By Sachin Tiwari
In 1972, an understated and interesting experiment unfolded in a nondescript village in Andhra Pradesh’s Madanapalle district. Decades later, it seeded a significant thought system in philosophy of education and primary education in India. David Horsburgh set up the Neel Bagh School. In this piece, the term “the Neel Bagh Experiment” refers to the years which followed the founding of the school and the ideas that it experimented with. In a broader sense, we could call this an alternative school. Many would find it difficult to ascribe the development of an alternative approach to Neel Bagh School alone. We could see it, rather, as an inflection point during which several experiments in education distilled into a clear approach. The validity of the approach would certainly have required more testing but the basic structure of a method was fairly evident. From Neel Bagh, these ideas in education travelled with many dynamic teachers that it trained, to different parts of the country. These teachers’ philosophy of education and approach to learning and pedagogy took different forms. The basic values and approaches that were developed at Neel Bagh spread fast with more initiatives in education.
David Horsburgh, an Englishman, was a technician with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in India in 1943 and was stationed at Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh. As his contemporaries suggest, he was probably influenced by the idyllic settings of small villages, lush green paddy fields, and a school set in that landscape. This must have been his earliest exposure to rural India and its village schools. After his service with the RAF, he decided to stay in India and work in primary education, but not before returning to England to obtain a B.A. Honors in Sanskrit and Pali from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He returned to India in 1950 and served as a professor of English in Mysore before joining Rishi Valley School based on Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s philosophical ideas. In 1959, David joined the British Council in Madras (now Chennai). Over the next decade, he worked to set up British Council’s M.E.L.T program and actively pursued theatre with the Bangalore Little Theatre company. This is apart from a wide range of other activities that he undertook: from writing school textbooks to traveling. It was in 1972 that he decided to move from Rishi Valley to set up Neel Bagh school in a small village near Srinivaspur, about 30 kilometers from Madanapalle and 120 kilometers from Bangalore. Thus began a phase in David’s life that was filled with tremendous intellectual ferment and experimentation.
As evident in discussions with teachers who trained at Neel Bagh, David was influenced by Bertrand Russell, R.F. Dearden, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, A.S. Neill, Rabindranath Tagore, and Gandhi. For instance, a teacher trainee at Neel Bagh in 1977, Amukta Mahapatra recalled, “Rabindranath Tagore’s work and writings also inspired him and, if I remember right, the name Neel Bagh is from one of his books. Once, standing in the middle of the many paths in the campus, he quoted Tagore, telling us that a village path is never a straight one because it is made over time by the feet of the people, in touch with the contours of the land.”
David was a change agent, who effected change by being a part of the community, by intervening in the social situation through education, and by setting up a school in the village. Children’s education was a good starting point. In the course of time, the school served the role of an additional social space in the village, where the children, their parents and everyone else, who walked in, would engage in an experience which offered greater freedom of imagination and thought than what was until then little known in the village. This was not the techno-managerial model that is allegedly typical of the development projects now. This was essentially a catalyst model where Neel Bagh School – with David, his wife Doreen, teacher trainees, and more importantly the children studying at the school – were all actors, who effected change by creating conditions and spaces in the village which necessitated engagement, deliberation, conflict, and resolution. For instance, Doreen was a trained nurse and helped people with medicines for common ailments. The intimate connection between Neel Bagh and the community is further revealed through an anecdote that explains how the school came to be involved in adult education. One day a delegation of parents approached the school asking why only their children were being taught when they themselves would like to learn. From then on, whenever a parent indicated an interest in learning, she/he was taught by one of the students. In no apparent sense can this be termed a positive social development when one is only looking for indicators of performance or actual effect in an immediate time frame. These patterns often manifest into positive social development over many years from their emergence.
Neel Bagh School
With Neel Bagh school, David was adventurous in developing a new method of education, which sought to break free from gender stereotypes, prioritize abstract intelligence over information based learning, and create a learning space where an individual’s freedom and autonomy were valued – be it a student or a teacher. David’s idea was “to have a school where everybody is successful” and “to get children to learn – and not to teach them” (David Horsburgh in an interview given to Rosalind Wilson in 1983).
At Neel Bagh, the students were not grouped into grades or classes. Instead, they were organized around vertical age groups. This allowed for a comfortable pace of learning as required by each child. Learning was driven by activities like singing, wood working, pottery, dance, theatre etc. To the teachers, the process to be followed was laid clear – teach a child to read and write, how to learn (by enquiry, by finding answers to her own question) and then, finally, when she knows the first two, keep motivating her to learn. This was the broader role of a teacher at Neel Bagh. To this effect, the relationship between the teacher and the student was crucial. Krishnamurthy advocated that things happened through relationships. Partly influenced by this thought, greater emphasis was laid on the teacher-student relationship, which was to be based on unconditional love and absence of activities that made students compete with each other. Competition and reward were regarded as negative traits that prevented children from co-operation and team work.
A unique feature at the school was the question hour, where students would gather and raise questions that came to their mind. These sessions were not structured with a purpose to “teach” the children but were designed to work with observations made by the children themselves. Thus curiosity served as a point of entry and inquiry into a larger area of concern for everyone. For example, a student once asked why a woman walks behind the man and tends to carry the bags. Another anecdote from the question hour session at the school is about a student who wanted to know why her father beat her mother (Conversation with Usha and Narsimhan at Sumavanam, Madanapalle, May 8, 2013). These observations emerged from what children observed in their village and they made for genuine inquiry. One could only imagine the curiosity and observational ability of the child and the system that allowed for such a question to be asked. These questions provided an environment where understanding was arrived at by the whole group together rather than being taught in a monologue fashion by a teacher. Questioning too was not being taught, but inquisitiveness itself was a part of the school system. It is noteworthy that the question hour sessions were held without a predetermined agenda. The social control was always vested with the students themselves. The learning process was designed such that the exploration of an immediate event led to learning by the agency of the child, thereby making him/her capable of knowing where and how to look for answers than merely relying on the teacher. This ensured lifelong learning. Thus, one could suggest that David sought to marry the aims of liberal education with the methods of progressive education, while adopting simplicity and non-violence as ideals (Conversation with Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, May 10, 2013).
On Teacher Training
The teacher trainees of Neel Bagh recall their time spent there as a formative period in shaping their understanding of education and influencing their work in this field in the years ahead. Malathi, who joined Neel Bagh in 1975, had responded to a newspaper advertisement by David for a “teacher, but not trained.” Everyone talked of a different approach to education but no one was doing it. Malathi felt that Neel Bagh was a place which practiced a different form of education. To Malathi it offered a space where she could learn, “I never had a place for myself to learn. I was always responding to the situation.” She suggests that the teacher trainees trained themselves during the course of their stay at Neel Bagh. It was a practicing institution which functioned much like a medical college that houses a hospital and where trainee doctors could learn by practice. This was a teacher training institution which housed a school and where the teacher trainees could learn by practice. The teachers were made to observe more than being trained in a method or technique. To help children learn by doing, the teachers themselves were given hands-on assignments in developing teaching material, pottery, wood working etc.
Education at Neel Bagh as a social intervention
Neel Bagh School was a social process of innovation in primary education. The school doesn’t exist anymore, yet the approach to education that it developed has taken various forms and made their way into the current discourse and practice of education. Over the years, the inroads that Neel Bagh experience has made in education in India are remarkable. This implies that there can be mechanisms other than just creating a long lasting institution for effecting long lasting social change. Neel Bagh experiment responds to the question of scalability of its method of education not by standardizing a single model of school or pedagogy but by developing sufficient number of individuals – as teachers, who have understood the philosophical and foundational ideas of education. These trained teachers are then encouraged to go back to the communities or regions they came from and start a school which imparts education on similar principles. The investment here was not made into a technique but in certain principles and creating individuals who can work with those principles.
[This is an excerpt from a larger study on Neel Bagh and David Horsburgh. The author is especially grateful to Vijay Padki at the Bangalore Little Theatre, Malathi who runs Vikasana School, the lovely couple Usha and Narsimhan at Sumavanam School, Amukta Mahapatra of Blue Mountain School, Rohit Dhankar, Prakash Iyer, Indira Vijaysimha, Varadrajan Amar Dixit and Nikhil Banghera at Azim Premji University for helping him understand ideas in philosophy of education and pedagogy. You will find the longer study here. While writing this piece, the author consulted Amukta Mahapatra’s article, published in The Hindu, “Where the mind is without fear”. This piece is part of Cafe Dissensus School Project.]
Sachin Tiwari is a graduate student doing MA Development at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’