What we learnt from time travelling together (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 3 part series, that critically examines our experience (Suvani Suri and I) of guiding a group of design students as they explored the theme: ‘time-machine’. You may begin at the beginning or read on.


We have already seen that today, the potential for authentic knowledge is easily ceded to the domain of experts and professionals: we would rather call a qualified expert, or use a tool that will get the job done. Otherwise we’d risk our productivity, we’d risk falling behind. To be left behind as humanity strides unstoppably towards progress (barring minor setbacks here and there), now that’s a disconcerting thought.

It’s not surprising that we feel gratified when we can claim an integral role for ourselves within this movement that seems to be working towards a grander resolution 1: the march of progress. The promise of our century is this: if each individual gets competitively better at his/her own role and focuses all energy and resources at their disposal towards this singular goal, then everything will happen as best as it can. When it comes to everything else, we’re constantly told: the present state of affairs is only a temporary inconvenience. Please carry on as if nothing untoward had happened.

Is this really the case? What the hell is actually going on? Why do we feel so helpless when such questions are asked? We’d better leave things to the experts, is a common refrain. It’s all in good hands. Everything will be fine.

Doesn’t this all seem very Panglossian 2? Why can’t each person, for themselves, uncover what is really going on 3? What could be more egalitarian than that? It’s not even that difficult, the keys are all around us. We only have to learn to perceive – as we navigate this complex reality, we each encounter (or pass by) within our lives, definite effects of certain socio-political forces and phenomena in a totally unique way. In fact, the limits of our everyday lives are circumscribed by such historical forces 4.

Photo credit: Krishnan Ghosh

Each individual has the potential to come to a fuller knowledge of reality by recognizing the trace-effects of these phenomena in their lives, following them back to their probable causes and thereby beginning to see the links between these phenomena and larger structures of control and dependence. Allowing them to discover this potential within themselves is to unlock an individual’s full human potential, according to Freire. This is education as the practice of freedom – where telling personal stories and reflecting on them functions as a source of revelation.

To be clear, the two of us only carried all this knowledge implicit within our mode of enquiry when we went to meet the learners. Every evening we’d reminisce about the day’s session, and look for ways forward – reflexivity was crucial for our emergent practice those two weeks. The explicit synthesis of theory presented here came afterwards, the outcome of a deliberate exercise to reflect on the experience in its totality.

In class, as we worked through our pre-planned ‘orientation’ (where we caught the learners up with the excavation that we had done around the theme so far) we realized that the possibility for a free existential journey was unfolding itself rapidly. We found that pauses were pregnant. We would remove succeeding pieces of our ‘presentation’ spontaneously and wait – a student would speak the shape of a thought, and we would guide it gently to earth. Snowflake by snowflake, the ramparts rose, and by the end of the day, we found, us twelve, that we had raised a quite unexpected tower that gave us a bird’s eye view of the forest we had to cross. Stories were leading us.

We found that when we as guides assumed attitudes of respect 5, honesty 6, preparedness 7 and eagerness 8, the learners responded with unbounded enthusiasm. As guides, this helped us simplify our mantra. All we had to do was periodically ask ourselves: Is this learning beginning to feel like tedious, unnecessary or unacceptable work? Like a chore for the learners, or like preaching for us guides? Like lonely labour? We gradually came to a fuller knowledge of how exhilarating a consciously self-reflecting practice (existential praxis) could be.

We came together, the twelve of us, to travel through time.


  1. “People are fulfilled only to the extent that they create their world, and create it with their transforming labor.” Paolo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter 4.
  2. The belief that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the word derives from the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s satire – Voltaire. Candide: or, The Optimist.
  3. “Blinding reality!” You scoff …  But wait – that’s only if you try to look at it all at once. That’s when it seems like too much.
  4. And indeed we should be occupying ourselves with pushing at these personal limits, if we are so preoccupied with social progress: “Ideally, the present will always contribute to the building of the future … this future is not the future of the cosmos but rather the future of my century, my country, my existence … it is for my own time that I should live. The future should be an edifice supported by living men. This structure is connected to the present to the extent that I consider the present [as] something to be exceeded.” (underlined for emphasis) From Frantz Fanon. Black Skin White Masks, Introduction.
    Without this ‘exceeding’ of the present, the social and political boundaries of individual lives in the future would remain as constricted as they are at present. In fact, Virginia Woolf has systematically excavated evidence of this in her luminous essay – ‘A Room Of One’s Own’: “Had Tolstoy lived at the Priory in seclusion … ‘cut off from what is called the world’ … he could scarcely have written War and Peace … [he needed] to pick up all that experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. [Similarly] it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius.” (sentences re-ordered for effect) Virginia Woolf.A Room of One’s Own, Chapters 3,4. For a fuller understanding it is advisable to read Woolf’s essay in its entirety.
  5. Respect: A shelter where the freedom of the other is made permissible.
  6. Honesty: The openness to say we did not know, when we did not know, which allowed us to discover together.
  7. Preparedness: Total immersion, allowing us to draw from a diverse repository of references.
  8. Eagerness: A daily engagement with the new directions each preceding session had opened up for us.

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