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Pangaea

 

The Pangea class, I thought, was an excellent application of the link syllabus. You took a very simple question that students frequently ask- ‘Where do the continents come from?- and you used that to tell a story, and within that story you had science, geography, history, while also deriving an ethics out of it. Also connecting the class to one of the songs that we sing at the morning assembly, giving deeper significance to the music that is so important. We’ve had many philosophical discussions of the link syllabus; it might be nice to go through this specific class, see the link syllabus in action.

 

I think one of the ways that we can approach this question of link syllabus is in terms of awakening more and more of the mind, more and more areas of the brain working simultaneously, in whatever way. So music, for instance, scientists say, simultaneously awakens more than twelve areas of the brain- and that is why music is probably the most creative, the most awakening experience for human beings. It has so many levels. But when it comes to teaching it is so shrunken, the presentation of the teachers and what goes into the minds of the children, is so limited that it probably only touches a very small part of the brain, and doesn’t go very deep. So in the Pangea class, one of the important things I would like to talk about is that we created those continents. They were not ready-made. And many teachers may see that as a waste of time. They may say: ‘You were just making continents by tearing paper, it was clumsy, the continents were not perfect. It took more time- if you had them already made, properly made, then you would have saved time.’ But I totally disagree with this approach, because when you are tearing with your own fingers an ordinary paper, a waste paper- I don’t know where they got the paper from, it was rough paper- then children see the mystery of creation. They see that these continents can be created out of waste paper. That is one thing. Another thing is that it is not a big deal to make these continents- it can be done. As far as shapes are concerned, nobody knows what the shape of those continents was at the time- it’s only a theory. Although there is more and more evidence, nobody can know exactly how these continents looked when they were together as Pangea. So it doesn’t matter- as long as they understand the concept that they were all together, and then they separated, and in the act of separation many islands were created, got lost, and were created again, in a very long process. Another thing is the teaching material, and this also applies to math materials. I discovered that in America, for teaching 1/2 plus 1/3, and so on, they use ready-made plastic materials. A friend of mine gave me some ready-made plastic teaching materials, a hexagon and so on- hexagon was the unit. Now it is a unit, of course, and children will understand ‘what is half of this?’ and so on, but then a hexagon is not as readily available as A4 paper, which we see every day. Another thing is that for a country like India, rough paper is not as expensive. The second thing is that if you have one A4 paper and you are tearing it into two equal halves by first folding it and then tearing it or cutting it, you are creating one half out of a whole. It is one thing to create it, and another to already have those halves, and then show one and one half without having made it. You wanted to save time, but then you deprive the children of this act of creation. I think the same thing happens with geography.

 

Continuity within a subject should be maintained.

 

And of course, I noticed that when I was tearing these continents physically the children could guess what I was doing- there was a globe on the side- and they were very attentive, very focused. And that is the first condition for any lesson- the children should be attentive. So by doing something like this you draw their attention. And it’s also a challenge for the teacher, because they have to get over their perfectionism and their fear, making the continents in the moment- and if they are not perfect-looking, you learn that it doesn’t matter. I made corrections to myself in the class. I made Africa but accidentally wrote South America, and I looked at it and I thought: ‘This doesn’t look like South America- it should be thinner at the bottom.’ So I made it thinner, and so on. Any method that addresses as many areas of the brain as possible, in a harmonious way, is link syllabus, because it helps in this inner inquiry. We are using external knowledge for this inner journey, because the brain is made more alert and alive by considering this external knowledge in a harmonious way. And then when children do a sitting, or an awareness exercise, or you just ask them to be aware of their breath, they have more energy to do that, and they got this energy from awakening these different areas of the brain. So instead of being tired after a lesson, they will be more energized. And I was energized also- it’s good for the teacher as well. Otherwise the teacher’s job can be very painful and stressful. In traditional schools everything is a battle for teachers, and a battle that deep down has no meaning, so it probably constrains their mind rather than expanding it. Here, of course teachers need a lot of energy and insight, but once they have that initial energy and insight they can build on it as they teach. By the end of the day they may be physically tired, but the brain is alive.

 

How do you build on a lesson like this, the Pangea lesson? Where do you go in the next lesson?

 

You could talk next about different kinds of human beings, different cultures, different religions. You could say that deep down we are all one, just as this Pangea was one, but then slowly from one route people spread to different areas, and each area is different. Different geography, different challenges. So they learned, once they decided to live in a particular place, to find ways of staying alive there, and so different cultures evolved, different belief systems evolved, and so on. And you could talk about, for instance, different kinds of houses- a simple thing. Why do people have all these different kinds of houses? There are houses on stilts because the land is water-logged for most of the year, and there are houses made of ice in the Arctic. Why do people live there? It is so cold. But they have been living there, and that is now their environment. And we could slowly begin to talk about what are sustainable, environment-friendly lifestyles. And we could talk about some of the problems that have arisen, that people learned to use the environment for their survival, but sometimes this led to over-exploitation of the environment. And then we could talk about how science evolved, and why. That science evolved out of this necessity, and then as people became more and more comfortable, gained means of survival, then other things, other animal instincts rose up. Like this territorial expansion, which is an animal instinct. You can find it in birds and monkeys and other creatures, but they have a reason for that instinct, for protecting their territories and so on. But in human beings it became psychological, like Alexander wanting to conquer the whole Earth. It didn’t make sense- there was no material reason he needed so much space for himself or for his soldiers. He could have lived in peace where he was. So if human beings evolved from the animal, which most scientists believe, then it makes sense that on the surface human beings acquired this different lifestyle, and language, and science, while deep down their mind was still an animal mind, with the same instincts. Sex, aggression, and hunger, as they say. Basic instincts, but I disagree that they are basic human instincts. They are animal instincts, and we are predominantly animal unless we change ourselves. The animal is already made in us, already made in the past, but we can evolve from that into human beings, real human beings. If we don’t, if we are not careful, then as we become more and more powerful we will continue to seek gratification with more and more attachment, which in the past was what led to wars. This psychological desire to dominate, to expand your territory, to became great in the eyes of others. So we could talk about that, which then leads to talking about history. And history usually means war. Textbooks say: ‘He was the king, then there was a war and he defeated another king, then he annexed this land and fought this other king.’ There are very few instances of a king encouraging his people to really go within and find out who they are. Very few. Ashoka was one. There may have been some other kings in the world, I don’t know. Kaneshka, who they say was the founder, or inspirer, of Mahayana Buddhism- I don’t think he was doing so purely for religious reasons. I think he also had something else in mind at the time, that he wanted to win the sympathy or support of the kings in that area and not fight him, and for trade maybe. So the whole history then has a different perspective. The other day we were talking about history as a history of evolution. So if we ask the question ‘Why haven’t human beings in general evolved, if this knowledge existed at the time of Buddha, or even before that?’ There were many people who had done research and discovered these spiritual principles, but it didn’t spread. Even now it is the same- the dominant mindset is materialistic. So why is it so easy for human beings to use all of their talents in science and in technology to serve their animal passions rather than for their evolution? That is a big question, and I think it can lead to study of all the subjects, in different ways.

 

The link syllabus seems poised between this total flexibility and a strong sense of direction- you start from the beginning with any subject, and from that branch in any direction, because every node of knowledge exists in relation with other subjects, is interwoven with other subjects, while also moving constantly towards this big question of who we are as human beings, that is the essence of this inner journey, as you have said before.

 

Right. And again, it all depends on the teacher. The teacher has to be very intelligent- intelligent not in the sense that they have read a lot or has many degrees, but intelligent in the sense that they understand deeply the essence of this link syllabus. We can’t create a module for this- ‘this is what you teach, and you teach it in this way.’ We can do it to a very limited extent, but then we are in danger of it growing into a conventional syllabus and becoming boring.

 

There can be no one set of instructions.

 

Right. Because the direction that your lesson takes depends upon the questions the children ask, and the children are different in every class, in every country, in every age. In ten years we have no idea what kind of questions the children of this area will ask. So every day it must be open, and the teacher has to be open, and this gives rise to a lot of material that needs to be researched. And that should a reward for the teacher. The children should want to know more than the teacher can tell them, and in that way the teacher and the student are studying together. And then children can explore a lot on their own in this age of access to the internet- properly guided internet access, not that they can do anything they want on the internet. After a lesson the children can do research on different things that emerged out of that lesson. Like somebody can do research on certain scientific inventions, others can do research on the history of those inventions- whatever emerged out of a discussion in class. It has to be open- we can’t write link syllabus. We can write guiding principles, like what we are doing now, so that people can get a feel of what we are talking about. And those that understand will understand that it is something deep, limitless, and energizing, and in tune with meditation. It opens up the world.

 

And yes, it is a dangerous thing also, in many ways. Those children who are exposed to this link syllabus, it will be very difficult for them to be controlled by their religion, by the beliefs of their parents or their culture. They will ask questions. To a large extent it is happening in our school now. Some parents complain: ‘My child was very quiet until two years ago, then the child came to your school and now he is never quiet, he is always asking questions. Many times we tell him to shut up and let the adults discuss. Now they have their own opinion.’ And we tell them to listen to their children patiently. To the parents they may seem immature, but who knows? Maybe their opinion is valid. Maybe they see something the adults do not see. Similarly, racism, nationalism- all of these things are in our culture in some areas. In every culture there are certain taboos, certain prejudices, certain superstitions. And last year in our school the children did something that shocked even our own teachers. There was a party given by AIF last year, for about 45 AIF fellows that were doing their orientation here, and for our children. The fellows were having lunch and the children asked if they could have some rice and this and that, and the fellows said yes, of course. One was Muslim, one was Hindu, and one was Harijan- all ate together, and Hindus and Muslims openly eating from the same plate is almost unthinkable to see. If their family people knew, they would maybe even be beaten. But here they knew that this was a safe environment, and they showed that they don’t believe in any kind of religious discrimination. So there are those areas, and most people want to play it safe. On national celebration days- 15th of August, 26th of January- there are these slogans that many people chant. ‘My country is the best, India is the best.’ We never do them. So visitors are sometimes shocked. It is the 15th of August and we are not saying ‘Bharat mata ki jai.’ We decided that you don’t have to do that- why not say ‘let us all be friendly. Let the world be one’ instead of saying ‘I’m the best’? India says ‘I’m the best,’ and Pakistan says ‘I’m the best,’ and America says ‘I’m the best.’ Every country says it. Everybody’s the best. Why not talk about striving to create a world where everybody is friendly, where everybody cooperates? You can see the nationalism especially when there are cricket matches between India and Pakistan. When Pakistan wins, you see people coming out of the room very spent and glum. ‘What happened?’ ‘Oh, Pakistan won.’ But if India wins you see people setting off firecrackers. I always think: ‘Why didn’t you see the match? It was a good match, people played very well. But you are only focused on who won- India or Pakistan. You were so focused on that you didn’t even see the match.’

 

Things are connected in many ways, and you must be ready for all of the challenges posed by this open way of doing things. So this kind of school is never going to be very popular, at least not for a long time. It may attract people from far-off places, but it won’t be a place where many local people want to come. Wherever you are doing it, it will not be very appreciated. It will confuse people, and they will stay away. Not because the children are not doing well in their studies, but because there are certain things that confuse the parents about the school, that they misunderstand. That is the case with our school, and luckily, because if we were overcrowded we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing. But there are very few children, and we don’t have to make any special effort to keep it that way.

 

So whenever we talk about link syllabus people are in a hurry to create a practical set of lessons or methods. We can do part of that, but that is not what we are talking about. Those things are useful for a new teacher. What to do in the class today for a teacher who is not very deep in meditation, doesn’t understand link syllabus well, but has to do something in the class with the children. So for them it is good to have some activities to get them started, but link syllabus is not just activities, no matter how beautifully designed. It is a living thing. Link syllabus is something that is reborn everyday, in every class.

 

Link syllabus doesn’t exist in any tangible way until the children are involved; the children are the constant variable.

 

With me it is like that. I have some notion of what I want to do when I go to class, many possible activities, but then once I actually start doing it something very different, something new, emerges. That is link syllabus.