How free is thought when we are taught to think?

Should the state determine the content of education?

Russian educators now see their blinders; do we see ours?

" . . . [I]s it possible to leave thought and bring about a change outside the field of thought? All consciousness, surely, whether it is of the past, the present, or the future, is within the field of thought; and any change within that field, which sets the boundaries of the mind, is no real change. A radical change can take place only outside the field of thought, not within it, and the mind can leave the field only when it sees the confines, the boundaries of the field, and realizes that any change within the field is no change at all."

J. Krishnamurti
By GEOFF DAVIDIAN
c. 1996 The Putnam Pit

KRASNAYA POLJANA, Russia -- Aleg Nikolaiovich Kikilo, 36, is midway through his first term as principal of the 500-student Secondary School No. 65, a neat and unassuming building on a muddy, unpaved road in a valley amid the peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.

A history major in college, Kikilo went on to graduate school to study the Science of Communism with a specialization in Paraguay. But with the demise of the Communist state, Kikilo found himself having to teach the idea of the development of the world from a human, rather than economic, perspective.

"I am trying to understand this myself but I don't," Kikilo confessed the other day in an interview with an American reporter.

In the old days of Soviet rule, it was easy to understand the role of education in the state.

"First and foremost, education was to recruit students into Communism," said Kikilo, who remains loyal to his Communist ideology but must now conform to a new concept of education decreed by the Ministry of Education.

However, with a teaching staff educated by communists and textbooks still quoting "Grandfather Lenin's" pronouncements on the virtues of scientific knowledge, math and history, Kikilo recognizes the number one problem of education under the new system: Can teachers overcome the biases of their professors and the authoritarian Soviet regimes that ruled and controlled the content of what they were taught as they attempt to teach the current students?

Kikilo said they can, "but it depends on the people, and new people are not coming into education. It is not a good job anymore," so Kikilo has had to redefine education because "the government is not meeting the challenge of education."

So he has asked for help from some current and former staff from Brockwood Park School, in rural Hampshire County, England. Surrounded by grazing sheep and free-range chicken farms, Brockwood Park School is far from the brinkmanship of international power politics. With a staff of 30 and about 60 students from 31 nations, there is little time or inclination to wallow in the political preferences of one person, party or country. But the essence of this pastoral learning center is bridging the cultural Grand Canyon that impeded diplomats for years as a Russian principal has asked teachers from Brockwood Park to teach the teachers at Secondary School No. 65 in the village of Krasnaya Poljana how to teach.

They will be traveling to Russia to open a summer school in Krasnaya Poljana.

Scott Forbes, contributing education columnist for The Pit and the former director of development at Brockwood Park, is convinced the people of Krasnaya Poljana and other former Soviet dominions need more than continuing education for their teachers.

"I spoke to principals and university department heads in the Ukraine about education and about 60 people turned up in a conference room with 24 chairs," Forbes said. "They turned away as many as they let in."

The task of unconditioning teachers from their previous education and reteaching them how to learn with their students, how to question and observe without bias may be difficult, Forbes said, "and while I'd offer to work with their teachers I'd also want to shift the ground about what they think learning is."

"Typically, learning has been a matter of students acquiring certain knowledge and in Russia that meant being indoctrinated. So now what if they could see that education has only partly to do with acquiring knowledge?

"What if education is about making connections between things; questioning, understanding and thinking critically? Then learning becomes a completely different process. If you say the role of education is to help get a job or fit into a system or you say education is to help people or to become an independently thinking good human being, those are completely different things," said Forbes, 46, who has traveled throughout Russia and Central Asia with his message that education leads to intelligence, not factual knowledge.

Forbes said he would offer to teach Kikilo's teachers, but what Russia needed was a new and radically different school to offer "a different kind of education" and he wants to build it on 125 acres of wilderness about 10 kilometers from Secondary School No. 65. The school would be the first private international educational center to offer apolitical, nonreligious education in the region in nearly 80 years.

"It is breathtaking to think of opening a school in Russia that is interested in students understanding the nature of ‘authority' and ‘freedom;' and responsibility to others and the environment; a school that is founded on radically different concepts. If we can only foster meaningful change in the Russian education system one student at a time, so be it."

Forbes knows about radically different concepts of education. Brockwood Park School was established 25 years ago by the educator and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Forbes has been there since 1974. The school is situated on 45 acres about 90 minutes southwest of London, and draws staff and students whose interests are not only becoming good at academics, but also at understanding themselves and their lives so that their lives have some goodness and beauty and they don't just become what Krishnamurti called "a cunning animal," Forbes said.

Brockwood Park and the other Krishnamurti Schools in Ojai, Calif., and India are communities where staff and students confront their own conditioning while preparing academically for university. The schools focus not only on science, math and the humanities, but also on how culture, the political environment, education, religious conflict and respect or disrespect for authority influence us.

"Hearing about academics only may lead to the lopsided situation of highly educated but very stupid people that created a system that filled American basements with bottled water and Civil Defense pamphlets for three decades," Forbes said.

Vladimir Riapolov, 38, who spent more than 20 years living in the hell reserved for noncommunist in the old Soviet Union, has worked with Forbes to acquire the land to build the school.

After serving his mandatory stint in the Red Army, the pony-tailed Riapolov returned to his study of yoga, Mongolian exercise and philosophy, which led to his being thrown out of the Young Communists. He said he became a disgrace to his parents, who at one point signed commitment papers so he could be "rehabilitated" in a government psychiatric hospital.

He said he was now dedicated to helping other Russians free themselves of the residue of their conditioning and the fear and suspicion it bred.

Riapolov, who spent time at Brockwood Park before deciding to work with Forbes on the school project, said there was "a certain void in Russia today, and a void is fertile soil; there is a certain yearning."

"I am for the beyond," he said the other day over tea and a banana in the kitchen of his small home. "I was a rebel. I had a very strange life where I had to watch everything I said or I would go to the crazy house. I had to act the fool so they'd leave me alone."

In the background, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were singing, " . . . his brain has been mismanaged with great skill . . . ," from Bob Dylan's License to Kill.

He recalled a passage from Krishnamurti:

"For the complete mutation in consciousness to take place you must deny analysis and search, and no longer be under any influence — which is immensely difficult. The mind, seeing what is false, has put the false aside completely, not knowing what is true. If you already know what is true, then you are merely exchanging what you consider is false for what you imagine is true. There is no renunciation if you know what you are going to get in return. There is only renunciation when you drop something not knowing what is going to happen. That state of negation is completely necessary."

Riapolov said, "This has nothing to do with the government. I'm not doing this out of a sense of good for humanity. I don't care about humanity. Do you know how many people were killed for humanity? Grandfather Lenin was killing people for humanity. Stalin killed for humanity. Khrushchev killed for humanity, but it was much more subtle. I think all that could be done for humanity has already been done to them by the Communists. I am doing this for myself and the people around us."