by Mansi Rathour.
In the summer of 2019, the team at Barefoot Philosophers led by Professor Sundar Sarukkai, organized Philosophy Summer Camps for children across various cities in India. The intention of organizing these camps was to introduce children to the practice of critical and philosophical thinking.
The first of these camps kicked off at Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram. The students at the Sangam are exposed to an eclectic education where in addition to the mainstream curriculum, they are also introduced to the folk art form of Kattaikkuttu.
The team conducted a two day camp for these students where they were introduced to aspects of critical thinking and conceptualization that are often overlooked in their curriculum. Through the two day workshop at the Sangam, we encouraged the kids to actively engage with their every day and find ways to articulate their experiences and ideas with clarity. Not unsurprisingly discussions with these students introduced us to new ideas and new ways of thinking that were borne out of their unique experience of being the inheritors of a struggling yet ancient art form. Often our ideas of learning, especially in school settings, are so restrictive that these experiences would be sidelined or diminished. Our primary goal was to encourage them to allow these experiences to inform their understanding of the world.
The camp at Kanchipuram was followed by camps in Malappuram, Udupi, Tumkur, Bengaluru, and Chennai. Each workshop introduced the process of critical thinking through engaging and interactive exercises. The students were divided into groups where they would learn through interaction not only with our team but also through their interactions with each other. This is another aspect of the modern school system that is very often problematic. Students are, through methods of evaluation or instruction, pitted against each other in a sort of race to attaining knowledge. While this allows for a certain section of the student body, with a zeal for the competitive, to thrive, it also leaves behind the meek and the already marginalized. This classroom model where students are encouraged to assert their individual dominance within a group has profound implications for students. A lot of our efforts were geared towards impressing upon the students the importance of learning in a group. In a group learning setting, getting the answer right is secondary to the sharing of ideas and charitable engagement with the ideas of others.
The Malappuram camp was organized for students between 15 and 17 years old. Through the three day camp, the students learned how to engage with a concept critically and articulate their ideas with compassion and clarity. Much like the camp at Kanchipuram, the camp at Malappuram offered us an opportunity to interact with some amazing students. Notwithstanding limitations in language and general introversion, these students put forth beautifully poignant ideas in our discussions with them. The second day of the camp began with short 5-minute skits on the question of ‘Identity’. The skits and the discussions that followed were creative and gave us incredible insight into the openness with which they approached this question. While many of the students present had participated in similar extra-curricular activities, they had never been encouraged to learn through them. This active separation between ‘learning’ outside the classroom setting and ‘learning’ inside the classroom is a feature of most modern academic institutions. If our experience with students at these camps has taught us anything, it is that the detachment of the world of their everyday experience from the world of the classroom serves neither these students nor society at large.
The camps at Tumkur, Bengaluru, and Chennai were attended by students between 10 to 13 years old. Among the things we introduced them to, was the question of the limits of human perception. While it might seem a hefty topic for an 11-year-old to tackle, we were heartened to hear through testimonials from parents, that some of the students took these ideas to heart and started to ‘see’ and understand the world differently. The sessions on ‘Movement’ conducted in the Bengaluru sessions, with the assistance of Attakkalari Centre for the Movement Arts, introduced students to the idea that we take in the world in ways that our conscious minds may not be aware.
Each of these camps ended with a session on ethics where the students were guided through a discussion about fairness, morality, and ideas of justice. Our goal for these sessions was not to impart a moral code to the students present but to lead them to a discovery of their own moral codes and encourage them to start questioning these ideas. In these sessions, we came to realize that most if not all of these students dissociated questions of morality from questions of learning. Where ethical questions are relegated to the co-curricular, if at all they are raised, it becomes apparent that students will learn to see much of the world as independent from questions of ethics. Despite having little exposure to these questions within their classrooms, these children engaged with the ethical questions we raised with genuine curiosity and excitement. We can only hope that they take these lessons into their classrooms.
These camps provided us an opportunity to meet and interact with an amazing group of children from diverse backgrounds. The camps were designed and conducted by Professor Sundar Sarukkai. He was assisted by Varun S Bhatta, Nitesh Anchan, Mansi Rathour, and Vijay Govind Nath.
A Note of our Gratitude
Without the support of our patrons in these cities, we would not have been able to organize these camps. We would like to thank Perungattur Rajagopal and Hanna M de Bruin of Kattaikkuttu Sangam for their kind invitation to conduct a camp at their school. Dr. N S Gundur from Tumkur University offered our team invaluable support in organizing the event at Tumkur. The event at Malappuram would not have been possible without the kindness and co-operation of Mufeeda and the team at Cadence Institute of Excellence and Social Empowerment. We are also grateful to Jayachandran Palazhy at Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts for his creative input and material support. Srinivasa Ramanujam and his friends worked harder than we did to make the camp at Chennai possible. We would like to thank you from the bottom of our heart for your generosity and hospitality.
Most of all we are grateful to the parents and students that participated in our events. Your willingness to be introduced to alternative attitudes towards learning open-mindedness to new ideas is what inspires us to conduct these camps. We hope you had as much fun as we did.