As a teacher I am always looking for a good thesis sentence, for that perfect one-sentence statement that is a concise summary of an article, a film, an argument, a teaching. So you can imagine that my heart started beating faster when, in a 1981 BBC interview with Bernard Levin, I heard Krishnamurti say: “One has to be free of all the illusions that thought has created to see something really sacred that comes about through right meditation.”1 Certainly it is not the only thesis sentence in Krishnamurti's work; indeed, at times every other sentence of his appears to be a thesis sentence. But it is a good place to start and that is exactly what I did in the Religion, Culture and Ethics 12th grade class at Oak Grove School this year. In this class, against the background of an investigation into many, often contradictory, theories on the meaning of life and right action, students are asked to discover, write about, and question their own outlook on life.
The goals of the year-long class are to introduce students to Krishnamurti's ideas, to survey most of the major and many of the minor religions of the world, to prepare students for their senior trip to India, to study major ethical theories and apply those theories to practical and contemporary problems, and to facilitate a movement of self-discovery throughout: an inner exploration resulting in a deepening of awareness of conditioning and the mechanics of thought. My intention is to create a classroom environment that is as much student-driven as it is driven by me as a teacher, and where we support one another in making discoveries about ourselves and about the course material.
To begin the exploration of Krishnamurti's ideas, we watch the Bernard Levin interview, a wonderful recording. Following this, every week one student chooses a different selection from What are you Doing with your Life?, 2 writes a paper about it, reads it to the class, and leads class discussion on the topic. The goal is for students to deepen their own investigation into a topic that has meaning to them with the aid of a selection of Krishnamurti's writings on that topic, be it death, love, family or anything else.
A final and recurring aspect of our engagement with Krishnamurti's work is to play with some of his suggestions on cultivating awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodies. I ask students to observe their thoughts and feelings three times each semester and to write about the experience, including once writing down all their thoughts and feelings as they occur (in a nice dramatic touch students burn these thoughts afterwards). As instruction we take Krishnamurti's own writings on these activities.3
In the religion portion of the course students learn about the beliefs and practices of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, and Confucians, as well as about smaller 'faiths' such as Scientology, Rastafarianism, Voodoo, Santeria, Wicca, African Religions, and so on.4 We focus on the religions of India during the first semester in order to start preparing seniors for their winter trip to India.5
Two papers are meant to ensure that the focus in this portion of the class, too, is on self-reflection and observation. Students write a Spiritual Autobiography paper on the question: “What experiences, circumstances, people, travels in your life have contributed to your worldview, and why and how specifically did they do that? Reflect on your own life experiences and on the process by which 'you' create (ultimate) meaning out of them - don't just list your beliefs.”6 I also ask students to visit a religious service of their choice and to write a site-visit paper about the experience, so that students see that religion is as much about practice, shared experience, and community as it is about ideology. Finally, students select a religious topic of their choice and present it to the class.
We also spend some time looking at modern atheism, as articulated by people such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Interestingly atheist critiques of religion are often similar to Krishnamurti's, but where atheists conclude that there is nothing, Krishnamurti still holds that there is something sacred. Of all the possible critiques of Krishnamurti, many from the traditional religion corner, atheism is perhaps the most successful and in any case the most interesting to use in the classroom for the sake of discussion.
From atheism it is only a small step to ethics. In the ethics portion of the course we look at questions such as: What is right action? How should I act in the world? How and who should I be in the world? What should my response be to complex ethical dilemmas such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, animal rights, human rights, poverty, hunger and environmental issues such as global warming? What is my responsibility in facing my life, my relationships with other people, with other forms of life, with ideas and knowledge, with myself? As our guide we use Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life.7 The goal in this part of the course is for students to develop their ability to think analytically and logically and to learn how to build coherent well-reasoned arguments. Students again pick their own topics to explore, write a paper on them, present them to the class, and lead class discussion.
Class discussion is a central part of the Religion, Culture and Ethics course. On the one hand we discuss to deepen our understanding of the course material, and to be exposed to, and occasionally debate, different points of view. At Oak Grove School, however, class discussions have another component: learning about ourselves and others.8 The intention behind this aspect of class discussion is twofold: firstly to create a supportive environment where we can help the person speaking to go deeper into what is alive in them and help them verbalize that; and secondly to create an atmosphere where we look afresh at what is going on inside of us, trusting that we can discover new understandings and insights about who we are. To facilitate and deepen the group communication process we draw on Marshall Rosenberg's ideas on empathy and nonviolent communication and occasionally practice them in workshops in class.9
At Oak Grove School we offer our seniors a unique social studies course which affords them many opportunities to reflect on their thinking and engage the ideas of humans throughout time, from all over the world, on all the timeless questions, with a high regard for freedom of expression and fearless exploration. Academic standards and expectations are high: students write four indepth papers and engage the works of leading philosophers and scholars on a variety of topics at a level more typical of undergraduate university work. But more than just knowledge is at stake: what students discover about themselves and others will shape their lives and the world to come. It may be too much to expect students to come out of the course 'free of all the illusions that thought has created to see something really sacred that comes about through right meditation.'
It is certainly not too much to expect them to recognize a powerful, challenging thesis sentence when they see one, and engage with it fully.
- The interview is published in J. Krishnamurti, Questioning Krishnamurti (San Francisco: Thorsons, 1986), pp. 190—199.
- J. Krishnamurti, What are you Doing with your Life? (Ojai: KPA, 2001) In future, I will be using the book by Raymond Martin, Reflections on the Self (Peru, Illinois: Open Court, 1997).
- See for example: Ojai, 3rd Public Talk, 28th May 1944; Ojai, 5th Public Talk, 11th June 1944, Bombay, 8th Public Talk, 7th March 1948; and New
Delhi, 5th Public Talk, 18th January 1961. At Brockwood I used to teach a course called “Self-Observation” where I used these materials. Thanks to Gopal Krishnamurthy for bringing them to my attention again.
- We use an excellent textbook that focuses on the experiential aspects of religion: Michael Molloy, Experiencing the World's Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change (Boston: McGrawHill,
- Generously made possible by the support of Friedrich Grohe and the KLI group and by the hospitality of the schools we visit.
- Quoted from the course syllabus. Anyone interested in receiving a copy of the syllabus can contact me.
- Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (New York: Ecco, 2001).
- As expressed in Oak Grove School's Art of Communication and Art of Engagement. These are two of six Arts of Living & Learning that we use to clarify Oak Grove's unique orientation to learning. For more detail see Meredy Benson Rice's article “Oak Grove School: The Art of Living & Learning” in this issue.
- See: Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003). Jacob “Jaap” Sluijter runs several workshops for both students and adults. See http:// www.transformingconsciousness.org/ for more information on their content and on how he incorporates both Krishnamurti's ideas and nonviolent communication in them.