We’re in a small, rural school in Tamil Nadu.
‘Is this the water that’s alright to drink?’
Outside on the school campus it is already beginning to get quite hot – at least that’s what it feels like to me. Breakfast with the children is over and it is nearly time to join in the presentations around Republic Day that are about to take place in the Art Department.
She looks at me with curiosity as she fills her water bottle from the other urn.
‘So, it won’t kill me then?’
Her curiosity turns to amusement.
‘You see I don’t want to die just yet.’
‘You haven’t got that much longer to live… You’re old!’
Her gaze is direct, very direct.
‘Yes… How old are you?’
‘How old are you?’
‘You have had a long life, so you must be happy.’
‘Yes, I suppose I should be.’
‘I’d be happy to have a long life, like you.’
‘What is your name?’
‘Priya... What’s yours.’
Out side on the school campus the day is already becoming quite hot. Breakfast with the children is over, its Republic Day and nearly time to watch the presentations that are about to take place in the Art Department.
We walk out into the sunshine and I immediately wince as my bare feet make contact with the concrete.
She laughs and makes her way.
Our time in India this January was coming to a close and this was the final day our final school visit. There had been three visits in the vicinity of Bangalore, one in Andhra Pradesh, and two more in the Chennai area. All these schools have either founded by the educator and philosopher, J Krishnamurti, or deeply influenced by his work.
The man I sat next to at lunch has worked in one of these schools for many years, has been Principal of another, and now was working part time in this school, here in these small purpose-built buildings constructed dotted around the vast flat and grassy land just nine years ago.
I asked him what he felt were the key elements of school founded on Krishnamurti’s teachings.
He replied that he observed that much of the culture of a school is non-verbal, beyond what is written down or spoken. It’s contained in the land and what it communicates, the movement and sounds of animals and birds. It’s contained in the way the children go about their everyday life, the way they converse with adults and each other. It exists in the laughter, the chattering, and the silence. It is held in the stars and darkness, the mist and the heat.
He added that he also observed the quality of the energy that emerges from this culture is contained in the children and teachers. ‘It can be felt as soon as you enter a school, if you are open to it.’
We had met him several times in the last fifteen years – once in a school deep in the city of Chennai in an oasis of jungle and sand, and another by the banks of the Ganges near the ancient city
In the evening as the sun goes down in the West you can stand on the roof of the guest house and watch the dusk rise and the sun sink into crimson, leaving an orange glow. You can hear the parakeets chatter their way home before you see them. The crows’ harsh calls echo, providing a soundscape to the storks that fly majestically in the distance. Dark comes and all is silent, except for the occasional haunting laugh of the jackal in the distance.
For the last three years Maggie and I have spent January in Southern India visiting these schools. Each time has shown evidence of change in the environment of the schools. In one a wild area has become wilder - supporting the existence of at least one leopard, numerous birds, porcupine, slender loris, so many creatures. The encroachment of the mega-city slowly strangles another school, but its proximity to the forest means that leopards, wild boar, monkeys, so many birds, still roam freely around the campus. Just before we arrived this time three elephants had been seen, and elephant dung had been identified on the path regularly taken travelling from the School to the Study Centre. At the longest established school where ancient granite hills overlook the valley, another year of drought is in progress; here the breeze whispers through the trees and the leaves’ dry rattling replies. Two years ago, there had been a good monsoon and everywhere was overgrown with shades of green; now it is parched yellow/brown. Another school is in the process of building a new campus amongst fruit trees and granite rocks. Whilst another one is in its first year after having to move to a new, much smaller, campus cleverly designed and constructed around existing broad-leaved teak trees. The land creates its own atmosphere.
In these schools we have also been asking the older children questions over these three years – about how they see their future, and what significance they perceive their education has had and is having on their lives. These meetings have been an important part of our trips. It has been a significant factor of these very diverse schools that we have been able to have friendly, intelligent, thoughtful and articulate conversations with all students. We put the questions we were asking to each child in turn so that there would be a comment from all those present; they were quite happy to contribute, after all there is no right or wrong answer, and they appeared to find the opportunity to think about these things interesting.
To observe, listen and respond to young people in any setting is always interesting, exhilarating, and often challenging to closely held assumptions. Being older does not necessarily mean superiority of understanding, expression or application of knowledge. What it may do is to provide the ability to take what the children say seriously, not interfering in any way with what is being said. However, in these schools the whole existence of psychological authority is questioned, and a strong sense of mutual respect is clearly present.
Our meeting venues from place to place. We met outside under trees, sitting on granite slabs surrounded by birdsong. We met on the pathway, under a beautiful tree outside the school dining hall. We met in the old, open-sided assembly hall where Krishnamurti would often speak to the students. We met in a classroom where we competed with the noise of the fans whirring in an attempt to circulate cool air in the middle of the day. We met in the open space of the Director’s office as he called in the students who were working in the library opposite. Our meetings lasted from half an hour to an hour and a half.
What was said? What gems of wisdom did these bright-eyed, energetic young people come out with? It was not so much what was said, although there were many insights, but how they were communicating. They listened intently to each other, built on what had already been said, and occasionally gently disagreed. At no time in any of the schools was there a feeling of competition – my opinion versus your opinion. We were not aware of any incidents of ‘putting another down’ as so often occurs in groups of schoolchildren – not only schoolchildren by any means.
They spoke about the freedom they experienced and were experiencing in their education – the ability to explore beyond individual subjects, to find things out for themselves, to learn about themselves. They talked about gaining independence and self-reliance both physically and psychologically. Many spoke about the environment in which they were being educated – the space around them; being directly connected to nature and their friendships. The relationship between staff and students featured quite significantly in their comments, the freedom to question without judgement and a willingness to listen.
One girl spoke of the conflict that existed between her and her parents: they were traditional in their outlook and demanded a certain way almost submissive acceptance from her, whilst she was being educated to question and explore. Others outlined the freedom that they were experiencing at school as opposed to their homes. One mentioned the ‘noise’ at home – the constant demands, suggestions as to what he should or should not be doing; at school he felt he could be himself without judgement.
We have walked in the footprints of leopards and elephants; watched the daily life of monkeys, a large deer has crossed our path in the jungle, and a substantial family of wild boar suddenly appeared in the headlights of the stationary car from which we were about to disembark. All manner of birds regaled us with their sounds and the beauty of their flight. We are grateful for their existence, and we are eternally thankful for the friendship and affection we have been shown.
For we, the older ones, must listen to voices of the children as we would listen intently to the song of the birds. We must observe with care all that is around us, the beauty and the destruction. Our moments of silence are vital, but we must add our voices to point out the destruction that is leading to a dying world.
How we educate our young is vital to their future – the future of humanity. But we must ask the question together: What is education for? And we must get together to explore this before it is too late.
From a teacher one comment echoes – ‘I think we must look at schools and fundamentally reassess what they are for, and who they are for.’