The formation called Chakravyuha was used in one of the battles of the Mahabharata. It is a secret and complex formation which is easy to enter, but requires extraordinary knowledge and valour to exit from. Abhimanyu, it is said, heard about the Chakravyuha while in the womb. His father, the great warrior Arjuna, was telling the story of Chakravyuha to his wife. She fell asleep just as he was about to explain the art of getting out of a Chakravyuha. Arjuna stopped. Abhimanyu therefore knew how to enter the Chakravyuha but not how to get out. He perished, a braveyoung lad.

It can be said of the school system, and society, that we have little choice about entry. We all think that the traps can be avoided. However, once in, one rarely gets out — all the elements of the structure work in unison and in complex ways hold one tight. Peers, parents, society, and one’s own nature will ensure bondage. Pleasing people who are around one, reacting to them, resisting them, fearing consequences and such experiences shape one’s patterns of responses. The urge to belong, the ridicule when one steps out of line, hurt, dependence, finding oneself in dangerous situations, acting completely contrary to one’s wisdom in a group — are potent experiences. Potent because they effectively condition.

When Krishnamurti says that he is concerned with ‘setting man unconditionally free’, we see the beauty and the power of such an expression. However, as grownups, we think this statement is relevant mainly to adults. We do not consider it of much relevance in schools or where young people gather.

We need to meet this challenge. The matter becomes poignantly important if we take note of some reports, some facts and some experiences that are common to children and schools. We will try, without being comprehensive, to examine these without anxiety or hurry to see a way out, or to find an answer.

The peer group as a measure of normalcy

Society expects each of us, as we are growing up, to behave largely like all other people of our age. If a child is quiet or dreamy, or another seems to be overly interested in serious matters such as the origin of life, religion, some academic question that is not easily answered, society looks upon these children with some anxiety. ‘Is something wrong?’ masks the disturbing questions — ’Have we done something wrong?’ and ‘Who is to blame?’ And in life one is likely to encounter severe situations where something may be really wrong, where due to unknown reasons the growth of a child is impeded or development is hindered, situations where normal solutions do not hold. So there is a high premium on ‘normalcy’.

In families, as children grow, the main parameter of normalcy is behaviour like other children of the same age. This expectation is natural. How would any of us know for sure that our children are on the right track but for this comparison, this looking left and right? This response to check out seems as naturally programmed as the primordial scan in the periphery of vision by animals in the wild. So it does seem that the checking for reference has validity and some soundness.

Since schools reflect society and the family, the concerns of society are bound to have played a part in shaping the school and its processes. Thus, in the ways schools have cast themselves in the past 150 years, the notion of equality and similarity have played a great role. Both these are sound principles in themselves.

For the purpose of implementing these principles schools had to define their purpose. Learning was readily equated to assimilating handed-down information, and gathering some skills. Though it was recognized that there were more elements involved, the hope was that intelligent handling of knowledge and skills would take care of the rest. In the preoccupation with structuring schools around these principles, in pursuing the idea of an educated population, the reality — that learning is more than assimilating handeddown information and gathering skills — was neglected. And this has made its impact felt.

Children in school are usually clustered together in the same age group. This seems to be born of the assumption that children of the same age learn better or are easier to instruct. And yet the image of the classic truant schoolboy, adorable, human, suffering, laughing and somehow surviving in the midst of expectations, somehow emerging, has surely left its impact on all our minds. We all know this student well. Probably the archetypal girl student is less well known. We know that this highly structured school system has not won the unquestioning loyalty or willingness of students. Many rebelled. “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” said Mark Twain. School, as we know it now, has had a good bit of sadness and drudgery, bordering on injury to the human spirit. Around the folklore of school, less recognized than its achievements, has grown a rumble of voices carrying stories of people lost, surrendering their spirits, reduced to submissiveness and mediocrity. These voices are not strong — these are the voices of the defeated because the system in failing them has left them with a sense of their inadequacy rather than suggesting possibilities.

But why this trauma? Why can’t one just drop out if one finds the going rough and taxing? The answer to this question is very intriguing. As most teachers and parents know the greatest blow to a growing child is that he or she has to leave a class of friends or peers. Peers can often be nasty and difficult, but they offer a sense of belonging — a place where one can stand and be connected to one’s present and future. As a school-leaving student said, ‘My class is a savage and a holy place at thesame time.’

Under threat and insecurity what does the student have except his tribe? And when a group of people are put together, all of the same age, all being taught the same thing, all being set the same work, all wearing the same uniform, there is a message driven in at every turn. The message is clear. ‘You belong here, and however difficult you find it to measure up, this is where you stand. In fact, the more difficult you find it to measure up to adult expectations, the more you need the peer belonging.’ Thus the greater the torment in the young hearts, greater is the bonding with peers.

The peer group as a ladder to success

Furthermore, for jobs and opportunities it matters who you go to school with more than what you learn. Thus if future prosperity and well being are dependent on peers, particularly if the values have been shared and accepted early, peer relationships would naturally matter a great deal. Is it surprising that schools are known by their alumni? People often want to know where the alumni are. This will raise the chances that the students will fit into the upper echelons of society and be taken care of, however poor in academic or achievement terms. The name of the game is ‘rising up the ladder, making a name and finding fame and wealth’.

A recent survey in the U.K. showed that 54 percent of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately, despite fee-paying schools catering to only 7 percent of the school population. That figure has increased from 49 percent in 1986, when the research was last carried out. It is further speculated that the situation must be the same in other walks of life. ‘How can people from 7 percent of the population adequately represent the entire population in a democracy?’ is a difficult question to answer. This survey shows a facet of school life that has hitherto been understood only through the old boys’ network and through the P.G. Wodehouse stories. An empirical survey may not reveal the situation in Indian elite schools and colleges to be very different. Who among us has not heard the words ‘recommendation’ or ‘influence’ for getting an admission, or a job or contracts?

How reminiscent of fairy tales! Go to school, mix with students from other homes who are strangers, belong to a class of students, go through many tumbles and agonies, a necessary rite of passage. An invisible fairy godmother smiles through this process. Lo and behold, the magic kingdom opens its gates: good clothes, wealth and power and a life that fulfils all one’s desires.

School teachers, one must say, have tried hard to stay true to their mandate, the education of a man and woman in values such as goodness, generosity, care. They have tried hard to support the processes of honesty and sincerity, despite the push of deeply ingrained mythology that one must gain wealth and power at any cost. But the social die was cast a long time ago, and it is difficult to bend its directions. As Krishnamurti says so poignantly — ‘the unconscious is under the weight ofcenturies and cannot be turned aside by animmediate necessity.’

The refrain of success

The social die, and the deep mythology of human history, has found new moorings in the last quarter century via the television. Newspapers and books needed effort from the reader to read and digest. The theatre and film medium needed a walk to the venue. Television has converted each home into a theatre, and an animated message board. Each home has become a place to sway opinions, to grab eyeballs — please note, attention is not needed, neither thinking, just eyeballs. The medium of television has mastered the art of bypassing the reasoning faculties, to plant an idea, a notion, and an action-potential node directly in the brain. It has found a way of touching us somewhere deep, a place that is difficult to reach easily through the daily exchanges we have with each other. Television has thus gained great potency and prominence. The message reaching beyond the eyeballs and the eardrums is the ancient refrain, reiterated, re-echoed, re-intoned, resounding with little or no confusion, that ‘success is important, rise above the mass; the good life means having good things, riding in shiny cars’.

Young people in our times, children, are being programmed to proceed in an ancient direction. Education at school, while attempting feebly to impart some wisdom, has become the springboard for reinforcing the deeper social programming. The ancient thrust for survival and conquest is reinforced in the places where the children gather. Children, through the structures of school, including the same age classrooms, internalize the Orwellian message that each is a clone of the other; all difference is an illusion.

Variation from the norm will attract stringent correction or exclusion measures, much like a quality control process in a manufacturing factory. Once the structure is in place — the large buildings, the corridors and the classrooms holding rows of benches and tables — it is difficult to think in another way.

This is school and this shall be school. Another structure is not school. Small variations on the theme are acceptable. Trees, fountains, gardens are acceptable. Change anything, the colour of the walls, the shape of furniture, and yet nothing will change. The fixed assumptions remain.

This is the Chakravyuha, easy to enter and almost impossible to leave whole. It is learnt almost in the womb, the art of entering the Chakravyuha. Krishnamurti says, ‘a child comes to school at the age of three already conditioned.’ All the steps in one’s life, the patterns of behaviour, of conditional care, of affection turning violent, of friendships that demand compliance in behaviour, of seeking security in a group, of targeting the outsider, of gloating about and lamenting the state of affairs alternately, seeking success, harmless success, of wanting to be above others, seeking recognition and power, of desiring what the neighbour has, of gender stereotypes, are from parts of the Chakravyuha. In other words, ‘I am what others wish me to be’, however much I may wish to be otherwise. The market forces are powerful and insidious, with media and advertising forming a faceless cloud that surrounds one and strips one of the intelligent senses of sight, hearing and discrimination.

Is there a way out?

For the student, the little warrior, the exit is the space to think afresh, the opportunity to question, the examining of the handed-down legacy. Such observation needs space that is free of compulsion and fear. Only there can the thing examined reveal itself in its many hues. However, the challenge does not end here. Even should a new thought surface, it is not easy to act upon it. The tug of belonging, and fear of exclusion, keeps the growing student tethered to the yoke, pulling, huffing, puffing, toiling — feeding the societal mill. Man is in chains everywhere, struggling sometimes, and often giving up, accepting the utter hopelessness of his situation.

For the teacher, the lonely warrior, the struggle translates into the system vs. the individual. All is well as long as one sees that the academic streams keep flowing, the marks stay within permissible limits and the surface of the social mandate is not disturbed. If, unfortunately, this happens, the teacher warrior has to pay the price — banishment or ridicule, not very different from a tribe. Subverting the given mandate is an expression of spirit: refusing to meekly yield to the given rules, rules that demand that one punish and humiliate students; refusing to believe that coercion is the only way out; refusing to use rewards and manipulation. The only other option is to function in the classroom enclave, where secretly, one subverts the social juggernaut.

The lone warrior can inflict only a little damage to the body of the ancient juggernaut, since more is not possible. One can have the satisfaction of not having yielded, of having given fight. But the little wounds become much like dry skin, part of a ritual of renewal, of the gathering of strength. Opposition only serves to strengthen the thing opposed. Subversion enhances the potency of the juggernaut. All is well, as long as the Chakravyuha keeps spinning, drawing each of us in, student, teacher or parent. We are drawn inward, slowly and inexorably, to the centre, where we become fodder for the mill, an ancient mill. Our bones and sinews feed the mill, so do our struggles. Our struggles and protests are not enough to get out of the Chakravyuha.

Examination without prejudice, questioning without fear, finding out for oneself rather than repeating what has been handed down, looking at things as they are — these are recognized virtues. Paradoxically, the entire system works to undermine these. Do we dare as teachers and administrators to crack the mould? Individual teachers have done much, but for the collective of teachers this is a dead end. This is the Cvhakravyuha.

Opportunities are rare for an overhaul, a fundamental refreshing of the palate. Meeting the double bind of educational thinking, where are the people who will remind the student that his thinking is conditioned and offer the opportunity of reflection without compulsion? Who is to do this in the classroom, in a school, all the while fulfilling the mandate of academic education? Are there bands of teachers who find the holding and sharing of such questions, travelling on these ‘paths with heart’, as the most important thing in their lives?

Who will dare to question the supremacy of knowledge, handed-down knowledge? Who is going to open doors of thinking that will make the existing system transform through wisdom rather than continue with habit? The subscription to the ‘norm’ bridles at looking and questioning. Who is there to invite the student to cross thresholds of belonging and loneliness that permit one to think afresh and question clearly?

Who will invite the examination of humankind’s legacy, and the flaws that have made it monstrous? Who will discover how to access the youth, who are conditioned so skilfully by the market forces? Who can find the words and non-verbal ways for such an invitation, for such a communication?

Who is going to ‘show’ that it is possible for human beings to do things ‘differently’? Who is going to find a viable alternative to the deeply entrenched ‘system’ of rows and columns in buildings, timetables and in our thinking? This requires that there must be a rearrangement of the elements of school and schooling so there can be a freeing instead of binding.

Are there teachers who will, together, hold this challenge selflessly; who will gladly and choicelessly travel beyond preferences and dislikes? Individual teachers cannot do much. This is the time for teachers to work together and in concert. It is the difference between living and existence. An exit from the Chakravhyuha is crucial.