There is little question that the field of education is currently in need of an in-depth revision. Its importance and relevance for the individual and for society as a whole have always been evident to educators and lately it's even been picked up by the politicians, who increasingly list it as a top priority in their election campaigns. The urgency of the situation is beginning to generate a good deal of reflection and discontent as well as a frantic search for alternatives to the current system, whose virtues and failings can be readily recognized. It is then natural to pose the question as to what K's proposals for a holistic education are, and how they may contribute to changing the current crisis in the field. What follows is an attempt to spell out a general outline of such proposals.
"The vital flame of intent is to bring about a good, intelligent, extremely capable and free human being."
The purpose of such a holistic education is to bring about a good or whole human being. Whole in this context means not fragmented, not divided or in conflict either within or without. For K this is the unavoidable intent of education: "The vital flame of intent is to bring about a good, intelligent, extremely capable and free human being." (Letters to the Schools, Vol. 2, pg. 41)
This fundamental intent of developing the human being to its fullest capacity, intelligence and freedom, informs the three basic aspects of educational activity, which are:
a. to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to function in society;
b. to discover and cultivate the specific 'hidden' talents in the individual students;
c. to awaken a deeper interest in and concern for the wholeness of life.
It is clear that in the general state of education, most of the energies are being poured into the first and second levels of activity, which have to do with broadly functional categories and more particularly with areas of talent and specialization. As education is viewed primarily as a socializing force, the goals of the given society are what direct the whole process. As such, education becomes a means of social adaptation, with all that that entails in terms of professional training and identification with a given set of values and mores. Such an education is basically a tool for survival within a particular group or culture. The third aspect is generally ignored or relegated to the category of a specialized or private pursuit, whereas it should be right at the heart of the educational enterprise, as wholeness, however misunderstood, is the fundamental and inalienable intent of man.
This third aspect is continuously emphasized by K as being of the essence and one can't help but feel that its real meaning has hardly begun to be appreciated or understood; it's proving to be elusive and as such seemingly impractical. As one can observe, the three levels of activity increase in order of subtlety and importance and we can no longer take the easy way out, limiting ourselves to providing the training to maintain the universal preoccupation with bread and circus instead of facing up to the full challenge of the selfishness and suffering of our human condition. We have dehumanized ourselves to an incredible extent and we keep avoiding our most fundamental responsibility, which is to respond creatively to life as a whole.
The above three fields of activity are informed by six principal aims, here listed in the order which K himself used (Saanen 1983 2nd Question & Answer session), which are to bring about:
- a quality of skill in action: the way one speaks, eats, walks, studies, behaves;
- a close relationship with nature: not to destroy the things of the earth;
- a view of humanity as a whole: each of us is the world;
- a deep sensitivity to beauty which is more than the appreciation of art;
- a quality of affection and care for all things, of love and compassion;
- the awakening of intelligence or insight beyond mere intellectual capacity.
K often expressed his sense of wholeness as the inward harmony between body, heart and mind, which in turn would manifest itself as non-divisive action in our relationship with things, people and ideas. Sensitivity, affection and intelligence are the qualities involved in the fullness of these three aspects. For K life is action in relationship and the quality of this action is therefore inseparable from the quality of life. Be it relationship with nature or with other human beings, the essence of right action is the underlying interconnectedness between us and others, between us and all that is. Our responsibility, therefore, is to see this for ourselves and dissolve the factors of divisiveness.
Words like sensitivity, intelligence and love take on a new and deeper meaning in this context. As far as I know, the words affection, love and compassion are seldom mentioned in educational discourse. Intelligence is confined to levels of skill in academic performance, particularly in those subjects requiring complex operations of abstract thought, and sensitivity is generally relegated to areas of feeling like literature and art. The emphasis on technical performance and conformity to the established pattern obscure these fundamental qualities. However, to ignore them would be tantamount to letting our human essence be brushed aside by the overwhelming momentum of social efficiency and 'becoming', and its obsession with measurement as the very definition of the real.
The meaning of education is to study, act and learn in a space of leisure, leisure being the Greek root-meaning of 'school'. It is not primarily the acquisition of knowledge and the consequent implantation of a series of moral or immoral habits, but the cultivation, if cultivation it can be called, of four basic 'arts', art being the active quality of affectionate sensitivity and understanding that determines whether things 'fit'. K listed these arts as the art of seeing, the art of listening, the art of questioning, and the art of learning, all of which make up the great art of living. The word 'art' in this context refers to the sense of learning as something direct and instantaneous, and not the result of preconceived assumptions and choices. This education, therefore, is centred on observation and inquiry, on a sense of pliable attention to the ever-changing inward and outward aspects of existence.
This holistic approach requires a corresponding pedagogical atmosphere and practice. Relationship is of the utmost importance here. Education is a microcosm in which the whole world is represented. So one of its priorities is to provide the right physical and psychological environment in which a human being may grow up unhindered and straight. This means that everyone involved in the educational process must be watching and investigating the factors that tend to disrupt this healthy and integrated process of maturation. I here use the word 'practice' not in the sense of a method or standard routine to be followed mechanically, which would run counter to the basic aims and intent of such an education, but rather to refer to the kind of action (the basic meaning of 'practice' is action, which is basically non-repetitive) that follows from the central concern with wholeness.
One of the first things that clearly stands out is the needful absence of the ingrained pattern of arbitrary authority, with its intrinsic sense of aggressiveness and fear, of punishment and reward, which has been the very trademark of life at school. These things have been implemented as the way to ensure a certain order and discipline in the classroom as well as to condition the child to conform to the pattern laid down by the given establishment, be it religious or secular. Authority, in the sense of imposition, not in the sense of being the author or originator of something, is detrimental to the integral growth of the individual. It destroys the quality of affection that is essential for learning in relationship as well as the sensitivity and intelligence that go with it. As K never tired of saying, wholeness can only flower in freedom, not in a coercive environment. This structure of hostility and control damages the psyche, the senses and the heart, forcing the individual to take shelter in all manner of illusions. When love and understanding are denied, the psyche tries to drown its sense of loneliness and pain in all kinds of seemingly satisfying substitutes, in conformist, self-assertive behaviour or addictive habits. A division is set in motion and human integrity is lost.
Another danger that K constantly pointed out is that of comparison, the measuring of one person against another, the setting up of scales of superior and inferior. The stratification of society as well as the individual's chances and image of himself are generally determined by this comparative structure. The relationships between human beings are conditioned by this obsessive concern with degrees of high and low, which breaks down the sense of equality as human beings and introduces the spirit of competition, of envy and greed, which are the very fuel of the universal impulse to become something and one of the basic causes of conflict, ultimately leading to war. Comparison is not the key to understanding and it injures the heart, making for isolation and insensitivity. As K put it, "When you admit the more, the better, you are denying the good." And the good is what this education is about.
A question is then generally raised as to how order is maintained or academic excellence encouraged in such a place. Does anybody do anything except out of compulsion or reward? Aren't these our basic motivations? How do people get to cooperate and behave themselves, to become responsible in the absence of these? Won't everyone become sloppy and careless in the name of freedom? If they are not taught to compete and to seek to improve themselves and their lot, how will they be able to adapt to the social environment and its pressure to succeed? What kind of people does this education actually turn out, integrated and capable human beings or mystical dreamers and misfits who shy away from the tough challenges of life? These and other questions are inevitable when looking into the implications of such an educational proposal. Unfortunately, space does not permit a detailed examination of such questions. Nonetheless, and by way of a preliminary answer, it may help to observe that for human beings, and specially for children, relationship is the most important thing in life. Order, cooperation and excellence in action follow naturally from it. So to seek individual fulfillment and the common good through those things that deny relationship is a contradiction in terms. And that which contradicts itself has no meaning.
Things like authority, fear and comparison are detrimental to the proper interaction and atmosphere in the school. Their intelligent removal is the groundwork on which the spirit of inquiry, a sense of mutual respect, consideration and trust, cooperation and a dynamic sense of freedom can flourish. This new quality of relationship provides the background of security in which sensitivity and the capacity to learn naturally and joyfully unfold. Such an ambiance helps to nourish creativity.
The particular aspect that gives depth to the whole atmosphere is the inquiry into oneself. Education is often described as the process of dispelling ignorance. It is assumed that if we have more knowledge, if we are better informed, we will be better able to solve our problems. It has been the hope of Encyclopedists, Romantics and other positive thinkers, that through informed reason we will achieve social justice, freedom and equality for all. This experiment has had some undeniable benefits, but has not done away with ignorance. On the contrary, the evidence points to the increased threat to life that mankind now poses as a result of such 'enlightened' ideas. Ignorance, as K has pointed out, is not to know or understand oneself. It is the neglect of the psyche that has brought about and continues to engender all sorts of calamities. There is no wholeness without insight into the nature and structure of the self. This attention to the inner as revealed in relationship and in the inward mirroring of thought-feeling, is a key characteristic of the schools where such an education is being tried. This means that there is not only verbal inquiry but also a quality of what K called choiceless awareness, which is the beginning of meditation. This brings about an expansive sense of space and silence which is the ground of wholeness and insight.
This tentative description of the key aspects of K's proposals for a holistic education is offered as a first report of findings in a more extensive and ongoing inquiry into this field. It is a sort of map which, as such, is not and cannot be the territory. Education in this broad sense is a matter of our fundamental intent as human beings and as such is an inescapable responsibility. As K clearly pointed out, the problem in education is not the child but the adult. More often than not, children show that he and she bring with them this very quality and demand for wholeness, which they manifest in so many ways, from the simple concern with truth and affection, to a marked sensitivity to beauty and the beyond. This description is only an approximation, as all descriptions inevitably are, to the real challenge of educating children and ourselves in this wholesome spirit.
It is my sense that the inquiry into this and its implementation in homes and schools hold the potential for a much needed transformation not only of current educational practice but of consciousness and society as a whole.