SECMOL Alternative School (SAS)
We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future. – George Bernard Shaw
The question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” has lead to so many awkward conversations. Never have I been able to answer that question to even my own satisfaction. My past studies in mathematics didn’t help either. People seemed unable to comprehend why we as mathematicians were even paid when all we did was think about problems whose solutions are unlikely to benefit anyone else. Math after all was used to be something a handful of people did part-time not so long ago.
Me being a “mathematician” has got a lot to do with society’s obsession with intelligence. Though “intelligent” means something, we’re asking for trouble if we insist on looking for a single thing called “intelligence.” And whatever its components, they’re not all innate. We use the word “intelligent” as an indication of ability: a smart person can grasp things few others could. It does seem likely there’s some inborn predisposition to intelligence, but this predisposition is not itself intelligence.
Once Sonam Wangchuk asked me to estimate the length of pipe that lay before us. My estimate was double its actual length. He remarked “You are intelligent but not wise”. “Wise” and “smart/intelligent“ are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that “wise” means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and “smart” means one does spectacularly well in a few.
When people come to you with a problem and you have to figure out the right thing to do, you don’t (usually) have to invent anything. You just weigh the alternatives and try to judge which is the prudent choice. Someone like a judge or a military officer can in much of his work be guided by duty, but duty is no guide in making things. Makers depend on something more precarious: inspiration. And like most people who lead a precarious existence, they tend to be worried, not contented. It’s like a runner asking “If I’m such a good athlete, why do I feel so tired?” Good runners still get tired; they just get tired at higher speeds.
People whose work is to invent or discover things are in the same position as the runner. There’s no way for them to do the best they can, because there’s no limit to what they could do. The closest you can come is to compare yourself to other people. But the better you do, the less this matters. An undergrad who gets something published feels like a star. But for someone at the top of the field, what’s the test of doing well? Runners can at least compare themselves to others doing exactly the same thing; if you win an Olympic gold medal, you can be fairly content, even if you think you could have run a bit faster. But what is a novelist to do? Whereas if you’re doing the kind of work in which problems are presented to you and you have to choose between several alternatives, there’s an upper bound on your performance: choosing the best every time. In ancient societies, nearly all work seems to have been of this type. The peasant had to decide whether a garment was worth mending, and the king whether or not to invade his neighbor, but neither was expected to invent anything. In principle they could have; the king could have invented firearms, then invaded his neighbor. But in practice innovations were so rare that they weren’t expected of you.
In this world, wisdom seemed paramount. Even now, most people do work in which problems are put before them and they have to choose the best alternative. But as knowledge has grown more specialized, there are more and more types of work in which people have to make up new things, and in which performance is therefore unbounded. Intelligence has become increasingly important relative to wisdom because there is more room for spikes.
We no longer admire the sage—not the way people did two thousand years ago. Now we admire the genius. Because in fact the distinction we began with has a rather brutal converse: just as you can be smart without being very wise, you can be wise without being very smart. That doesn’t sound especially admirable. Schools and colleges thus were by design made to screen students to find the few who excelled at select things. SAS (SECMOL Alternative School) on the other hand recognised the importance of wisdom over intelligence. Construction of SAS began in the summer of 1994, when Sonam and 14 other SECMOL volunteers moved to Phey at the then barren site and pitched tents with a resolve to build a campus where people would not only live to learn but also learn to live.
SAS is an epitome to Ladakhi wisdom. Housed at Phey, in a south facing slope, it completely utilizes solar energy for all its power, food and water needs. Its building is made up of rammed earth walls filled in with small wood pieces for insulation. This keeps the temperature inside the building low in summer and high in winter. These solar heated structures are the warmest in all of Ladakh with temperatures staying above 12 C even in the fiercest of winters (-30 C). The campus has grown over the years and has residential space for students and campers, large rooms for training, smaller work spaces, a library, kitchen and dining area. The campus also has over a 1,000 trees that have been planted, vegetable gardens and green houses and cows. The required vegetables are grown in greenhouses.
SAS doesn’t even require any kind of funding. SAS students completely manage the campus on their own – tending the garden, milking the cows, maintaining the solar panels, helping with any construction work, kitchen duties, and so on. Each student is assigned a responsibility every 3 months. So by the end of a year these students have “earned” lakhs of rupees for SECMOL and also learnt the skills of an electrician, gardener, sweeper, cook… Whats more, the entire campus was constructed by students.
Imagine how empowering it would be for a school reject to present his savings worth lakhs of rupees milking cows to volunteers from all across the world and showing how his innovations helped to earn more than previously possible. SAS has inspired a lot of innovation in the fields of solar passive architecture, solar water heating, tourism, winter sports, just to name a few. Most of these innovations pertain to climate adaptation due to the queer weather in Ladakh where the temperatures go to -30 C in the winters even though the sun shines bright.