Excerpts from a talk at the National Conference of the National Center for Montessori Education, San Diego, California, March, 1999

As a teacher, educator, and speaker, Krishnamurti had a strong prepossession to awaken in people the ability to learn, and live full, intelligent lives. He challenged educators to see the harm that traditional education does, by deeply conditioning the mind, and to take up a wholly new and different kind of education. He urged the educator to be a scientist of awareness, to be one who develops sensitivity and intelligence in the child. His educational philosophy focussed, not so much on the student, as on the teacher and on the psychology of learning and living.

Maria Montessori, noted educator of the early 1900s, has also left a rich legacy of a child-centred movement in education. Observing children as a scientist would, she developed a definitive philosophy and built an educational system with simple elegant materials to foster spontaneous discovery through observation. She said, “The vision of the teacher should be at once precise like that of a scientist, and spiritual like that of the saint.”

Both Montessori and Krishnamurti emphasize observation for both the student and the teacher, an observation without preconceptions, ideals or cherished ideas. This was scientific observation of a new kind for the world of education in the 20th century. If this was the century of science, then the science of education, as given us by Montessori and Krishnamurti, will distinguish this age as well.

In this article I will explore three key dimensions of Krishnamurti’s educational vision—the arts of listening, looking and learning. These daily acts, though simple in essence, may have revolutionary consequences. Let us, however, first begin by examining the purpose of education itself.

Purpose of education

In America we have produced generation after generation of Americans. Italy has produced Italians, and Japan, Japanese, and so on all around the world. Nations are divided from nations and individuals continue to be fragmented, living in conflict with themselves and others. In our children too there is a reflection of all this chaos and we try all manner of remedies, new kinds of schools and new philosophies to avoid this chaos. But all the while we are running away from the fact that we don’t know what to do to change either ourselves or the world. Confronting the roots of this fragmentation and chaos, is conspicuously absent from education today.

Biber and Minuchin, in their research on the impact of educational philosophy on children, have shown that there is a direct and significant relationship between the goals of education and of the school, and what children grow up to value. There is a direct relationship between how the school structures and orders the world of the child, and the way children relate to the world at large too. The intent and the philosophy of the school are thus more important than perhaps any other dimension of a school.

Krishnamurti described the intent of his schools in the following way: “A school is a place where one learns about the totality, the wholeness of life. Academic excellence is absolutely necessary, but a school includes much more than that. It is a place where both the teacher and the student explore, not only the outer world, the world of knowledge, but also their own thinking, their own behavior. From this they begin to discover their own conditioning and how it distorts their thinking. This conditioning is the self to which such tremendous and cruelimportance is given. Freedom from conditioning and its misery 5begins with this awareness. It is only in such freedom that truelearning can take place. It is a place where one learns to observethe world not from any particular point of view or conclusion. One learns to look at the whole of man’s endeavour, his searchfor beauty, his search for truth and for a way of living withoutconflict.”

Krishnamurti stressed the importance of discovery by both teacher and child, without coercion. This discovery starts with the outside world, and moves inward as children learn, without necessarily being told what to do. The senses are the link between the outer and inner worlds, and since listening and looking are so important a part of the sensory world, creating an environment where children can learn about the arts of listening and looking, is part of the awakening of intelligence that Krishnamurti spoke about.

Art of listening

Listening is hardly something that needs to be actually taught and normally this sensory ability is not a school subject. The awakening of listening involves more than music appreciation or drawing attention to loudness, pitch, tone etc. Apart from learning to listen to the myriad world of sound, to the spoken word and its meaning, the psychological implications of not listening, of misunderstanding, or of resisting listening, all need to be part of the curriculum. Listening is not free when the child is blocked by the imposition of his environment, his teacher’s teaching, or even his own ideas.

Krishnamurti said that listening is one of the highest, one of the greatest arts in life. He said, “Listening is an art not easily come by, but in it there is beauty and great understanding. We listen with the various depths of our being, but our listening is always with a preconception or from a particular point of view. We do not listen simply; there is always the intervening screen of our own thoughts, conclusions, and prejudices. To listen there must be an inward quietness, a freedom from the strain of acquiring, a relaxed attention. This alert yet passive state is able to hear what is beyond the verbal conclusion. Words confuse; they are only the outward means of communication; but to commune beyond the noise of words, there must be in listening, an alert passivity. Those who love may listen; but it is extremely rare to find a listener. Most of us are after results, achieving goals; we are forever overcoming and conquering, and so there is no listening. It is only in listening that one hears the song of the words.”

In creating an atmosphere for learning, most teachers know that listening in the classroom creates silence. But have we as teachers discovered that concentration is the enemy of listening? Forcing, or urging a child to concentrate narrows down listening, and attention. Concentration does not create attention; rather it creates in the mind a habit of excluding sounds, and hence stifles attention. Krishnamurti suggested, “Say to a child to listen to the noise of the world; don’t take sides or jump to conclusions, just listen. Listen to the wish to become, to be. Don’t be told what it means to listen but find out for yourself.” I remember once Krishnamurti noticed a child watching a gecko inching up a wall during a talk. The child watched the small lizard as it was chasing a mosquito. A teacher nearby pulled on the child’s arm to get him to pay attention. The child was forced back to attention to Krishnamurti’s talk.

But Krishnamurti saw what had happened and later said to the teacher, “Let the child follow all the lizards of his life. If you stop him he will never be able to pay attention to anything.” That teacher was me and I was changed forever with this small insight—that attention cannot be forced. If you pay attention to everything, as a child watches a lizard, there would be a very different world.

Help a child to listen to noises far away and then those that are closer and closer. Exercises can be developed, with minimum teacher prompts, to make a child’s ears sensitive and alert to ambient noise and the sound of the phenomenal and natural world. Listen far away, listen closer, and closer still, until finally the ear can hear the beating of the heart. This can be generalized to an unconscious level, where a child is listening while paying attention, but is not drawn away by the sounds that are not relevant at the moment. It is when the child is not attentive to all the sounds that he gets distracted by others, by loud noises, and allows the noises to divert attention. However, we are also talking about sensitivity to the spoken word, to meaning and intent. A child who has been raised to listen with attention may grow up to understand meaning, to hear a lie, and discern truth. Real listening dispels myth and illusion. It is part of intelligence—an underrated, often neglected aspect of the curriculum. Real listening is in itself a teacher. Krishnamurti described it thus, “I do not know whether you have listened to a bird. To listen to something demands that your mind be quiet: not a mystical quietness, but just quietness. I am telling you something, and to listen to me you have to be quiet, not have all kinds of ideas buzzing in your mind. Therefore, I am saying it is one of the most difficult things to listen—to listen to the communist, to the socialist, to the congressman, to the capitalist, to anybody, to your wife, to your children, to your neighbour, to the bus conductor, to the bird—just to listen. It is only when you listen without the idea, without thought, that you are directly in contact; and being in contact, you will understand whether what he is saying is true or false; you do not have to discuss it.”

Art of looking

As with listening, the teaching of looking involves more than vision or drawing attention to shape, figure and ground, dark and light. Looking is not just seeing things that are around, but it is the way we navigate our way in life. For most people, and naturally I include children here, it is the door to learning. So why is learning so difficult for some children? Perhaps it is because they do not know how to listen and look. Perhaps they have so much knowledge at too early an age, that they cannot see what is in front of them, they cannot hear what is around them.

I recall that Krishnamurti was talking with a group of five to ten year old children in India in the late 1960s. He said, “When you go into a room, just for fun, look straight ahead, don’t look around at anything. But be aware of everything in the room; see the shapes, the colours, the people, and the furniture, everything in the room, without looking at it. Don’t move your eyes.” Some of the children, who were in my English classes, came to me that day and said they had tried it and to their amazement they saw much more while doing that than when they looked directly at the things in the room. What this showed is an increased level of attention, of awareness through the eyes.

Our modern culture values information, facts, and knowledge about everything. Children are rewarded for, and grow to value, being able to supply the most information on something. While information and knowledge are vitally important in certain circumstances, there may be a clue here as to why some children are not alert, awake, sensitive, attentive, and interested in learning. There also may be a correlation here with children who are violent, aggressive, and disrespectful. Information, experience, and knowledge may be such a thick screen, such a heavy filter, that children may grow up not experiencing the world through their senses, because their brains are ‘in the way’. Krishnamurti described it this way: “When you want to find something new, when you are experimenting with anything, your mind has to be very quiet, has it not? If your mind is crowded, filled with facts, knowledge, they act as an impediment to the new. The difficulty for most of us is that the mind has become so important, so predominantly significant, that it interferes constantly with anything that may be new, with anything that may exist simultaneously with the known. Thus knowledge and learning are impediments for those who would seek, for those who would try to understand.”

For our purposes here, looking, observing and seeing may be taken as synonymous. The art of looking is perhaps the most complex because it is the most immediate and essential, right from the time of birth and through life. We learn, we are entertained, we take our cues for behavior, and we survive through looking. But, as with listening, we filter our vision through our brain-pack of likes, dislikes, opinions, knowledge, and experience, to the point where we only see images, impressions or abstracted information. Seldom do we look at a face, a flower, or a scene in front of us, without an idea about it. What we see then is old, is a habitual experience that triggers an automatic and predictable response. Can we look at something and not use knowledge, or at least watch the quick response of knowledge and set it aside? This will allow the thing itself to tell its story, unfold its beauty or its ugliness. As Krishnamurti suggested, “If you want to learn about a leaf—a leaf of the spring or a leaf of the summer—you must really look at it, see the symmetry of it, the texture of it, the quality of the living leaf. There is beauty, there is vigour, there is vitality in a single leaf. So to learn about the leaf, the flower, the cloud, the sunset, or a human being, you must look with all intensity.”

This intensity comes with attention, sensitivity and the suspension of the overactive, overzealous brain. Krishnamurti pointed out, ‘the experiencer is the experienced’. This means we are usually only seeing what our brain has previously seen and recalled.

A child who grows up in an atmosphere where looking is valued, where seeing without needing to respond or reply quickly with information, is encouraged, has the space to deepen perception. Again, the first step is for the educators to first see the importance of looking simply and without prejudice. When we see, our children will see; because looking is valued for its own sake. Then we will find that looking outwardly is an act that creates it own energy, is an act without conflict and confusion, and leads directly to looking inwardly.

Children are not self-reflective until they are about ten years old. However, think of the first ten years of looking cleanly, clearly, without prejudice, as the introduction to being able to observe their own behavior, their own beauty and ugliness, without prejudice. Such a child would be a religious child, one who is capable of affection, one who is non-violent, and so lives without conflict.

Art of learning

Now, let us shift our attention to learning. Perhaps we will think about learning differently in the light of understanding the arts of listening and looking. Krishnamurti noted, “The word ‘learning’ has great significance. There are two kinds of learning. For most of us, learning means the accumulation of knowledge, of experience, of technology, of a skill, of a language. There is also psychological learning, learning through experience, either the immediate experience of life, which leaves a certain residue, or of tradition, of the race, of society. There are these two kinds of learning. Attention to both kinds is needed in meeting life: psychological and physiological; outward skill and inward skill.”

“To inquire and learn is the function of the mind. By learning I do not mean the mere cultivation of memory or the accumulation of knowledge, but the capacity to think clearly and sanely without illusion, to start from facts and not from beliefs and ideals. There is no learning if thought originates from conclusions. Merely to acquire information or knowledge is not to learn. Learning implies the love of understanding and the love of doing a thing for itself. Learning is possible only when there is no coercion of any kind. Most people think that learning is encouraged through comparison, whereas the contrary is the fact. Comparison brings about frustration and merely encourages envy, which is called competition. Like other forms of persuasion, comparison prevents learning and breeds fear.”

The art of learning is a continuous process in daily life, not a process of addition or gathering. You cannot store up learning and then act from that storehouse. As teachers, we are accountable for the content of our students’ learning, so we focus our teaching on information and the ‘how-to’ questions. Consequently, children grow up thinking that learning is connected to teaching, to knowledge and information only. Hence they are not in a state of learning from everything and from everyone.

To celebrate the joy of learning to me means to take learning out of the classroom and into life. It means to awaken in children the understanding that learning is a state of mind that requires listening and looking at everything. Then children discover that the knowledge and information they gain are only a small part of their education. They are learning from life, and not just from books.