Teaching Theosophy Through Education

Carolyn Harrod

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, September 2005

As someone who has worked in education all my working life and who was brought up in a family where theosophical ideas were part and parcel of regular conversation, I have a keen interest in this topic. My immediate thoughts when asked to talk about it were that, of course, one could teach Theosophy through education. On reflection, however, I found that the topic raised numerous questions, which I will begin to explore here.

Firstly, what do we mean when we say that we can teach Theosophy? Do we mean concepts and principles from the Ancient Wisdom? Do we mean those understandings that will lead to theosophical living? Do we mean those dispositions that assist us to be ‘seekers after truth’? We will return to these questions.

What we mean by ‘through education’ also begs exploration. Who educates? We could say that every person, object and experience educates. Where does education take place? Obviously, not only in school environments, but in every setting the learner is in. Who are the students being educated? Children, adolescents, adults — we learn throughout our lives. What is the purpose of education? Krishnamurti’s views strike a chord with me and have similarities with the perspectives of educational theorists who talk about life-long learning, educating the whole person, education for life and the importance of the learner’s personal exploration of ideas and construction of understanding. In Krishnamurti’s words:

Is it the function of education to help us understand the whole process of life … ? And what does life mean … ? Is not life an extraordinary thing? The birds, the flowers, the flourishing trees, the heavens, the stars, the rivers and the fish therein–all this is life. Life is the poor and the rich; life is the constant battle between groups, races and nations; life is meditation; life is what we call religion, and it is also the subtle, hidden things of the mind–the envies, the ambitions, the passions, the fears, fulfilments and anxieties … Surely, education has no meaning unless it helps you to understand the vast expanse of life with all its subtleties, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joys … And is it not the true function of education to cultivate … the intelligence which will try to find the answers to all these problems? Do you know what intelligence is? It is the capacity, surely, to think freely, without fear, without a formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true.

(Krishnamurti, Think on These Things)

For the purpose of this talk, I am focusing on young people being educated in schools with everyone in the school community contributing to the student’s learning.

We will now return to those questions about teaching Theosophy. I would suggest that within the constraints of our various educational systems we can explore most of these aspects: concepts from the ancient wisdom; understandings that will lead to theosophical living; and dispositions that assist us to be seekers after truth.

Basic Concepts of the Ancient Wisdom

Let us look at some of the basic concepts of the Ancient Wisdom and consider how they could be explored through education in schools. I have taken this list from Anna Kennedy Winner’s book, The Basic Ideas of Occult Wisdom. While all of these ideas can be readily investigated in a family situation, some of them are problematic within school systems that are either strongly secular or that promulgate only the orthodox views of most of the Christian churches of today. However, a start could be made with most.

One life in all things: This to me is the fundamental concept. As current TS documents put it, the teachings of Theosophy ‘rest on the premise that the universe and all that exists within it are one interrelated and interdependent whole’. From this emerges the ideal of brotherhood. To use Sri Ram’s words in Thoughts for Aspirants:

Brotherhood is the only right relationship, because we are sharers of one and the same Life.

Brotherhood, the one truth of practical action and ethics, is a dynamic impulse. … is a comprehending arc; recognising the differences but not forgetting the unity; it is a pure relation, without possession, friendly and free.

Different states of matter: At its most basic, this implies that we are more than our physical body.

Progressive development: We learn from our experiences throughout our lives; we reflect on situations and our responses.

Periodicity or cycles: These are reflected in the seasons and our different focuses at different stages in our lives

Justice: This implies acting fairly, with empathy for other life, along with harmony and balance.

Reincarnation: This idea can be combined with exploration of ‘life in the subtler worlds’.

Life in the subtler worlds: According to this, there is continuity of life outside our physical existence.

The goal of life: Our spiritual nature is important; ethical behaviour is important; as is pondering the larger questions, e.g., Why are we alive?

The Brotherhood which watches over the world: Acknowledgement can be given to the great teachers who have given us important messages for living and who have the greatest compassion for us as humankind.

The Occult Path: Learning, knowing ourselves and serving are important parts of our lives.

Such explorations could take the form of dialogues (Socratic) that test these hypotheses.

Developing Educational Understandings and Dispositions for Theosophical Living

The second aspect of teaching Theosophy involves the development of understandings that will lead to theosophical living. Education systems and individual schools are currently interested in three strategies that lend themselves to developing understandings and dispositions for theosophical living and I’ll discuss each of these briefly. They are:

  • teaching values

  • developing student’s emotional intelligence

  • service learning.

Teaching values

Last year, the question of whether or not Australian schools taught the values supported by the government was hotly debated in the media. In his address at a recent Australian Council for Educational Research conference, Emeritus Professor Brian Hill strongly promoted the view that the school curriculum ‘should not be divorced from the study of morals and values, including religion’ and that ‘there needed to be a specific focus on philosophical issues in schools.’ Since the time of Plato, societies have made character development a conscious aim of education, so it is not unexpected that this issue should be once again on the agenda, particularly at a time when Western societies are struggling with the effects of people’s negative actions both within these societies and internationally.

Recently gathered statistics on the values and behaviours of adolescents points to a need to refocus on those values that are supportive of positive social relationships and a positive sense of self. A national survey of 20,000 middle and high school students in the USA, for instance, paints a disturbing picture of the attitudes and actions of young people. Some observations from this survey include:

  • 24% of male students said they had taken a weapon to school at least once in the past year

  • 73% of both male and female students said they hit a person in the last year because they were angry

  • 47% acknowledged they had stolen something from a store in the last 12 months

Add to this the feedback from another survey in the USA in which two-thirds of American teenagers claimed that, when they were adults, they would have no hesitation in padding business expenses and cheating on taxes to have more money.

Anecdotally, the situation in Australia does not seem to be as extreme, but the trends are there. So it seems timely to heed the call of the 1998 UNESCO ‘Values in Education Summit’ for schools to ‘review their charters in terms of values education’.

The following story illustrates how we sometimes unconsciously teach values:

The children were lined up in the cafeteria of an elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The teacher made a note, and posted it on the apple tray:

"Take only ONE. God is watching."

Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies.

A child had written a note, "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."

At other times values are taught quite explicitly as part of the curriculum and the development of students’ social and emotional competence. So there appears to be growing support for acknowledging that values are taught in schools and that schools can and should foster and encourage students to become ethical people. This general agreement then leads to further questions. Whose values should be taught?, What values should be taught? For independent schools whose charter clearly defines a set of values, these are not difficult questions. But for government schools whose students can come from a variety of ethnic, religious and experiential backgrounds, the question can be more difficult. Schools embarking on consciously including the promotion of positive values into the school curriculum usually find it effective for the school community to come together to discuss and agree upon the values that are most important to the school as a community. This requires an agreement about the principles that guide ethical behaviour, as well as an awareness that each person comes to this understanding from a different social and cultural experience with possibly different beliefs about the importance of particular values.

So what values are communities likely to agree upon? Some proponents of values education suggest that there are ‘objective values or principles that transcend time, space, and culture; that they are consistent, universal and transcultural; and that they inform and direct our behaviour.’ (John Heeman) These universal values include:

  • honesty and truthfulness

  • kindness

  • consideration and concern for others

  • compassion

  • obedience (to your spiritual principles)

  • responsibility

  • respect

  • duty

These values are seen to enhance the well-being of the individual and the community, prevent harm to both the individual and society and embody the essence of healthy relationships. This set of values resonates with many of the values that we can identify within theosophical teachings.

According to NZ values educator, John Heeman, realising values has three essential components: moral knowing, moral feeling and moral behaviour. Manifestation of all objective values requires the integrated involvement of the head, heart and hand.

Emotional Intelligence

Another strategy being explored in education is the development of Emotional Intelligence. The principal writer on this topic, Daniel Goleman, describes Emotional Intelligence as encompassing five characteristics and abilities: self-awareness, mood management, self-motivation, empathy, managing relationships.

In a report on the current state of emotional literacy in the US, Daniel Goleman stated

‘ … in navigating our lives, it is our fears and envies, our rages and depressions, our worries and anxieties that steer us day by day. The remedy is in preventive education, teaching our children the essential skills of Emotional Intelligence.’

According to a report from the National Centre for Clinical Infant Programs in the USA, the most critical element for a student’s success in school is an understanding of how to learn. The key ingredients for this understanding are: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, capacity to communicate, and the ability to cooperate. These traits are all aspects of Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is not only important in school, it is also positively correlated with career and personal success.

Many schools in English speaking countries are taking up the challenge of building a focus on Emotional Intelligence into their curricula. Emotional Intelligence is largely learnt through modelling, action and reflection and so many schools are endeavouring to create caring school communities. This has academic as well as social gains. Recent brain research on emotional engagement demonstrates strongly that people’s brains are more receptive to learning if they have a positive relationship with others, both adults and peers, in the learning community. Having respect for others, and by extension, all life, underpins much of this work, as does developing self-responsibility, empathy and the ability to see situations and events from various perspectives. Developing Emotional Intelligence has benefits for individuals at many levels.

The third strategy that can develop some of those attributes that lead to theosophical living is Service learning.

Service Learning

Service learning is an integration of community service with the academic curriculum and reflection. It is becoming widely used in the USA, with the support of high profile proponents such as ex-Presidents Clinton and Bush. Individual schools in Australia have been using this approach for several years. With this approach, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development as they investigate and develop projects that benefit the community.

Service learning is a powerful strategy. ‘Education is not just about acquiring knowledge, but about learning how to do significant things with what you know’, says David Perkins (Educational Leadership, Sept 04). It involves wrestling with ideas and values; connecting with life outside schools, and organising and communicating understandings. And more than that, it provides an avenue for expressing and further developing the values of theosophical living.

Dispositions that Assist us to be Seekers after Truth

The final question I raised was about teaching those dispositions that assist us to be ‘seekers after truth’. This requires at least curiosity, openness, active listening, the patience to live with ambiguity, a willingness to test hypotheses and the ability to see a question from several viewpoints.

Philosophy for children or young people is an approach to developing these capacities through philosophical enquiry. It recognises that ‘living’ means perpetually searching for meaning–looking at the ‘big ideas’.

Small numbers of schools in Australia and North America are currently using Philosophy for children as an important part of their curricula. In this approach, children from as young as five explore a wide range of questions that appeal to their curiosity. These are not simple questions with definite answers, but open-ended questions that encourage speculation, logical reasoning and inventiveness. Teachers stimulate discussion by posing questions. For example, an exploration of dreams and reality could be stimulated by questions such as: Are the experiences we have when we are dreaming as real as the experiences we have when we are awake? What makes something real? How do we know we are not dreaming? Could we be created by someone else’s dream? Children will pose even more intriguing questions.

Other topics frequently explored by students schools using this approach, include: What is life?; Death; What makes something good or right?; Mind and body; Wisdom and Infinity.

Numerous benefits from engaging young people in philosophical enquiry have been documented. Some of these are:

  • Students are members of a ‘community of inquiry’. This approach explicitly teaches that respect for others’ opinions is a necessary precondition for developing your own.

  • The form of discussion students engage in, encourages social responsibility and skills such as attentive listening.

  • The questions enquired into are fundamental to the human condition and remain important throughout one’s life.

  • Philosophy is at the base of all learning and education.

It is important that adults who engage in these discussions take them seriously and respect young people as partners in inquiry, who often offer new philosophical perspectives. Indeed, many adults speak of feeling regenerated and inspired to try to ‘find the questioning child’ within themselves.

As philosophers who draw on theosophical ideas, as we explore the big questions of life ourselves, we are very close to the child quoted by Gareth Matthews in The Philosophy of Childhood, Harvard University Press, 1994. ‘The universe is everything and everywhere’, announced nine year old Nick, and then paused. ‘But then if there was a big bang or something, what was the big bang in?’

So, to recapitulate, there is the potential to teach Theosophy through education in our schools — to begin considering some of the basic ideas of the Ancient Wisdom; to develop understandings and dispositions that will lead to theosophical living; and to develop those dispositions and habits of mind that assist us to be ‘seekers after truth’.

References:

Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, USA, 1997.

Heeman, John, A Case for Teaching Objective Values, www.teachingvalues.com

Hill, Dr Brian, Core Values in the Balance, keynote paper at the Australian Council for Educational Research Conference, October 2004.

Krishnamurti, J., Think on These Things, Krishnamurti Writings Inc., Great Britain, 1964.

Matthews, Gareth, The Philosophy of Childhood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Perkins, David, "Knowledge Alive" in Educational Leadership, September 2004.

Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness. National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, USA, 1992.

1998 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, The Josephson Institute of Ethics, 1999.

Sri Ram, N., Thoughts for Aspirants, TPH, Adyar, 1977.

Winner, Anna Kennedy, The Basic Ideas of Occult Wisdom, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, 1990.