TILONIA, India – Imagine a college where nobody has a degree. No professor has a Ph.D. and no graduate receives a diploma. At this college, if you hold a degree, you are disqualified from teaching or attending. Such a college would seem, at least to the Western model, to have missed the point of higher education.
However, Barefoot College in Tilonia, India has been educating the rural poor doing exactly that for almost 40 years. The mission of the school as articulated by founder, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, is to provide a service to local communities by promoting literacy and sharing the skills of the rural poor—skills that have never been “identified, respected and applied on a large scale.”
The college teaches a wide-ranging battery of skills, including resource conservation, construction, architecture, dentistry, midwifery and animal husbandry, to name a few. All of these courses are taught by student teachers. They are what Roy calls “professionals” despite their lack of diplomas and social recognition.
Anyone with a specialized knowledge that may not be mainstream is allowed to come, learn, and experiment. In the process, Roy and the Barefoot College have continued to find brilliance in the overlooked experts of many communities.
What began as a simple idea for developing skills among the predominately poor and illiterate population of Tilonia has now grown into an international movement. There are multiple schools and communities in India, Afghanistan and Africa that rely on the methods and skills provided from this unusual take on a college education.
Additionally, at Barefoot College, age, race, religion and gender are not barriers to learning skills. Women are especially empowered by the college because of their profound ability to communicate, says Roy. By promoting gender equality Barefoot College has been able to create scores of female solar engineers.
Roy looks to grandmothers in particular to be the ones to install solar technology in small villages providing them with electricity (often for the first time). In a TED Talk from 2011, Roy describes the success of grandmothers from several different countries in the development of solar power and continuing education.
Gender inequality in the developing world has been a particularly devastating problem, but Barefoot College shows very simply how equality in education can bridge this divide.
According to Wired Magazine, the college “has trained 15,000 women in skills including solar engineering, healthcare, water testing and social activism, and that as a result, around 500,000 people have been provided with basic services such as healthcare, drinking water and education.”
Barefoot College’s impact on the developing world can be measured in this way, but it also seems out of keeping with “Bunker” Roy’s vision. Barefoot College is not only about numbers and achievement, it is about sharing real, hard-won skills in places where outside organizations are unable to provide aid solutions.
– Chase Colton