Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Learning in the time of the Coronavirus: Part two.

 ‘This is a crime against Humanity’

 

‘The system hasn’t collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps “failed” is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity. Virologists predict that the number of cases in India will grow exponentially to more than 500,000 a day. They predict the death of many hundreds and thousands in the coming months, perhaps more. My friends and I have agreed to call each other every day to mark ourselves as present, like roll call in our school classrooms. We speak to those we love in tears, and trepidation, not knowing if we will ever see each other again. We write, we work, not knowing if we will live to finish what we started. Not knowing what horror and humiliation awaits us. The indignity of it all. That is what breaks us.’

 

On India’s Covid catastrophe: Arundhati Roy – The Guardian 29th April 2021

 

My wife, Maggie, and I consider we have many homes, including the one we are renting at the moment in the solitude of the North Dorset countryside. A significant number of these homes are in India.

 

Fifty years ago this coming September I stepped on to an old single decker bus at Clapham Common to join twenty other people for a ten week trip overland to India. I was a naïve, hesitant nineteen year old, a somewhat isolated product of professional middle-class privilege. The journey ahead was to open my mind to an extraordinary diversity of life and ways of living. I was able to adapt and change with the flowing countryside and disparate people as we made our slow journey eastwards across Europe. Once we had entered Asia, traversed Afghanistan, driven through the Khyber Pass and crossed the Pakistan border into India just two weeks before a war between the two countries that would result in the newly independent country of Bangladesh, the goal was reached.

 

I loved India then.

 

Twenty years later Maggie and I, individually, began to take groups of students aged from sixteen to nineteen from the school at which we were working to Rajasthan to learn from people in Jaipur and some surrounding villages. Ten years after that we began to make regular visits to India together, visiting schools associated with the work of Jiddu Krishnamurti, educational institutions founded by Rabindranath Tagore, and other fascinating places where work was being done around education, ecology and biodiversity.

 

We have made so many friends, received so much kindness and affection over the years, and joined in so much laughter and happiness. Occasionally, we have also shared the sadness at the passing of friends – truly feeling that we are part of a wide community. Perhaps it is because all the places we are associated with are informed by philosophies which care for the young, the vulnerable, and the poor.

 

India, however, is a chaotic place full of dangers, contradictions and misery. Where so often life seems cheap, and emotions run high. Travelling is intense and there is always a sense of gratitude when the destination has been safely reached. The appalling poverty of so many people is so evident on the streets of the cities and towns and in the villages. How are we supposed to react as descendants of the white colonialists that looted and divided that vast sub-continent? 

 

Nevertheless, India has been our constant teacher where learning has been a continuous process, and conclusions are rarely found. So many paradoxes emerge in discussions, in chance meetings, fleeting observations, sights, sounds and smells that invade the senses. Sweeping statements about life rarely work, and spending time in India makes that clear every day. So much is nuanced, ambiguous, what you see is not necessarily what is. Relationships are lived out through a background of caste, creed, economic status, gender and, not least to our sensibility of British politeness (superficial and hypocritical?), considerable cultural differences. Being aware of our own cultural biases is vitally important. It is only then that understanding can come about through suspension of judgement when observing and listening.

 

Now, as we watch the destruction, horror and intense suffering so many people are enduring as the result of the Covid catastrophe, the wisdom, much of which has emerged from India, of living with humility and compassion is teaching us the need to care for each other. The Indian government, like many others, including the UK, has a “strong man” at its head and is set on making money rather than looking after its citizens, and in order to do this it is deliberately divisive. The provision of affordable healthcare for all has never been a priority - if you have money there are excellent hospitals in most cities, if you don’t have money, and especially if you live in rural India, there is almost no healthcare provision.

 

Arundhati Roy’s article ends: ‘No, India cannot be isolated. We need help.’

 

There are individuals in India with vast amounts of money, there are corporations in India with vast amounts of money, and there are countries in the world with more than they need to address the pandemic. Meanwhile, our sisters and brothers are experiencing terrible pain, fear and loss. 

 

Action is happening, but will we all learn the lesson of these desperate times?

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Learning in the time of Coronavirus: part One.


 

I don’t know how it will end. I cannot see a way out of here. I do not need someone to lead me; I do not need someone to tell me; I do not need a hero. All I am looking for is the opportunity to listen and talk over with others; the way we, together, may explore an approach to living that is harmonious, humble, intelligent and healthy.

 

 

 

Schools open or closed? Students at university or not? Months of remote learning; that is if you have a functioning laptop, reliable broadband and a quiet space to work. Teachers planning, recording, marking, communicating with student and parent. Children looking at screens, hour after hour, doing tasks that may be of some interest, some relevance, some enjoyment; nothing communal, nothing face-to-face. University students trying to make sense of Zoom seminars. Everything directed at a very narrow view of what education is.

 

Children are falling behind; they are being disadvantaged; they will not know enough to be able to pass whatever exams take place. The key is knowledge and the feeding of memory. How will children be able to function fully in the modern world if they don’t know enough? Are teachers fulfilling the requirements dictated by the curriculum and policed by OFSTED? 

 

The present model of learning as a commercial activity dictates that the university student and schoolchild gets value for money. The sacred relationship of service provider, consumer and purchaser is well and truly cemented in the world of money. For many the purpose of education is to get a good job and to be able to earn a decent wage: to feed the economy. The consumer is the individual with their specific preferences, aspirations and interests who chooses from a limited table dictated predominantly by the Government. Similarly, the service providers, the schools and universities; and the people who work in them, teachers and academics, are expected to meet the demands of the consumers. There is very little by way of conversation or meaningful discussion that exists across this relationship, which is dominated by an increasingly rigid and authoritarian hierarchy.

 

Space, both physical and psychological is essential to living harmoniously; having the freedom to listen and observe is essential to the activity of learning; as well as having the opportunity to freely explore ideas through friendly face to face conversation. What happens to us if we are deprived of diverse social activity? Can we fully understand one another through limited communication obtained through screens and disembodied voice?

 

In order to enable the return of the coming together to learn whilst the threat of the virus remains ever present, certain conditions have to be met. These generally revolve around reducing transmissions achieved through small gatherings in spacious and well-ventilated places. As successive lockdowns have led to a variety of psychological stresses and strains, there a necessity for teachers and students to meet together in the spirit of care, exploration and inquiry. What will the world that will greet us when the pandemic begins to subside look like? How can it be met with energy and curiosity, and not fear? How can the futured be shared and not be an imposed vision of ideology or privilege?

 

Learning is a process of making connections, cooperating and understanding, firmly based on the joy and freedom of exploration and discovery. The fettering of the education process to an adult view of what future the next generation should expect denies the necessity of engaging with uncertainty. Lives that delve back in time are the context in which we live in the present, but the past does not need to bind the present. The global pandemic is teaching us that any solid vision of the future is built on shaky ground. Learning is movement; time shifts unsteadily; all living things change; all living things end.


We seek to return to our blinkered view of live at our peril.

 

 

Monday, 19 October 2020

What to do?

  


The cherry tree, whose pink blossoms heralded the approach of Spring, is now bringing on another change as its leaves begin to turn the colour of flames. The apple trees are full of fruit, yellow/green and reds that sparkle in the Autumn sunlight; wasps sleepily devour the fallen, rotting carcasses. Early morning mists can be seen lying across the fields and encircling the far woods; the sun now sets low over the woods behind the house.


As the year slowly settles into deepening Autumn, in gentle stillness some days and wild wet storms on others, modern life continues to unravel. The balance and harmony of the turning year is represented by colours changing, movement of birds and animals and a feeling of preparation for the conservation of energy in anticipation of rebirth. Humanity, so out of touch, scrabbles about to avoid, ignore, and desperately engage with the opening of a new decade of chaos – so much the outcome of greed and self-centred behaviour. 


This morning there is much activity of small birds in the garden; at the base of one of the apple trees a spotted woodpecker is working hard to dislodge the loose bark to find the insects beneath. A strong breeze sends down jewelled leaves that scatter across the grass. 


It appears we are reaching the end as we drown under waves of words and images that are serving to create a two-dimensional world of right or wrong, for or against, you or me. The language of conflict is used to divide and feed ideas of safety in separation. Those who have built walls to protect the obscenity of their wealth and possessions continue to send messages of aspiration to the young – ‘you can be like me if you work hard enough.’ But the reality is that ‘you’ll be working hard to make the likes of me even richer’.


I wrote the last blog on 13th April and it still appears that many countries around the world are struggling to come to terms with Covid-19. It is interesting that a significant number of countries experiencing the greatest chaos are those with male-dominated, authoritarian, nationalist governments, desperately trying to ensure that their backers are making money, whilst simultaneously controlling information and communication so they are not tarnished by the deaths of thousands of their country's inhabitants.


As the cold darkness of a Norther European winter approaches, we face the necessity of relearning our existence; finding out what we need to do to stay healthy, socially alive and exploring what we can do to ensure that harmony, balance and wisdom come to the surface of our daily lives. For not only does it seem that the effects of the virus will not diminish, indeed the winter months are likely to see an increase in infections, but the UK has to contend with Brexit; a project driven by conflict, aggression and misinformation.


What to do?


Monday, 13 April 2020

Coronavirus Blog

A few people were wearing masks when we entered Bangalore airport at five in the morning. The small number of cafes that were there were shut, and not many people were about. It was early February this year.

I found a seat whilst Maggie went to have a look around to see what might be open. It was not long before I became aware of the overweight, old man just a few seats away from me; he was wracked in paroxysms of coughing. His coughs came straight from his lungs as he struggled to dislodge some secretion deep inside, and his faced turned rapidly from white to purple. He did nothing to impede whatever matter was projected from those depths; no handkerchief, no tissue, no crook of the arm, not even a hand. I moved away from him.

When we had taken our seats on the plane the same man came stumbling down the aisle and took his seat with much wheezing and grunting, between two young Indian men not far from where we were sitting. Once he had settled himself, he proceeded to surrender to a succession of coughing fits, much to the disturbance of his neighbours. Luckily, soon after we had taken off, he slept for most of the following ten hours. He was not a well man.


Today is Finley’s twelfth birthday, our eldest grandson living in Worthing, and we are unable to visit him. Last week was the birthday of youngest son, Josh, who lives in Oxford, normally we would see him as well. We have planned to stay with our son, Joel, in Copenhagen next month; and, in early June, we were expecting to visit our eldest son, Tom, in Lisbon. These journeys will not take place.


In India vast numbers of migrant workers have been forced by lockdown to travel from the cities in which they were working to their home villages, the majority having to walk for miles without food and water. For the homeless and the poor, who live in cramped conditions, social distancing is impossible, and access to food has been severely limited. Similar conditions are being experienced throughout the world. Jobs have been lost and incomes have dried up with no prospect of improvement ahead. People are dying attached to machines and connected to tubes, surrounded by nurses and doctors who are only identifiable as human through the outlines of their bodies encased in protective clothing. There are no relatives, no friends to hold them, no human face, no peace. It is a catastrophe well beyond human control.


I am sitting writing this in the warmth of a Spring day masquerading as Summer. The cherry tree has blossomed and is at the stage where the fragile petals are drifting to the ground to be replaced by fresh green leaves. All the trees around have that green sheen of new leaves, bees buzz noisily over the grass from dandelion to daisy and then daisy to dandelion. There are a few new lambs in the field at the end of the garden, and the smell of growth and renewal is in the air. Occasionally the scent of bluebells steals across the land from nearby woods. Birds of all variety are gathering for their nests, singing to each other, calling for new life.

However, there is deep disturbance in the consciousness of humanity. It is, of course, possible to cement that wall around yourself in this world of horrific injustice, greed and self-absorption; what you cannot see does not exist. It is possible to separate yourself from all suffering until it comes knocking on your door. We can drum up the language of war to raise the spectre of the enemy outside with which we are doing battle and indulge in the sentiment of victory or defeat. We look to leaders as if we were compliant children, responding to their words with surges of emotion, taking courage from the illusion that they are acting in the interests of all the population.

Are we learning as this crisis moves from moment to moment? Can we observe any changes taking place in our assumptions? Or are we so fixed on getting through each day and returning to the old normality that we are essentially unaware of what is happening around us?

Our frailty is being exposed; our interdependency highlighted; and the imperative to take care of the vulnerable written clear in the way forward to a more just, sustainable and compassionate planet. We are working for the survival of the species; all living things.


May you be safe and healthy.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Fifty Years of Brockwood Park School




In 1975 the well-known theoretical physicist, David Bohm, wrote an article in the Times Educational Supplement on Brockwood Park School titled ‘An Experiment in Learning’ (David Bohm’s Participation in Jiddu Krishnamurti schools).

In this article David wrote:
‘Brockwood Park Education Centre was set up in January 1969, to inquire into a fundamental question posed by J Krishnamurti – can the members of a community of staff and students free themselves, as they learn and live together, from their background of destructive conditioning.’
In 1969 an old mansion house with just under 40 acres of grounds was acquired to create a school. The building stood at the top of a hill on the edge of the South Downs equidistant between Petersfield and Winchester. At this time the founder, J Krishnamurti, had already established two schools in India, Rishi Valley School near Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh in 1931 and Rajghat Besant School on the banks of the Ganges near Varanasi in 1934. During the 1970s further schools in India and one in California were created.

There were several aspects to Brockwood Park that were set up as central to its operation. It was to be international, fully residential, small in size - catering for up to seventy-five students aged from fourteen to nineteen, co-educational, and the diet was to be vegetarian. Fees would be kept significantly lower than most UK independent schools and a bursary fund would be maintained at as generous a level as possible to enable help to be given to students who might not be able to afford the fees. Academically, the subjects covered in the curriculum would be those necessary to obtain entrance to university. However, learning was not seen to be confined purely to the accumulation of knowledge. In one of his ‘Letters to Schools’ Krishnamurti expands on his observation of learning as –
‘The whole movement of life is learning. There is never a time when there is no learning. Every action is a movement of learning, and every relationship is learning.’

Fifty years on these aspects continue to underpin the ethos of Brockwood Park School.
There are, of course, many other elements present the school that are in harmony with its initial foundation. Comparison, conformity and competition are viewed as being central to the fragmentation of the individual and therefore society, thus seriously impeding the exploration and understanding of the unity of life. Whereas, these three elements appear to be integral to mainstream education globally.

Systems of punishment and reward also are to be found in the vast majority of mainstream schools ensuring that effective discipline is used to maintain order in these institutions. These do not exist in Brockwood. There are ‘consequences’ that are a result of behaviour that goes directly against the ‘agreements’ drawn up by staff and students together. However, those consequences will always begin with discussions in order to encourage a spirit of reflection and understanding, encouraging students in taking greater responsibility for themselves and their actions. Occasionally, the behaviour is such that the feeling is that the student should be asked to go home for a period of time. Sometimes, after much deliberation a student may be asked to leave the school.

Settled in this elevated position, surrounded by lawns and many varieties of trees, the life of the Brockwood resembles more of a community than a conventional school. This is both a strength and a challenge. The majority of the students have never attended a residential school, and most of the staff arrive with little experience of what it means to live their daily lives in close proximity to so many teenagers from over twenty different countries. Consequently, the admission and appointing processes for both students and staff are considerably more exhaustive than those held by most other institutions. After submitting written applications both prospective staff and students are invited to attend the school for a week. At the end of the week, interviews are held to find out from these ‘prospectives’ what they thought of the school and whether they felt it would be a place in which they could thrive. When they have departed students and staff talk over their various reactions to the individuals so that a decision can be reached as to whether the applicants will be offered a place or not.

Another facet of the school as a community is the fact that students and staff share in keeping the place clean and tidy. They work together in the walled garden that produces vegetables for the school, help maintain the grounds, clean communal areas, bathrooms and toilets. This has created an atmosphere where daily life is a collective experience; challenging through its intensity of interaction and yet allowing the possibility of depth in relationship. Compassion and affection are acknowledged as essential to living life harmoniously together.

All residential teachers are paid the same whatever their role, and no special importance is given to any particular function – every task is viewed with equal importance.

What do students go on to do when they leave Brockwood? Being a truly international school, it is evident that the majority of students leave with the sense that they are global citizens – that the world is open to them. This may involve travelling for some length of time; finding a university in a country they have never visited; or seeking work somewhere that interests them, to learn the language and find out more about the culture. Many will eventually take up further study; however, there is a tendency to carefully consider what really interests them when looking for courses to follow.

Do the students have to do exams? No. Many do A Levels, but it is just as possible to create and work on a project or projects. The intention is to encourage and support a sense of being responsible for oneself whatever path is chosen. To develop an independent mind that is not dominated by what others say ‘should’ be done.

Do students become successful people? In a world that is obsessed with success and failure, a central part of the schools either founded on, or influenced by Krishnamurti’s teachings is to question what is generally assumed to be success in this life. It is goodness that these schools are concerned with, something that goes beyond the mechanical, the measurable.

Brockwood Park School continues to be ‘an experiment in learning’, and it is a human experiment, subject to human frailties and misunderstanding. However, the question posed by Krishnamurti as to whether we can free ourselves from our background of destructive conditioning as we learn and live together is of immense relevance to all humanity. We  are facing an array of challenges that threaten our own survival.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The War against Children




‘Yes, I think we can safely say we have won the war against children.’

He had just sat down, fatty jowls melting into the stiff white collar of his shirt. He looks around the room at his colleagues. They are mostly men, mostly aged fifty or over and are suitably dressed in black or dark grey sobriety. Their ties add a dash of colour against a sea of pink/white faces. The room is heavy with history; high-ceilinged with long windows letting in grey light that is absorbed by the oak panelling. There are a few women present, but they are barely visible.

Here we have the Education Policy Committee in all its drab splendour. It is the War Cabinet, the Centre of Operations. They exist all around the world. The faces will be different. The mode of dress may be less constrained. There may also be a few women, but they are still barely visible.

The fat man taps his laptop and eerie lights enliven the ghost-like faces of his fellows as their individual machines fire up.

‘Please look at this presentation that I have had prepared for you.’

A ripple of excitement trembles around the room.

‘Here are some examples of the many lovely new schools that have been built over the last few years. May I remind you that the majority of these have been paid for by private businesses or from the proceeds of selling off excess assets such as unnecessary large playing fields.’

He looks around the room for approval; which duly arrives.

‘They are very shiny!’

‘Lots of glass and natural light.’

‘Very rectangular – no space wasted.’

‘Lovely big corridors!’

Two plump, short fingered hands are held up to stop the flow. He pauses…

‘And, of course, they are all wired up for the 21st Century.’

The fat man shines with self-congratulation.

He continues…

‘Each of these buildings is built to hold at least a thousand children. Inside they are designed so that every age group has its own area and provision is made for the gifted and talented. You will see from the specimen plan in front of you that there is also a space away from the general teaching area. This is the unit where special needs are addressed. You will notice there are no windows here – less distraction. Also, there is a room off this which most schools are calling the isolation unit, where those who have misbehaved have to spend a certain amount of time alone.’

He pauses…

‘As for behaviour, I know this is something we have all been concerned about for some time.’ 

A subdued chorus of assent arises from the screen-lit faces. A sound perhaps more akin to the clucking of hens than anything else.

‘I am pleased to inform you that the vast majority of schools have taken up our recommendations in this area. Things like the intensive use of sanctions and the creation of order for smooth running. There are many other interventions such as one-way corridors and even security guards.’

Another chorus of approval, although this had more of the sound of sheep rather than chickens.

‘Roger, could you do your presentation on uniforms now, please?’

Roger grins slyly as he clicks into his programme, and all laptops flicker with images of blazers, ties, trousers, school emblems and shoes. Roger is younger than many around him and he has that special intensity of one who knows he is going places.

He begins…

‘From the start our watchwords have always been, identification, belonging, self-esteem, fitting in, serious study, smartness, meaning business and mirroring adult achievement.’

A voice chips in…

‘And formality. Don’t forget the importance of formality.’

Roger’s thin white face sucks in on itself as he looks round for the culprit. This immediately transforms into a sickly smile when he realises these are the words of the fat man.

Roger hurriedly returns to his presentation…

‘Of course, formality. We have been requiring schools to use uniform as the first line of discipline for some time. We take the military view of how to succeed – clean, tidy, attention to detail and pride in appearance. Sanctions must be strong to ensure compliance.’

‘Excellent. Thank you, Roger. Very good work.’

The fat man rises, belly straining over trousers.

‘To conclude this meeting, I want to draw your attention briefly to the final part of my presentation.’

He pauses as if to give his audience time to gather themselves to receive his wisdom…

‘Over the years our biggest campaign success has been our ability to maintain an overwhelming fear factor in education. This we have managed by laying greater and greater emphasis on exams as the only way to achieve in life; by ensuring increasing competition and comparison at every level, and by making sure schools operate within limited budgets. Fear keeps us in the driving seat, it is our control mechanism and keeps schools compliant. Fear is our most powerful weapon.’

He pauses before delivering the final sentence. His pleasure with himself eclipses the combined glow of the assembled laptops.

‘We have won the war and are now successfully maintaining the occupation! All objectives achieved.’

He is about to sit down with as much of a flourish as a man of that bulk can obtain. When there is a cough from one of the recesses of the room. A small, grey-haired woman flutters her hand for attention like a limp butterfly …

‘What about the children? What about the teachers?’

Her voice is measured and calm, her face is barely visible in the half light.

An ungainly sound whispers through the room – a tittering derision.

‘The children, my dear lady, are exactly where we want them; as are the teachers.’

Lights go up. Laptops close. And with an expansively arrogant gesture, the fat man invites the room to empty.








Thursday, 28 March 2019

A Brief Glimpse into a Life of one of the Ruling Class?


I am in the process of writing my memoir as an educator from my schooling to my life in progressive/alternative education as a teacher; a journey taken by way of India. As I have been working on the early years of my education, I have been observing the disintegration of British politics through the lens of my own upbringing. White males steeped in privilege and bolstered by the myths of colonial superiority have dominated the political landscape throughout British History. Institutional arrogance, intellectual bullying, and competitive cunning are the qualities that appear to unite ‘the ruling classes’, successful by-products of the Public School System. Compassion, empathy and sensitivity have so often been lost in the fight to survive the deprivations of these boarding schools.

Change is coming, but it is not one orchestrated by these emotionally stunted men.

Below is an extract from my memoir in progress.

‘I was embarking on, or to put it more accurately, was being placed on a pathway designed for the ruling classes, at whatever level of ruling that might be. This pathway could well be called the destiny of deprived privilege. The Great British Public School System was created in the 1860's to supply the British Empire with manpower, future officers and senior administrators educated as successors to take their rightful places in distant lands; to bestow their superiority in the name of civilisation. Very different from the lesser mortals, whose bodies populated the far reaches of the colonies – disposable bodies, bred for factory or fighting, embodying the industrial military machine. This way of educating young men had been designed so that it that ensured a mindset of superiority combined with an unwavering belief in the power of the Empire. The ability to put up with extraordinary discomfort, physical, mental and emotional was an integral part of this upbringing. Now, after two world wars, the British Empire was in its final death throes, fatally wounded and dangerous, but it would live on in the cold climate of my schooling.


The greyness of my garb predicted my entrance to a loveless life. Standing on the step of the front door of my home, pausing before entering the car with its familiar smell of leather seats, I recalled the dark blue trunk that lay inside the boot encased in blackness. I had watched as the starkly new garments of grey and the virgin white underclothes were placed in it. I had noticed a small rectangular piece of cloth sewn on to each item, white with letters of blue sewn in; letters that created a name. This name was not the one which had been used for me up until now, it was that of the family name preceded by two initials, mine - for the next nine years at school I would not have my name. For the next five years this name was also followed by the Latin word ‘minor’ to indicate that someone of the same name was in existence.

My elder brother had the superior epithet of ‘major’ attached to his name. Only thirteen months divided us in age, but the grey journey into manhood he was sent on wrought a separation that could not be reversed. His misery was evident, and he was returning with me - I was not alone.
‘Come on, John. Come on, Andrew. Hurry up.’

Our father was already in the driving seat. Our mother hesitated by the front door, a picture of the conflict of emotions granted to mothers for whom social status triumphed over maternal feeling. There were tears in her eyes.

I gazed at the assembled dogs, au-pair, brothers Peter and Hugh waving. I waved back – never to be the same. We drove slowly down the gravel driveway, young leaves were beginning to unfold in a tender vibrant green, the flowers in the borders threw colour across the well-tended borders. Spring was strong, heralding new, vibrant life.’