I consider it to be a great good fortune to have lived alongside the people and trees of Oak Grove School for most of my adult life. This good fortune has surrounded me with oaks, mountain vistas and children of all ages to ‘understand the vast field of our existence’. It has meant staff and parents together exploring with a wide-angle lens what it means to ‘unravel the confusion of one's own nature’. The ‘vast field’ and ‘our own nature’ have meant coming to terms with the persistent stranglehold that traditional schooling and parenting practices have had on our hearts and minds.
While writing this essay and taking stock of myself as a student and teacher, I realize that after decades of being immersed in the world of education, I don’t know whether I know more or whether I know less than when I started teaching in 1970. Much of this confusion is due to the schizophrenic nature of ‘knowledge’, which both solves and causes problems. Similar conundrums exist with other terms in Krishnamurti’s lexicon. Does the word ‘learning’ mean acquiring information? Or does it refer to learning as being present, mindful and engaged in the now? Or does it mean looking, observing and noticing? Perhaps context clarifies the meaning. The phrase ‘self-knowledge’ also poses many discrepant connotations. However, it is not the intention of this essay to burden ourselves—or Socrates, Shakespeare, Krishnamurti—with an exercise in semantics, or worry about who knows what, or to exactly which aspects of the self, one is to be true.
I wish to outline the common ground for this essay with three baseline observations. First, multiple crises in the world exist and knowledge alone will not solve them. Second, teachers and parents must devote huge energy to self-understanding. Third, all education is ecological and relational.
Looking at the backdrop of traditional schooling, I notice a residue of feelings caused by teachers and parents who have not understood the invisible, unconscious, conditioned assumptions that imprison their hearts and minds and prevent real transformation of consciousness. I unwittingly perpetuated a one-sided love affair with knowledge throughout my teaching career, ever hopeful that just a tad more information would improve if not solve things once and for all. It was much later when I realized that educational fads and technologies were like the dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010—the dispersant heaped more damage onto the original problem.
I think this poem of Ron Koertge’s may prod some early memories of our long-forgotten or never-forgotten teachers. I enjoy sharing it because in just a few lines he captures the essence and depth of the problems:
Until then, every forest
had wolves in it, we thought
it would be fun to wear snowshoes
all the time, and we could talk to water.
So who is this woman with the gray
breath calling out names and pointing
to the little desks we will occupy
for the rest of our lives?
Or these lines, excerpted from The First Reader, a poem by Billy Collins:
‘…we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.’
Conditioning is difficult to dislodge. How are we to liberate ourselves from what we were taught? When I realized that I had been that woman with the ‘gray breath’ during much of my tenure in Minneapolis, I wondered what were the‘desks that I occupied’ as a teacher? One early belief was that by changing the system or methodology, learning would improve. Perhaps that is true for learning about stuff, but when learning about stuff excludes the learner and relationships, we find ourselves circling round and round the same issues.
New and improved educational tools and methods are designed to improve outcomes, but like a boomerang, if you don’t pay attention, they lop your head off. I was eager to try a new environment where children had freedom to move around and make choices in an ‘open classroom environment’. So I transferred to a ‘state of the art’ school across town in Minneapolis. The two-story, multi-million dollar monolith housed 3,000 students and was the largest elementary school constructed in the United States. Instead of walls there were large rolling coat racks on wheels to define the spaces where groups of sixty students were vertically organized. Every moment we struggled with the reverberating cacophony; so eventually after a few years, walls were installed. But walls could do nothing to repair the damage of failed philosophy and failed students. If this fiasco of educational faddism was the best that professionals had to offer, we were in deeper trouble than I had imagined. In building this monstrosity, how could we not see that something so essential had evaded us, that learning about ourselves and our relationships did not receive the necessary attention? Was it any wonder that other systems—economic, social welfare, political—were failing? Thoroughly dismayed, my disturbance almost drove me from teaching for good.
But it was a turning point, not an ending. I felt driven to recover a field of vision, to search for an intelligible school, a panorama void of slogans, quick fixes and fads. Was there such a place, where abiding coherence and economy of scale oozed from its nooks and crannies? Funnily enough, as things happened, a Krishnamurti book crossed my path and wheels took me on the road to Ojai—to discover why “the major problem is not the pupil, but the educator; ...If the educator himself is confused, how can he impart wisdom or help to make straight the way for another?”
Rare is a school founded to ‘revolutionize the human psyche’,to allow the ‘flowering of goodness’ and for students to be a ‘blessing on the world’. Rarer still is it to lay the responsibility for human problems with each single human being. Given this unique intention that, ‘truth is not to be bought, sold, repeated; it cannot be caught in books... but found moment to moment in the smile, in the tear, under the dead leaf, in the vagrant thoughts, in the fullness of life,’ and the magnitude of it, we who work at these places faced the necessity to ‘look inward’. Accumulative knowledge or methodologies have little to offer toward creating these transformative learning environments. If something worthwhile is going to happen it needs to grow from a different kind of seed.
The notion of ‘inward looking’ was as unfamiliar to me as the chaparral that surrounded Oak Grove. Big questions or discussions had not been a part of my family life nor school culture. My parents sent me to church and did not entertain any discussion about the dogma. Questions from teachers had always seemed predictable ‘call and response’ exercises. That is, until the first day of Mr Ario’s philosophy elective. The memory of Mr Ario’s class is so distinct because it registered in my seventeen-year-old mind at the time as something truly unique! He was actually asking us to consider a question by ‘looking within’ rather than by reading a textbook! This divergence was so startling that it indeed pointed to the pathetic state of my experiences in school. We had enormous energy for these discussions, in which Mr Ario invited us to open our minds and dig around to see what was there.
The spirit of Mr Ario’s class did not take hold for another twenty years, when I stumbled upon a book by Krishnamurti. Then began a love affair with the real meaning and work of education—‘to draw out’. Krishnamurti did not write a teacher’s manual but thankfully the staff met for hours every week to discuss things, and for the next five years until his death, I enjoyed the privilege of attending the annual series of discussions with faculty and parents. In exploring issues together I learned the power of enquiry, of a state of learning and finding-out that is both ferociously alive and also silent, markedly different from accumulating information. I noticed the mind squirming, as authority was wrested from teachers, priests, parents, and from Krishnamurti himself; my dusty confusion sprouting questions rather than answers! Spanish poet Antonio Machado made sense, “…there is no path. The path is made by walking.”
So many unknowns and expectations flooded my mind the summer before my first year of teaching at Oak Grove. Someone suggested that all classes begin with silence, but silence was even more unfamiliar to me than inward looking. I was an ‘experienced and credentialed’ teacher, but my experience was a liability which prevented fresh, new and innovative thinking. I feared entering the classroom without some tried and tested gimmicks. I feared loss of control, students in disengaged chaos, the school Director’s disappointment and disapproving parents. It took weeks to simply get over the shock of being in a new school: from sixty students to eight; from parents who didn’t attend conferences to parents hovering nearby; from asphalt surfaces to acres of rolling oak woodland; from a state-mandated curriculum, high stakes testing and graffitied textbooks to student-driven programs, no grades and hand-made resources; from smoke-filled teachers’ lounges with grumpy, bored, tenured teachers on strike to teachers enquiring about love for learning and grateful for half the salary of their former jobs.
So this door called ‘inward looking’... what is it exactly? I often share with my students what Carl Jung said, ‘the deeper we go into ourselves as particular and unique, the more we find the whole human species,’ or the lines excerpted from the poem, Now I Become Myself by May Sarton:
Now I Become Myself
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces[…]
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root.
I have found that if students develop a working vocabulary, and a reference point or prior activity with the notions of self-reflection, and the nature of thinking, they are more equipped to openly address sticky situations. Because they are also less self-identified, role-playing and script writing exercises are more helpful. One of my favourite no-fail activities is to enact and discuss Anderson’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. This story is guaranteed to bring piercing insight into human behaviour. What about introducing the shadow side of humanity, to take time to find all of the characters residing in each of us? Writing and then enacting various scripts that explain the royal court members’ behaviours can be hilarious. I also like various poems or quotes, such as this one from economist E.F. Schumacher, “…the whole of mankind is in mortal danger not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we use it destructively, without wisdom. Education is for people to learn inner clarity, to understand the meaning and purpose of life.”
Many situations in schools and day-to-day operations border on the surreal, and others can be heavy and overwhelming. But all these most likely require creative problem solving and open communication. I wonder what it would take for right intention to marry right action in everyday life. In educational settings I have witnessed thousands of complex and difficult situations restored amicably. With thoughtful intent, careful and active listening, and competent speaking, issues have been deconstructed to reveal the misunderstandings and assumptions. When I notice that my actions or those of others have triggered misunderstandings and confusion, or that words that I or others have spoken have fallen short of one’s intentions of goodwill and respect, I find myself drawn inward, the mind searching to reassure itself amidst the scolding chatter. Reflecting on the complex, nuanced and intertwined nature of language and relationships and our habituation to thought and ego-driven action, we sometimes need to rest in our confusion. Resting in confusion or in anger is an unfamiliar exercise, but one that supports our need to authentically experience difficulties.
Why is the power that propels people to behave so incoherently stronger, apparently, than the power to behave from intelligence or insight? Reflecting on the kernel of why our actions range so far from the espoused intention is critical to exploring among students, parents and colleagues. Krishnamurti certainly shed light on the human condition, yet we who have held his teachings foremost in our hearts have been fraught with long-standing unresolved conflicts. Why haven’t we been more effective in resolving conflicts and sustaining our relationships? After nearly five decades in education, I find myself not knowing what is gained and what is lost. Stumped and disheartened about the wasted energy of conflict and sometimes euphoric when we come together ‘to understand our complex natures and the vast field of our existence’.
The listening that is required for self-understanding is rare. But when it happens, a kind of collective barn-raising is possible—where communion and community rather than individuality is birthed in that moment. Perhaps teachers and parents will put knowledge in its right place, listen adeptly to the children and to the earth and consider what the first century Roman philosopher Seneca said, “As long as you live, keep learning how to live”.
*All quotes attributed to J Krishnamurti, unless otherwise stated