‘Unconditioning’ the Minds of the Educator and the Student

‘So, our problem is not so much the child, the boy or the girl, but the teacher, the educator, who needs educating much more than the pupil. And to educate the educator is far more difficult than to educate the child, because the educator is already set, fixed. He merely functions in a routine, because he is really not concerned with the thought process, with the cultivation of intelligence.’
— Krishnamurti.

Here in this brief statement is a leitmotif which runs through all of Krishnamurti’s teachings on education and is a constant concern for teachers in the Krishnamurti schools. This concern about the thought process and the cultivation of the intelligence, particularly of the educator, is a theme which runs through almost all the articles in this issue of the Journal. The challenge Krishnamurti poses to the teachers is: ‘Can the adult teachers who have, through their life experiences, become set and fixed in habits of thought and feeling, and in images about the world and about themselves, undo these fixations and become open to reality and to people, especially to the children in their care? Can they ‘uncondition’ themselves into being open, and cultivate flexibility in meeting situations in life as a whole, and in the process educate children in the art of meeting life?’

Two articles which describe the challenges involved in these questions are Siddharth Menon’s piece ‘Breaking Walls and Amending Fences: Some Thoughts on Unconditioning at School’, and Viju Jaithirtha’s article ‘The School as a Centre for Inquiry for Adults: Inviting Parents into the School’.

In Siddharth’s article, he uses the wall which divides the lands of two farmers in Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall as a metaphor for the enclosing walls of habitual biases and prejudices which even very young students develop. He describes the challenges which this tendency on the part of the children pose to the adults in the school, who themselves need to be constantly aware of their own tendencies to become rigid and fixed in their ways, and to quickly apply a ‘surgical’ solution when facing situations of potential disorder. Or there may be a temptation to simply evade the responsibility of engaging with students and colleagues in situations of conflict. The author suggests that while boundaries may be necessary in order to preserve spaces between people, these boundaries may be thought of as being fences which could be shifting and tacit (‘amendable’) rather than as walls which are fixed and set. Since to amend is to ameliorate, such amendment would enhance the ability to be responsive to change. And responsiveness is a much-needed quality if we are to preserve basic values of honesty, decency and respect for life as a whole, which are so much under threat today.

Viju Jaithirtha’s article describes how Shibumi, a small group of teachers in Bangalore, took up Krishnamurti’s challenge of ‘educating the educator’. Being an ‘alternative school’ is normally taken to be almost synonymous with being ‘child-centred’. But in Shibumi this motto was turned around when it declared itself to be ‘a centre of adults interested in selfinquiry and the teachings of Krishnamurti’ and said that there was an educational programme available for such interested adults. This required that the parents’ role in this centre was not confined just to entrusting their children to the care of the teachers, but to that of being responsible, not only to the children, but in the spirit of Krishnamurti’s teachings to inquiring whether ‘human consciousness can be transformed’. The article gives examples of parents’ sensitive responses to this situation of being part of an ‘adult centre’ committed to such an enormous responsibility. This is an account of how Shibumi has developed into a place in which the adults are continuously involved in this process not only through dialogues between themselves, but through the very practical tasks of the day-today running of the school.

Two articles which deal with the question of ‘unconditioning’ versus closure and rigidity in human consciousness, from an explicitly ‘philosophical’ angle, are ‘The Autobiographical Self: A Case of Mistaken Identity’ by Shashidhar and ‘Exploring Self-Awareness at IIT-Madras’ by Dr Devdas Menon. For hundreds of thousands of parents and their children in India, an entry gained into one of the Indian Institutes of Technology is ‘Paradise Gained’ and the failure to gain entry is ‘Paradise Lost’. Dr Menon, who teaches at IIT-Madras, describes how, far from being paradises, the IITs are rather hot-houses in which the majority of students cultivate success and careerism at the cost of losing awareness of the inner world of the self and of empathy for others. This article is an account of an experiment being made at IIT-Madras to introduce an accredited, structured course of inner development and awareness, inspired by the Upanishadic and Yogic spiritual traditions of the country. The course is conducted through open-ended discussions, talks and study circles, and has been welcomed by many students who have opted for it. In the positive response received for this course, Dr Menon sees signs of hope that many more young people in the country will be interested in undertaking the spiritual inner journey of self-exploration and self-awareness. In his article ‘The Autobiographical Self’, Shashidhar raises the question of the origin of the primordial sense of being an enduring, enclosed and fixed self which all human beings have, and asks whether this sense is based on reality or is an illusion. Neurobiological research suggests that the strong sense of being the centre of all happenings in the body is the result of the body’s need for survival, thus giving rise to a ‘biological self’. What is problematic is the extension of this sense of a separate biological self to the psychological and social spheres, which gives rise to the ‘autobiographical self’, felt as the centre of the personal ‘psychodramas’ in which all human beings live. The carry-over of the ‘self model’ from the biological to the psychological sphere seems to be an illusion which only gets strengthened if we try to end it. However, the author suggests that this need not lead to an attitude of despair, but could be used as a spur to engage in mindful observation of this illusion-producing process. The author is sanguine that such observation will help us to not be caught in the web of maya!

Another article which has as its central theme the dissolution of the fixations and conditionings that are embedded not only in our minds but in our bodies, and explores this theme in a very direct ‘non-intellectual’ way, is Jayaram’s piece about the Himalayan trekking trips undertaken every year by a group of teachers and senior students of The Valley School. This piece describes how these Himalayan trips are not just long treks over difficult mountain terrains, undertaken to test and stretch the participants’ physical endurance limits, but are inner journeys into themselves in which many habits and fixations of body mind and feelings are dissolved and many valuable insights gained. There is a growth in humility and reverence in the face of the majesty of the mountains and in the ability to be in solitude with oneself. The participants learn to surrender themselves to the flows and rhythms of nature and experience the gifts of the senses intensely. The deeper layers of consciousness are exposed in a very natural way in the presence of the innate meditative quality of the mountains. The author shows how these treks are exercises in ‘unconditioning’ the whole person in a very living experiential way.

Two articles which are pedagogical in content, but which also implicitly deal with the question of how the rigidities and fixations in the minds of children can be overcome, are Marina Basu’s ‘Playing with Numbers or Delving into History’ and Usha Mukunda’s ‘A Vital Role for the Librarian’. The learning of mathematics has tyrannized the minds of millions of children the world over for the better part of the last hundred years. Marina Basu shows how children who have been fixated in varying degrees of fear, dislike and diffidence in learning mathematics can be helped to relax and enjoy playing with numbers. She narrates how she gets her children to come upon their own insights into numbers by showing them that numbers are not just ‘brute facts’ in the world which behave in mysterious ways, but are human constructs. One such construct through which the study of mathematics took a giant leap was the invention of ‘zero’ as a place holder, along with the invention of the decimal number system. By showing them the history of this Indian invention, the author gets the children to invent their own number systems and thus overcome their fear of numbers. Usha Mukunda, in her article, has an amusing classification of children as readers: ‘tortoises’ (slow readers), ‘bulls’ (raging readers) and ‘burros’ (resistant or hesitant readers). The article describes the ways in which she inveigled the ‘burros’ into reading more, by observing where their interests lay and what their strengths were, for example, sports, craft work, animals, desire for order and cleanliness and so on. Exposing these children to books in these areas, and thus getting them to read more, dissolved many rigid attitudes of dislike for books and reading in their minds.

A school in which openness and flexibility are in-built in the diverse nature of the student body and the staff is ‘Marudam’, a small school in the outskirts of the small south Indian town of Tiruvannamalai. This school has a variegated mix of students and teachers who come from the villages, the cities and even from foreign countries. In the article ‘Integrative Education: A Story of Marudam’, Arun and Poornima describe how there is an ‘un-conditioning’ process built into the diversity of the school, as persons from different backgrounds have willy-nilly to learn from each other—the city children learning to be more ‘physical’ and to work with their hands from their village school-mates, and the villagers learning to read more and be more ‘academic’ than they were inclined to be earlier. Everyone has to learn to be bilingual, and both Tamil and English are used in the school. This bilingualism necessarily promotes mental flexibility and the ability to be at ease with people of different cultural backgrounds. Many other such practices in this school are expressly designed to loosen up the conditionings brought about by differences in class, income levels, nationality and so on, of both students and the teachers.

The study of the sciences is rendered difficult for many students by the demands of the syllabus which is often formula-ridden, and by time constraints dictated by examinations. In their article ‘Celebrating Science’, Kavita Krishna and Deepak Ramachandran describe the work done and the learning gained at a ‘Science Mela’ organized at the Rishi Valley School to explore science in an open-ended way by getting the students to ask their own questions relating to different disciplines (Biology, Chemistry, Botany and Physics) and to set up their own experiments for answering these questions. Though things did not always work out as expected, much more real knowledge was gained through these ‘failures’ than is possible through routine learning for the examinations. The whole approach to learning the sciences is thus ‘loosened’ up, and the students get to look at learning the sciences as a process of creative discovery.

T.M. Krishna, a Krishnamurti school alumnus and well-known musician, in his article ‘The Spirit of Art in a Classroom’ tells how art has become categorized and ‘used’ both in ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ ‘schools. In the former, the arts are treated either as ‘extracurricular’ add-ons to the hardcore subjects, or as one more means of competitive achievement by students. In the alternative schools they become modes of self-expression. The question which Krishna asks is whether the teacher can infuse the spirit of art, which is the discovery of beauty in all living experience, into the teaching of Mathematics, Literature or any other subject. His answer is that the creative spirit of art can indeed be brought into the teaching of academic subjects ‘if educators can engage with themselves as artists’ which will happen with ‘the teacher’s own discovery of beauty within learning that she shares’.

While Marina Basu’s article describes ways of undoing children’s tendency to get fixated in fearful feelings about Mathematics, Arvind Ranganathan’s piece ‘Learning the Craft of Teaching’ deals with the fixations of both students and teachers. This article is both about helping children to ‘move consciously from a fixed idea of (inborn) talent...to a more engaging frame of mind’ and about how the teacher himself may have to ‘unfix’ notions of not having an inborn talent for teaching. The article describes how, just as he helps the children who are fearful of Mathematics to realize that they certainly know some things with certainty (one plus one is equal to two) and to thus gradually go up a ‘ladder of skills’ and consequently grow in confidence, he builds his own confidence as a teacher by preparing adequately for classes, learning to ‘play with’ the subject’s content, experimenting with different ways of presenting the content (videos instead of ‘chalk and talk’) not hesitating to get feedback from both teacher-colleagues and students and through co-teaching with colleagues. The article is a description of how he grew in confidence as a teacher by exercising the ‘explorative freedom available in a Krishnamurti school’.

N. Vaishnavi’s piece on ‘The Mind of the Middle-Schooler’ is about the teacher being open at the emotional level to the thoughts and feelings of children of ten to twelve years of age, who are growing up fast. Understanding each child comes only when the teacher sets aside her own fixed ideas and preconceptions, and openly shares feelings and thoughts with the child. She illustrates with anecdotes how this attitude of openness works to gain important insights into the mind of the growing child. The article is suffused with feelings of empathy which the author has with the lives of the children she teaches.

Geeta Waters’s ‘A Living Foundation: Being Educated with Krishnamurti’ is a celebratory account of her years as a student in a Krishnamurti school during which she learnt the art of watching her thoughts. It is an expression of gratitude for having been taught this art from a very young age so that she realized how words could mislead (‘the word is not the thing’) and how the young mind develops false images about the self and about other people. She describes how ‘the awakening of intelligence’ through such watching resulted in the reawakening of her own interest in education when her children were born. She learnt that it is never too early to engage children in this inquiry to ‘uncondition’ the mind.

Kartik Kalyanram’s piece ‘Stepping out: Issues and Challenges of Leaving School’ and Gautama’s ‘Challenge of School Education in Our Times’ are both concerned with the question ‘After school, what?’ Invariably this question is taken to be about what course of study and consequent career the student is planning to undertake after leaving school. These articles are not about this pragmatic question, but about how far and in what way the Krishnamurti schools prepare students to meet life in the ‘wider world’ when they step into it. Gautama’s piece articulates the widely accepted consensus about the deleterious impact which the world-wide consumerist culture promoted by corporate interests is having on young lives. This culture promotes very many dysfunctionalities, the most destructive of these being the inability to live harmoniously in close relationships with spouses, children and friends. The questions asked in the article are about the extent to which Krishnamurti schools help their students to discover the inner resources to meet the dysfunctionalities of today’s world, by encouraging their potential for collaboration and cooperation with others, and to accept that there may be multiple rather than singular ‘right’ answers to the same question.

Kartik’s piece is also about the dangers and challenges facing students of Krishnamurti schools when they step out into the ‘wider world’. After having spent several years in an atmosphere which is rather cocooned and protected by certain special ways of thinking and relating with friends and teachers, these students may very well find themselves all at sea in the world which could prove to be a very rough place indeed in which aggressive competition prevails in all activities of student life, and especially in academics. The article outlines a formal programme conducted by the author for the students leaving Rishi Valley School, in which they were given glimpses of some of the less savoury aspects of the milieu they are about to enter: lax attitudes about sexual relationships, about the use of drugs, tobacco and alcohol, the prevalence of financial frauds, cyber bullying and so on. The purpose of this programme was to help the students to be ‘aware of themselves and their (new) environment at all times’.

In most of the articles in this issue of the Journal, the authors describe their efforts towards ‘unconditioning’ their own minds and the minds of the children in their care. Tanuj Shah, a teacher in the Rishi Valley School, in his article ‘Schooling, Exams and Livelihoods: Parents’ Perspectives on Education’, describes the reverse process of how very strong conditioning of a certain kind has a hold over schools serving very different sections of society. Having taken a year’s sabbatical from the school, he describes his experience of working with three schools in Gujarat (a school for tribal children, an ‘alternative’ school, and a Gujarati-medium school based on Gandhian values) and an English-medium school run by an NGO in Bangalore for children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In working with these schools in very different economic and social settings, and talking to the parents of the children, the author finds that a single anxiety is almost the sole driving force behind the functioning of all these schools, namely the anxiety about livelihoods. ‘Will my child be able to earn a good livelihood after getting this education?’ is the single question that obsesses the parents. As corollaries to this anxiety come the obsession with examinations, with the knowledge supposedly enshrined in textbooks and with marks which ‘take on a life of their own’. These obsessions have a flattening effect both on the innate creativity of the children and on educational thinking in the country as a whole. The result is that only a sub-standard education is given to vast numbers of children especially in the rural areas, and a whole generation of children grows up which has neither any prospect of employment in the formal sector, nor the willingness or the skills to work with the hands in other occupations. In this depressing scene, the author sees the need for the Krishnamurti schools to continue to deepen their efforts in the light of Krishnamurti’s vision of education and to spread their models of teaching-learning.

The last piece in the Journal is an appreciate review by Manju Bhatnagar and Rima Anand of a series of textbooks called the ‘Hindi Ki Duniya Series’ for teaching Hindi to very young non-Hindi speaking children, written by Chandrika Mathur. As a very refreshing contrast to the usual lifeless, dull and mechanically produced textbooks, the reviewers find this series of books to be written in a very lively style which is bound to appeal to the children, who would also be attracted to the contents of the accompanying CD containing poems, songs and conversation pieces. These textbooks are highly recommended by the reviewers for teaching Hindi to young children in the non-Hindi-speaking parts of the country.

‘Unconditioning’ is not a word recognized by the dictionary. Neither was this chosen as the ‘lead theme’ of this issue of the Journal by the editors when soliciting articles. It is a measure of the impact which Krishnamurti’s teachings on education has had on the minds of the teachers in the Krishnamurti schools, and in the schools inspired by his vision, that this theme of the undoing and ‘loosening’ up of set, fixed ways of thinking, feeling and behaviour has ‘spontaneously’ emerged as a common thread that runs through most of these articles. And it is all the more remarkable that many of the articles are as much concerned with the education of the educator who is ‘already set, fixed’, as with the education of the child.