Ethic - a set of moral principles, esp. ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field or form of conduct: the puritan ethic was being replaced by the hedonist ethic. Origin - based on êthos
êthos - the characteristic spirit of a culture, era or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations: a challenge to the ethos of the 1960s.
I attempt to explore the teachings of Krishnamurti, the role of education and secular ethics. There is not just one ethical code that drives our society; possibly there has never been. Archetypes point to Rama and the demonized Ravana in contrast. Events near and far draw our attention to the gap between stated moral positions and the practiced. While most of us may not commit murder for gain, would we come to the rescue of a woman being teased? This may prove costly! One can surely think of many similar examples.
Is there a connection between school and society? What is the communication that students receive through their school years on the questions of ethics? I avoid the word 'instruction'; in the world that we now inhabit, learning happens in many ways. The role of osmotic and non-verbal injunctions is potent and members of society feel the pressures of these. They carry inner injunctions defining good life ,success and what is called 'normal'.
In recent years the role of individuals in civil society has come in for sharp examination from many angles. Does the individual matter? Does our education prepare us for participation in the upholding of ethical living? Or does it co-opt one helplessly into the role of invalidated bystander, helpless victim, tame and happy upholder of the unethical happenings in small and large measure?
In this context, I have heard students utter powerful words, authentic words. Many conversations have been deeply insightful, and leave fond memories of the students. Their words have been beacons and hold a timeless quality. In this article I share some of these, but I hasten to say that the constructions are mine and the meanings drawn also mine. Students often utter deep things and then move on to other things. Once someone asked me,'What is the strength of the school where you work?' I replied after a pause, 'Conversation!' The visitor persisted, with that tolerant look reserved for those who are a little slow, 'I mean, how many students doyou have?' I said, 'Oh that! 350, hardly a number in India today. We are not so much a school, more a laboratory.'
I saw a popular Tamil film some days ago—Vettaikaran, the hunter. The villain is a law unto himself and manipulates the police and all other institutions to satisfy his desires. Fear is his weapon. The hero learns this and then uses the same to overcome the villain. Co-opting is an important process. One may find oneself co-opted into positions that one does not endorse.
Nothing brought the role of co-opting more starkly to me than an episode in school that happened about ten years ago. Two students in class 11 had developed bad blood between them. Not uncommon. They came to the edge of a fight. Not uncommon. Some posturing and threats followed. Girls and the loyalty of the older students kicked into the debate. The students decided to'have it out' outside school. They knew that this would not be acceptable in school—teachers would intervene. So they both brought 'friends' in support, to 'settle scores' on Independence Day after the sports events that were held at school. We were lucky that the matter did not progress as planned, thanks to an alert watchman, a last-minute phone call by a parent and the important fact that the students were open to the voice of the Principal. Nevertheless, this shocked us all.
We discussed the matter with students and parents, and among teachers. Such a thing was not supposed to happen in a Krishnamurti school! How did we get here? Students will have disagreements, and some of these may generate heat. One boy in this conflict was fair-complexioned, typically English speaking, guitar strumming and 'cool', and had joined in class 8, almost a newcomer. The other was Tamil speaking, rooted in the 'soil' and had been in school from kindergarten. They were different, inimical in their gut response to each other, starkly polarized and unabashedly so. Both were rebellious, honest and also valued the words of their teachers.
We had many conversations in order to understand what happened and tried to engage with the shame and sadness that students felt. What we heard shook us. Almost the whole senior school knew of this problem and most knew that the 'clash' was going to happen. Many students had tried to avert the fight. They had given up in helplessness or felt it was not their business. The only people who were clear that this was not right, the teachers, knew nothing about it. The unwritten code of the students operated—'don't snitch!' As one student said, 'If they want to kill themselves,who can stop them?'
Another year a student in class 9 was bullied by a group of students. It happened systematically over a long period of time, away from the gaze of teachers. Again all knew except the teachers.
These were painful reminders of the statement 'You are the world'. We tried hard as a school to say that these were aberrations, due only to one student who was a 'bad egg'. In one case we could point to an 'outsider', a new entrant with a new culture. In the other we could not say this—the outsider was the target. A large number of students were involved. Some did not think anything would happen, others tried to do something, some did everything except bring in the adults, and most were anxious, saddened and helpless. Many parents knew, and knew that the teachers were in the dark, but did not speak. Almost all allowed their wisdom to be 'invalidated'. Almost all took responsibility up to a point. None took complete responsibility.
Could this be what Krishnamurti meant when he said 'students grow up and fade away into the woodwork'? These episodes show starkly that we are part of the woodwork. We work the way our society works. In fact, society is the way it is because we are who we are.
On a visit to the hills in 2008 with class 12 students, a conversation grew suddenly. An adult said to the students, 'One who accepts a bribe is worse than the one who gives it. If the person did not ask for a bribe, I would not have to give. It is unavoidable. I don't want to, but sometimes I bribe ... ' One student contested this view. She said, 'In my eyes both are equally responsible, 'and stirred up a hornet's nest of discomfort.
Another adult offered balanced words: 'Don't be extreme; be practical and sensible. It is not necessary to be idealistic always. Ask your parents ... You will tie your hands if you take such a position.' 'The heady wine of pragmatism' was offered to students as a voice of sanity.
J Krishnamurti said to students, 'Don't be corrupt!' He also said that the purpose of schooling is not to help students 'just fit into a corrupt society'. Teachers may not want to enter the space of this very difficult conversation, but once they do, what then? Or what if this conversation erupts, unasked?
One of the monthly occurrences in The School is a one-hour meeting of all students above class 5 with teachers, called the Open House. Anyone can bring up any topic or question for discussion. One can raise a question different from the one being discussed. We speak one at a time in a loud, clear voice so all can hear, and we don't engage ourselves in a side conversation or a game with neighbours. During one such Open House held in a grove of thick tamarind trees I asked, 'Are you as students learning how to lead your life properly? Is coming to school everyday helping you? What is happening with you as a person?' A student of class 5, aged ten, Prashanti, put up her hand and in a clear, loud voice, with a smile playing on her face said, 'I know what to do, but I don't do it; I want to do it but I can't do it!'
Her body was dancing as she spoke, moving one way and another, lending great authenticity to this creative act of finding words for an existential state. This statement represents many things to me. It is most valuable that the young have much wisdom and are still untrammelled. Prashanti spoke a truth that I have seen myself and many around me experience time and again.
I heard a student bring up a point recently in a conversation class—she spoke about how she finds speed very exciting, how she likes going in vehicles that travel fast, how one can avoid the police checks, and the thrill and the fear involved. She also spoke about how nothing has changed for her in this area despite a cousin losing his life on the road. Many others joined in and some spoke about all the tricks they used to avoid the police and echoed the excitement of speed. None seemed to catch her poignant question: 'If even death cannot teach me, then how will I learn? I know all the rules and the advice and that I should be cautious and respectful of others, but ... '
The conversation classes, culture class, enquiry time or K-time share an important element. The teachers and students try to create and sustain an atmosphere in which such wisdom can surface without being ridiculed. It is valuable as this is also often a space for co-holding, a sharing in the value and the responsibility. This zone is possibly the most difficult in a school; children learn by osmosis that it is acceptable to laugh and put down others. It is not as if there is an obvious intention to hurt. It is just that we painfully discover our conditioning in our own responses. The child and adult are not separate here. 'You are the world' stands out prominently for all to see. The tension between strength and futility is evident in such interactions. How will the teacher ensure dignity for all? Can the teacher not take recourse to indignity and authority in the process?
In school one of the dominant concerns of students is 'fairness'. They become very agitated at perceived unfairness. Unfortunately, this code of fair behaviour is pulled out only in times of crises, and it has been my understanding that such moments are poor educators. Crises are meant to be fully experienced in order to understand who we are and manage with the best resources we can muster. I believe that in times of crises one needs to act, and all action can be found faulty in the post mortem. But act one must!
The 'acontextual' occasions are precious learning ground. When there is no crisis, when no problem is evident, when the ground is relatively pleasant, enormous learning opportunities are present. This is the time the code of right behaviour with each other can be exercised and spoken about. This is the time when 'what is' can be gazed at for an understanding.
Discussing put-downs or bullying when a problem surfaces is one thing, but it is quite another when all is well. When all is well the discussion can be around a question such as, 'Is respect for all at all a workable thing?' Engaging and thinking about such a question in a non-threatening and non-coercive ambience brings to light our own felt experience. And K's words 'understanding what is transforms what is' can be a guide. Resolutions such as 'I must control myself when angry' are to be treated as mere starting points. In such conversations, one encounters the voice impatient with mere talk and it urges one to do something. To listen to this too, without contempt or sense of superiority, is a humbling experience.
In another Open House, almost 15 years ago, a student answered the dilemma of conversation: 'At worst one may get bored, at best one may learn something! I think we should go on with Open Houses.'
In most classes students have a seat that is fixed—the privilege of being near a window or under a fan is claimed by a few and that is that. Some are consigned to the back benches and others, equally helplessly, to the front rows. This is the time when it is possible to breathe the notion that as equals we can sit randomly, and randomization can be done by anyone, also a student. Changing places each week is a liberating exercise. It challenges our notions of comfort. The less the students are embedded in small groups, the better they are equipped for life, where hidden opportunities will surface. Randomization permits an opportunity to interact with people one would never interact with otherwise. There is a social and ethical message—that each is worthy of attention and respect.
Again, acontextual conversations, not those born of a problem or a situation, permit one to look at things without compulsions and grasp the fabric of life as a multiplicity of experiences. One may be able to see that the positions one takes shift, and one could well be the other. This is possibly the best preparation for living with responsibility and depth.
One of the tough questions that surfaces often is, 'Whose ethics?' Looking beyond mere constructs such as democracy, would it be right to say that ethical conduct requires respect not just for a humane law and its manifestations, but respect for human beings beyond status, power and money? Ethical conduct requires underpinnings that go beyond the normative rules to guide one's actions. Following rules can be a matter of training. This may serve a purpose. Surely right conduct requires an awareness of the inner dialogue that weighs the situations in our lives, searching for appropriate responses. This dialogue is what connects us to life around, to society, and creates the world around. Thus, when K says 'you arethe world and the world is you' he refers to the close connection between the individualand society, the seamless nature of the inner dialogue with the outward manifestations.
When we see life in a polished setting, we are tempted, seduced, not to look beyond. One encounters the assertion,'Why should the ethical conduct of another be my concern? Why, in looking at another, should I reflect on myself?' K seems to suggest that this is an opportunity to bear witness to the society we have created. Such looking, gazing,without judging or dismissing or agreeing, is an act of compassion and there is not much of this left with adults. The innocence of our children and the sharp gaze of our youth is our best hope. Most adults seem to have given up.
The story that is yours, and mine ...
is the talk of the town and the streets
Tell me not of the evils of taverns, Oh
We all go there; you go there, and so
do I ...
Editors' Note: This is the gist of a talk given in March 2011 at the Krishnamurti workshop in Delhi University