Twenty-five years ago, 10 people started a small school in Bengaluru. It started on the terrace of a friend’s home, with more teachers than students. Over the next few years, the school moved from place to place, operating from within a mango orchard for some time, and even from within geodesic domes constructed on the cheap by the teachers and students. Ingenuity and perseverance had to compensate for meagre financial resources. While the school was itinerant physically, it was firmly anchored by the clear educational philosophy of the group.
They thought of education as a deeply humanistic social endeavour. To quote them: “Can we learn about a different way of living, both in personal and in social terms, that is essentially peaceful and whole and not conflict ridden?…When we say ‘learning,’ we don’t only mean academic or text-based learning…the most basic learning that can happen is regarding ourselves, the conflicts in our minds and the social expression they have…and about what it means to live a fundamentally deep and peaceful life. Our education is an exploration of these questions.”
As the first few years passed, this educational philosophy took life in the culture and pedagogical practices of the school. The student numbers grew and so did the number of teachers. Other practical matters that were as important were dealt with. They got their financial model in place, which amounted to moderate fees from students, sustained (individually small) philanthropic support from a wide set of people with belief in this kind of education, and a low cost base, including low salaries for everyone. The low salaries worked because those who joined the school joined the cause, and because the school was governed and managed as a community together, with no hierarchy.
In 2000, they moved to their own campus, on a piece of land that they bought dirt cheap, because it was 40km out of Bengaluru. This is in Vardenhalli, near the town of Magadi. This is Sholay land, the terrain where the movie was shot. But the campus is an oasis of green in this rocky landscape, with careful nurturing of the trees, of the land and of the water flows over the past 15 years. It’s in this campus that friends and family of the school celebrated its 25th year two weeks ago.
This small school, which has remained small all these years, currently with about 15 teachers and 70 students, is called the Centre for Learning (CFL). Most just call it CFL. Here are a few glimpses of the manifestation of the educational philosophy that the school is based on.
My friend and colleague Umashanker’s daughter Ini moved to CFL when she was 13. She knew no English, only Kannada and Tulu. She immediately started working on a project, guided by a teacher, to produce and direct a play with the children from the nearby government Kannada-medium school, in English. She learnt fluent English in three months. Related aside, CFL is significantly involved in the village community around it, not just the schools.
When they moved to the campus in 2000, the entire term was spent on setting up the place. There were no classes. That doesn’t mean that there was no learning; this entire real-life project was used deliberately for curricular objectives. Everyone at CFL spends some time working on the land, its education through work. The diverse parent body is also engaged deliberately and intimately in the school. Nature all around that green campus is used as a learning resource. Classes are filled with intense enquiry and debate. Not only are physics and math rigorous, so are history and sociology. The entire school is a learning community, engaged in deep dialogue and exploring issues way beyond the academic. Some of this exploration can be disconcerting, because it’s about “the nature of our desires, ambitions and frustrations”.
As with any human endeavour, CFL is all about the people, those who founded it and those who have joined since then. They are all highly capable people, with deep commitment to education. Most top universities in the world will be eager to have any one of them as a faculty member. It’s also a strong group; they have now managed a transition from the founders to another generation.
What is the point of CFL? Is it just a great school, and that’s it? CFL has its limitations, but even those who would approach some of the things differently, think of it as one of the few truly exemplary schools in the country.
But the point of CFL is more and beyond being a great school. If education is about attempting to develop good human beings and a good society, I have no hesitation in saying that CFL comes closer to that ideal than almost any other place I have seen. It shows us what is possible in education. That things that we aspire for in education, can actually happen and can be sustained. It lets us hope and lets us dream. The point of CFL is that it is there.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.