Thirty years ago, in the small northwest Indian village of Tilonia, a rundown tuberculosis sanatorium lay vacant—its collection of once-crowded buildings gathering sand and bleaching to white in the desert sun.
Now, after an inspired rejuvenation, the 45-acre campus is home to one of the most successful education centers in the world: The Barefoot College.
Built in the 70s as a platform to empower local poverty-stricken villagers by sharing regional skills (like farming, building, and manufacturing using local resources) and traditional knowledge, the Barefoot College now serves as a model of rural higher education throughout India and the world.
From teaching residents how to build successful and lo-tech water supply schemes to creating powerful working roles for women in communities where most jobs are left to the men, the college has sparked a shift in education tactics on both a local and global scale.
But what helped this small institution become so powerful? According to the college’s extremely modest and media-shy founder Bunker Roy, it all comes down to maintaining a solid focus throughout the development and growth of the organization.
A woman at the Tilonia Barefoot College campus works on a solar engineering project. (Photo by UN Women Gallery via Flicker Creative Commons)
In 1972, a small group of young professionals started the college with the intention of melding the minds of urban professionals, who were educated in a modern college setting, with poverty-stricken villagers, who were skilled in traditional tasks passed down through generations in their small community.
Bringing these two seemingly opposite pockets of educated individuals together could widen the minds of both groups, thus upending the hierarchical, wealth-based education system for the best, the staff thought.
This progressive model worked—but only for so long.
Changing the syllabus
A decade after the college’s start, most of the urbanites had returned to financially secure jobs in metropolitan centers, leaving the villagers in complete control of the campus.
Thus began a new phase in the college’s direction. Cut off from external aid, the students boosted their self-sufficiency as a community, relying on their new-found knowledge of external technologies (solar energy and clean water systems) and already embedded traditional wisdom.
The women of Tilonia began to install solar panels in the college’s roofs, significantly cutting back on the village’s electricity bills. Teachers reintroduced puppetry, a past traditional teaching tool, into classrooms that once were struggling under western education-based lesson plans. They were pulling themselves out of a rut with the simple trust in their own developed skills.
Roy saw this as a substantial turning point in the school’s metamorphosis.
“This is one of the Barefoot College’s greatest accomplishments—to reduce dependency on the urban professionals and demonstrate the capacity and competence of the poorest of the poor,” Roy said.
The original idea of the college, to acknowledge traditional skill-sharing education platforms, had essentially remained the same, aside from shedding the urban influence. Which turned out to be precisely what Roy had wanted it to be.
“For an unemployed and unemployable semi-literate rural youth to be providing a vital service in a village, effectively replacing a urban trained paper-qualified doctor, teacher, and water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea,” Roy said.
This twist in focus helped steer the college onto the expanding path it’s on today.
Teaching by example
At a 2008 Pop!Tech conference, Bunker Roy shows how the college uses traditional educational tools, like puppetry, to teach. (Photo by Pop!Tech via Flick Creative Commons)
The college has inspired 20 similar schools to pop up across India, and works with small, impoverished villages across Africa and the Middle East to train locals in creating their own similarly founded campuses.
More than 200 semi-literate people have been trained in solar engineering for village energy sources and 500,000 now have access to safe drinking water through an array of hand pumps and rainwater catchment systems designed by students.
And, many times, the students become the teachers. Recently, outside professionals have visited the Barefoot College to learn traditional construction techniques from skilled villagers to use in urban settings.
Locally, struggling villages have found a new sense of economic stability and self-respect through the college’s efforts.
“It has been the job of the Barefoot College to provide that critical space for the poor to grow from ‘no-human beings’ in the eyes of so-called civilized society to a responsible, respected and accepted ‘barefoot’ professional,” Roy said.
But while the college has found sturdy ground in Tilonia and across the globe, Roy said that the idea to create a new type of rural education system was fated to be a challenging push against the norm.
However, his original intentions have anything but diminished.
“It is an eternal struggle,” Roy said. “But the struggle and the challenge make it worthwhile knowing that it’s making a tangible difference.”