Life in an Alternative School


When I visited Brockwood Park back in March, for my prospective week, I thought to myself "this is the place for me". A strong desire to learn about non-mainstream forms of education and a longing to leave my hometown seemed to find solace in this international boarding school in the middle of Hampshire's undulating fields. That first day as I walked through the door, two boys were sat playing guitar in the entrance and I asked them for the way to the reception - "It's over zere" one replied, pointing down the hall. As I walked past I could hear the boy's friend mocking his french accent "haha tu sais même pas parler anglais!" Later, I marvelled at hearing Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese being spoken all around the school. For some reason I wasn't expecting to hear different languages spoken - although I went to the French lycée in London, the only languages spoken there were French and English. I wonder what it's like in other international schools around the world.

I went back at the end of August, this time for a longer visit - a year or so - enrolled as a 'mature student' (MS) which is probably best understood as a volunteer. The MS program (consisting of fifteen 20-30 year olds) allows you to live at the school in exchange for half a day's work five days a week. You're also asked to attend two 'Dialogues' a week - a form of enquiry conceptualised by physicist David Bohm - in which metaphysical questions are broached and delved into as a group, raising questions which often linger on in your mind well after the Dialogue itself.

Beyond this your spare time is yours to do what you like with - in my case to scrutinise the school. Apart from being a multicultural place, how else does it really differ from any other school? The students, aged 14-19, can chose to either take exam (AS/A level) or non-exam classes, although a great majority opt for the exam classes past their 16th year. They have total freedom over which subjects to take (so each has an individualised timetable and is in the same class as any other who chose that class no matter their age) while having to take two compulsory classes: "Care For the Earth" (CFtE) and "K class".

CFtE is essentially a hands-on class usually spent outdoors, with the intention of fostering a relationship with nature. Activities can range from going on a silent walk, preparing a bonfire, weeding, pruning, talking about sustainability and playing hide and seek amongst the trees. K class, which I attend (each MS is part of a small tutor group of 8 or so students and 2 staff) could be compared to a Dialogue albeit with a degree less vigour. Named after Jiddu Krishnamurti, the indian speaker/philosopher who founded Brockwood Park, K class is an attempt to bring the intentions of the school directly to the fore - that is, by engaging the students in thought about what it means to live in a community, what it could mean to live without authority, and what it could mean to be 'free'.

"It [Brockwood Park] is a place where both the teacher and the taught explore not only the outer world, the world of knowledge, but also their own thinking, their own behaviour. From this they begin to discover their own conditioning and how it distorts their thinking [...] In this school it is the responsibility of the teacher to sustain with the student a careful exploration into the implications of conditioning and thus end it."

J. Krishnamurti "The Intent of the Krishnamurti Schools"

When I say that these classes are taken up with a degree less vigour than the MS Dialogues it's that the students might not engage with what Krishnamurti was trying to get to - "inquiry into knowledge, into oneself, into the possibility of something beyond knowledge, [which] brings about naturally a psychological revolution". One mightn't expect anyone to do so - let alone a teenager - and although there are a few students here who are keen on exploring these ideas further and attend evening Dialogues staff and MS set up for that purpose, the majority don't engage any further.

That's not to say that they're a totally normal bunch of kids. Most have a keen sense of community and go out of their way to care for it, considering Brockwood Park as much theirs as it is the staff's. Each day begins with an optional silent meeting for 10 minutes followed by breakfast and 'morning jobs' which is to say cleaning the school buildings up and down. There's a frightening amount of creativity as evidenced by the various styles of music being played and sung around the school all day long, the ever-busy art barn and the many events students stage for all to enjoy - dance, theatre, film-making, singing. One is also surprised to hear some of the things said during a conversation to the point that during my prospective week I actually mistook some students for staff on account of their maturity.

Overall however, the school remains very much a school. So long as most of them are taking exams and are focused on what kind of job or career they might throw themselves into once it's all over, I question how 'alternative' Brockwood Park really is. Funnily enough this is the type of questioning happening at the moment in a class taught by the co-principle on the foundations of education. Here a bunch of students, mature students and staff all meet and coalesce into a new student body. We are given assignments such as "define what it means to be well educated", "describe what goes on at Brockwood Park to an alien" and "why don't we close down Brockwood Park". It is in this class that one can feel what distinguishes the school from others. I'm not sure I would ever get to discuss the very meaning of education and the purpose of schooling with both teachers, parents and students at the same table anywhere else with such passion and earnestness. The co-principle himself is conspicuously absent from the class, opting to leave the students to do much of the talking which in turn generates the class' momentum and can lead to stimulating tangents.

Nor is the learning restricted to students. To some Dialogues are taken very seriously and constitute the core of what Brockwood stands for - namely inquiry into the psychology of the self, the nature of thought and whether it is possible for us to be free of conditioning. Can we even see our conditioning to begin with and is it problematic for us? Does something have to be problematic for us to look into it - I seldom find myself asking why I feel happy at times although I certainly question that which irritates me. To live amongst individuals who are asking themselves these kinds of questions is stimulating as much as it is challenging.

The most exacting question facing educators here is how to convey this all in class when they have not necessarily found any answers to the questions themselves.

"It is the responsibility of the educator to understand the whole nature and structure of memory, to observe its limitation, and to help the student to see this. We learn from books or from a teacher who has a great deal of information about a subject, and our brains are filled with this information. This information is about things, about nature, about everything outside us; and when we want to learn about ourselves we turn to books that tell us about ourselves. So this process goes on endlessly, and gradually we become second-hand human beings. This is an observable fact throughout the world. And this is our modern education."

J. Krishnamurti, Letters to his schools

Interestingly, it is often through the students themselves that such demanding intentions become tangible. Here is what one student wrote in response to an assignment from the foundations of education class in which we were asked to write a letter to teachers.

Dear teacher,

Do but teach me from books, do but teach for hours,

and do but assume what I am to learn.

I ask you now, listen to the words I say;

As I wish to

learn

The value in disaster.

The beauty in destruction.

The reason in madness,

and the surface of depth.

I wish to know the seconds within eternity,

and the days within forever.

I wish to meet the conquers of the past,

and the heroes of the future.

I wish to explore the realms of men and god,

and I wish see an angel and a human being.

I wish to see what the blind man sees,

and hear the words that darkness speaks.

However,

dare you teach me that there is but value in disaster?

That madness exists without reason.

That surface is irrilational to depth,

That time exists without limits,

and that magic resides only within the pages of a book.

That the blind man shall see nothing but darkness,

and that the deaf will never here the words I speak.

Then fear not, I shall not learn, for I will never see the world you see, and I live not in the world you live in. I exist only within my own perception of reality, and reality is but a figment of my own imagination, as are you… and the seconds within the hour, and the pages within your books.

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna