Our discussions in the recent past have often veered towards some troubling trends that we notice in the lives of the urban middle and upper-class students in our schools. As teachers we discovered that we share many common perceptions. For instance, pleasure seems to be the driving force behind most choices that are made. This leads to constant self-absorption, nurtured by the times. There is a sense of ‘why should I do anything unless I get something out of it?’ Pleasure, the reinforcing factor, is quicker and easier now to obtain. Easy money and the consequent consumerism render identity and happiness dependent on possessions—what I own determines what I am. Young people want to maintain or, even, exceed their parents’ lifestyle, and their single-minded aim is for economic success. This, in turn, translates into a preoccupation with academic success. The result is a severe distortion of childhood filled with pressure and anxiety.

Are these preoccupations confined to the affluent middle class? Obviously not. It seems that the aspiration for an almost one-dimensional story of success is reaching children of all sections of society.

As teachers, we have also noticed changes in the classroom in the past few years. Children are less comfortable working in groups, preferring instead to work in isolation, ‘finish and be done’ with any assigned study. Left to themselves peer conversations quickly take on a bantering tone that sometimes has a cruel edge: disparaging talk that is mostly about each other. In such interactions, the mind becomes comparative, constantly having to decide between what may be ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’. Very often, these decisions are linked to branded possessions and expensive gadgetry. Concerns around excessive television watching are now morphing into concerns about that other screen, one that gives an illusion of control through a keyboard or mouse, and allows a twelve year old to kill imaginary enemies, or, when that gets boring, to chat endlessly with friends (or even strangers) about the vacuous content fed by films and advertising. These children are increasingly retreating or are being pushed into their own little corners, creating their own virtual worlds.

Although, in our discussions, what we pointed out related to children, it was also becoming increasingly clear that children are, after all, victims of the society created by adults. We create society, they inherit its complexities. The problem lies with us and therefore we have to take responsibility for it. Nor is this phenomenon special to this age. For centuries we may have possessed the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our brains are addictive in the sense that we seek to perpetuate situations of pleasure, where we can ‘escape’ facing ourselves and run away from our insecurities. But as we know only too well, pain and insecurity do not go away; there is really no escape.

Traditionally we have looked at all this as a moral dilemma. Consequently, over the centuries people have been led to explore questions of ‘values’ and ‘goodness’. However our responses have almost always been ‘insufficient’ in one way or the other. Inevitably, our responses have led us to new dilemmas, which bring forth further inadequate responses, and so the cycle goes on. To illustrate, in order to instill the right values in our children, we have identified values such as honesty, courage, forgiveness and generosity, written books describing and prescribing moral behaviour, and created a separate subject in the curriculum for their transmission. Plainly, these measures have not worked. Perhaps it is our very notion of ‘instilling’, of ‘prescribing’ and ‘transmitting’ values that is misguided. In the process, values have become mere academic concepts.

It is here that our study of Krishnamurti’s thoughts on education has been of great significance, enabling us to look at the question of goodness and values afresh, and in a different way.

Goodness as a living thing

The key could lie in relationship-a living engagement between adult and child, where there is warmth and mutual affection. In such a relationship, through dialogue and self-reflection, it is possible for a meeting of minds. This allows for an understanding of goodness as a living thing that is reflected in behaviour, rather than as a concept.

What can we as teachers do to nurture these sensibilities in ourselves and in the young people in our care? The first ‘commandment’ that springs to mind is this: do not try to impose an external set of values and rules of behaviour. This would be counterproductive and sterile for both child and adult. In our relationship with children, we might instead listen closely, be vulnerable, and pose the ‘apt’ question when necessary. There is great value in a conscious examination of the patterns we observe in our own lives, as well as in the local environment and community. Examining these as a group of affectionate friends, paying attention together, engenders a quality of self-reflection that is a vital antidote to thoughtless self-absorption. Such dialogical interaction is not about mysterious abstractions, but about our daily lives and the attention we pay to our daily activities.

Today, we live in perpetual engagement with certain ‘modern’ activities that are driving out the space for simple everyday acts that may put us in touch with the flow of life around us. Acts such as making something with our hands, going for a walk and looking around, being attentive to people, to nature, to our man-made environments, or just sitting alone, need to be encouraged in schools, in order to counter the pleasure-seeking thrust of the modern world.

There is another dimension of urgency to our lives that is becoming starkly evident in the twenty-first century. We are not only losing touch with a rooted sense of family, of friendships, the sense of community beyond our own self-defined individual identity; but the larger backdrop of the earth on which we all live looms larger than ever before. Climate change and its consequences are now the stuff of daily news, sending a message that none can afford to neglect: that apart from being accountable to each other, we are all inextricably bound to the well-being of the planet and its numerous species. The moral dimension of these issues underscores the demand for a wholly new sense of goodness that must explode across the planet, if its nurturing beauty is not to degenerate further, making all our lives ‘nasty, brutish and short’. There seems to be no further cycle that would naturally follow upon our failure to meet the present crises.

It is in this context-the self-absorption of modern living juxtaposed with the colossal demand for regeneration of goodness in the world-that the role of the school and the home becomes more relevant than ever.

Adults and children together need to develop that keen, wide intelligence that can aid them in traversing the minefields that contemporary life is littered with. The first principle here is that we need to be ‘wide awake’. And school is the place to learn attention, to nurture understanding and develop a wakeful, responsible attitude to the world as it is. It is only when we recognize that we have as much to learn as our students about ourselves and the world around us, that a relationship of mutual listening can be established. Then, in our speaking with children we find that they in fact see the significance of our concerns. Scratch the surface, and beneath the veneer of preoccupation with many things, there is a love of learning, an intelligent, curious young mind that is willing to listen, to question, to wonder, and an eagerness to engage with wider issues. If we can build on these qualities that already reside in our children, such an approach to goodness would indeed be timeless—as powerful and possible a means of exploring the formation of values today as it ever was.

These two strands then, of learning and awareness, should allow the brain to retain pliability, tentativeness and acuteness of perception, in the face of whatever challenges each coming decade will throw up. In this way, we and our children need not feel that we are at the mercy of the forces around us, but learn to meet them with intelligence, and go on to lead more wholesome lives.