with them and that can be an education in itself.

Applying rules in a small community is fraught with danger. On the one hand, it is easy to detect rule breakers, but on the other, there are hurt feelings when rules are applied strictly. Long ago, in another school where I worked, students were coming late to lunch, delaying the cleaning up of the dining area and lunch time for the staff. A rule was made that the dining room doors would be closed fifteen minutes after the start of lunch time. This set off a furore and it was in vain that the author of the rule argued that missing lunch was a consequence and not a punishment. How do you teach students that there are consequences for their actions? If you do not do your homework, it not only impacts your learning but also that of your classmates, since you will delay their learning too if the teacher has to keep you abreast of the class. If your classmates are irritated with you, that too is a consequence. I feel that learning the difference between consequence and punishment will be helpful. It is important to become aware that one’s actions have consequences. As a colleague of mine once said, the school environment is not the same for all children — each child creates his own environment because of the nature of his interactions. If you break rules that define the community you will change it; it is not immune to your actions. My hope is that this understanding would be carried into society at large, where the consequences of our actions are harder to see, so that there can be a change in our response there too.

In framing rules for both communities, I realized that both adults and children react identically to rules; recognizing their usefulness, but regretting the perceived loss of freedom. So, I feel, the process of exploring rules, the need, the framing, amendment and implementation will help create good citizens in the truest sense. They may well be the ones to demand carbon taxes, be willing to pay for alternative sources of energy and pollution control — recognizing that any elected government will only give what the electorate wants.