Ritam "Last School - A Short History"

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January 2013

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Last School: A Short History

By Deepti

This note, giving a short historical background to secondary education in Auroville, was written originally for parents of potential Last School students to help them make sense not only of the orientation of Last School but also to aid them in making conscious choices.

The very first Auroville ‘school’ came into being on the Last School campus in 1970-71.

This was subsequently shut down in the years of ‘political unrest’. It was in 1985, after a hiatus of almost a decade, that Last School reopened as a school for Auroville’s young adults and teenagers. Through a long period thereafter, Last School was the only school for teenagers in Auroville. Students automatically ‘graduated’ to this school from Transition which was for some years the only primary school. Last School used all the buildings on the campus and the student body was in the range of 60-70 or thereabouts.

The arrival of school-going adolescents on Auroville’s educational scene raised many new, and till then unanticipated issues. Besides their more complex developmental needs, it is when children arrive at their teens that many of the hitherto unaddressed dormant questions arise. These questions concerning the future – issues related to security, to the capacity for and pursuit of success and career and the ability to make money – were similar to many of the intentions at the heart of modern, utilitarian, industrial age education. What kind of education should the youth growing up in Auroville, be given? A whole gamut (perhaps even a cacophony) of views emerged.

Last School, of course, as Auroville’s only secondary school, was caught in the eye of the storm. What was evident in the many debates was a polarization of views. At one end of the spectrum was the view that Last School’s approach was ‘too mental’ (the big ‘put down’ of those days) – that the pursuits of the mind were an ‘old world’ approach not meant for Auroville, a place where ‘all life was yoga’. At the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted to have done once and for all with excessive experimentation, which was seen as the bane of Auroville education, and who wished for a clear and firm adoption of some systematized certification system. Both extremes of the debate forgot something of what Mother had indicated. When she spoke of what life in Auroville ought to be, she clearly demanded a collective ideal that was ‘ life that wants to grow and perfect itself’. And as for the pursuit of certification as an end in itself, she diagnosed this as the disease of the modern world, something she did not want in her school. (Her remarks apropos are attached at the end of this note).

In this debate, the Last School team ended up displeasing both ends of the spectrum because it seemed to adopt a vaguer, somewhat muddling, centrist approach – a sort of responding to circumstances as they arose. But still, there were major inner changes which were a direct result of the ferment. For one thing, there was a sifting in the team and those who remained, the core group that is still present, arrived at a common set of key recognitions. The more important of these was that the vital being of AV teens needed to be much more ‘settled’. A primary need was therefore the creating of a physical/vital environment that would help this part of the nature find within itself a space of calm and beauty. Repeated experiences served to show that this was a solid base on which the pathways to awakening complexity in the mind could be securely built. Conducive conditions had to be created whereby the mind could plumb its depths and soar to heights and become capable of real synthesis. This period saw the birth of the Pyramids as a place for a ‘Tapasya of Art’. It was in this time that the importance of art and poetry and literature, of the humanities – history, culture, philosophy – approached in a more and more Aurobindonian way, came to the fore. It was also the period where the importance of endurance training through activities such as treks began to be planned at the school level.

While this deeper internal structuring was happening apace in Last School, many larger developments were occupying the education scene of Auroville. In the mid-90s CFL (Centre for Further Learning) and After School, for the O and A Levels and the Indian Open School exams, were started. These later morphed into what are today Future School and NESS respectively. On an outward level, this period also saw Last School endure much unpleasantness. For a long time, there was an organized attempt to bring to a close this experiment – almost as if the ending of free progress experimentation in Auroville would in some way legitimize other choices!

Looking back, the Last School team recognizes that there was a kind of Grace in all this. These difficulties served to liberate the team more and more from the hold of conventions. There was more room for real experimentation. In the last decade, with secondary level options available within Auroville, it has been largely those parents and those youngsters who have chosen to come to Last School who feel deeply that Mother’s idea of ‘a growth of consciousness aimed at increasing perfectibility’ will give them everything they could possibly need (whether as adults they ultimately choose to express themselves within Auroville or elsewhere).

It can be said that two types of students have come to Last School in recent years. There is always a small group of those who cannot fit into any of the other schools who turn to Last School as the very last port of help. Such students either stay only so long as they need to, to sort out their problems so they can return to the more ‘main-stream’ options, or they feel sufficiently enthused by the LS approach that they choose to remain and grow in this experience. The second category is the more ‘brave’ and consciously iconoclastic types who deliberately choose LS. These may be anyone: students from outside, who come (or whose parents bring them) to Auroville to experience a period ‘breathing the air of free progress’ (we always seem to have a few of this category); more often, it is the Auroville youth that appear to know inwardly that this is their place. These last have afforded the school some lovely moments: with whom teachers have discovered such joy of learning and growing together, that any educator would dream of encountering.

One such group has had a book, Passage, dedicated to their educational development. This book was released two years ago by the Minister of HRD (the Minister in charge of Auroville in Delhi) on a visit he made especially to Auroville. Those who consider putting their children in Last School can read this little book which not only records and illustrates the students’ growth, but also serves as an account of the experiment that is Last School – its contents and methodologies, and the aspects of the students’ natures which are attempted to be consciously sounded. Finally, and more importantly, it attempts to be a little handbook of Mother’s words with regard to the education she envisioned for Auroville.

The Mother on Certification
For the last hundred years or so mankind has been suffering from a disease which seems to be spreading more and more and which has reached a climax in our times; it is what we may call ‘utilitarianism’. People and things, circumstances and activities seem to be viewed and appreciated exclusively from this angle. Nothing has any value unless it is useful. Certainly something that is useful is better than something that is not. But first we must agree on what we describe as useful—useful to whom, to what, for what?
For, more and more, the races who consider themselves civilized describe as useful whatever can attract, procure or produce money. Everything is judged and evaluated from a monetary angle. That is what I call utilitarianism. And this disease is highly contagious, for even children are not immune to it. At an age when they should be dreaming of beauty, greatness and perfection, dreams that may be too sublime for ordinary common sense, but which are nevertheless far superior to this dull good sense, children now dream of money and worry about how to earn it. So when they think of their studies, they think above all about what can be useful to them, so that later on when they grow up they can earn a lot of money. And the thing that becomes most important for them is to prepare themselves to pass examinations with success, for with diplomas, certificates and titles they will be able to find good positions and earn a lot of money. For them study has no other purpose, no other interest.
To learn for the sake of knowledge, to study in order to know the secrets of Nature and life, to educate oneself in order to grow in consciousness, to discipline oneself in order to become master of oneself, to overcome one’s weaknesses, incapacities and ignorance, to prepare oneself to advance in life towards a goal that is nobler and vaster, more generous and more true... they hardly give it a thought and consider it all very utopian. The only thing that matters is to be practical, to prepare themselves and learn how to earn money. Children who are infected with this disease are out of place at the Centre of Education of the Ashram. And it is to make this quite clear to them that we do not prepare them for any official examination or competition and do not give them any diplomas or titles which they can use in the outside world.
We want here only those who aspire for a higher and better life, who thirst for knowledge and perfection, who look forward eagerly to a future that will be more totally true. There is plenty of room in the world for all the others.[1]

  1. Collected Works of The Mother, Vol. 12: On Education, p. 351