In this piece I will discuss an Anthropology module we did at Brockwood, as part of a new class called the ‘Main Lesson’. I will include some of the students’ work, not only as illustrations of what we did in class but also, hopefully, as a way of showing something of what it is like to be a teenager at Brockwood. Finally, some questions are raised about what might be called ‘Brockwood culture’, as one student who was interviewed put it.
Isabelle: ‘I think that everyone who comes has a similar... ’
Isabelle: ‘Yes, something that they all have in common, about the world or about how they look at things... Being here even for a little while, it seems like everyone is, not the same, but has... the same kind of outlook... the importance of questioning and things like that; so I reckon that it isn’t trying to shape us, but it ends up unconsciously shaping us.’
Interviewer: ‘So it’s kind of unconsciously guiding you in a certain direction?’
Isabelle: ‘Yes exactly.’
The Main Lesson
The Main Lesson is a series of modules designed for our new and younger students. It takes place during the first two periods of every school day. This autumn the group consisted of eleven students, 13 to 16 years old. The pastoral dimension of the course is very important. Starting at the same time every day, with the same teacher, should set the tone for the day, emphasising order, cooperation and responsibility. Students are expected to learn about the intentions of the school and how the way we live is related to those intentions, including the fact that Brockwood is a multicultural community. This autumn there were three month-long modules. The first, called Sense of Place, Sense of Self, was intended as an introduction to ways of observing one’s surroundings and oneself. The second module, Physics Around Us, developed skills of scientific investigation. The third module was Anthropology, which I will now describe.
The Anthropology Module
The module centred on being a teenager. We explored the relationships between the students’ backgrounds, Brockwood culture and the international youth culture that exists among the students at Brockwood. We wanted the students to begin to understand how the environment shapes our behaviour and how we help shape the environment. Students investigated Brockwood culture, using the research methods developed in anthropology. A critical inquiry into the process of observation was part of this. We also wanted the students to write an authentic anthropological report which could be used later (as I have done in this article). The report plus several assignments that the students handed in during the module formed the basis for assessment.
To help design the module and the research project, I invited Helena Nilsson as an ‘outside expert’. She shared her knowledge of anthropology with me and came to the class several times to facilitate the research projects that the students were doing. Her support has been very valuable. Doing a fairly authentic project helped make clear the relevance of the discipline and contributed to‘problematising’ the subject matter. It also allowed for the students to use more than just verbal skills. We also had to take into account that the students in the class varied greatly in their ability to read and write English; apart from age differences, about half the students were non-native English speakers and some had learning difficulties or had had practically no formal schooling. Thus there had to be a differentiation of tasks as well as of outcomes. Doing authentic 48 activities and providing clear models for the intended outcomes of the assignments allowed for this to happen in a harmonious way, as it made it possible for the students to make valid contributions at their own levels.
(i) Growing up in different cultural settings
Throughout the module we learned about being a teenager in different cultural settings. One student wrote: ‘Culture definitely shapes us in many ways. We live in a certain culture and just grow up to believe in certain things. I think that culture is very important in your early life because you believe in everything you hear. When one studies some exotic tribes like Mbuti, one notices that they have all sorts of myths, traditions, a whole way of growing up and living. ... My opinion is that every myth, tradition or whatever, is made with some purpose. In a school like Eton (one of England’s elite secondary boarding schools) discipline, tradition, excellence and culture are everything. When you grow up in a school like that, you get out of it with a different angle of looking at life (from) the other people. I cannot say what for sure, but probably the things that the school values, things like discipline and tradition.’
As a contrast to what we had seen on a video about Eton, we watched a video about Summerhill, as an example of a very different tradition in western education. It provoked strong reactions in the students. Some liked what they saw: ‘This school seems like (it) is trying to liberate young people from the influences (of) culture. ... the students and staff members relate well to each other, they seem to share equal appreciation about freedom... After Summerhill, the teenagers must have acquired an appreciation of personal freedom and also be able to carry responsibility on their shoulders.’ Others made a very different, and I think equally valid, interpretation: ‘When I (saw the video about) Eton I thought it’s crazy, but I didn’t feel (it was as) crazy as Summerhill, because my own culture in Japan is also a bit like (Eton) and I know (what) it’s like.’
The students wrote an essay about their own cultural backgrounds and what is expected of them there. Except for one half-Japanese, half-Swiss boy who lives in Japan, all the students were from western countries. All felt they are expected to get an education and then a job. They experienced different degrees of pressure to conform, and it seems that all the parents stress the importance of their making their own lifestyle choices. One girl concluded that, ‘Basically the only expectation is that the teenager will fall into one of a wide range of categories (punk, teenybopper, skater, etc.) and comply with the common actions and‘rules’ of the category. As long as you fit into one of the categories, you are‘normal’, even if the category is that of a ‘rebel’.’
Another girl wrote: ‘What society expects is... tricky. Because in a way society expects teenagers to behave in school and be respectful at home, etc. But in another sense it creates this monster image of teenagers, that they are uncooperative, arrogant, rude, party animals, that don’t care about anyone but themselves, (or maybe their boyfriends)! And because of this image I think that many teenagers feel they have to live up to this image... So overall I find it pretty confusing.’
The students also analysed gender differences in youth magazines, comparing a girls’ magazine with one read by the boys at Brockwood, looking at the language and imagery used, the topics and the advertisements.
(ii) Studying Brockwood culture
We felt that doing the research on campus, with a focus on ‘being a teenager’, would be both practical and relevant to the students. We asked them to find a Brockwood myth and to describe a ‘boundary event’, an incident in which one member of the community points out what one should or should not do at Brockwood. The students were also asked to observe their fellow students in the evenings and take field notes. This is part of one student’s discussion of her notes: ‘I have observed teenage students at Brockwood Park during their free time, hanging out. I have observed them eating, playing music, participating in folk dancing, doing homework, sitting quietly, holding discussions, etc. I have noticed that Brockwood students are very laid-back, very calm and very funloving. There is also a very mixed amount of the sense of responsibility. Some students take homework very seriously and do it while their friends play around them, and others drop their pens to dance…Students seem very comfortable with each other, although there are some unpopular students who are slightly shut out. Popular people don’t really hang out with them. Otherwise, students seem very warm and happy. They all seem to see the importance of friendship and having fun but also of schoolwork.’
The students interviewed both a student and a member of staff, to find out what is expected of a student at Brockwood. One student’s discussion of her interviews went like this: ‘The student that my group interviewed seemed to think that the expectations of students at Brockwood were ultimately that we not only respect but live according to K’s teachings and, even though we are told 50 to question society, K is imposed upon us as a way of life. We are, in the student’s opinion, expected to attend morning meetings and comply with the agreements.’ Then she discussed the interview she did with a staff member: ‘The staff member commented that students may have the wrong idea about what is expected of them at Brockwood Park, that they may think that they are expected to attend morning meetings and be ‘good’ students. He said, ‘that they can be doing things like that and not (be) learning anything... but that’s not what we want...’ Later, the staff member said that we are expected to question society, as well as K. We are expected to know the teachings of K, but not necessarily follow them without question.’
As to the kind of adult that is envisaged to come out of Brockwood, most students found something along these lines: ‘Brockwood wants to get selfmotivated adults who... know how to relate in a community and with other people.’ Or: ‘It seems to me as though the kind of adult that is supposed to grow out of a student at Brockwood is a responsible, self-reliant and clear one. Adults who are very much capable of taking care of themselves.’
Towards the end of the four weeks, the students were given a framework and a model for writing up their final report. This was a way of tying all that had been done together, and perhaps drawing some conclusions: ‘I have learned that Brockwood is not as alternative or different in its way of dealing with things and its people as it would like to believe.’ Or: ‘What the people that did this project learned is that culture is a whole way of living according to some rules. It changes over time and some people try to stop (this change) by having traditional ceremonies, explaining that the culture now is good and should be never changed.’
As we progressed through the module, more questions were raised than answered. Some of these I will try to address in future modules. Some of these questions, I feel, need to be addressed at a whole-school level. In one of the discussions in Chalet Tannegg, Krishnamurti talked with Brockwood staff members about creating an ‘atmosphere’ that would have its effect on the students‘instantly’, or at the latest within a week of their arrival. This atmosphere is, however, very unlike culture as tradition, as a conditioning force. One could say it is the very absence of cultural conditioning that characterises this atmosphere, for here there is no authority, help, guide or example, no dos and don’ts, rewards or punishments, no opinions or prejudices. Something is going on that (the student) cannot categorize. There is a seeing things together, directly, undistorted by tradition and culture. Now, at the end of the module, I feel I have to go back to the beginning and start again. For how can I adequately respond to a student who has just discovered that, ‘Culture shapes people’s lives immensely, from the time that we are born until we die? It seems as if it will continue to be one of the most significant parts of life even as we evolve, thousands, maybe millions of years from now.’