We are probably all familiar with Krishnamurti’s statement, ‘The first step is the last step’, but what preoccupies teachers on a daily basis is how they will approach a particular student; how they will make their teaching ‘not boring’; and whether they have the tools for the job, both in terms of knowledge and psychological readiness. It may seem also, particularly in these schools, that there exists a gap between the founder’s vision and classroom practice. What application? Where? Too often, perhaps, it is the syllabus that dictates and not the intention to ‘awaken intelligence’. Theimmediate, real need to take the next step overhauls and subverts the first and the last.
To the present writer, there is a dangerous division—only infrequently and partially healed—between the vision and classroom practice. The demands of examination and syllabus are too strong, the pressure from parents and society too great. We don’t exactly cave in; rather, we have little or nothing of our own with which to meet these strident ‘necessities’: the nerve-tense Exam Room, OFSTED at the door. In such a situation, it becomes a running battle to keep the flame of the teachings alive and it is perhaps surprising that so much of real value, such ‘first and last’ value, has been sustained. This is largely the work of a heroic few who, unwilling to compromise where ‘the flame’ is concerned, have kept it alive and even helped it spread. For, like all revolutions, it is the work of the few; and, like all revolutions, it engages the many.
Is there not, then, some thread or strand, some connecting link between the subject and the teachings? I think there is, and its name is inquiry. By this, I don’t mean dialogical inquiry, which is, in any case, more of an adult occupation. I mean an inquiry-based approach to learning, which incorporates both the acquisition of knowledge and the instantaneous act of perception, that ‘seeing in the Now’, which is Krishnamurti’s definition. It is actually quite a complex matter, but let’s begin with questioning. This may sound simple, even obvious, but by questioning I don’t mean what usually happens (asking questions to elicit answers) but questioning the nature of the subject itself. Having taught languages for twenty-seven years, could I answer the question, What is language? Do I have an original insight into what it is? Or, have I simply absorbed what was on offer—no doubt, instructive in itself—without understanding the phenomenon in depth?
When a rattlesnake rattles, is that language? Your body knows it before you do! When the nightingale sings, trills and whistles all night, is it all explained by the drive of Nature? The sounds made by dolphins, porpoises and whales, though inaudible to the human ear, are without doubt a form of communication. With so much going on around us, so much stimulation for ear and eye, should we not put the emphasis here, rather than on brain-andvoice box reproduction? In any case, is not language as we know it one of the great ‘system builders’ of mankind, along with mathematics and science? Millions consider it the Word of God. Is it, though? Is it really like that? How can such an invention of thought ever touch the Ground of the Real? How have words and thought shaped human consciousness? Why do all tyrants burn or banish books? Reciprocally, why are the words in a holy book considered of more value than a human life? These are some of the questions you might ask.
The object of such questioning is not only to encourage inquiry in the students while actively participating in it ourselves, but also to challenge the definitions we have inherited. If we do not know fully what language is—or, at least, that its contour is constantly shifting—what about biology (bios = life, logos = study) or physics (physis = Nature)? The latter is a case in point since, at the beginning of the twentieth century, physicists of eminent repute held that there was nothing much else to be learned in that domain! Then came Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, two theories that turned the subject upside down and altered the world we live in forever. Einstein, at the age of fifteen, was already asking himself: What would happen to an observer looking in a mirror if the observer were travelling at the speed of light? It is the questioning approach that breaks down barriers, releases minds.
Is it too much to suggest that the via negativa of the teachings be replicated in classroom subjects, that we question not the content of the knowledge-mind, but that we make the shift from accepting knowledge as it stands to questioning its basis and, by extension, its validity? Since the young person spends so much time acquiring the knowledge necessary for living, why not from the very first integrate that knowledge with a questioning approach? This would involve a different kind of mental process—that defined in the teachings as ‘negative thinking’. By this we mean a kind of suspension, a nonassertion of the fact of the matter. For our whole mental structure is built on certitudes—that there is a God or that there is no God; that matter is everything, that spirit is all—and we seem incapable of breaking their stranglehold. But what if we began slowly, with small steps, to reconfigure this dominant mode so that we do not replace one set of ‘Yeses’ with another, but seek from the beginning to question knowledge’s source and, hence, the source of our own strong selves. For surely, if it is true to say that the outer world is the construct of our knowledge both in terms of information and of who we think we are, then the questioning approach to the acquisition of knowledge must necessarily have an impact, a reciprocal impact, on us, the knowers. We do not have to wait for ‘the wisdom of maturity’ to start to watch this instantaneous unfoldment; indeed, it is already implicit in the teachings, which systematically never speak of ‘first—then’ but always of thought/ knowledge acting in tandem with the instantaneous act of perception.
This, naturally, involves the question of the mind: whether it is a solid brick-building continuum, rather like the sense of who I think I am, or whether it is not, primarily, a place of silence, space and energy, open to the heavens and caring for the earth. It involves the ontology of humankind, the global sense of what the human being is. We can continue to exploit, as we have been doing for centuries, or we can turn around and look again. Questioning knowledge, like questioning authority, is one clear way to dismantle the structure with which we have been saddled since the moment we were born. It is not that there is anything wrong with knowledge as such, but since knowledge has been the tool of exploitation—the priest, the populace; the expert, the layman; the technocrat, the labourer—there is always the tendency to internalize knowledge as the measure and hallmark of superiority. Buildings get higher, brick by brick, but in space and silence there is nothing to be gained.
Will questioning knowledge suffice? you may ask. Again, there are pointers in the teachings themselves. One of these is to ‘begin small’. No one person can encompass all knowledge, or even the total knowledge in one subject, but one can pose the question: Why this, not that? One can introduce the questioning mode. The important thing is to convey to students not the utility value of knowledge, which is obvious, but, by teaching them to question, to help them discern the psychological structure based on fear and domination. For, as so often, it is subliminally and secretly that the psychological structure is conveyed—made manifest in mark lists, competition and control. We are crippled before we have learnt to walk.
The freedom to ask questions is a basic human right. As the coming move, the vital shift, from homo sapiens to homo … gets underway, let us as teachers give the lead. Let’s question the knowledge we have acquired, let’s question the basis of knowledge itself, not with the intention of getting rid of it, which is in any case a futile endeavour, but to see if there is not in the very acquisition a parallel movement of ‘letting go’, an abandonment of the psychological factors of knowledge which have wreaked, and continue to wreak, such havoc. The key may not lie so very far away; in fact, it may be there in the door of your classroom. Why not turn that key? You have the right. Unburden yourself. Take the bull by the horns.