April 11, 2021 6:40:50 am
India’s hill stations have a rich educational legacy and many of the finest schools in the country are located in the mountains. Exploring these landscapes, however, is often limited to extra-curricular activities and doesn’t influence academic subjects. Sadly, education has become divorced from the natural environment, even though the earth we inhabit is a primary text for human knowledge. Almost everything taught in school today began with the earliest observations our ancestors made as hunters, gatherers, pastoralists and farmers. The intellectual origin of our species lies in an ability to interpret the world around us, from the classification of plants and other forms of life to the laws of physics.
Unfortunately, “distance learning” has become a necessity during the pandemic, but in a crisis like this, it is essential for us to re-evaluate the core purpose of education. While this debate can go on, there are two basic principles that can be agreed upon: education should prepare a child for a happy and fulfilling life; it is important to instill a lifelong desire for learning, so that acquiring knowledge doesn’t end with a degree.
With so many schools located in the mountains, there is an opportunity to fortify these fundamental ideals, alongside a prescribed curriculum, by taking education outdoors. Ridgelines, valleys, forests and rivers can be essential resources for learning, inspiring students to investigate and enjoy the world around them, while reinforcing lessons that often remain abstractions in a classroom. Mountains can serve as living, organic textbooks full of tangible examples that enrich and amplify a student’s skills in problem solving and critical thinking.
Three kilometres east of the town of Mussoorie, where I studied at Woodstock School, lies a forested ridge. Popularly known as “Flag Hill,” it is now part of the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve (JNR), a hundred acres of private land that has been turned into a refuge for wildlife. As a boy, I learned many lessons on Flag Hill and I return there as often as I can to satisfy my own sense of curiosity and a desire to further my education.
Imagine a class of 12 or 15 students led by an innovative teacher, spending a day on Flag Hill. Several trails lead to the summit but before we begin to climb the steep switchbacks, the teacher asks everyone to take his or her pulse and note it down. Then she points out the exposed, grey rocks and gravel underfoot, explaining that most of the ridge is limestone, a key component of Himalayan geology. This leads on to a discussion about the origin of these rocks, which were formed from remains of ancient corals and crustaceans on the bed of a primordial sea, 65 million years ago, before the mountains were formed.
After starting our ascent, we soon come to a shortcut that follows the crest of the ridge. As the students pause to rest, the teacher asks if they would rather take the shortcut or continue along a zigzag route? This question can also be expressed as a mathematical problem: If a path up a mountain starts at 1,900 m above sea level, while the summit lies at 2,200 m, what will be the comparative distance covered if the gradient is 30 degrees as against 45 degrees? This might also be a chance for the class to reflect on the choices we make in life — following a conventional path or one less travelled?
Continuing upward, students can be asked to point out the most common trees on Flag Hill. Though they may not know the names, they are likely to identify a species of oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), known as banj in Garhwali, Rhododendron arboreum, locally called buransh, and Lyonia ovalifolia (or anyar). This will open up the subject of biology and taxonomy, allowing the teacher to ask questions about classification and the importance of indigenous knowledge.
From here the path continues upward to the highest point on the ridge, a mildly strenuous climb that will leave most students out of breath. Before sitting down to rest again, they should check their pulse and note down how much it has increased. Physical exertion is one of the best ways to understand how our bodies function. By measuring our heartbeats, we begin to appreciate the different ways in which our organs work together to keep us healthy and alive.
Reaching the top of Flag Hill, we can look out upon a series of higher ranges. Observing the Himalayas, even from a distance, is like opening an encyclopedia that has no beginning or end. The lessons these mountains contain are virtually limitless. Those mathematical formulas we employed to calculate the angle of the slope we just climbed can be used to determine the altitudes of the highest peaks. During the 19th century, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was one of the most ambitious mathematical problems of all time, measuring a series of triangles that extended from the southern tip of the subcontinent to the summit of Mt Everest. History also tells us that the teams of clerks who made these calculations were known as “computers”.
In the presence of mountains, students become aware of layered strata of information, from the music of birdsong to the rhythm and tempo of the seasons, as well as the culture and heritage of the people in this region. They also absorb philosophical and spiritual truths. Flag Hill, for example, gets its name from Tibetan prayer flags tied between trees on the summit. Looking out at denuded slopes, terraced fields and new construction scarring the face of the mountains, we can ask important, ethical and practical questions about forest conservation, the economics of subsistence farming and the engineering of roads or hydroelectric dams.
Arriving at the summit of Flag Hill is only the beginning and there will be much more to learn as we descend the other side of the mountain. A successful education crosses disciplinary boundaries and makes connections between a student’s aspirations and the realities of the world we inhabit. For schools that are located in the mountains — or even for those that are not — it is essential to open young minds to the countless discoveries that lie along these paths.
(Stephen Alter is the author of Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth)
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