We are aware of ourselves and act as individuals with distinct personalities. We see ourselves as members of a group, a kind of humans, a ‘human-kind’. We also are aware of our shared humanity, a membership to the species, a ‘sameness’ as it were.
We invest an enormous amount of energy establishing ourselves as unique, separate from others. We develop our personalities and are emotionally attached to our personalities. We expect that others act in ways that take into account our personalities. Our friends are often those that ‘know’ us and are respectful of our personal attributes. We cherish people in our personal lives for their unique qualities. These are what make them lovable.
Much of our collective life is organized around group identities. Politically, the recognition of identities is very important and necessary. This is what enables societies to pursue affirmative actions, correct historical wrongs and most significantly respect the freedom of thought and expression especially of minorities and other oppressed groups. We also recognize the dangers of ‘human-kinds’ as it were, especially their potential to lead to extraordinary violence. Looking around it is obvious that our ‘human-kinds’ are deadly serious in quite a literal way! Krishnamurti has pointed to the dangers of ‘human-kind’ consciousness repeatedly and evocatively - the dangers of thinking in ‘us and them’ terms. He has also pointed to the inner drivers of this kind of consciousness - the insecurity, fear and the need to belong. While there is wide recognition of the dangers of ‘human-kinds’ in the outer and inner realm as it were, the energy and passion that are invested in them prevent us from dealing with these dangers intelligently.
In contrast, our awareness of ourselves as members of humanity, our species, is not as energetic. We do not see that and rarely act from an awareness of our ‘sameness’. Krishnamurti challenged us to see for ourselves and to give the children in our care the ability to see our ‘sameness’ To see that ‘you are the world and the world is you’. That there really is nothing called your joy or your suffering but that your joy or your suffering is that of all human-kind. Krishnamurti points out that this is the fact; all else is a construct, an image.
Let us put aside for the moment the difficulties (much talked about, if I may add!) of ‘seeing’ this fact, and the fact that even the statement evokes responses in each of us which are really constructs in quite the same way as our personality. The question I want to explore then is at the level of the schools and how they would be affected if we acted with a consistent, even if only intellectual, awareness of this fact. To put it differently and more provocatively, is the pursuit of the uniqueness of each child, and putting that at the center of our efforts, actively hindering us in addressing the challenge posed by ‘you are the world and the world is you’? .
This question clearly has implications for both the explicit and the hidden curriculum. We could, for example, explore how the ‘sameness’ plays out in the content, the subjects that we teach. We could also look at what this implies for the ways we interact, which in turn collectively create the educational experience for the learner. This article focusses on the latter because it is the implied messages and learnings arising from the daily interactions that have a much stronger influence on determining how we see the world and ourselves.
The nurturing of individuality
Much progressive education em-phasizes the fact that each child is unique. We claim to pay ‘individual attention’. We speak of nurturing the individuality, of cultivating the special and unique capacities of each child. We rightfully detest the regimentation that comes from treat-ing children as clay to be moulded or empty vessels to be filled.
Much of the daily life of the children in our schools is indeed an affirmation of their uniqueness. We ask them and pay a lot of attention to what interests them, we ask them what they really want to do and suggest quite strongly to them that they are different from others. This emphasis of the individuality serves a very important purpose. Pedagogically, this recognition of the individual enables us to help the individual learner learn in a manner that suits her best. It makes the educator responsive to the emotional needs of the individual student. It also socializes children and cultivates the very necessary skill of considerate behaviour towards others. It makes the young person feel valued, which is an important building block to the creation of a self-confident personality.
Talent seems to reside in the individual. It is generally accepted that one of the goals of education is the nurturing and cultivation of this talent. The conventional way of looking at this talent is to see it as a source of pride for the individual, and by association for all those involved in cultivating and making an external ‘success’ of it. In our schools, as one of my colleagues at the school put it, we see the talent as an unique opportunity to look carefully at oneself, to explore as it were the nature of the self. Developing the talent often provides a joyous route to the self. Poetry, art, music, craft and even sport have this capacity.
The cultivation of the intellect is a process which, by the very nature of the intellect, individualises. Intellectual progress is very often based on difference and differentiating. The sharper the intellect, the better it is at this differentiation. In this area it is perhaps appropriate to be concerned with the particulars of each person’s thinking and capacities. We see that individual tastes, interests, likes and dislikes matter a great deal. There are extraordinary capacities that need to be cultivated and talents that need to be nurtured. The need to find one’s calling is, I think, an important one and it does focuss on the individual.
Perhaps, even in all these areas, which make up the unquestioned domain of the self, we are missing the ‘sameness’ dimension.
In reality is one’s talent one’s own? Can my individuality be seen in isolation? My singing is a product of many things: my culture, my teachers and even my listeners. An exploration of this could lead to an understanding that without the shared substrate of humanity, our ‘sameness’, individual talent would be meaningless. The same could be said for the intellect. It is obvious that all intellectual progress is a process of building on the thoughts and work of others and creativity is merely a new way of looking at and connecting existing ideas. We as teachers need to focuss our attention on the question of all the ways our individuality is really a product of ‘not me’. This would, I suspect, be a very different conversation and potentially a fresh one that connects to a fundamental concern in our schools.
The realm of the emotions is more complex and interesting. Our emotions are ours and yet we share an emotional substrate with all of mankind. The energy that they release makes it difficult to develop any sense of perspective on these. Here, I think, personalising might be more than just missing the ‘sameness’ dimension, but in actuality it might be detrimental to living intelligently. It is perhaps far more important to understand the ‘nature’ of our emotions than the specifics that cause certain emotions to arise in the individual.
In my experience, the interactions about emotions at the one-on-one level between the student and the teacher are invariably focussed on the specifics. When students and teachers are sitting together in serious conversation and emotions are discussed, they tend to follow a process of generalisation from individual experiences. This leads to thinking and abstraction, which drains the energy from the inquiry and never creates the energy to address the emotions themselves. Is there a way of pointing to the underlying substrate without doing either of the above?
If a young person came to me with a problem, carrying a sense of hurt, what would I do? I have done two kinds of things: helped the person look at the specifics of that hurt and through empathy and perspective tried to make the person feel better, or alternatively to point to the nature of hurt itself, its connection to cultivating an image. But what if (imitating the Buddha) one asked her ‘to get me a few mustard seeds from a person who has never experienced hurt?’ I would like to suggest, in conclusion, that there is this whole dimension of ‘sameness’ that we could bring to dealing with most ordinary situations in our schools.