Everything's mine but just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.
but particular to the smallest fibre,
grain of sand, drop of water—
I won't retain one blade of grass
as it's truly seen.
- Wislawa Szymborska,
Travel Elegy (from Salt, 1962)
'Where are we going for excursions this year?' is invariably one of the early questions we face as the children return to begin a new year at Centre For Learning. A few months down the line, after a series of meetings, much negotiation and planning, the mad rush to buy precious sleeper class train tickets, making lists of instructions, packing and the frenzied run to catch the train, we are off to different corners of India. Excursions are memorable events and a storehouse of tales retold and embellished. New friendships are made and old ones renewed. Places and experiences are eagerly devoured. While fun-filled excursions give us these indelible memories, the trips themselves perhaps serve a purpose beyond seeing the sights.
In search of the global mind
Daily routines are a part of our school life: meals at certain times, time-tabled classes, quiet time, bath time, study time. We often tend to be busy people, revelling in routine. Routines seem to extend to relationship, where images and emotional patterns rule the inner landscape. For us, the question is whether a pause is possible in this relentless image-making. We attempt to create opportunities for these pauses, from one-minute silences to longer sessions of quiet time, 'non-days', spontaneous breaks in the routine, dialogues, nature walks and excursions. What happens in an excursion that may be different from daily routine? After all, it is the same people travelling together, with the same images and the same emotional patterns.
Any amount of knowledge accumulated through reading and instruction might not allow for an insight into the human condition, the source of misery around the world. On the other hand, will any first-hand sensory experience of the varied ramifications and scales of constructive and destructive human action, differences and divides bring about any fundamental change in our inner lives? Is it possible to acquire a 'global mind', beyond narrow images and identities, through specific experiences? I do not know.
Perhaps, at the broadest and most accessible level, we can look at excursions as a space away from daily school routines, giving us an opportunity to explore the human condition. I'm under no illusions, however. Excursions give rise to tenuous, fragmentary, self-referential memories which, as Szymborska suggests in her poem, will be used to buttress the very identities that we would like to question deeply.
An excursion should challenge the mind and the body in many ways. It is perhaps in these challenges that we will be able to step out of our comfort zones and look at ourselves differently. Will physical challenges like treks and cycling, travel by walk and public transport, simple accommodation and food, looking at sights beyond the tourist circuit and listening to people living on the edge wake us up from our somnambulant states? We attempt such ambitious excursions at CFL.
There are two essential aspects of excursions as we plan them at CFL. The first is a broad consensus on 'excursion axioms' arrived at after many years of experience and discussion, and this merits some elaboration. The second concerns the role of the adults involved in the excursion, and experience has indicated that this plays as key a role in shaping and holding the excursion experience.
The first axiom is that every child must be a part of every excursion experience. I guess that since we are rather keen on fundamentally transforming minds, perhaps we would rather not let anyone miss a shot at nirvana! The second axiom is that excursions for different groups are fixed based on several years of experimentally determined durations, in an age-appropriate manner. The younger groups go for about a week to ten days, and the older ones for two to three weeks. The third axiom is that we use public transport wherever possible (railway sleeper classes and bumpy buses are the staple) and stay in basic accommodation (a large room and a clean loo usually does the trick!). Songs and snacks usually make these otherwise challenging trips possible. The fourth axiom is related to group size. Experience has indicated that excursion groups of ten to eighteen students with two or three adults work well, and this might mean having vertical groups going together.
A more recent, and much discussed axiom, is one of mixing teachers normally not in contact with the children with those who do, in accompanying them on excursions—senior school teachers going with younger groups and vice versa. This perhaps allows the children to establish relationships with other adults in their lives and give a break from closely relating to a smaller group of adults back in school. Most excursions of the junior school include physically challenging activities (short treks, swimming) in or near forested areas. Middle school excursions include similar experiences, perhaps in combination with visits to historic locations.
The group often stays with people and organizations working in the area visited. A group of ten-year-olds might visit a shipyard in coastal Maharashtra, trek in the Radhanagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, visit old churches and stay with a person who works with books and children in Goa.
Students thirteen years and older routinely go on excursions at least two weeks long across India. They often stay with organizations that work with the dation (a large room and a clean loo usually does the trick!). Songs and snacks usually make these otherwise challenging trips possible. The fourth axiom is related to group size. Experience has indicated that excursion groups of ten to eighteen students with two or three adults work well, and this might mean having vertical groups going together.
A more recent, and much discussed axiom, is one of mixing teachers normally not in contact with the children with those who do, in accompanying them on excursions—senior school teachers going with younger groups and vice versa. This perhaps allows the children to establish relationships with other adults in their lives and give a break from closely relating to a smaller group of adults back in school.
Most excursions of the junior school include physically challenging activities (short treks, swimming) in or near forested areas. Middle school excursions include similar experiences, perhaps in combination with visits to historic locations. The group often stays with people and organizations working in the area visited. A group of ten-year-olds might visit a shipyard in coastal Maharashtra, trek in the Radhanagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, visit old churches and stay with a person who works with books and children in Goa.
Students thirteen years and older routinely go on excursions at least two weeks long across India. They often stay with organizations that work with the marginalized sections of society, for instance with tribes in various parts of central India, or with people displaced by mining or dams. These experiences can have a significant impact on our students and on ourselves. They challenge our secure lives on one hand and, on the other, bring home the timeless recursive quality of human conditioning. Vanastree near Sirsi in Karnataka, and the Mozda Collective in southern Gujarat, are community-based organizations we visit with the oldest students, and they have a special place in the hearts and minds of every child and adult. Older students also make repeated trips to a botanical sanctuary at the edge of the rainforest in Wyanad, Kerala. Students have taken part in the life of the community there, and have gained valuable insights into the place of rivers, forests, forest people, orchids and elephants in their own lives! The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary has been a key inspiration for the continuing focus on nature education at CFL. Our students deeply appreciate these special places as pockets where a different kind of living is being attempted, with people connecting to their landscape in a holistic way. These visits are also opportunities to ask ourselves questions regarding global, anthropogenic, social and environmental disasters, and possibly relate these to the divisive movements in the mind's emotional landscape.
Senior excursions also include historical and cultural visits. In an excursion with a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds to Kutch, we visited various villages exploring craft traditions of the region and stayed with organizations assisting revival of traditional crafts after the 2001 earthquake. We also explored the mediaeval town of Bhuj, the Dholavira ruins of the Indus Valley vintage and a shipyard in Mandvi, which builds giant wooden ships that were the mainstay in trade in the Arabian Sea until the last century. After watching flamingos on the coast and rare desert wildlife in the Rann of Kutch, we finally ended the eighteen-day excursion with a visit to the Marine National Park near Jamnagar to observe human impact (the opening of a new port and the dredging of the Gulf of Kutch) on shallow marine life.
Senior school children also go on a Himalaya trek. These treks push the physical and psychological limits in a manner that is possible only by the sheer vertical presence of the Himalayas. Many children have highlighted the Himalayan excursions as the most memorable in the spectrum of excursions they experience through their CFL years. The rapid changes in plant and animal life in response to altitude, the incredible diversity of micro-climates and habitats, the remarkable resilience of the people, the dramatic shifts in the simultaneously ephemeral and permanent mountain landscape make such treks a humbling experience in the face of one's own little private troubles. There is an indescribable quality to the challenge the living mountains pose to our conditioning, such that in their presence, any psychological movement away from our self-image is a revelation. Perhaps it is sheer joy in experiencing an unfathomable vastness that can be compared only to the ocean or outer space.
Adults: facilitators, observers, or both?
While the most memorable moments in an excursion happen spontaneously, a certain degree of planning is necessary for the rest of the trip! Taking care of itineraries, stay, food and ticket booking are all possible beforehand. In younger groups, the adults plan the excursion experience keeping in mind the abilities of the children, but with the aim of challenging them as well. The role of the adult for older children can be more in the nature of holding the experience, in shaping outlines, indicating points of interest and assisting in coalescing understanding in the process. The senior students can be involved in planning the excursions to different degrees. There can be opportunities for students to be by themselves for periods of time, solo quiet time for instance, or short exploratory trips in small groups.
Younger children are emotionally dependent on the adults in unfamiliar terrain and company. So the teacher has to respond to emotional demands and deal with emergencies, judging the levels of emotional distress, if any. With older ones, the adults have the delicate task of judging the nature of the group and deciding on the right degree of 'holding'. If the group is held too tightly, tensions might build up and lead to confrontations. If the group is held in a very relaxed manner, then chaos can rule! Regular feedback sessions can help sort out matters. In this matter, watching one's own emotional states is also crucial.
What are some of the other responsibilities teachers hold during excursions? Rarely do they become responsible for the very lives of the children, as teachers taking a group of children to Uttarkashi discovered when the earthquake struck during their excursion to Uttarakhand in northern India in 1991! They all emerged from the incident safely, without bruises, but shaken and incommunicado for a day or two—those were the days before the mobile phone networks. I can imagine the panic of the parents, but I can also admire the relatively calm teachers as they extricated themselves and the students through landslides and a near impossible transport situation! More routinely, there is the responsibility for money carried and keeping accounts and bills.
A good excursion can be a rewarding experience for children and adults in many ways. The memories generated are recollected without attempt at fidelity, and whether challenged or otherwise, can become points of coming together. However, there can be other points of coming together that may not involve memory, a non-verbal space of shared quiet and reflection, which may strike at the very roots of our identity. Every excursion leaves me with an unanswered, perhaps futile, question: what is the meaning of human existence? But every excursion also contributes to the question through the experiences and the children that I travel with, and the question gains very personal, present and future, meanings.