Friday, May 20, 2011


When we are in a classroom, particularly that of a school, the world outside seems so much fun. One can’t wait for the last bell to ring and dash out of the classroom with howling urgency. I particularly never liked the air-tight regimen and unnecessary memorizing of information, which all students had to undergo in schools. So, when a copy of Free From School landed in my hands, I started to read it immediately. Here was one book which suggested an alternative to learning in school. What more could anyone who had a difficult experience in school, ask for?
            A few months ago I had read the slim book titled Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. This book when published in 1971 had caused quite a controversy. What Ivan Illich quite simply suggested was to do away with schools to have a better society. The ideas that Ivan Illich suggested instead of formal schooling way back in the ’70s, I feel, had little practical use but with the rise of internet his ideas can be looked into afresh. Schools are not necessarily the temples of learning; they are also used by the ruling elite to propagate ideologies that justify their power. The French philosopher Louis Althusser in his Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays says, “…the school (but also other State institutions like the Church, or other apparatuses like the Army) teaches ‘know-how’, but in forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology.”
Ivan Illich’s book is firmly rooted in academia. Rahul Alvares’ Free From School, on the other hand, is an honest and delightful account told by a 17 year old, who took a break after his SSC (scoring a whopping 87% marks!) examinations to find his ‘true calling’. Since Rahul was finding school becoming “quite a chore”, his parents Claude and Norma, decided to offer him a year’s break after completing the SSC examination to do anything of his choice. Both the parents observe that schools, “…often does not encourage learning. In fact there is good evidence that learning stops once schooling begins.” There was only one condition imposed on young Rahul: that he would maintain a regular diary and produce monthly accounts of special events and experiences.
When we read this book it is not important to consider how well Rahul wrote this book. What is more crucial to note is what Rahul and his parents dared to do. Since Rahul was interested in wildlife, his parents left no stone unturned to see to it that their son got the maximum exposure in an area of his liking. The result: Rahul ended up travelling far and wide all by himself to various zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to gain some experience and learn about the various types of animals. Snakes seem to have a special place in Rahul’s heart. “In fact, as mum tells it, I seem to have gone out of my way to befriend snakes as a child. I would be afraid of dogs…they had teeth and could bite, but snakes didn’t appear to have any…,” he explains.
Rahul gives an account of the various places he travelled and the institutions in which he apprenticed during the one year sabbatical. Along with his memoir, Rahul gives some tips to breed and take care of fishes, measures to be taken in case of snake bites, garbage disposal, etc. Since he travelled on his own, managing money and preventing theft was also Rahul’s main concern while on the go.
If our interest propels us to learn any facts or information our chances of retaining them and actually using them in our daily and practical lives is greater. Rahul too, had such an experience in a crocodile research facility near Chennai, “Apart from my practical studies, there was a huge library at the Croc Bank where I would browse through several books on crocs, snakes, monitors, turtles, the works. It was always with great pleasure that I would search for information about something that I had learnt or seen that day. And the best part is that although I didn’t have to memorize the facts for any examination, nothing of what I’ve read has gone out of my head.”
The experiences of the Alvares family indicate that we can look beyond school. If the grind of mugging up the whole textbook(s) leads to the destruction of creativity in a child, is there a difference between a student and a factory worker working at the assembly line? This book is in no way a guide for parents who feel that the present education system does more harm than good and who would like their children to try some other things. This book, in fact, serves more as an inspiration for parents wanting to take the plunge in cold water. This book says, dive in, the water is very refreshing!
Since the choice of Rahul to take a sabbatical and pursue a career that was other than that of the clich├ęd doctor and engineer, he surely must have faced a lot of questions. The nosy neighbours, the annoying relatives or even passers by must have set up an inquisition table right in front of him. Rahul dwells on the topic for a fleeting second. For a young reader of the book who decides to take a sabbatical, dealing with such unsolicited interlocutors can be very taxing. Knowing how to deal with them surely, then, would be considered as a survival skill!
            With SSC results in Goa round the corner, I recommend this book, with illustrations by Alexyz, to students and parents alike. I shall allow Rahul to say the last words, as he will surely echo the sentiments of whoever reads his book, “I certainly look forward to another sabbatical! And so, by now, should you!”
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: May 20, 2011)

Name: Free From School
Author: Rahul Alvares
Published by: Other India Press
Year: 1999 (1st ed), 2005 (2nd ed)
Price: Rs. 100/-
ISBN: 81-85569-44-4
Phone: 832-2263305

1 comment:

  1. The book sounds interesting.
    Deschooling would be a very good idea. :)
    I'm glad Rahul found his mooring. Home he does not get trapped into conventionality.