During my college years, my friends and I were in agreement on the deficiencies of the education we were receiving. In literature, art, and philosophy, we were subjected to the pervading influence of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who reveled in meaninglessness. For all of us, it was agonizing to imagine a sterile world bereft of meaning and inspiration.
Years later, I was thrilled to discover Out of the Labyrinth by Swami Kriyananda. That book answered all my questions about life’s meaning, and replaced the barren ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre with a vision of hope and inspiration. Later, when Kriyananda published Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet the Challenges, I recognized it as the “cure” for the ills of our society because it explained how teachers and parents could give children a sense of life’s joyous possibilities, starting at the earliest age.
In Education for Life, Swami Kriyananda writes:
A growing child needs faith just as urgently as he needs to breathe. When he is stripped of his last vestige of faith, his disillusionment transforms itself into a desire for vengeance against those who have deprived him of something so precious to his very existence.
That “vengeance” is evident everywhere today and especially in nihilistic music, high suicide rates among teenagers, violence, and addiction.
An expansion of consciousness
At the start of the book, Kriyananda asks a fundamental question: What do people truly want from life? And the answer he gives is irreducibly simple: the underlying motivation behind all human actions, however disguised or misguided, is that we want to experience greater happiness, and avoid sorrow.
We cannot help children learn to be happy, Kriyananda continues, if we merely cram their heads with facts. We must show them that true happiness comes by expanding our awareness. He explains:
An expansion of consciousness has always, in the long history of civilization, been associated with an expansion of such feelings as sympathy, empathy, and love. Far from setting oneself apart from, or even against, other human beings, self-expansion naturally includes a concern for the well-being of all.
How different, this, from the teaching of Sartre, who wrote: “To be conscious of another is to be conscious of what one is not.”
Children’s hearts receive “equal time”
Most schools focus on developing the students’ ability to memorize facts and use their reason. Little attention is paid other important facets of their natures, which, Kriyananda argues, are indispensable to the search for happiness and success.
In Education for Life, he issues a clarion call for a more balanced approach, in which children’s hearts receive “equal time.” Developing children’s calm, sensitive feelings, he says, is essential even for academic success, since reason is wisely guided only when it includes intuitive feeling.
Education for Life offers methods for reintroducing the heart into education, without sacrificing academic achievement. That this approach works is abundantly demonstrated in Ananda’s Living Wisdom Schools, where the students consistently score well above average on standardized national tests of academic achievement.
The “Stages of Maturity”
Swami Kriyananda points out that every child is unique, and must be guided sensitively, with respect for his or her present awareness. With the concept of six-year “Stages of Maturity” he gives us a wonderful framework for understanding children, and how their needs change over time.
In the first stage of a child’s development, from birth to about age 6, the child’s primary developmental task is to master the body and senses. From 6 to 12, feelings come to the fore – this is a time when children are receptive to learning through the “media of feeling” – stories, art, music, and dance. The “feeling phase” is, Swami Kriyananda points out, the most important phase in a child’s development, because it lays the foundation for everything that follows.
From 12 to 18, teenagers flex the muscles of their will, in preparation for independent adulthood. It’s essential that they know how to use their will expansively, with a heartfelt sense of right and wrong, and with sensitive awareness of the realities of others. Similarly, the life of the mind, which dominates the years from 18 to 24, needs to be guided by calm, intuitive feeling.
Kriyananda devotes several chapters to understanding children’s special needs during each six-year phase, and he gives many suggestions for teaching them to use the “Tools of Maturity” – body, heart, will, and mind – to achieve ever-expanding awareness, happiness, and success.
A unitive approach to school subjects
Education for Life makes a powerful case for a unitive, expansive approach to traditional academic subjects, one that gives children a picture of the world that is rich in meaningful connections. It includes, for example, assigning new names to traditional subjects – science, for example, can be called “Our Earth – Our Universe,” while “Understanding People” is the name he proposes for history, geography, and psychology. He writes:
The relevance of every subject should be seen in the context of human needs and of our own ability to understand. Every subject studied in school should be studied also for its relevance to other subjects.
Science, for example, has evolved a method that can provide a new tool for understanding in all the branches of knowledge. For these other studies, the scientific method — hypothesis tested by experiment — needs only be restated as belief tested by experience.
What of “spiritual” values?
Since the introduction of “spiritual” values into public school curriculums would unquestionably be met by vigorous protests, Swami Kriyananda suggests that the principles of Education for Life be introduced in small, independent schools. (The Ananda Living Wisdom Schools have applied these methods for more than thirty years.) But he also suggests that teachers in public schools can at least introduce principles, since at no point does Education for Life require the support of sectarian claims.
Qualities such as humility are by no means sectarian dogmas. It doesn’t take much experience of life to see that pride does in fact “go before a fall,” as the wisdom of the ages has always told us. Humility, like countless other virtues, is a practical concept. Why not teach it as such in the classroom?
Role models of the expansive life
Children, Kriyananda says, need role models who exemplify the expansive life. In the Living Wisdom Schools, children live and breathe the examples of great human beings – not by merely memorizing facts and dates, but by absorbing their qualities.
An outstanding example is the yearly play produced by the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School. Now in its 18th year, the all-school theater event draws hundreds of students, teachers, and theater-goers from the surrounding community to be inspired by the lives of great world teachers such as Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Moses, Rumi, Quan Yin, and the Dalai Lama.
No pompous moralizing
Education for Life argues that children learn values most effectively by being shown how values operate in their own lives. A well-known incident in the lore of Ananda beautifully illustrates this practice. A winter storm blanketed Ananda Village with snow, and the teachers compassionately let the children go out to play. They soon started a snowball fight, in which several younger children were hurt and began crying. Later, when the children were calmer, they built a snowman.
The teachers recognized a priceless opportunity to help the students learn from their own experience. Back in the classroom, they asked them, “Which did you enjoy more – the snowball fight, or making a snowman?” The children replied, “The snowman!” One student said, “Yeah, the little kids got hurt and were crying, and it made me feel bad.”
No pompous moralizing or dry logic is needed when teachers are able to help children understand how values “work” in the laboratory of their lives. In this case, the lesson was clear – hurting others is contractive and makes us feel unhappy, while cooperating is expansive and fun and makes us feel wonderful.
How to be successful? How to be happy? The answer is simple: by using our God-given Tools of Maturity – body, heart, will, mind, and soul – in ways that expand our awareness. If children everywhere learned these skills, the cloud of meaninglessness would disperse, and the light of wisdom would shine once again on their lives.