Culture classes have become an integral part of the curriculum at most K schools, yet their scope and purpose remain obscure. They remain a side activity, and - despite the name!- have relatively little to do with the dominant culture of the school. This note examines the issue of culture classes in general, and wonders how they can be integrated into the curriculum.
The term 'culture class' unfortunately conveys very little, and it certainly gives no clue to what is to be done in the class. Is it supposed to be a 'moral science' class (God forbid!)? Does the word 'culture' refer to Indian culture? To human culture? To a historical study of man? To culture in the sense of dance and music? Should one discuss world events and their implications in the manner of a TV news analyst? If a new teacher were asked to take a culture class, he would in all likelihood be at a loss, for there is no pre-decided curriculum, no model to copy. It is therefore not surprising that individual teachers adopt very different approaches. In Rishi Valley, certainly every teacher who takes culture classes follows a somewhat different approach. Perhaps it is appropriate at this point in time that we step back and look carefully at what we are doing.
Legacies from Krishnamurti
Consider K as a teacher - a teacher who has worked out a unique way of communicating his teachings. How would we describe his approach? If one examines the conversations that are portrayed in, say, the Commentaries, one soon notices a certain 'style' to them. There is a sense of time and patience in his speech, a sense of deliberation, of slowness and gentleness; there is tenderness, yet there is great power too. And there is great skill in the way he uses words; one finds poetry, lyricism and also precision. One can look upon him as an artist, working on a large canvas on which the whole of the human psyche is gradually being portrayed, in delicate but revealing strokes. In some curious manner, as the painting takes shape, one finds one's own story taking form in it; the painting is in no way personal, yet one's story appears in it.
By and by, as the dialogue proceeds, K tugs away at one's assumptions, questioning everything; and the assumptions fall away, one by one. Gradually the futility and emptiness of self-centred activity are seen. By now one has been painted into a corner; which way is there left to go?
In following this approach, K appears to be expressing an insight which he often emphasizes - that when something within the psyche comes to an end, something radically new must take its place.
Can we, to the extent that we have not discovered these insights ourselves, adopt this method? We may be trying to do just this in our culture classes! If so, are we attempting something impossible? Should we not find our own approach?
When K first began to teach, he had no model to copy, no format to adhere to: he had to create his own language and metaphor-anew medium, as it were. His early talks and writings reflect his difficulties very clearly. In Mary Lutyens' book, TheYears of Awakening, we find the following quote from a letter of K's to Lady Emily Lutyens:
I feel that, especially the last month, I have realized something that gives greater fullness to life. All this is so badly expressed, and by constantly expressing and talking about it one hopes to make it clearer and clearer. It's all very strange. The more I think of what I have 'realized', the clearer I can put it and help to build a bridge but that takes time and continual change if phrases, so as to give true meaning - You have no idea how difficult it is to express the inexpressible and what's expressed is not truth. So it goes on! [March 26, 1932]
Yet in a short space of time he had developed the language and approach and rich metaphor which would be seen in the decades to come as uniquely his. Aldous Huxley was one of the first to read K's private jottings and he was deeply touched by their originality and power. It was as a result of his prompting that The First and Last Freedom came to be published, and so too for Commentaries on Living.
K insisted that there be no interpreters of the teachings; that no one should take on a mantle of leadership and authority with regard to his work. At the same time he asked us not to shy away from sharing our insights with others. He pointed out that when one sees a fact for oneself, experiences its actuality, its texture as it were, it is no longer a borrowed insight, nor is it second-hand knowledge. Then one can talk about it; and one will find one's own metaphor, one's own words. In this there is no interpretation, no falling back on authority. In Letters to the Schools-I he asks whether the teacher can talk directly to the student about how the self forms:
Is it not possible to explain to him that when he insists 'this is mine' or boasts 'I did it' or avoids through fear a certain action, he is building a wall, brick by brick, around himself? Is it not possible when his desires, his sensations overpower his rational thinking, to point out that the shadow of self is growing? Is it not possible to say to him that where the self is, in any guise, there is no love?But the student might ask the educator, 'Have you realized all this or are you just playing with words?' That very question might awaken your own intelligence and that very intelligence will give you the right feeling and the right words and answer.
To what extent can one do this in a culture class?
On Asking Questions: The Nature of Dialogue
There are certain implicit difficulties associated with culture classes. It is all too easy to get bogged down in issues that pertain mainly to the immediate and local; in other words, get occupied in solving problems. Yet it is precisely such questions that seem to hold the most appeal for students, for their world tends to be a small one, limited by the immediate problems they face in their life at school.
A legacy which we have inherited from K is the art of asking questions and the art of dialogue. K held that asking the right question was of the greatest importance - provided that the question was really one's own, not borrowed from somebody else. And there is an art to inquiry, he held, to asking questions that are neither excessively personal nor of such generality that they lack content. 'A right question will reveal its own answer to you', he would say, 'allow it to flower, to express itself.' There is also an art to investigation: not being in a hurry to find an answer, not accepting an answer provided by another. Can we, then, through our culture classes corne upon questions that have vastness and depth and help us gather our energies?
David Bohrn once wrote in an essay titled On Dialogue that etymologically the words 'discussion' and 'percussion' are clsoe to one another, whereas 'dialogue' has a different connotation: there is a shared awareness about something with great depth and significance, and silence has as much, or greater, importance than the spoken word. He would often narrate his observations about the dialogue sessions that certain native American tribes held when there was a rnajor issue to be resolved. He found the sessions to he punctuated by long periods of silence; relatively little was actually said, yet in the end the problem seems to have gotten resolved.
What kind of issues are appropriate for examining in a culture class? Listed below are some of the issues which I personally have discussed with students.
- Gossip - Why do we talk about others behind their backs? Why do hurnan beings seern to derive pleasure frorn talking about others? Here is Arnbrose Bierce defining 'Happiness' in his perky little book titled The Devil's Dictionary: 'An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the rnisery of another'. What is this streak which we find in so rnany human beings?
- Why are human beings cruel? What is cruelty? Cruelty towards anirnals, towards hurnan beings? Why do we feel pleasure at the pain of another? From where does cruelty originate? Is it a habit?
- What is respect? Why is it that the world over we respect accomplishment, skill and power so greatly? Do these constitute genuine respect? Is it possible to respect a human being simply as a human being? What does listening have to do with respect?
- The question of 'pairing' -' Pairing' between boys and girls is an inevitable phenomenon in our schools, given their residential, co-educational status. How is one to view this apparently very natural phenomenon? What are the cultural influences at work? What are the effects of pairing on younger children on the campus? In what manner is the question connected with the issue of freedom? A student once asked, 'Are you not impeding the natural development of children by coming in the way of their impulses?' How does one respond to this viewpoint?
- What does it mean to grow up slowly? We value slowness of growth greatly in the K schools. What does this actually mean? What makes for 'fast' or 'unnatural' growth? What role does the media play in growth?
- Is there such a thing as an undistorted mind? What makes for harmonious growth? What is a balanced personality? What is the right attitude towards talent? Is it possible to not identify with talent? To simply regard it as a gift, to be very simple about it, to not feel that one owns it?
- Why do we hold images about others? Why do we find it so hard to shed the images we hold about other people? Why do human beings find it so hard to live together? Why do we so rarely solve our problems directly and completely? Why do we not resolve misunderstandings the very moment they arise?
It is obvious that there are infinitely many such questions that one can take up for discussion. The important factor, perhaps, is the manner in which one approaches the issue - this may be more important than the issue itself. The real question is: What will it take for students to learn the art of inquiry, the art of asking questions, and the art oflooking?
Feedback from Students
I have been taking culture classes for many years, and each time the experience is different. With some batches of students, the themes discussed have been far-ranging, touching on subtle and deep issues. With other batches it has been difficult to sustain a discussion even on simple issues. Why does this happen? It is not easy to say. In part it may be because of excessively little initiative on the part of the students, but there is also the matter of class chemistry and the complexities of student-teacher relationship.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by the teacher is that students rarely if ever pursue on their own questions raised during the culture class. As a result each discussion starts afresh, on square one as it were. It is little wonder that many students feel that 'we do not seem to be getting anywhere'.
I quote below some sentences said to me during feedbacksessions.
- 'You never answer a question directly. When a question is asked, you pose another question in return.'
- 'When a question is asked, you never answer it directly. Instead, you are silent and allow further questions to be posed. In this you seem evasive.'
- 'We never seem to get anywhere. We reach somewhere, then the theme of the discussion changes and we are back at square one.'
- 'We never seem to complete our discussions. We reach somewhere, then the bell rings and we have to stop.'
- 'I feel that you are selective in taking up students' proposals for discussion. You seem to select only topics which are in some way convenient to you.'
- 'I feel there is a communication gap between us. Somehow you do not really seem to understand us.'
- 'I question the validity of this whole approach. I doubt whether human problems can really be solved by doing what we do in these classes.'
- 'Why don't I participate in the classes? Well, I prefer to let others speak. It is nice to hear what everyone has to say.'
- 'Why don't I participate in the classes? Well, I find it hard to speak in front of others. Also, thoughts don't come into my head fast enough. By the time I think of something to say, the theme has changed and then I feel hesitant to comment on some earlier question.'
In this brief essay I have tried to articulate some of the issues and difficulties involved in holding a culture class. I feel that it may be a good idea to hold a workshop devoted to exploring the question, 'What can one do in a culture class?', and to compile a booklet summarising thc experiences which different teachers have had in holding such classes.