Sunday, March 7, 2010

Week 13: Looking Forward

The flowers on the tree pictured here are my favorites seen so far during these travels. Hanging down, as if from heaven, they present a splendor to the eye!!! They are here posted as a small gift in celebration of the remarriage of my step mother, Ellen to her new beau Al. It is now early morning on March 7th in India – close to the 2pm time on March 6th in Seattle when the wedding is scheduled at the Space Needle! It sure was nice to talk with you over the phone yesterday and hear that most members of both families expect to be attending (except me). Hopefully we Sonnleitners can meet Al and become acquainted shortly after our return to the U.S. in August. For now, know that I hope the two of you have many wonderful years together. Peace be with you both.

Much of this last week has also been prelude to the future for us. Kris has spent time reflecting upon how the 6-day retreat at the Kurisulmala Ashram the week before may positively impact her spirituality. Time has been devoted to preparing for a very busy time this coming week when Kris, Shaman and I travel north to Rajasthan to attend a Fulbright Conference, and then to Gujarat where I am a featured speaker at an International Conference on Global Warming. Plans have also been finalized for Shaman to depart back to the U.S. the following week, on March 17th. Long distance communications with our daughters Sonrisa and Mira in Portland have also turned our minds to how their lives may continue to unfold in positive ways.

Of course, the mundane is always present. Water must be boiled twice daily (8 liters) for our drinking use. Kinks must be worked out in an electricity back-up battery system to provide us with up to 500 watts to power a few fans. Sheets and clothing wet with sweat must be washed, as temperatures increase to around 100 degrees (with over 75% humidity) in the daytime, declining to only 80 at night. While a neighbor loaned us his extra TV so we could watch the Winter Olympic, the snow skiing seemed surreal in a context where we cannot even tolerate a cover sheet while sleeping at night. It also is clear that ice cream has a short life in a small refrigerator which turns off with each daily power outage! Still, life goes on, and at least our misery has company – since even folks native to Kerala express some discomfort with how climate change is impacting them too….

This week my classes at St. Thomas enjoyed a good rhythm, interrupted only by one day of cancellation (due to yet another bus strike). Kristine enjoyed a day of shopping and sharing with her friend Shanty, who helped her purchase three beautiful sets of Indian clothing (two custom-made) at crazy low prices. Kris and I spent much of yesterday in the good company of Shanty`s husband Stany, as he transported us first to visit to Kottayam to work on visa issues and then to an Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center where he volunteers to teach courses. Another upside of this week was the showing of several film segments of A FORCE MORE POWERFUL to a very receptive student audience at St. Thomas College, with full approval of the administration. The day after that heartening event, one of my classrooms was invaded by a crowd led by a student artist who presented me with a gift portraying a very good likeness of me (sunburned) with Gandhi smiling behind my right shoulder.

So it is that each day here has its challenges and positive adventures. Who knows where another 3-inch (thankfully non-poisonous) spider will show up? Two days ago Kris pointed out to me one on the wall less than a foot from my right shoulder as I was using this laptop! What a horrible thought – I do hope that spider had nothing of the spirit of Gandhi! We did not practice nonviolence in that situation….

Rather than ramble on longer (with humor that may not be appreciated), let me add some more thoughts regarding Gandhi. What now follows is written version of a ten minute presentation set to be shared on March 10 at the Fulbright Conference. If you share my interest in Gandhi (or in education issues more generally), know that your comments would be most welcome. It is entitled:


Teaching Gandhi is both like teaching any other course in India and a good deal more complicated than that. It is similar because teaching anything really well needs to go beyond mere information to stimulating knowledge and nurturing wisdom. It is more complicated as Gandhi is looked upon as an historic person far more than as someone whose views have relevance for today. In short, he is generally studied and revered rather than listened to as an inspiration for action that may address current issues.

With regards to courses on Gandhi, most teachers and students focus upon learning (mostly memorizing) information about the historical person and events and persons associated with his ideas and actions. This information may be effectively communicated through lecture notes and (possibly, with greater depth via use of a biography and scholarly writings). Knowledge (in the sense of real understanding) is rarely encouraged because understanding requires a level of mental interaction in the learning process beyond the memorizing of information.

The stimulating of knowledge involves critical thinking and analysis which requires what may be revered to be questioned, ideas to be tested, and personal evaluations of current relevance to be made. From my observations the process of stimulating such knowledge seems largely absent from most teaching relating to Gandhi -- as well as to other subjects even at the PG level in the Indian State of Kerala. This is only partly explained by the teaching to the test phenomenon. It is also deeply rooted in a culture of hierarchy in which reverence is accorded to Mother, Father,Teacher, and God (in that order) and questioning of authority is systematically discouraged. Knowledge is seen, in this context, as something to be conveyed rather than stimulated -- and the goal is to ``mold`` students more than to empower them.

Where stimulating knowledge by more active than passive learning strategies occasionally does occur, there is a general resistance to nurturing wisdom. Wisdom may well mean different things to different people, but it is commonly understood to involve the application of knowledge to experience. Without experience, one cannot
be wise. Ivory towers where learning information is remarkable and critical thinking skills are well developed, still usually do not venture much into the real world beyond the walls of academia (whether they be more covered in ivy or topped off with broken glass). Activities in the U.S. that seek to transcend these walls, including the use of internships (as in cooperative education), service learning, and other experiencial opportunities are usually not utilized in the U.S. and seem even more rare in India. Often not nurtured in academia, wisdom is something you may seek on your own.

Gandhi, himself, did not believe in Ivory Towers. His ideas regarding Nai Talim (New Education) insist upon learning and questioning, while doing. He would insist upon the learning of information in a context where established truths are constantly questioned (and knowledge improved), even as what we intellectually know is tested in the light of experience (an evolving wisdom in which service to society is expected and walls that separate us are to be transcended). Too often, however, many who even describe themselves as Gandhian remain mentally walled in by historical practices like the wearing of khadi and the using of outdated technology. Reverence for Gandhi, ironically, can itself become a wall to our understanding his deeper wisdom: that we,each of us, must hold firm to the truth as we see it in our own time!

In this context, teaching Gandhi needs to include 1) understanding information about him as he lived within his historical context, 2) stimulating knowledge (including critical analyses) of his teachings as they may (or may not) be relevant to realities to be addressed in our current time, and 3) nurturing such wisdom as may result from taking our knowledge into the world and experiencing the praxis of it. Teaching Gandhi need not involve the molding of little Gandhians. Gandhi did not want others to follow him without question. He wanted people to seek progressively new truths (sat), by means that minimize harm (ahimsa), with a willingness to voluntarily sacrifice our own comforts and even lives in the process (tapas). His life gives us a role model not a road map.

If we carefully study Gandhi, the danger is that we may be inspired to action regarding current issues in education and beyond. To memorize information with respect to Gandhi threats no status quo. To stimulate knowledge that leads to greater academic freedom and an improved body of knowledge runs the risk of our critical thinking being criticized by others who may feel threatened by it. To nurture a wisdom borne of experience and encourage concrete action to both serve others in this world and to confront oppressive structures of authority -- well, that gets really complicated!

Are professors called to do more than profess -- and actually engage in action that may affect our own lifestyles and put us in conflict with established norms and policies? Should students be empowered to do the same? These are among the most basic of questions that are raised by teaching Gandhi on a deeper level in India, or elsewhere! Academic institutions in India seem generally unready to encourage the teaching Gandhi anywhere close to this level at this time. Doing so would be to invite basic change; to go beyond reverence to action; to potentially serve as agents of revolution that could bring down the walls which both divide humanity today and threaten life on this planet.

To teach Gandhi, I believe, should risk our being impacted by his words and his life example. That is to:

Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever. -- Gandhi

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