(J Krishnamurti, The Ending of Time, Chapter 6, 15th April 1980, Conversation with Prof. David Bohm: ‘Can Insight Bring About a Mutation of the Brain Cells?’)
What is Krishnamurti’s pedagogy? How is it distinct from standard practices as well as alternative pedagogies? What might a pedagogy grounded in total insight look like?
The constructivist revolution clarified and explored decades ago the old1 idea that students are not blank slates, that they bring their own experiences and knowledge into the learning environment and build new knowledge based on this. Such an innovative way of thinking about learning gave validity to experiential learning, a stated key feature in many of today’s traditional schools as well as alternative models such as the Montessori and Steiner schools. Even though the manner in which different traditions practice such insight varies, constructivism scientifically justified the importance of learner-centred experience in teaching: students need to do and not just be told. For all the good it brings, the main shortcoming I see with this so-called revolution is that it is partial at two levels: in its application and in its depth.
Talking from first-hand experience in both public2 and private schools, it is evident that the constructivist model has had a hard time making it into the classroom. I take this to be the result of its partial insight into how people learn. Acknowledging students’ own thinking is a step forward, but it is not the education of the whole child. A telling feature is that while it is true that constructivism allows greater freedom than behaviorism3, this freedom is more theoretical than applied. Namely, it conceptually acknowledges that if students are encouraged to engage with the world they will also be more active in their learning and not be mere passive recipients of information, as in the behaviorist approach. However, when it comes to the classroom, a contradiction emerges. Because teachers do not know how to deal with the freedom they promote, it tends to turn to license and then antiquated behaviorist practices are invoked to restore order. A deeper revolution would have been if constructivism had fundamentally changed what goes on in classrooms by creating an approach that actively relates to such freedom, so that thinking and knowledge themselves are engaged with and questioned. In a very real sense, while not demarcating his approach from either constructivism or behaviorism as such, that is what Krishnamurti implicitly proposes.
While constructivist approaches take into account the obvious fact that the minds of students are not empty vessels, they tend to ignore students’ hearts – the motivational aspect of learning (aspects such as the emotional brain, the social nature of learning). As a result, constructivist teachers invariably have to resort again to behaviorist tools. Motivation takes the form of rewards and punishments, because the relational aspect of learning, perhaps one of the most important aspects Krishnamurti talked about in education, is absent. (It may appear that rewards and punishments, central to the behaviorist model, indicate a relational aspect, but they tap into it in a coercive way.) Krishnamurti points out the need to fundamentally change the way the teacher and the taught relate to one another, which by implication changes the way they relate to the world and to knowledge. Here, learning to relate in a different way is the very motivation for a kind of learning that includes knowledge but transcends it.
Krishnamurti talks of partial and total insight; while they may be distinct, it does not mean they are opposed. Rather, they may be said to be interwoven. When Krishnamurti says that an artist or a scientist can have a partial insight, he clearly seems to mean that total insight is different. What did he really mean? It is for each of us to ask and explore the question. Having explored the essential nature of both kinds of insights, I would suggest that both are based on the art of questioning. I also find that while both have questioning at their core, it is with a markedly different emphasis, giving different effects. What distinguishes partial and total insight is twofold, their primary field of application as well as the qualitative effects that ensue from each.
Krishnamurti’s far-reaching insight is to extend the questioning from the content of knowledge (partial insight) to the movement of knowledge (total insight). For example, there is a difference between having an insight into a mathematical concept, which improves one’s understanding, and having an insight into the dangerous implications of becoming identified with knowledge. Partial insight accepts knowledge and thus works within it. Here the observer tends to still see himself or herself as separated from the observed (knowledge in this case) because questioning knowledge does not necessarily lead to questioning the identification of the ego with knowledge.
If on the other hand, we begin to question the identification as part of the movement of knowledge, this must necessarily lead to new knowledge. We may say that knowledge revolutions, not just innovations within knowledge, are made possible to the extent that the movement of questioning knowledge takes place. What happens is that when total insight occurs, we perceive the assumption of the existence of the self to be groundless; by the same token we see knowledge to be like ourselves: constructed and in critical need to be doubted and questioned. Total insight, thus, is total in the sense that it does not see the observer as separate from the knowledge of partial insight. By negating the separation this positively affects knowledge. Hence there is a qualitative difference in results between partial and total insight. Let us explore the implications of this for Krishnamurti’s pedagogy.
To quote Krishnamurti: ‘Can that ‘me’ end? It is only when that ends that there is total insight … We say that something is total emptiness, which is energy and silence.’4 Total insight, then, may be said to be total emptiness. Such insight stands in contrast to something identifiable and something to be identified with. It has no identity and yet it exists. Emptiness as the practice of insight within a school curriculum is perhaps one of the ways in which we can refer to Krishnamurti’s pedagogy. The emphasis needs to be on the notion of insight as emptiness. Otherwise insight tends to refer to learned knowledge: content and skills. Emptiness, while perhaps not as pretty a word as insight, seems to accord more with what Krishnamurti is ultimately after. The pedagogy of emptiness would be a questioning practice in which the point is not to accumulate but to empty consciousness of not only misconceptions but of attachments and identifications thereby addressing the emotional brain that constructivism does not. This is not to say that nothing is learned and remembered, but what is studied is internalized critically, intelligently, as something constructed and, therefore, subject to doubt. Characteristically, this implies that students are guided to look within and learn to establish caring critical relations with themselves, with others and with knowledge. They become noticeably sensitive, independent actors in a changing world they help reinvent.
In other words, knowledge needs to be critically engaged with in the way Krishnamurti talked about when speaking of the ‘questioning mind.’ There really is no such thing as true or value-free knowledge. In its transmission and use, even technical knowledge is corrupted by the ghosts of psychological knowledge. Scientific knowledge, of course, does produce results that work and make a difference. That science works, however, does not necessarily mean it is right, true, or value-free. The danger here is that power, the ‘me’, determines what is so-called true and right in the name of what works. Questions such as for whom, to what benefit, the question of side effects on nature and such become secondary. The growing environmental crisis is increasingly making us pose such questions. Will we be able to answer such questions adequately if we do not empty our minds of yesterday’s answers? Are not the answers for tomorrow to be found today?
We live in an era where science has essentially replaced God; but what does that mean? Even if science gives the impression that it proves things, we ought to be careful with such a notion of, and attachment to, proof. For just about every scientific study, there is a counter-study that shows different results. Therefore, scientific results should not be taught as being eternal truths. For if we do so, we are teaching our students to be followers, not questioners or innovators. It is helpful, together with Professor Bohm, to call attention to Krishnamurti’s pedagogy as ‘permeated by what may be called the essence of the scientific approach, when this is considered in its very highest and purest form.’5 Rather than a position of acceptance towards scientific results, then, it is a scientific attitude towards thought, science itself, and the academy in general that must be cultivated.
This essay is not meant to demean constructivist approaches, but to build on them in a certain sense. When emotions and behaviors are under control, constructivist approaches do very well at teaching the material. Since it actively acknowledges students’ thinking, it can address their misconceptions and help them toward making conceptual shifts aligned with what is believed must be known. One of the assumptions at work today in many classrooms is that scientific knowledge is fundamentally different and truer than the one the students have constructed for themselves and bring to the classroom. In Krishnamurti’s pedagogy all knowledge, whether scientific or student-centred, is something constructed and, therefore, ‘knowledge is limited.’6 Science itself needs to be questioned. For that matter, Krishnamurti himself must be questioned, and not because he encouraged his readers to do so. If we ask ourselves whether finding out for oneself is actually liberating and empowering, we very well may find that it indeed is. The point is that such questioning is the key.
How is emptiness or insight to be incorporated into a school curriculum? Can it be taught and practiced? It must, but surely it will not be a matter of confining it to a set of courses with pre-determined insights to learn. That would go precisely against the freshness of an insight. The process of insight is to clear misconceptions and identifications. Emptiness is like the soil where insight might take place; the mind must be quiet or empty in order for something new to occur. This implies that insight comes uninvited. As we introduce insight and include emptiness in the pedagogy of a school, it should not be just a part of the curriculum but it must pervade all aspects of the school. This is because insight is not content-based, it is not a subject, nor is it something that can be committed to memory. It can, on the contrary, be approached by something resembling an emptying process.
To conclude, the beauty of the questioning mind is that while we are questioning thought and knowledge, we cannot control what or exactly how we will learn. The learning unfolds quite spontaneously as the questioning and emptying goes on. This process should not be separated from academic learning; on the contrary, it is the healthy ground on which the intellect must stand. The union of the two may quite possibly be Krishnamurti’s pedagogy.
- Many constructivists acknowledge Immanuel Kant and John Dewey as inspirations.
- In England, a public school, one that is free and open to the public, is called a state school. What gets called a public school there is reserved for a certain élite and is thus very much private. Many private schools in England have a history of helping the disadvantaged, thus those are in some ways more open to the ‘public’, hence the name it seems.
- A behaviorist model of teaching sees learning as being the result of rewards and punishments: basic outer stimulus. The student’s mind is seen as a blank slate.
- J Krishnamurti, The Ending of Time, Fourth Dialogue with David Bohm in Ojai, April 1980.
- Bohm, David, A Brief Introduction to the work of Krishnamurti, ©1982 Krishnamurti Foundation of America.
- J Krishnamurti, Questioning Krishnamurti, First Conversation With David Bohm at Brockwood Park, 11 June 1983.