Stepping forward at the Barefoot College

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Yesterday, I visited an organization that completely counters everything the American education system stands for and teaches us to aspire toward. The Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan seeks to remedy issues from education, to clean water access to women’s empowerment. The founder, Bunker Roy, explained many of the programs and goals in an awesome TED talk.

The campus sits at the end of the bumpiest road I have ever been on. There are dogsso many dogsand a collection of mismatched buildings that house the college’s many programs. In one hot, busy day, my class attempted to visit each of these buildings and learn about their inner workings.

Creativity and innovation permeated every building. Workers used garbage to make toys that could delight even the screen-addicted children of America; egg cartons glued to the walls cooled the room and provided better acoustics in the community radio center; all the college’s food was cooked using solar cookers made of satellite-dish shaped mirrors and tin boxes.

Nothing compared to walking into a room full of women from 10 different countries, situated at two long tables, soldering tiny wires to green circuit boards. The women in this room were chosen by their communities to attend a six-month camp on how to be solar engineers, funded by the Indian government, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other NGOs. Many of the women do not share a common languageeven with the instructorbut nonetheless return to their villages after six months with the skills to light homes with solar electricity. Learning is almost solely hands-on; the women learn through instruction books comprised of photos and diagrams, trial and error and communication through hand signs and other wordless strategies.

Each program exemplifies Roy’s adamant belief that people do not need traditional schooling to be qualified dentists, engineers, doctors or teachers. He rejects the idea that success is defined by how much money you make or how many degrees you have. The entire college was founded on these principles, and many of the people working at the collegeincluding a pathologist and a water solutions experthave never been to a day of formal school in their lives.

In America we are trained to go on to “bigger and better things,” but Roy’s college model is specifically designed to encourage people to stay in their community and use their skills to improve their own village. The school does not give certificates of any kind, because Roy believes they encourage students to move to urban areas. The same logic justifies their focus on women’s education and employment: In Roy’s experience, when men are educated they are more likely to leave the village to seek employment, while women choose to stay in their communities and use their knowledge there.

This is not a mindset that comes easily to most Americans. A dentist with no formal schooling? Engineers taught through photos and sign language? The concept defies our entire higher education industry. But when cities are expanding beyond their limits and the environment is degrading before our eyes, we are sorely in need of an alternative perspective. The Barefoot College is that new perspectivea utopia that is not only working, but thriving, as it has been since 1972.