Jiddu Krishnamurti’s Educational Ideal: Vision and Practice

Here is a book that enriches our understanding of the process of implementation of Krishnamurti’s educational ideals.

As a wanderer with keen interest in schooling, pedagogy and education, I keep striving for life-affirming practices and philosophies of education that can take me beyond textbooks and examinations, the ritualization of comparison and quantification of one’s performance, competitiveness and resultant psychic wound, and hierarchy and surveillance. No wonder, the likes of Freire, Illich and Tagore fascinate me. And my quest also inspires me to engage with Jiddu Krishnamurti–an amazing teacher-philosopher who could tell us that ‘truth is a pathless land’, and no dogma, sect or organization can take us to the realm of truth, and hence to learn is to unlearn, to decondition the mind, and to be free from the burden of bookish knowledge, rigid ideologies and dogmas. Not solely that. If schools become factories with a principle of standardization and regimentation, creativity is lost, and human possibilities are denied. The uniqueness of each child, the sensitivity to life–not merely a lesson in physics or geography, but an amazing sunset, or a mountain peak; and a symmetrical relationship between the teacher and the student: Krishnamurti reminded us of the deeper meaning of education.  Hence, a book on his educational philosophy has a special appeal to me.

Furthermore, here is a book visualized and edited by Professor Meenakshi Thapan: a sociologist known for her remarkable contributions in the field of education, and her deep engagement with Krishnamurti’s educational ideals, and actual pedagogic practices that characterize  a school like Rishi Valley: supposedly, one of the leading schools that seek to implement what the great master taught. This further motivates me to read the book consisting of thirteen chapters written by a spectrum of scholars, teachers, and pedagogues. Yes, to quote Thapan, ‘this is a book about Krishnamurti’s intervention in educational thought and practice’; and the chapters, as we are told, are a ‘mix of work based on fieldwork and on an in-depth understanding of Krishnamurti’s work by educators in school education at universities, teaching and working with Krishnamurti’s ideas’.

Yes, I begin to read the book with deep awareness because, as Thapan writes, ‘Krishnamurti’s approach and the schools run by the KFI , some of which have been examined here, are of contemporary relevance for the times we live in’.

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In Search of Pedagogic Imagination

I ask: how are these schools different in terms of worldviews, cultural practices, pedagogy and curriculum, and discipline and punishment? Well, apart from Thapan’s exhaustive introduction, there are two significant essays written by Radhika Herzberger and Vikas Baniwal that inspire the reader to engage with Krishnamurti–more deeply and meaningfully.  However, Abismrita Chakravarty’s essay “Curricular Concerns and Practices in a Krishnamurti School” has a special appeal to me; it makes me see what really happens at these schools–for instance, the Valley School– in terms of teaching and learning. Let me quote an insightful paragraph from the essay:

The EVS curriculum is aimed at enabling the learner to build skills of observation and reflection from experiences that are in context, and then move towards abstract concepts, once the skills of observation are internalized, which form the bedrock for future learning. This is a reflection of Krishnamurti’s ideas which have repeatedly emphasized that a child is self-actualizing, and must be given the freedom to explore, seek, search, discover, and experiment. The teacher’s role is to guide, clarify, and help in acquiring a way of looking and thinking.

Chakravarty’s keen observation enables us to see how ‘the lesson plan leaves enough room for the unplanned and sudden modifications and alterations due to unexpected encounters’. Well, the campus of the Valley School sees a large variety of butterflies; and it is illuminating to know that the ‘actual learning’ happened when the children witnessed ‘a butterfly metamorphosizing from a lava in their classroom’.  This, I must argue, is a refreshing departure from mere textbook centric learning. As children are encouraged to sharpen the art of seeing, and realize themselves as creative participants and keen observers, the process of learning becomes alive–not fossilized. Yes, Chakravararty is right in saying that ‘invisible pedagogy in practice creates a learning environment that is enabling and devoid of explicit control; and the classroom emerges as a complex concept with shifting boundaries, where the process of learning becomes synonymous with living.’

Here is yet another observation derived from the field work in the Valley School in Bengaluru. As Priyanuj Choudhury’s paper “A Space Sans Fear” informs us, ‘the classroom in the Valley strives to achieve a fine balance between the two forms of freedom–‘freedom from’ fear and restraints, and ‘freedom to’ act. At a time when even children at the rapidly growing ‘play schools’ are burdened with all sorts of ‘assignments’, it is refreshing to know that in the Valley school  children (first grade section) can experience the lightness of being,or the beauty of the ‘open class’, and they have the ‘liberty to move around the four stations–English, Art, Math and Science–at their own pace and liking’. And what charms me is the fact that ‘there is no compulsion to finish an activity within the stipulated duration of the class; the same could be worked on later at home, or resumed in the next open class’. Even though there is a fixed curriculum as children come to the higher classes, the experience of freedom is not altogether lost. As Choudhury’s field-based observation suggests, ‘the students are encouraged to undertake research work and make presentations in the class, in keeping with the emphasis that the school lays on peer learning, and finding alternative perspectives to supplement the knowledge received via textbooks.’

At this juncture, Disha Pandey’s essay “Celebrating Differences”–yet another reflection on the Valley School–arouses my attention. What fascinates me is the tale of ‘inclusive learning’. Yes, Pandey wants us to realize ‘how inclusion in the school is consciously resculpted for a mixed-age classroom, when the child is taught along with the other children without forcing her to meet a predetermined average ideal pace of learning.’ In a mixed-age classroom it is possible to have a child with down’s syndrome, or a child who falls on the autustic spectrum.  Yet, as Pandey’s work suggests, there is a sincere effort to meet each child at her individual level. Yes, it reinforces Krishnamurti’s belief that comparison or standardization is wrong as each child is unique. Hence, to take a simple illustration, ‘the use of kinaesthertic tools, that is beeds or abacus, to teach mathematics may not just be specific to the child with learning difficulties, and may also be used to teach another child who simply struggles with math.’ There is no symbolic or psychic violence as the child with ‘special’ needs is not taught ‘how to conform to the existing classroom structure’; instead, ‘the elements of the entire classroom’, as we are informed, ‘open up and create a space to allow her to settle in, and provide her with her own definition of comfort and acceptance.’

Freedom and Discipline: The Dynamics of a Relationship

Well, it is quite natural to expect that the schools that derive their inspiration from Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy would try to nurture a truly dialogic/symmetrical relationship between the teacher and the taught. Dialogue, not monologue; the rhythm of inner discipline, not the fear of ‘strict’ headmasters; and  empathy, not the language of power: one hopes that these schools would really generate a new possibility. No wonder, Madhulika Sonkar’s essay “Right Relationship between Teachers and Students” captures my attention. Have the teachers who teach at, say, Rishi Valley School succeeded in internalizing and practising these liberating ideals? Of course, this ought to be a complex journey with ups and downs, and ambiguities and possibilities. Take, for instance, the inner struggle of R.V.Kumar–‘a mathematics teacher who joined the school in 2003’.  Yes, as Sonkar reminds us, it was not easy for Mr. Kumar; initially,possibly because of his own schooled consciousness, he was not very comfortable with the school culture at RVS; he thought that amongst the students there was no ‘discipline’. But then, eventually, he learned the true meaning of discipline (as I would imagine, inner discipline emanating from freedom, and resultant engaged responsibility). Likewise, think of the English teacher known for her ‘unique dressing style’ and ‘eloquent communication skills’. Yes, as Sonkar’s observation suggests, this teacher is immensely popular; ‘her evening sessions of basketball and yoga with the girls enhance her reach and popularity among students’. Yet, this ‘popular’ teacher too does not feel happy when in the name of freedom students call her by her first name; for her, it is not an indicator of freedom.  In other words, the process of acquiring the spirit of creative freedom and inner discipline, or love and reverence is pretty delicate; no wonder, many teachers are bound to engage in a process of negotiation; it is a continual interplay of distance and intimacy, or authority and love.

It is at this juncture that David Horsburgh’s Neel Bagh experiment becomes worth examining. Radhika Herzberger’s article “Multigrade Instruction at Rishi Valley and Neel Bagh” makes it possible for me to know how this Englishman–‘a brilliant teacher of literature, drama and craft’–set up Neel Bagh in the rural countryside, 30 kilometres away from the Rishi Valley. In 1953 he joined RVS, and remained a teacher at the school for six years. Eventually, he left Rishi Valley; and ‘between 1972 and 1984, Horsburgh educated around thirty Telegu-speaking children belonging to the neighbouring impoverished village communities in Kolar district of Karnataka.’   It is great to be aware of the ‘three pillars’ of education at Neel Bagh–‘multigrade, no exams, no testing.’

Likewise, Rohini Ram Mohan, Thomas Muller and Hitesh Kukreja –through their perceptive and informative essays–helps the reader to understand the possibility of ‘multigrade/multilevel’ methodology of pedagogic practice. This practice has its special significance, particularly when one tries to take Krishnamurti beyond the select ‘elite’ schools. Yes, as Thapan reminds us, Krishnamurti schools have active rural education and health programmes; and ‘a major contribution has been the introduction of the MGNL method in the rural schools in and around Rishi Valley, as well as in several districts in other states in India.’

The educators have to be educated. And hence, the question is: how do we find the kind of teachers who are truly sensitive to this radical/life-transformative pedagogy? It is in this context, as I see, Bharat Suri’s article “Going beyond the Self” becomes relevant. It makes us aware of the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources’ contribution to teacher education.  As Suri writes:

Clearly, RIVER seeks to expand teacher horizons and reduce mechanical transaction of curricula in existing MGML classrooms by allowing student-teachers to see a fuller, more wholesome picture of education. It takes pains to treat the teachers a fully capable human being within her respective context(s), and considers the relationship between teachers and children as central to its approach.

Is it the reason why Thapan believes that the ‘ethics of care’ ought to be developed as an idea, and as practice in classroom activities? I too would agree with Thapan when she says that ‘the idea is to develop the human potential of teachers to work with children with empathy, compassion, and kindness through generating an awareness and understanding of the diversity of caste, religion, gender, language, learning abilities, and physical attributes apart from other differences. The focus is on the teacher and her human potential, and for self-knowing and translating that into action in the classroom.’

The Possibility Amid Contradictions

Quite often, we ask whether it is possible to implement Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy in its true spirit? Possibly, there is no simple answer to this question. But then, as Hillary Rodrigues cautions us in her essay “Insight through Awarenes”, there are two dangers. First, even the Krishnamurti schools might be reduced into merely ‘successful institutions in the mould of traditional elite educational establishments.’ Despite some form of child-centric/participatory learning, these schools, because of the ‘combined forces of conventional goal-oriented participants and stakeholders’, might fail to create a mind Krishnamurti strove for: a mind illuminated by ‘the awakening of intelligence’. Second, these schools might turn into ‘quasi-religious schools , with a stifling generic moralism that is tacitly concealed under the guise of Krishnamurti’s rejection of traditional religions and their respective moral standards.’

Yet, I believe that these contradictions notwithstanding, these schools generate a possibility. And at a time when coaching centres, filthy guide books and the obsession with ‘safe’ careers characterize the dominant practice of education with its euphoria of ‘success’ and stigma of ‘failure’, even an attempt to think differently is immensely valuable. Hence, Hillary Rodrigues is not wrong when she asserts that Krishnamurti’s teachings have significant value  for educators in ‘secular, public institutions, even if he is regarded by many as a ‘religious teacher’. The reason is that like the pedagogical approaches of Piaget, Montessori, Freire, or Niel Postman, Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy too aims at ‘enhancing creativity, reducing personal angst as well as social conflict, enhancing self-understanding, and promoting the full flowering of intelligence.’

The book, I believe, is immensely relevant; and it should be read by students, researchers, educationists and all those who wish to know more about Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Meenakshi Thapan (ed.), J.Krishnamurti and Educational Practice: Social and Moral Vision for Inclusive Education, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018; price: Rs. 1500/