Now that we are well into the second decade of the new millennium we get a clearer idea of what is important; what we will be bringing into the new century as essential building blocks as the old recedes into history. Where now are those twin pillars of the 20th Century thought, Marxism and Freudianism that so dominated the politics, economics and intellectual life of the past century? Where are the great men of day, the statesmen and soldiers, who bestrode the age like giants? With the passing of Fidel Castro it seems they are all gone.
We shall not see their like again. Our world is too changed, our media too product- and celebrity-driven. That might seem banal, but it’s no bad thing when you consider the century of cruel wars and mass murder from which we have emerged.
War and violence may not have disappeared but given the choice most of us no longer allow ourselves to be easily co-opted into seeking to wipe each other out in the name of God and Country. We prefer getting on with our lives, believing there is a better way of doing things than killing people we don’t know and who never did us any harm.
It is good we understand that, while politics is necessary to manage our affairs, it doesn’t actually solve anything; that, all too easily creeds turn toxic. All big ideas, be they political or religious, notwithstanding the excellent moral precepts contained therein, remain essentially hierarchical, authoritative and culturally divisive.
The idea that we can order our affairs in way that sustains the planet and ourselves, that we can live peaceably with each other in mutual respect and freedom haunts us, but to many seems a dream too far. Progress is incremental at best and we are forever beset by new challenges. It is easy to retreat to our private bunkers, dismissing our own hopes and the hopes of others as pie-in-the-sky.
And yet… despite or perhaps as a result of the horrors of the last century, the building blocks for a better future are firmly in place and resonate with increasing numbers of us.
Powerful evidence of this is to be found in the lives and work of two people: the philosopher and mystic Jiddhu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) and the educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952).
Born to Brahmin parents in Southern India at age fourteen Krishnamurti was adopted by the Theosophist Society and groomed by them as the vehicle for the return of the “World Teacher”.
In 1929 he publicly renounced the role, announcing that “truth was a pathless land”. He became the quintessential 20thC. iconoclast and for nigh on 60 years became a one-man wrecking crew, taking a sledgehammer to all authoritarian spiritual traditions, while recognizing the perennial philosophy common to them all. He was passionate and remorseless in his message, that a better world could only come about through self-knowledge, which had to be found within and not given us by any guru.
The way to self-knowledge is simple yet arduous, he said, requiring us to be present and conscious in the moment at all times. All else is memory, not reality; experience, being but the past projected into the future with no connection to the present, is not reality. Meditation being the other key component in the process of self-knowledge and the ability to accept without judgement who and what we are. It is, he said, a bit like learning to ride a bicycle – you get better at it as you go along.
In other words, “being here now” is not something going to a seminar is going to help you with. That’s a bit like paying for a gym membership. Essentially you just have start and keep on doing it. Very soon you will get an idea of just how much self-judgment is running you. Best advise? Whenever you catch yourself telling yourself you have to be a certain way – go and lie down.
Krishnamurti’s gift to us is that while he manifestly believed in the Divine Mystery, he did not try to tell us what that Mystery was, or satisfy our craving to co-opt it or advance up the spiritual ladder. We had to do the work ourselves. And, from that self-knowledge an individual moral sense emerges that can change the world. By staying on message, he more than anyone else in our modern age, with his grouchy yet remorseless and elegant Edwardian prose, blew away the spiritual detritus and cultural encrustations of the ages.
Many of us would subscribe to the concept that education is the key to a better world. Question is, whether plutocrat, tiger mother, professional person, tradesman or among the struggling poor, what are we educating our children for? It is natural for parents to want the best for their children but if the rest of the world is badly-educated and increasingly disadvantaged and resentful because they are denied the benefits and status conferred by good education, what kind of world are we creating for our own children?
Maria Montessori was born in Italy. Qualifying as a doctor of medicine in Rome she went on to study philosophy and psychology. Working first with the disadvantaged children of Rome she developed a scientific system of learning for pre-school and primary level children opening her first Casa Bambini in 1906. The Montessori system stresses a child’s own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play, allowing them to develop at their own pace. From the start the children acquire universal values of kindness, compassion, co-operation and responsibility. The learning is tactile with teaching aids providing the soundest basis for onward learning. The Montessori system quickly proved itself remarkably effective spreading throughout Europe, North America and the rest of the world, expanding through primary levels to high school level, where today it successfully integrates with existing university entrance examinations, such as the International Baccalaureate and GCSE. There are now over 4,000 Montessori schools worldwide operating in both the private and public educational domains and demonstrating the highest scholastic results.
No better or practical example of how education can powerfully affect our world for the better came from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1992 when the famous 16th Century mosque in Ayodhya was demolished by Hindu nationalists. Terrible sectarian riots ensued and thousands were killed, with the violence spreading throughout India and to other countries. Yet in Lucknow, just 40 miles away, there were no killings. The reason for this was the presence of the City Montessori School (CMS), the largest school in the world comprising 15 branches and 19,000 students. A thousand pupils and staff of CMS took to the streets every day marching to proclaim the common humanity intrinsic to all religions. The message resonated with the city and the CMS campus became the venue of talks that ensued leading to the cessation of violence in Uttar Pradesh and beyond.
Indeed, anyone who has had the privilege of observing the Montessori system in action, as I did recently here in Bali, will immediately see how those events in Lucknow came to pass. The system is based on respect for our world and all its people, inculcated lovingly and caringly yet firmly by parents and teachers from an early age onward. When the innate positive sensibilities present in children are encouraged and allowed to flourish from a young age the pay-off in adulthood is manifest.
This process of civility goes forward as I write, in myriad ways. It is not something we read about much. We just need to know it. If cynics, who have been aptly described as disappointed optimists, are open to redemption through our children and the works of people like Krishnamurti and Maria Montessori then the numbers are with us and we need not be downcast – the prospect for a better world beckons.