Once upon a time, a long time ago, there were teachers who were actively sought out by students and their parents. Students were immersed in a lifestyle dictated by the times and by the teacher’s predilections and resources. They were socialized in such settings, and they not only gained knowledge but also cultivated attitudes.

Then came the era of schools. What mattered was no longer the individual teacher, but a structured tradition. Immersion now was in the shared lifestyle of the school or college. There was a common purpose: to learn the subjects. Subjects became important, as did proficiency with pen, argument or hand skills.

Subsequently, with the Industrial Revolution, there was the growth of factories and big business houses. Schools were radically reshaped by the demands of this revolution, which was characterized by the mass production of goods and delivery of services. This revolution in manufacture was followed in the twentieth century by a silent revolution in selling. If, earlier, people purchased things to satisfy their needs, now they did so to satisfy desires. Society was reshaped subtly to allow for this shift by using psychological techniques. Major thinkers and policy makers argued that people would have to be told what is good for them, as they were unlikely to know. As individuals would resist, this shift would have to be done by subtly breaking down their resistance. Marketing and advertising went further:

A struggle different than any before in world history is intensifying between corporations and parents. It is a struggle over the minds, bodies, time and space of millions of children and the kind of world they are growing up in. Year by year, parents are losing control over their own children to the omni-penetrating hucksterism of companies. Driven by tens of billions of dollars in sales, profits, bonuses and stock options, the men-driving giant companies are in a race to the bottom with their competitors —always pushing, pushing the range of violence, sex, addiction, and low-grade sensuality through evermore manipulative delivery systems... They use television, radio, videos, arcades, movies, toys, malls, advertisements, magazines, even schools and cyberspace as well as stores, physicians, day care centers, fast-food restaurants, clinics, theme parks, maternity wards and the streets themselves. Thousands of employees and consultants analyze, test and interview children, hoping to learn how to stimulate and exploit their anxieties, fears, loneliness and sensual drives in order to sell, sell, sell.

Corporate America’s Exploitation of Children, Ralph Nader and Linda Coco, 1997

Through a persistent media barrage, a child experiences hidden and not-sohidden messages. Brand and purchase influencing is not an accidental happening. Through the use of psychological techniques, corporations tap into hidden desires, urging the individual to buy. Further, they find out the kind of messages that will get to you, in an individualistic age when each wants to be ‘himself or herself’. By seeming to offer choice, the marketplace finds a predictable consumer. The forces that operate on the child, in a strong and subliminal way, demand the following: conformity in appearance, tailored lifestyle aspirations, relating through objects and artefacts, fear of not belonging and of making a mistake, all leading to an insensitivity to the world around, to the environment and to people.

Round one has gone to the corporations with people reduced to consumers. This is a matter of concern, and we need to ask if we should rethink our education, our family systems. Is there something we can do, something different from what we have done so far? In other words, is there a round two, or has it been a knock-out?

What is the purpose of school education? Is it to find a college seat, and if possible in a ‘reputed’ college? And is this merely the first step to a predictable future of earnings, ownership of property, establishing a family and having offspring, all the while being a good consumer?

During interviews of parents wishing to admit their children into school, we often hear a desperate helplessness: ‘Anyway the child is going to make his choices and lead a life which we cannot control.’ Parents may have doubts whether the values and ideals they hold are really valuable, really worthwhile in the modern world. Will these values help the young survive? When parents are asked what they would like for their child, the answers come across as weak, unclear and helpless. Parents seem to dread saying what they wish for their children, wondering if what they wish sounds old fashioned, impractical and hollow.

Contrast this with the strong voice of the advertisements and the corporations, which set the trends. We must admit that, as parents and concerned citizens, we are unsure about what we really wish for our children; our words and vocabulary are not clear. It is therefore obvious that our voices are not potent enough to challenge the paradigm. Such a voice will grow stronger only if exercised and used, however thinly to begin with. If we wish to be at the table where the big decisions are being made for us and for our children, we need to have vision and clarity. We need to make a start.

We would like our children to have good lives, happy lives with people they relate to and with livelihoods that provide for them. We would like them to have a ‘good work’ in the spirit of E. F. Schumacher. Many of us may not have thought about these questions carefully. Possibly the tide of society does not wish us to think about these.

As an exercise, it may be valuable to see what we hold in our minds when we think of our school-going child in ten years. This is not to prejudge or determine where our children will be going, or what they will be doing, but to get a sense of our certainties and our doubts. Let us ask the following questions, which may include our worst fears:

  • Where will he/she be living and working?
  • What will he/she celebrate and how?
  • What values will he/she live by?
  • Whom will he/she be influenced by?
  • What may not influence him/her?
  • To whom will he/she be attached?
  • To whom will he/she be strangers?
  • What risks will he/she face?
  • What external as well as inner resources will he/she have? What problems can we say with confidence he/she will not have? (alcoholism, obesity, aggressive driving, dysfunctional relationships with partner, children, or friends, inability to hold a job, overspending and in debt, in bad company?)

Krishnamurti said, ‘Children grow up in our schools and then we throw them to the wolves.’ The marketplace has the rapaciousness of a wolf. How are we to engage with our children, to educate them so that they are not just consumed? What inner resources would our children need so that they are able to lead a life that is intelligent? To begin with, we could identify a few important relational and existential imperatives that would help them discover inner resources and strengthen our voices. The following appear significant:

  • Krishnamurti has spoken at length on the art of listening. How do we enable the young to learn this art? Listening offers a core around which a different relational spirit can be built in schools. This will offer a core strength for one’s life-long journey, for listening enables learning and allows the individual to think independently.
  • Can each child feel completely safe in school? Teachers and adults may treat children extremely well and with dignity. But do we know how to ensure that children are not bullied or treated in undignified ways in school by other students? Can school build the potential for deep, respectful collaboration and cooperation through carefully thought-out processes?
  • The central message of academics is finding the right answer. This does not encourage the wisdom of multiple right answers, multiple narratives and possibilities. It seems that journeys of discovery, inquiry, in the light of the teachings, can be sustained for the young in our care, if ‘multiple right answers’ can be consistently used in academic and other transactions.

At a time which is increasingly being recognized as dangerous and difficult, the challenge for us as parents, educators and citizens is to rethink and re-examine our structures, processes, academic priorities and allocation of time so as to give a thrust to these essentials.