To improve the world we need to help the people who inhabit it. The solution for suffering humanity is not in curing the widespread neuroses of adults, but in freeing and guiding the young. More research and investigation are needed to discover the mysteries and hidden powers of children. The emphasis of education should be on helping children to utilize these powers to the greatest and most positive extent. Alternate methods of education have made an insignificant appearance in some countries, but the little experimentation in this field has not offered any widespread improvements.
People such as Marie Montessori, Homer Lane and A. S. Neill have made the greatest contributions to a new form of education, but now they are no longer here and we desperately need some fresh ideas. Instead of becoming such innovators, however, many young people are abandoning the ambition to be school teachers as the thought of improving the present educational system seems too big a task to tackle and to compromise would cause personal frustrations and inner conflicts.
Schooling should be geared to suit the children instead of demanding that the children mould themselves to suit the school. Most schools are based on an adult conception of what a child should be and of how a child should learn. A child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without too many adult suggestions and interferences he will develop his own self disciplines and regularity. It is the adults who need to have some schooling in communication with their children. They must learn to guide, but at the same time stand back and allow their children to learn for themselves. They need to learn a little about understanding and tuning in to their children's needs and also they must learn to create a friend-like relationship with their children.
To most of us education means transmission of knowledge, but education should also be a means of releasing a child's potentialities. Ideally, education is a means of preparing the child for life by teaching him what will be of importance throughout his entire life. This means practical as well as intellectual subjects. Take first aid, for example, how many of us know how to dress a deep wound, apply a tourniquet or help someone who has just been electrocuted or poisoned? Most of us really wouldn't know what to do should such a need arise, as we have never been taught first aid. Such useful things should be included in the school curriculum.
What does a child know of survival when he is brought up to rely entirely on society for all his needs? One of the greatest achievements in life is to become independent and self sufficient. A child should be encouraged to make his possessions or at least to understand how they are made. Children, both male and female, can learn how to sew, prepare food, and grow fruit and vegetables. They can learn basic carpentry so as to be able to make their own furniture and to construct simple shelters or small homes. Even making such things as soap, candles and tooth powder can be easily learned.
Nutrition and the properties of certain foods and herbs, etc., makes up another interesting and useful subject. What children learn about food, nutrition and the value of herbs for relieving or healing minor physical afflictions comes from the limited knowledge of their parents. Most people at some stage of their lives find it necessary to learn a little about these subjects and it would be useful if they were taught in school.
Of course the choice of subjects should be left entirely to the children, but the above suggestions would be creative and of interest to all children. Like adults, children will learn what they want to learn and to make a child learn something is to some degree converting him into a will-less adult. Most children are compelled to learn by threats, punishments or rewards. This only leads to a strong dislike and disinterest in work and in later life, this attitude will not be easily eradicated. All prize giving, marks and examinations side-track proper personality development. Such rewards support the worst feature of the competitive system. We cannot begin to estimate how much creativity is killed in the classroom with its emphasis on regimented learning.
A school should not breed fear and inhibition in children. It should be a place where children like to be because they feel free. In schools children outnumber adults, so the atmosphere should be according to their choice. A. S. Neill, in his school Summerhill, successfully introduced a form of self government where everything connected with school life, including punishment or social offences was settled by vote at the weekly general school meeting. Homer Lane was the first to introduce self government and was the inspirer of Neill. Lane set up a reform camp in England in the early 1800's and called it the Little Commonwealth. From the London courts he took the delinquents, young thieves and criminals, and in an atmosphere of love and approval, they became active members of the self governing community and grew into decent, honest citizens.
During the formative years a balance between mental and physical activities is very important. Physical activity doesn't mean forcing children to participate in gymnastics and sports, but offering a choice of experiences such as crafts, outdoor projects, etc. Part of each day should be spent in communication with nature as she is the greatest teacher of all. For this, schools should have large areas of space and gardens with an emphasis on group interest and participation in planting and maintaining the gardens. City schools may have expensive teaching equipment but more often than not all that is offered for recreation is a small concrete space.
In some countries there are now alternate schools which are called 'free' schools. These schools emphasize freedom and release, and compel no child to attend lessons. The choice is the child's and he is encouraged not to suppress any desires but to live out his natural interests. The major drawback of these schools is that the students are often torn between the freedom that is encouraged at school and the conflicting attitudes and interferences from their parents. An adult can never guide or educate beyond his own complexes. Bound by his repressed fears he is unable to free his child and give it the understanding it longs for. Being free of strong emotional attachment to the pupil, the teacher has a better chance of practicing constant awareness and guiding the child to freedom.
If the children could live at the school for five days of the week and experience community living they would be learning more of life. Once a child leaves school he has to go alone into the world and hopefully find a way of fitting into society and mixing with all different types of personalities. If a child lives with and learns with a group of other children he will become more aware of people and social interactions. He will have greater communication, understanding and appreciation for others. He will be freer and more loving and he will have learned the beauty of sharing and helping others. Through community life a child would, to a great extent, be free of the conflicting influences of the parents and through his experiences he would be able to show his parents the way. This is as it should be, parents should learn through their children as it is the children who live in the present and know more of the world today. Parents are more inclined to stray back to the past or look apprehensively to the future.
Thousands of years ago, the rishis of India formulated a system of living called the four 'ashramas' or the four stages of life. The first stage from birth to about the age of twenty five was the time of learning and study. According to the 'gurukul' tradition, at about the age of seven or eight the child was sent to live with the guru. Here he served the guru and was educated under his guidance. He was taught the scriptures, Upanishads and Vedas, along with yogic techniques which would enable him to maintain physical, mental and spiritual balance throughout his life. He learned all the existing sciences as well as archery, fencing and other such martial arts. In the guru's ashram the child received a deeper understanding and a basis for living his life on harmonious lines. The guru gave him a direction and the necessary guidance and inspiration to take him through the whole of his life. During this period with the guru, the child participated in community life and the experiences he had were a preparation for the next stage of life when he would return to society, take up family responsibilities, and exhaust any ambitions. Likewise this period was a preparation for the next stage of life which was given over to spiritual practice.
Today, when the greatest need of mankind is to find and to maintain spiritual, mental and physical balance, certainly ashram life would be ideal. Under the guidance of a realized guru, the children would be given the greatest education and they would be set on the path leading to self realization, peace and happiness. What greater teaching is there than the science of harmonious living and the ability to make use of all of one's potentials? Let us hope that ashram life will once again become a recognized and established means of education and that all children will be offered the opportunity to experience it.