Life Is All About Learning

Satish Kumar


In the modern age of production and consumption, in the age of money and power, the meaning of education has become distorted. The Latin root of the word education – educare – means to ‘bring out’, whereas the present implication of the word education is to ‘put in’. In the original idea of educationalists, it was believed that the soul has its own in-built intelligence, and knowledge is intrinsic to it.


The soul is like a seed, which has all the potential to become a tree. No forester or gardener can teach a seed or give any knowledge or information to it about how to become a tree. The only thing a forester or gardener can do is to create the right conditions and right protection, so that the seed can safely grow and become a fully mature tree.


Similarly, the role of a teacher is to give encouragement, confidence, inspiration and appreciation to their students, so that they are able to discover their true potential and become themselves. Each and every person is born with particular qualities and those specific qualities need to be nurtured; whereas, modern education in large factory-like institutions, almost ignores the children and their specific qualities. What modern education is determined to achieve is to fill the minds of children with external information. Thus, teaching becomes much more important than learning.


In learning, the initiative lies with the learners. They are seeking to discover themselves. It is a quest and a journey of self-realisation. Teaching makes learners passive; learners become recipients of given information, rather than active explorers of wisdom. To put it differently, teaching is fragmentary, while learning is holistic. In a learning society, even the "teachers" are learners.


Learning is a life-long process. It does not end when one leaves a school or a university. In fact, true learning begins when life at school and university ends. Schools and universities provide formal education of limited value. Whereas, learning from living, from doing, from making and from interacting with others is informal learning and is much more real and of far greater importance.


For a learner, everyone is a teacher. We learn from nature, we learn from people, we learn from difficult experiences and above all, we learn from our mistakes and failures. A society that values success and despises failures is not a learning society. A society where people are afraid to make mistakes and are afraid to fail creates timidity and cowardice. In such a society, it is difficult to take risks and go on a journey of adventure. Such a society encourages people to take a well-trodden path of security and predictability.


In a learning society, schools and universities should be intimate, human scale and part-time. They should be the centres of learning where people of every age and every interest can go when they want to learn either a practical or an intellectual skill. In a learning society, artists, architects, scientists, sociologists, industrialists and people well-versed in any other discipline should be able to offer a certain amount of their time at a nominal cost to those who wish to acquire knowledge and skill in those fields. So that, the teaching profession is not in a watertight compartment and there is no such division of "those who can, do and those who can’t, teach". The doers should be the teachers and teachers should also be the doers. In a learning society, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.


Two influences, similar in nature, have led me in my own learning. One was a book by Mahatma Gandhi, his autobiography: My Experiments with Truth. From this book, I learned that the pursuing of the inner journey should not be separated from the pursuing of the outer and social journey, because we are not two separate beings. If we remove ourselves from the world, believing that we can follow our own individual enlightenment, irrespective of the world around us, then that is a delusion. We must find a way of life that combines the spiritual and the social, the inner and the outer — in a balance.


The other influence was Vinoba Bhave. I spent three years walking with him in his bhoodan (land-gift) movement. It was a tremendously exciting time and also a great learning time. Thousands of people, doctors, lawyers, students, professors, businessmen, left their work and joined Vinoba’s movement. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people, for a period of months or years, would be walking with Vinoba himself. It was a walking university! That was my real education in the world; I learned politics, the social and cultural life of India, Hindu tradition and religion, and Buddhism. Walking with him showed me that nonviolent ways can change our society, change our thinking, and change our heart. It was a very practical experience.



What Is There to Learn?

We learn reading and writing, but hardly any body teaches us what to read and what to write or how to live. The function of a learning society must be to support the process required for a change in consciousness to take place. Transformation of consciousness is at the heart of learning.


We live under the domination of Modern Consciousness, which means that we are obsessed with progress. Wherever we are is not good enough. We always want to move somewhere else and achieve something, rather than be still and experience something. The opposite of this is Spiritual Consciousness. By that I mean, we find enchantment in every action we do, rather than in just the results of our action. The universe flows in cycles rather than following a path of linear progress. Spiritual Consciousness is not a religion, but a way of being.


Fragmentation is the result of Modern Consciousness. Knowledge is divided into subjects, the world into objects, and people into categories. But there is something more to life than what we are able to measure, analyze, and quantify. In Spiritual Consciousness, there is a dance between what we know and what we don’t know. The place of mystery is an essential ingredient of this spiritual consciousness.


Spiritual Consciousness should replace, or at least counterbalance, Modern Consciousness. Modernity, at present, is very powerful; it has the media and the multinational corporations behind it. Yet there seems a discontented-ness in many people today, despite all the glamour and achievement, technology and wealth. There is the loss of meaning (and of course, the pollution, the crime, the poverty, and the ugliness of Modernity). That’s why many people are longing to embrace a different kind of consciousness, a spiritual consciousness.


Spiritual Consciousness holds that the world is sacred. We must celebrate the world rather than try to improve it. Take joy in what’s here and cultivate a deep reverence for life. The outcome is not the point; we must do what is right. Right action will automatically lead to right outcome. And outcome or change is always a surprise. Look at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid. Who could have predicated such events? When I came to England twenty-five years ago, if you stopped in a restaurant and told them you were vegetarian, they would panic, ‘What can we feed you?’ Now 14% percent of the British population is vegetarian.



Five Principles of Living

For a transformation of consciousness to happen, we must learn and practice some fundamental principles of living. Here I would like to explore five such principles.


The first of them is Ahimsa (non-violence). We must learn to respect the water body, the fire body, the earth body, the air body and the human body. In fact, human bodies contain earth, air, fire and water. All these elements give of themselves to nourish and sustain life. Therefore, it is only right that human beings should take responsibility to sustain the natural order and preserve the integrity of the elements. Ahimsa is the most essential principle. Through it, we develop a reverence for all life. Then we are able to overcome anger, fear, greed, ego, domination, exploitation, and above all, wars. Practice of non-violence leads to harmony, equity, friendship, simplicity, sustainability and world peace.


The second principle is Satya (truth). It means to accept reality as it is and also to discover one’s own true nature. According to Mahatma Gandhi, "Truth is God and God is truth." When we are able to be true to ourselves and seek truth in the world, we are able to live a life with integrity and love. To pursue the principle of truth, we need courage and fearlessness. Sometimes speaking the truth and living the truth can be inconvenient, even dangerous. But those, who are able to face difficulties and keep faith in truth, find freedom. Speaking the truth does not mean being harsh or inconsiderate. Truth should be spoken sweetly and non-violently and yet honestly. Achieving such a fine balance requires great training and skill.


The third principle is Asteya (non-stealing and non-accumulation). Before we take from nature and from people, we need to learn to give. If we take without giving, it is stealing. If we accumulate material possessions over and above our essential needs, then we are depriving someone else of those goods and causing hunger and deprivation. Therefore, we need to cultivate a state of mind in which we are satisfied and contented. Once we have met our basic needs, we should be content and not be driven by greed. According to Mahatma Gandhi, "There is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed."


The fourth principle is Bramhacharya (physical integrity). We need to learn how to use our bodies, how to maintain a balance and how not to slip into indulgence. Happiness is a paradoxical state; restraint and nourishment are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn how to restrain ourselves from sensual gratification and sexual misconduct. We need to learn the code of healthy physical relationships, which can lead to healthy spiritual relationships.


The fifth principle is Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). In order to live, we need material goods and services. We need a house, we need land, we need clothes and we need food. But we need to learn how not to become possessive of possessions and how not to be possessed by possessions.


These five principles are aspirations and sources of inspiration. They are like resolutions and guidelines.


We may be able to acquire a mountain of information. We may be able to retain facts and figures in our brain. We may be able to accumulate and read thousands of books. We may be able to surf the Internet and master the knowledge therein. But all such knowledge and information becomes a burden, if we do not learn how to live. The above principles can help us to develop a joyful lifestyle as well as create a just and sustainable social order. These are principles of personal transformation as well as social transformation. They are the embodiment of spiritual consciousness.



Learning and Living

True learning processes can only take place when schools and colleges are of human scale. At present, in schools and colleges, students have become mere numbers, because those institutions have grown too big. The rule of saving money has forced our schools to grow larger and larger. They have come to resemble factories, where buildings, gymnasiums, visual aids and other modern equipment are more important, than making relationships with parents or giving personal attention to pupils.


Our deepest social problems stem from our obsessions to save money and organize schools on the principle of economies of scale. Beyond a certain size, even the economy of scale does not apply, as new costs are involved. Administrative and bureaucratic costs increase greatly, and more is spent repairing the damage. For example, how many millions are spent on children who fall victim to gangsterism, drug abuse, and theft, ultimately ending up in prisons and hospitals? The cost of uncared-for and unfulfilled children is much higher than we realise! If the schools were smaller and operated as communities of learners, we will end up with fewer prisons and better social cohesion.



The Small School Movement

I have been involved in initiating two learning movements, which operate on a human scale, both of them in England. The first is the Small School, which was founded in 1982. Located in the village of Hartland (population approximately 1400), The Small School is within walking distance of children’s homes, so that there is no need to take children away from their family and village life.


In the past, because of the closure of rural schools, children had to travel for an hour each way to attend a school. They were becoming commuters at the age of 11. Many of them had also begun to think that if their village was not good enough to provide the necessary education, then it would not be able to provide them with work when they finished their education. They had begun to see their being born in a village as a kind of handicap.


In addition to the social damage and psychological stress, large schools subject village children to inner-city-type problems: drug abuse, violence, vandalism, bullying, indiscipline, shoplifting, and even sexual abuse. These schools are so big that it is difficult for teachers to know the names of all the children, let alone the names of their parents and their family backgrounds. Teachers rarely have time to talk with their pupils or answer parents’ questions. But this fundamental human factor seems to escape the attention of educational bureaucrats, who think that by crowding more teachers and pupils together, they will achieve higher standards of education and save money.


This was the backdrop to open the Small School in Hartland. Its starting class consisted of nine children, and today the maximum number of pupils does not exceed 40. Of course, the smallness is not enough. The education itself has to be based in holistic, spiritual and ecological principles. Learning by doing is the ethos of The Small School. Students prepare meals for themselves and for each other, they work in the garden, they learn practical skills, such as building and carpentry, they learn about the environment and, through all of these processes, they learn about themselves.


Almost all of the teachers in the Small School live within the community of Hartland itself. They teach French, rural sciences, biology, chemistry, creative writing, history, pottery, drama, folk songs, cookery, gardening, and more. Few have undergone teacher training, but all are experienced in the school of life and are very happy to share their skills and experiences with the children of the community. And in doing so, they show the children how many different ways it is possible to earn one’s livelihood.


The Small School is not compulsory and there are no fees for attendance. We did not want it to become like an elite school, which only the rich can afford, nor did we want to suffer from government intrusion. Therefore, the Small School operates with contributions and donations from the parents and with grants from foundations, which ensures that it remains at a human scale. Indeed, several more small schools have been founded in England, France, and elsewhere, as part of the Movement for Education on a Human Scale. They represent the ideal for real autonomy and local participation in education.



Schumacher College

The second educational initiative which I have been associated with is Schumacher College. Inspired by the life and work of E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, among other texts, Schumacher College was founded in 1991. It seeks to provide a place and space where the implications of the profound changes in worldviews, now surfacing in so many fields of human thought and endeavour, can be studied — and lived — to some depth. Schumacher College rests upon the twin convictions that the worldview dominating Western civilisation has serious limitations, and that a new vision is needed for human society, its values and its relationship to the earth. Through interdisciplinary studies, the College aims to uncover the roots of the prevailing worldview, which has led to ecological, social and spiritual crises, and to explore the foundations of a new vision for sustainable and holistic living.


The uniqueness of Schumacher College stems partly from its inability to be classified; it is part retreat, part residential community, part academic institution, part intellectual seedbed of ideas. Two kinds of activities occur at Schumacher College. The first is a Masters program (MSc) in Holistic Science, launched in partnership with the University of Plymouth. Up to 12 students live for a year and study holistic science, a form of inquiry that is already revolutionising physics, earth science, ecology, evolutionary biology, management development and health studies. Also Gaia, systems analysis, complexity, chaos and quantum and other emerging scientific theories are explored.


Second, Schumacher College hosts shorter courses. Up to 25 students come to the college throughout the year to participate in a course for one to three weeks in duration. The courses use a mixture of lectures, seminars, field trips, simulations, practical work, projects, group-work, presentations, philosophical inquiry, discussion, experiential exercises, rituals, writing, and creative forms of expression. All subjects are studied from an ecological and holistic perspective. These subjects include ecological and local economics, sustainable development, eco-psychology, organic farming, ethics, aesthetics, equity, justice, deep ecology, permaculture, appropriate technology, and other fields related to the emerging new paradigm.

Schumacher College Courses for 2002

- Globalization — to explore the many economic, social and ecological impacts of globalisation on people and the planet.

- Science and the Nature of Life — to study some of the key changes in science, coming from cosmology, physics, quantum theory, and to discuss what these changes mean for the nature of life and consciousness and how we understand the world.

- Ecopyschology — to explore the fundamental interconnections between people and nature, to understand how people’s health is inextricably linked to the health of the planet.

- Sustainable Energy — to investigate how humanity can act at various levels, from local to national and global, to realise the enormous potential of solar and bio-energy, and to explore the implications of renewable energy for our economy, society, values and culture.

- Ecological Design — to draw inspiration from nature’s cycles and processes, to create buildings, technologies and artefacts that produce no waste and make efficient use of natural resources.

- Education, Ecology and Imagination — to examine the vital role of the imagination in educating both the self and others, and to work with imagination in ways which open wider educational and ecological concerns.

- Power of Communities — to discuss ways that people can work towards creating more sustainable and empowered communities that constructively challenge the centralisation of power and economic resources, leading to loss of diversity, alienation and unsustainable, consumer-based life styles.

- Business and Sustainability — to stimulate innovative thought on how sustainability presents radical new opportunities for business, with examples of sustainable business practices.



By interweaving meditation, reflection, shared work, study, field trips, and community life, students in the College are able to take an active part in the self-organizing processes that enhance individual and group learning, and thereby gain a richer understanding of sustainability, equity and wholeness.


At Schumacher College, attention is paid to the rhythm of the day in order to seek balance and harmony in our lives. A College day starts with a period of meditation. Sitting in silence with others lays the spiritual foundation upon which all other activities are built. That contemplative spirit permeates throughout the day and all thoughts and actions are informed by that inner stillness. Spirituality is not an intellectual concept. It is the daily practice of compassion, co-operation and reverence for all life which enriches the human spirit.


But it is not enough to say, "We will create an atmosphere in which the students care for one another and have respect for each other and their environment." Our ideas must take practical form to have meaning, so the staff members of Schumacher College are also a part of the learning community. Along with their administrative duties, staff members prepare course material, lead cooking and cleaning groups, perform music or take part in field trips. Staff are also consulted at every level of decision-making — whether it be concerning details of the domestic arrangements, or in new ideas for the future of the College, or in the design of the course programme.


One of the more unusual aspects of the College is the way in which the College community is jointly responsible for the day-to-day creation of "the abundant life". That everyone should take care of each other’s needs is a central tenet of our philosophy. It is not an economic measure, but a practical expression of our intention that living and learning be part of one whole. In attending to daily tasks, the issues raised in study sessions are brought into the focus of daily practice. In these activities, the balance to the intellectual input of the courses is created. People often say that one of the most enjoyable parts of College life is cooking, housekeeping and gardening with a small group of fellow participants. In living as a community, they find both nourishment and the opening of minds.


At Schumacher College, we try not to put materialism and spirituality in two separate compartments. Cartesian dualism of mind and matter sealed in two mutually exclusive boxes is one of the causes of the crisis of our time. "Matter without spirit is a burden and spirit without matter is useless," said Mahatma Gandhi. Therefore our work is to materialise the spirit and sanctify the matter, bringing spirit into economics, politics, science, psychology and all the other disciplines of life.


Gaia Theory as expounded by James Lovelock, Deep Ecology as developed by Arne Naess, and ecological economics as described by E.F. Schumacher are some of the core ideas examined, explored and experimented with at Schumacher College. By integrating science, spirituality, arts, philosophy, ecology and economics, Schumacher College is able to present a unique synthesis which is so necessary in our fragmented world. It is essential that we do our best to heal this fragmentation so that a learning society can also be a happy society and an enlightened society, built on the foundations of reciprocity, mutuality, co-operation, compassion, ethics and aesthetics.


The Small School is for children living within the local community, whereas Schumacher College is an international centre for ecological and spiritual learning. They both operate on the common principles of meditation, manual work, sharing in domestic tasks, intellectual explorations, learning from nature and putting what has been learned into practice. The food is vegetarian and also largely local and organic. The purity of food forms the basis for the purity of body and mind. At the Small School, as well as at the College, learning and living are not put into two separate compartments. We learn through living and we live through learning.


Although there is no formal link between the Small School and Schumacher College, they are part of new ways of learning and a new worldview informed by ecological, spiritual and holistic values. This is a growing body of holistic thinking in the field of science, philosophy and economics. It is my hope that Schumacher College and the Small School can prove to be new models for inspiring a true learning society.





In addition to being the founder of the Small School and the Director of Programmes at Schumacher College, Satish Kumar <> is currently the editor of Resurgence (an international magazine promoting peace, non-violence, ecology, sustainability, organic agriculture, appropriate technology and holistic philosophy). He has, in turn, been a Jain Muni (until age 18), a campaigner for land reform in the Bhoodan movement with Vinoba Bhave (until age 26), and a pilgrim for peace, walking from India to America without any money, from 1962-1964. In 1968, Satish established the London School of Non-violence in order to teach the Gandhian way of passive resistance to the youth of Europe. His autobiography, Path Without Destination, was published in 1999. In November 2001, Satish was presented with the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for "Promoting Gandhian Values Abroad".