The Function, Fear, and Freedom of Education

by Elizabeth McGehee

My eyes wandered from a burning candle beneath a portrait of The Mother to a row of her books lined along a dusty metal bookshelf. I intended to pick up something to read that might enlighten my spiritual thinking, to be thematically in touch with the Aurovillian philosophy… I flipped through and a paperback titled “Think on these Things” by Krishnamurti stood out to me. The book was instructing me to carry out my very own will: to think. And “things” seemed to be very obscure, so I was curious to discover what these “things” might possibly be. So I pulled it out in a cloud of dust and added it to my small stack.

Secretly, my secondary reasoning for choosing a book like this was to help me doze off and fall asleep with, perhaps, some peace of mind or clarity in thought. I wasn’t prepared for what would in fact be a jolting kickstart in my train of thought—following every phrase my mind concocted sweeping questions: “Why is this so? How is this so? What if…” And the “what if” posed the most daunting search for an answer.

Krishnamurti begins by speaking of education. I was enticed by this topic, but slightly intimidated to dive into it. It is of the most controversial issues of the present, and has become stretched and twisted and inextricably stuck to other great controversies: money, jobs, human rights, discrimination. Education was stripped of its essence as a basic human right, and became an issue of selectivity and accessibility. Thus, those who do not have an advantage in the aforementioned elements will be the deprived: people who are straddling or beneath the poverty line, people of color, people from underdeveloped regions, people who are intellectually and/or physically disabled, women and girls.

But the way Krishnamurti deconstructs the ideologies of education paints a very comprehensive picture of what it truly means to be educated. In our current and collective mindset, to be educated is to reach the “gateway to success”. Yet, we must consider: how does this mindset define success, and what are the meanings we associated with the state of being successful? Today, success is recognized in materialism – luxury, wealth, the ability to indulge. These achievements, however, exist temporarily; they are unfulfilling, shallow, and are proponents of competition. This notion of competitiveness is of great importance to Krishnamurti’s theoretical analysis of education, for to be in competition with others is to lock yourself up, to be fearful, and thus to be unfree. And this is the key to understanding what it means to be truly educated – it is to be free.

The function of education should be to understand the whole process of life, “with all its subtleties, with its extraordinary beauty, its sorrows and joy”. To be able to truly learn is to think freely, to learn about and understand yourself without being fearful, so that you can discover the true beauty of life in the world and how you exist within it. The function of education is not merely academic.

And this process seems, to us, to be a basic human right—we are always told to “be true to ourselves”. It appears that as long as you are a breathing, conscious human being, you are capable of this process of self-discovery and nonconformity. But what happens when you are taught to do the opposite? To confine yourself within a box of stereotypes and labels?

When a man is told not to cry, this is because he must “act like a man”. But, to cry is to express one’s sadness, and to feel it throughout the body, and to recognize that it is real. And only by expressing it can you truly understand that there is something sad within you, and by recognizing its existence can you begin to try and asses it, cope with it, and heal. But by being given a formula to live by (in this instance, to be “masculine”) you are told to take a part of your true self and suppress it, suffocate it, until that part of yourself no longer exists. And this leaves humanity fractured: anxious, insecure, and fearful. And there is no freedom in being fearful.

For the last two weeks in Auroville, I witnessed the incredible effort to bring about this freedom: I witnessed women helping other women work towards being free from the deeply rooted fear that persists throughout where they’re from in the villages. Through educational programs and activities, The Life Education Centre (LEC) aims to help village women recognize their own potential—their abilities, talents, strengths, and rights—so that they could begin paving a path towards a freer, more sustainable lifestyle.

The daily life of a woman from a small village is essentially limited to staying in the house, preparing food, taking care of the family, and only going out to take care of the livestock or the garden. Starting from childhood, women are relegated solely as the caretaker of their fathers, their husbands, and their children. I interviewed one of the women who studied and worked at LEC. Her name was Saravaneshwari, and she spoke about how her brother was educated because he was a boy, and that she was told by her parents, “stay at home, don’t go anywhere” except to milk the cows. Since coming to LEC, she was able to grow the parts of her that were shut away for many years. She learned how to interact with people, something that once made her feel scared and unconfident. She came to learn embroidery, computer skills, and to ride a scooter. She now has a job and makes an income, helping her to be independent and feel more comfortable in her daily life.

The women partake in workshops that teach them about medical care, reproductive health, post-trauma awareness, and counseling to help grow their knowledge about the importance of personal health and how to go about receiving treatment. Through their My Education program (“Yen Kalvi” in Tamil), women learn basic subjects like math, english, and computer skills to contribute towards their skills that could serve in the workplace. LEC has recently implemented an entrepreneurial skills development program to teach women about the processes inherent in building a start-up, like managing finances and facilitating a business strategy. This helps them to realize their capacities and follow their dreams of starting a business.

“There is a need from within inside that’s already there”, says Devi, who organizes the programs at LEC. “And the girls don’t even know if it’s okay to express that need”. Through the provided education tools, LEC not only teaches women practical and useful skills to help them be independent, but also guides them to look deeply within themselves so that they understand what they need to feel confident, empowered, and true to themselves. Women learn to express how they feel, discover what they love, and understand that they have the right to learn about themselves and the world around them. And from this comes a profound and true sense of freedom.

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