Book Review: A Peek Into Krishnamurti Schools and a Different Approach to Learning

Ashwin Prabhu's book on Krishnamurti schools raises some concerns through its omissions.

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For generations, education has been a subject for public discourse but little of what has been written relates to it. Most books, lectures and policy documents promote competition, valourise a certain idea of success, and foreground the needs of the economy. Education is a tool to achieve these indoctrinated ends.

Schools are glorified coaching centres, teachers, examiners and students, members of a future labour force. In an environment where this method of schooling has been accepted as a necessity, challenging it has not been easy. Change that has been brought in without questioning or disturbing this normative is just performative superficial tinkering.

‘Classroom with a View’ by Ashwin Prabhu (Published by Tara Books).

Schools founded by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti and those that follow similar lines of thinking have sought to take an independent path, a route where learning and not education is key. Despite having had to remain within the enforced examination system, they have found ways of creating a space for learning that allows for reflection, curiosity, questioning, inquiry, connectedness and sensitivity. For decades, they have nurtured an environment that allow children and teachers to learn together and share with freedom.

As someone who studied in a Krishnamurti school and remain connected as an alumnus and parent, I am aware of many of their thoughtful initiatives. But it is true that to the outside world, Krishnamurti schools have remained an incomprehensible and disconnected bubble. Classroom with a View authored by Ashwin Prabhu is important because it lifts the veil off their classroom.

The book’s elegance lies in the way it goes about describing the happenings within Krishnamurti schools. At no point is it preachy or self-indulgent. Prabhu simply presents contexts, experiences, learnings and unlearning that have emerged. He is not the sole or dominant voice in the book. Though his personal experiences as a teacher in a Krishnamurti school find place in the narrative, Prabhu remains a sutradhar and observer. There is no attempt to force any specific kind of understanding from the processes that are delineated. The book is, in essence, a collection of stories shared by teachers, students and school principals from across Krishnamurti schools.

Giving children time and the space to watch a sunset, observe an insect or just walk amidst nature may seem innocuous, even irrelevant to education but, as Prabhu has shown, they are foundational to being able to learn. And not just learn, but learn with discernment and passion. But this is not easy. Since the outside world considers these activities as ‘wasting time,’ pause needs to be cultivated in order to enter that mindful frame.

Similarly, learning has been taken out, beyond the walls of a classroom. Through in-school community work, which includes washing dishes and working in the garden, making children meet, talk to and understand the community around the school campus, field trips that involve social, cultural, environmental learning or just sitting together at assemblies and singing songs that embody various faiths and ways of living, these schools make every moment precious.

But is this education? That might be the question from an onlooker. Where is mathematics, physics and economics in all this. By not being bogged down by ‘subjects,’ this book sends an important message.

Learning is not about studying subjects. Learning happens when the mind is sensitive and all a school needs to do is create possibilities for that sensitivity and acute attentiveness to open. But Prabhu does not stop there; he engages with the way teachers have made the classroom an active place, where no child is passively receiving information neither is the subject matter being doled out. And theatre, music, dance and poetry are central to learning and studying. They are not extra-curricular activities.

Also read: Bhagavad Gita in Schools: Rote Learning of Illiberal Theological Text Will Trump Rational Inquiry

A missing piece

In today’s world where anger and hate dominate our mind, ‘togetherness’ is so necessary. Togetherness happens in many ways, in just being together, working together in groups and listening to one another as equals. No one is all knowing, especially the teacher. Krishnamurti schools empower teachers to be vulnerable. I say empower purposefully because the school gives the teacher the confidence to say “I don’t know.”

But schools are not about just students and teachers. In Krishnamurti schools, parents are not occasional visitors, proud parents or worried wards. They are participants, ideating and questioning along with the teachers and students. Prabhu has spoken about how curated conversations and gatherings contribute to the schools.

In the last section he introduces the word that was at the core of Krishnamurti’s thoughts: fear. What do examinations, competition, comparison, punishment and reward do to children? But not stopping with a philosophical rumination, Prabhu elaborates on how Krishnamurti schools have ingeniously subverted these inherently violent paradigms.

But this book also raised some concerns through its omissions. The one word that was not engaged with was ‘struggle.’ There are a few lines here and there about the messiness that appear in schools. But beyond that Prabhu does not discuss the constant grappling. One is not seeking a success or failure report. But there are constant emotional, psychological and structural complexities.

Since these are journeys that never end, not learning about contestations leaves us with a ‘feel good’ sensibility that makes me uncomfortable. In the stories told, there are many voices, but I do not recall reading the words of the cook, gardener or watchman. In a Krishnamurti school, shouldn’t they also be a part of the learning conversations? Maybe they are. But this book does not give us an insight into their minds or their role in these transformations.

In his preface, while speaking of what people think of Krishnamurti schools, Prabhu says, “It was as if the schools were for a certain kind of child, from an elite social context and for whom the ‘alternative’ was an option.” Unfortunately, there is no attempt to address this concern. A concern that I believe is legitimate. It cannot be denied that in conception and attitude the Krishnamurti schools are elite. Elitism is not merely about economy; it is in the culture. A culture may seem inclusive but, when it does not address those unseen lines that are communicated through language and temporality, it remains exclusive. Maybe this is not the book that needs to take up this question, but it is a missing piece.

Prabhu does not set the various Krishnamurti schools within their cultural context. Each is very different with some specific battles. For example, the social challenges faced by the people of the Rajghat school are different from most other Krishnamurti schools. Some insight here would have helped us understand the practices better.

Similarly, I would have liked to know more about parent-teacher conversations beyond the thematic sessions. Often parents, despite sending their children to a Krishnamurti school, have opposite notions of education and society. Children struggle with these contradictions that remain unresolved. This forces them to behave according to the requirements of each environment. Play acting in both situations!

I will end with the one story that truly bothered me. This was with regard to the Rural Education Centre situated just outside Rishi Valley School, which caters to children from surrounding villages.

To begin with, both schools are situated in a rural setting but only one is tagged as ‘rural.’ This is not just a question of semantics; it indicates a frame of mind. Leaving that aside, the story speaks about how relationships were built between students of both institutions and the complex social questions that were raised by children themselves.

This is one of the very few times Prabhu speaks very directly of privilege and social hierarchy. Yet, when he gives space for responses from students and teachers, we find that they are all from the Rishi Valley School. Not one voice was from a student of the Rural Education Centre.

T.M. Krishna is a musician, author and activist.