Wednesday, 12 July 2017

'I don't Like the Learning!'

What is education? It is essentially the art of learning, not only from books, but from the whole movement of life.’ J Krishnamurti

Recently, when we were taking care of our two grandsons, the five year old decided to complain loudly about the fact he had to go to school. My wife, Maggie, asked him:

“What’s the matter with school? Why don’t you want to go?”

Through tears of protestation he said, “I don’t like the learning.”

Here is a boy who is fascinated by almost everything. He can spend hours with Lego; putting it together, taking it apart, and constructing imaginary games with figures of all descriptions. During the time that we were helping to look after our grandsons the weather was hot and the nights were such that air barely seemed to move so Maggie bought a pedestal electric fan, boxed and ready to put together; on his return from school this little boy was immediately fascinated by what the box contained. He persuaded her to unpack it then and there, and together they began to work out how to put it together; he excitedly provided solutions to the construction and actively worked together with his grandmother. He had never seen one of these fans before, so he was not employing memory…

‘I don’t like the learning.’!

Schools, as they are now, are dead and their lifeless forms are mouldering tumours in the belly of global society, filled with the shiny cancerous cells of modern life: competition, coercion, and conformity; creating a stratified, divided, contemptuous world, where the ultimate value is purely economic.

In the conclusion to her new edition of ‘Alternative Approaches to Education’, Fiona Carnie writes,

‘They [alternative schools and learning communities] are based on the values of a healthy society – of democracy, community, fairness, trust, tolerance, openness and support. Children who have experienced these values in an active way as an integral part of their education are more likely to reflect them in their own lives and work. Now more than ever we are aware of the need to create a world which is based on such values… schooling has to be more than a means of training children to contribute to economic growth regardless of the social and environmental costs.’.

So, what happens now?  I would like to suggest that instead of looking at what might replace schools, we investigate learning: our assumptions about learning, how learning is organised and what learning really is. In a blog written by the psychologist, Peter Gray, he states that:

Throughout essentially all of human history, children educated themselves by exploring, playing, watching and listening to others, and figuring out and pursuing their own goals in life.’

Adding that:

‘Coercive schooling has been a blip in human history, designed to serve temporary ends that arose with industrialization and the need to suppress creativity and free will.  Coercive schooling is in the process now of burning itself out, in a kind of final flaring up.’.

‘Coercive schooling’ reflects the dominant authoritarian view of life, that learning is the delivering and assimilation of a body of required knowledge in which the child will be tested/examined to ensure that a certain standard is reached. The roles of the teacher and the taught are clearly drawn up into one who knows and one who doesn’t, ensuring the continuation of division in human society.

‘As an educator you have no status; you are a human being with all the problems of life, like a student. The moment you speak from status, you are actually destroying human relationship.’ J Krishnamurti

Imperialism, nationalism, age related superiority, gender related superiority, race related superiority and species related superiority, reside deeply in the consciousness of the modern mind; to a great extent the organisation of learning continues to serve these world views and the vast machinery of education either overtly or inadvertently crystallises certain attitudes in its ‘learners’ (a term that appears to have replaced children or students). A central aspect of this approach is that learning is always towards an end, which begins at a certain pre-ordained point and then progresses incrementally towards an agreed conclusion – a body of knowledge consigned to memory; whoever is the learner in this process plays a passive, receiving role.

‘If you observe the world about you, you see how insane it all is: mothers sending their sons to war to kill or be killed; the divisions of religion and governments with their conflict and their corruption; the talk of peace while preparing for war; the endless breaking-up of human beings into categories, temperaments, with their gurus and analysts. This insanity has its own activity, which is contradictory. Imitative and divisive. Education as it is now exists to conform to the pattern of insanity.’ J Krishnamurti

When we collect our grandson from school, he runs and dances all the way to his house, delighting in the physical freedom, flinging his arms and legs in all directions as if he had just escaped from a straightjacket. He knows how to learn, he has interests he is developing on his own; he listens, most of the time; and he observes and asks questions. It is not that he wants to learn; it is that learning is in his very make up as human being. The other side of the coin from the adult point of view, is that I have had times as a teacher when I have felt frustrated and confined in the classroom through the tedium of my own lesson; restricted by the expectation to perform in an area which for me held little interest.

The ground from which all learning rises is the individual, the person through whom all perception of reality flows, therefore learning about life is inseparable from learning about oneself and this learning has no conclusion. Our propensity to separate our learning into ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ severely limits our understanding of both the inner and outer world; relying all too often on the judgement of others. And learning about oneself is not a self-absorbing process as it is based upon the listening and observation that connects outer with the inner; freedom to breathe the pure air.

‘I don’t like the learning.’!

  Quotations from:
The Whole Movement of Life is Learning: J Krishnamurti; Krishnamurti Foundation Trust 2006

Alternative Approaches to Learning: Fiona Carnie; Second Edition; Routledge; 2017

Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education: Peter Gray; Psychology Today(online); 2017


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Western Democracy - what next?

We know what’s coming……as when you are walking along the narrow country lane and you hear the unmissable sound of a gargantuan four-wheel drive motoring along at a speed that is totally inappropriate to the conditions, and it’s coming towards you but the steep banks afford no hand or toe hold.

‘I must confess at once that I do not see any solution to the intricate evils of disharmonious relationship between nations, nor can I point out any path which may lead us immediately to the levels of sanity. Like yourself, I find much that is deeply distressing in modern conditions, I am in complete agreement with you again in believing that at no other period of history has mankind, as a whole, been more alive to the need of human cooperation, more conscious of the inevitable and inescapable moral links which hold together the fabric of human civilisation. I cannot afford to lose my faith in this inner spirit of Man, nor in the sureness of human progress which following the upward path of struggle and travail is constantly achieving, through cyclic darkness and doubt, its ever-widening ranges of fulfilment.’   Rabindranath Tagore -  letter to Gilbert Murray, 16th September 1934.

The 1930s: a time of global danger, demonization of certain races, increasing militarisation and nationalism. 2017: a time of global danger, demonization of certain races and religions, authoritarian nationalism, leaders who want to increase the number of nuclear arms and would consider their deployment, rapid climate change and environmental degradation.

‘The whole world waits to see what this great Eastern nation [Japan] is going to do with the opportunities and responsibilities she has accepted from the hands of modern time. If a mere reproduction of the West, then the great expectation she has raised will remain unfulfilled. For there are grave questions that Western civilisation has put before the world but not completely answered. The conflict between the individual and the state, labour and capital, man and woman; the conflict between the greed of material gain and the spiritual life of man, the organised selfishness of nations and the higher ideals of humanity; the conflict between all the ugly complexities inseparable from giant organisations of commerce and state and the natural instincts of man crying for simplicity and beauty and fulness of leisure – all these have to be brought to a harmony not yet dreamt of…’
Rabindranath Tagore ‘Nationalism in Japan’ 1917

Here in the UK we are being cynically exploited by the forces of ‘greed’, ‘organised selfishness’ and ‘all the ugly complexities…’ as we reel away from a referendum dominated by lies and the language of division, only to be met with an election that is dominated by misinformation, deception and arrogance. Western democracy has lurched into a form of personality authoritarian culture that truly echoes the state of Europe between the wars; I do not consider myself to be any more intelligent than the vast majority of my fellow humans, but I look, listen and read with increasing incredulity. I am finding that my jaw is beginning to ache with its reaction to what comes out of politicians’ mouths.

‘But politics is not a mere abstraction, it has its personality and it does intrude into my life where I am human. It kills and maims individuals, it tells lies, it uses its sacred sword of justice for the purpose of massacre, it spreads misery broadcast over centuries of exploitation, and I cannot say to myself, ‘Poet you have nothing to do with these facts, for they belong to politics.’ This politics assumes its fullest diabolical aspect when I find all its hideous acts of injustice find moral support from a whole nation only because it wants to enjoy in comfort and safety the golden fruits reaped from the abject degradation of human races.’ Rabindranath Tagore to William Rothenstein 1920

Fundamentally, it is what drives us as individuals, our basic motivation, that dictates the trajectory of our lives and creates the environment within which we live. And, generally, we adopt ideas and world views that reflect the way we live, being defensive and rigid in our justification of this way of life. For if we were to question our own lives then we threaten our fragile psychological existence – what we think makes up ourselves. To question yourself requires courage, honesty and care; it is easy to question others. To what extent are we able to think for ourselves? Or do we really need leaders to tell us what to do; who know best?

‘So, our brain, which is the centre of our consciousness, with all the nervous responses, sensory responses, the centre of all our knowledge, all our experience, all our memory (your memory may be from another, but it is still memory; you may be highly educated, the other may have no education at all, may not even know how to read and write, but it is still part of the whole) - so your consciousness is shared by every human being on this earth. Therefore you are entire humanity. Do you understand, sirs? You are in actuality, not theoretically or theologically, or in the eyes of God - probably gods have no eyes! - but in actuality there is this strange irrevocable fact that we all go through the same mould, the same anxiety, hope, fear, death, loneliness that brings such desperation. So we are mankind. And when one realizes that deeply, conflict with another ceases because you are like me.’ Jiddu Krishnamurti Talks at Saanen 1985

In times of danger we human beings tend to take up our defence in what we know, or what we think we know. We retreat into the safety of and comfort of the familiar. But the sound of the vehicle approaching is getting nearer; the machine is accelerating fast as the driver feels the power of the engine. What are you going to do? What am I going to do?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Travelling in India: Reflections

The peacock walks majestically in the dry, brown, sparse grass, holding his head high in the magnificence of his plumage, as the peahen hustles around with others of her like, a sociable and busy group. They live here, in this oasis, fast becoming bordered on all sides by rattling roads and gargantuan edifices that will be rabbit-hutch homes for many people some way above the ground that sustains them. Elsewhere, night-time cameras put in place by wildlife experts around the campus of a school on the outskirts of Bangalore capture images of three leopards, two male and one female, who frequent the life-giving jungle that is being slowly squeezed by the constant expansion of the city, and the lake that hosts the flashing kingfishers grows smaller every year.

To live in harmony with nature and with humanity is the spring which nourished the lives of both Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti; it became clear as we travelled around India for ten weeks that it was the understanding of this that created so many of the connections of which we had become part over the last twenty-five years. Our visits to India have developed along three paths: in 1990 Maggie and I began to take groups of students from St. Christopher School in Letchworth for three week visits to Rajasthan through contacts with Faith and John Singh of the Anokhi textiles company in Jaipur, and Aruna and Bunker Roy of Barefoot College near Jaipur.  In 2002 we paid our first visits to the schools founded or influenced by Krishnamurti; and in 2007 we made our first visit to Santinketan in West Bengal, where Tagore founded schools and a university. Through these visits we have come in contact with people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, different ages, from the affluent to the poor, and from the so-called educated to those who have never been to school. Many of these people have become our friends and others, with whom our meetings have been mere flashes of time, have profoundly affected the way we look at the world and ourselves. A gesture, a look, a smile, a touch, those infinite connections so often go beyond words and take us to that all important space unknown to the rational mind.

Tagore and Krishnamurti were questioners who did not accept the authority of others, nor did they seek to create authority in themselves. During these weeks in India it has become increasingly obvious that there is a global shift towards authoritarianism which has expression on many different levels - politically, economically and socially - with nationalism rearing its ugly, dangerous head and puffed up leaders ranting against their fellow human beings, pouring the poison of fear into the ears of the unsuspecting. The timeless grace of so many of its people, and the wisdom that lies in the eyes of the old who are, even now, held in respect by those who are younger, is slowly being swallowed by ‘development’. The pace of change that we have seen in nearly thirty years of travelling to India has been extraordinary and dramatically visible. However, much of this change has reflected a Western way of life and thus is built on competition and material growth. Ironically, whole scale improvement in the lives of the poor and destitute is not as visible as the blocks of flats, new and ever larger cars, roads in various states of repair and disrepair, and soulless glass shopping malls.
It is with extraordinary gratitude that we have received so much generosity and affection, so much simple human contact that sustains the spirit beyond any material benefit. To see the monkeys, to watch the birds, to walk beneath the broad-leaved jungle trees and smell the breeze washing over the land is to be alive. To avoid being squashed by vehicles of all types and to travel, reaching our destinations in one piece again, makes us grateful; for we quickly learn the sharp lesson that control in life is an illusion and that occasionally acceptance of ‘what is’ is the only route. However, wretched fatalism is often instrumental in handing one’s life to another who is more powerful, hiding under the cloak of passivity, and often creates the sense that all life is cheap. All being well, we intend to return to India and our friends, old, new and yet to be made.

Meanwhile, part of my work is a writing project, which I have alluded to from time to time; I will be using this space to experiment with various themes.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Travelling in India: The Spiritual Way?

A couple of weeks ago we were in Rishikesh and the place was filling up with participants for the big International Yoga Festival; these people had come from all over the world to attend the event, and one person we asked said that around seven thousand people were expected to be there this year. We were there for two nights en route from Haridwar to stay with friends in Dehradun after eight weeks  travelling in India, and with just two left until our return to the UK.
We had been staying in a hotel not far from the banks of the fast flowing grey blue Ganges, with views of the town, the temples, ashrams and the wooded hills that dominate the valley revered by so many. From our balcony we were able to observe the comings and goings of the clientele of the Pure Soul Cafe and Organic Kitchen, which we ourselves had visited earlier - very nice too. Most of the people that came and went were all you would expect from attendees at such a festival; lithe, physically confident and completely at ease in the spiritual environment of the valley of the Rishis. This is where the Beatles famously spent some time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968, thus creating a surge of interest in all things Indian in the West, as well as being instrumental in causing a flurry of gurus to make their way westward.

What, in this world drowning in so many problems, is spirituality?

Just a few days before our visit to Rishikesh we were also by the Ganges, this time just a few metres away from the still rushing river at Haridwar. Here we were able to observe the festival of Shivratri, where the god, Shiva, is celebrated and water from the Ganges is gathered to be taken back to the temples to wash the Shiva lingam. Crowds of people were about, many bathing in the river and others gathering water in plastic bottles being sold nearby. We were told that once the water had been collected the container should not be placed in contact with the ground before it is used in the purification process in the temple.  Apparently, this demanding ritual is all about purification, of the body and of the spirit. We were able to watch the many groups of people pass below the hotel, some clearly from the rural areas nearby who had made the journey to bathe in the river and gather water.

So we had seen in the space of a few days different faces of the expression of spirituality: the apparent packaging and commodifying of an ancient way of living to an affluent world, and the unquestioning continuation of an ancient devotional practice.

Meanwhile in Haridwar  beggars lined the bridge near where all the activity was taking place. Crowds passed them, some gave money, occasionally they were given food by nearby vendors: the awful faces of suffering. Just beyond the river were the shelters of the landless, set in fields of dust, plastic and all manner of rubbish. The road between Haridwar and Rishikesh was clogged with traffic that had to gingerly negotiate partially made surfaces and treacherous driving. One car lay by the side of the road on the edge of the forest, a mangled skeleton from which the occupant or occupants could not have emerged alive.

Has spirituality anything to do with the way we treat our fellow humans? Has it anything to do with our wanton destruction of our world? Or is it just a matter of personal salvation, the achievement of a higher state; higher than you or me?

Or is it the going beyond the self, the ego driven individual that compares and divides? Is it the connection with the suffering of all living beings that comes with cooperation and collaboration? And is it the deep understanding of the indivisibility of all humanity?

Our learning is so deeply conditioned by competition, exploitation and the worship of narrow achievement that to teach our children to go beyond the limitations of their own experience goes against the way the vast majority of us live. However, humanity has reached a point where change must occur in order to divert us from the road to self-destruction; and the ground for this change lies in education and a re-examining of the way we approach learning.  The question is: how can this be done?

                                                                                     * * *

This has been written in the final week of a ten week trip to India; visiting schools, reconnecting with friends, having conversations with young and old alike. Maggie and I have covered significant distances, seen and heard many things, experienced extraordinarily generous hospitality and received so much affection. We have observed the dreadful suffering of humanity and the terrible destruction of the land, for in India all life appears to be laid bare and there seems to be very little that is hidden behind closed doors. When we return I am acutely aware that I will have to continue to respond to this challenge for change; there is considerable responsibility in privilege and, among many other things, this trip has confirmed that we have been, and are, very privileged.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Travelling in India: A Conversation with a Buddhist Monk

The snake appeared quite unannounced, silently slithering over the red, dusty sand of the drive leading up to the imposing white, old colonial house, built for grandeur with little acknowledgement of the hot humid climate in which it is set.

We were quite a way from the snake and yet, in its shimmering brown progress, it seemed to turn its glittering eyes towards us before effortlessly ascending the low red cement wall and disappearing into the newly fallen leaves and branches. We looked carefully to see where it had gone; no trace was left.

He came into the large hall where wicker chairs had been put to one side for us to meet. His head was not shaved, but the thick covering of white hair was very short. Placing his hands together gently in greeting, he sat down to be introduced to us, arranging the deep maroon robes so that he was comfortable.

At the age of seven, having been recognised as the reincarnation in a line of important religious figures, he became a Buddhist monk and began his studies in a monastery in Tibet. When he was twenty years old he was part of the group that accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight from the Chinese invasion, seeking refuge in India. In the years that followed he worked predominantly in setting up educational institutions for the Tibetan refugees that also sought asylum in India. Recently he had spent a term of ten years as the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile.

That evening he was to give a public talk in front of the white, colonial house entitled: 'Buddha's Teachings and Krishnamurti's Insights'. However, he had agreed to meet us for a conversation soon after our arrival at the end of a six hour car journey.

Towards the end of our conversation we observed that humanity was on an almost irretrievable course towards disaster; that, even if it was not to be precipitated by human behaviour, it might equally come about through some natural phenomena. This, he felt, had the possibility of bringing about some sense of realisation or understanding of the effects of self-centred or egotistical activity. The global economic system as it is currently, underpinned by violence and greed, with the existence of rapid environmental degradation, widening inequality between the poor and the rich, and increasing religious intolerance is destroying any semblance of balance or harmony in the world - negating the values and ethics that might give some avenue to ensuring the survival of the human race.

We talked of the education system as it generally is worldwide; the superficial approach to learning with the tendency towards the acceptance of information without examination or questioning. From this emerges a form of blind faith whether it be in religion, modern technology or in the economic system. In Buddhist terms, he explained, the process of learning is seen as a movement from the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through to the direct perception of truth, at which point it becomes authentic learning. Thus the individual, through reflection and meditation, gains an insight into the truth and therefore is no longer a second-hand human being, accepting what has been told. When asked about the relationship between teacher and student, he responded that the Buddhist view is to use the word 'friend', that is one who removes fear and explains with simplicity and clarity. And that this relationship, if it is lo lead to authentic learning had to be a collective, collaborative process, involving neither comparison nor competition.  In this quality of collaboration, doubts and difficulties would emerge, but in this collaboration there would have to be the removal of all authority.

The question was then put as to whether this process was also one that occurred in self-knowledge, or self-realisation. Learning about the self was entirely dependent on an understanding of what the 'self' and the 'other' is, as opposed to the misunderstanding that leads to the confusion of self and ego. He mentioned that the realisation, or perception, of the self leads to the transformation of behaviour and relationship, particularly with nature.

He left us with an apology for his limitations in the English language.

Learning, whether through the words of wisdom of another or the observation of the snake over the sand has the potential to be of extraordinary depth and endless.

Our travels in India continue until March 14th.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The ending of teaching.

So, that seems to be that, I think. Like the pathological darkness of these misty, dank days that span the end of one year and the beginning of another, the years of teaching in schools that have dominated my life gather together and hang in a veil of memories. I did not like school when I was obliged to attend as a student, and I have not really enjoyed the experience of the structure of schools as a teacher. The classroom could be a place of laughter, silence, boredom, interest, intelligence, or stupidity; yet I could never remain too long in that one place, feeling the need to move, to breathe and to release the brain. Some days I would watch children as they stared out of the window in a yearning to be free, or lost in some hazy story that would lead them through lands of inconsequential tenuous reality. Some days I would find myself disappearing through a gaze that would penetrate the grass and the trees with such uncertainty and incredulity that to return to the classroom was like wakening from the edges of sleep.

I have finished teaching almost in a way that could only have been designed for one who was distinctly averse to cleverness, whose irritating tendency was an inclination to find humour in everything, and who never felt any superiority to the children in the room. Not a successful career perhaps; no great status or salary, no invitations to impart wisdom gained from the years, no first-class degrees or glittering prizes, just the opportunity to listen and discuss with young people. And a delight in being with the young.

Life is not circular, but moves in spirals, overlapping like the conical shells that can be found on the shores; beginning at a point and spreading until the emptiness inside is greater than the thin outer coating that is so fragile and almost translucent. The lifetime of experiences that do not only exist in memory are caught in the net of learning, not to be extracted and held as true, but rather to be left to flow loosely in the consciousness of all humanity.

Thus, my final work, whether it comes to some sense of fruition or not, is to delve into learning, to question the assumptions that have arisen over the years – particularly concerning the organisation of learning. Can learning be organised? What are the results of attempts to organise learning? So, my wife and I leave for three months in India, to travel, to observe, to listen and to learn. The work of Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti will feature as markers along this pathway of inquiry, of great significance, but not exclusive; and conversations will be had at every opportunity.

The next step is beginning……

Sunday, 11 September 2016

There are many graveyards...

There are many graveyards in this world that house the bones of humanity. These particular places are not, however, the cemeteries of the dead, but of the dying. Here the bones of the poets, the growers, the dreamers, the whistlers and the singers, are ground up and placed into moulds for reshaping. Similarly, traces of the painters, the artists, the actors and the thinkers may be found if you look hard enough … bare traces in the surrounding scrubland.
Listen to the whispering that curls like smoke from the buildings.  Hear the laughter that is not forced by cruelty, the joy that is a celebration of being together, the silence that connects with all that is living. These places are where the powerful coerce the young into conformity: some of these places are made mostly of glass, some of mud, some have no light, some have shade in the fierce glare of the sun. You may come across in these places the hum of electricity, like vast crematoria; others in which can only be heard the dry rustle of paper, enough to light the funeral pyres. Dull eyes watch screens on which endless movement distracts, heads held in invisible clamps, neatly locked by headphones. Whilst in other worlds heads are down and bodies with backs arched on the hard ground, endlessly repeat words in monotonous rhythm; too scared to look up at the sound of a bird, stomachs cramped by inertia and fear.
Meanwhile, in the corridors of the rich there can be heard the clipped footfall of the caretakers of the dying. Trim, and bearing rules and regulations, they are secure in the knowledge of their corrections. Outside they survey the limits that keep the bad guys out and the good guys in, fresh keypads ensuring that the adventurous may only pace around the fence like caged tigers. Thousands of miles away where money is sent to ensure that the standard choking grip of conformity is carefully put to good use, the keepers of the dying threaten the adventurous with their own poverty – starvation is a powerful master.
Dry knowledge crammed into bodies like Tagore’s parrot*; furnaces of wrong and right burn in the minds of embryonic humanity. Nothing is learned except the noise that inhabits the graveyard; for learning is now worth only what can be remembered, dragged from the chatter of the knowledgeable mind and spewed out to demonstrate such cleverness, like the raking vomit of the diseased mind.
It is time, my friends, to add our voices to the quiet stream that is questioning the view of learning that has given rise to current view of what education is, and to question fundamentally how we bring up successive generations of humanity. It is time to, in the words of Roger Waters, ‘tear down the wall’.

*The Parrot’s Training by Rabindranath Tagore

An integral element of this quiet stream of questioning is the film ‘Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.