Excerpts from a talk given at the International Symposium on ‘Being Alive to Responsible Citizenship: J. Krishnamurti and the Challenge for Education’ February 4, 5, 6, 2010 Delhi University

Oak Grove School began with the following intention and mandates from Krishnamurti. It was to involve parents so there would be no separation for the child between home, school, and the world. The school would also learn from the other Krishnamurti schools but not repeat their traditions or create new ones.

After a year of preparations and dialogues with Krishnamurti the school opened in 1975 with two students and three faculty members. I was one of the teachers and Head of School for the first ten years. We met in our ranch house home, currently the Pepper Tree Retreat which was Krishnamurti’s original home. Later it moved to the campus next to the Oak Grove where Krishnamurti gave his public talks from 1922 to 1985 to hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. There classes met out of doors under the California Oak trees surrounded by wildflowers and warm breezes until permanent buildings came up.

Today it has a full enrollment of 200 children from age three to seventeen years and thirty-five staff. The campus atmosphere is pastoral and peaceful, cultivated but not manicured, and we care for the land and the six principal buildings because it all has to last 500 years or more. ‘Care for the land’ means the whole earth, and every part of life in this beautiful world.

Starting a school with a large and long vision, little money, and worldwide interest was no small undertaking. Architects were mindful of light and space and breeze, and plans were drawn up. Several hundred prospective teachers were interviewed; several dozen families interviewed; and throughout the one year of preparation Krishnamurti met with everyone involved and asked fundamental questions that required a great deal of probing and discussion: Why have a school, and what is education? Can one educate without reward and punishment? How does one educate a young mind? How would the school deal with smoking, alcohol, drugs and pornography? When the psychological aspects of education are as important as the intellectual, how was rigor to be brought about to enable students to enter good learning institutions later on?

Asking the question over and over, ‘What is education?’ had a sobering effect on us all. Resisting the habit of immediately answering the question made it go deeper and deeper—it became the fulcrum of all aspects of learning and living. This kind of exchange became then the modus for all issues; educational philosophy, school policy; the mechanics of administration; and most issues of behaviour and discipline.

Soon we learned that it was easy to talk around, and through issues. This led to confusion that resulted in inaction. Also we saw that it was impossible to bring the whole school community to the same point of understanding. Over the years the concepts of dialogue-on-everything and mandatory-consensus-for decision-making were seen as idealistic and impossible ways to run a school. This kind of practical learning-from-experience coupled with Krishnamurti’s radical educational philosophy resulted in constant challenges to the deeply held ideas and beliefs of all of us.

An example of this was the challenge by Krishnamurti to find out why children don’t respect learning, don’t respect their teachers, parents and each other. This was distilled to ‘What is respect’ and two years of staff meetings, parent conferences, trustee meetings, one-on-one sessions with Krishnamurti resulted in a tentative unsure feeling—the issue was very clear to all but there was no direct action to be taken. Krishnamurti said to the faculty,

‘I am putting you in a corner and forcing you to face things, you can’t experiment on children, and you have to be clear.’

In the course of the first year of the school Krishnamurti said something that deeply affected the school community. He said that the children were not the only important factors. That the teachers were critical to creating the right atmosphere—that if we had competent teachers they would take care of the academic side of learning; so the focus should be on the larger life issues for teachers and students, such as learning based on listening and looking with awareness, self-knowledge and understanding the movement of fear. Then there was the possibility of exploring relationship without conflict by observing the movement of jealousy and comparison in ourselves. Learning to be alone was as important as learning to ask the right question.

I constantly emphasized how the atmosphere of the school was critically conducive to real learning; including the buildings, the environment, and how they were maintained. The campus had many wild and unkempt acres, trails through the woods, minimal landscaping. Buildings were made of local wood and glass, with light and air, and disappeared into the trees. Wild coyotes, lynxes, deer, possums, skunks, squirrels, and raccoons roamed the campus, as we did, making for a natural biology laboratory for the students. There were birds everywhere; hawks, egrets, owls, hummingbirds, sparrows, vultures, blue herons, and red-headed woodpeckers thrived on the campus.

Children learned to respect the land and the creatures that inhabited it. They planted thousands of acorns in milk cartons, then put saplings in the ground and watched them grow, when the old trees fell over. They helped conserve a neighbourhood wetland preserve. They planted a large kitchen garden, several dozen fruit trees and built a straw bale greenhouse nursery to keep the vegetable seedlings ready for the two growing seasons. The students put together a guide book for other schools on how to ‘green’ a campus that was distributed widely.

The other ‘atmosphere’ we stressed was the living psychological and psychic tone of the school. Children learn about themselves and life around them when the atmosphere at home, school, and in their circle of friends is safe and not threatening—hence they are unafraid. ‘It takes a whole village to create, ’ to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton. So security is a fundamental prerequisite for a school, allowing for care and respect for each other. Krishnamurti told the parents how whales and dolphins raise their young in total security and went on to equate the awakening of intelligence with unequivocal security of the brain which is essential to learning. Field trips to Baja California to watch the birthing of whales confirmed his stories

Children grow up understanding order, civility, manners, all leading to a civic code in balance with nature, animals, and fellow human beings.

How did these practical and penetrating ten winters of Krishnamurti’s counsel reach the children? A palpable atmosphere was created on the campus of real physical and psychological security which supports open and free relationships between children and teachers, which lead to serious inquiry, and self-revealing investigation, with no question being off-limits. Guests and visitors comment on this feeling of security and freedom—so palpable in the school even today.