Class of 2010

On Saturday May 29, 2010 Besant Hill School of Happy Valley held its Commencement. On Memorial Day we attended a barbecue lunch at one of the Pierpoint cottages in the East End that was the home for many years of Guido Ferrando, one of the three founders (along with Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley) of the school. Our son Griffin is in the class of 2010.

Happy Valley is 500 acres of prime Upper Ojai real estate and was identified in 1927 by Annie Besant as the "setting for the New Civilization in America" quoted in The Story of Happy Valley, Radha Rajagopal Sloss, The Happy Valley Foundation, 1998. This 'New Civilization' was to be founded by a community under the guidance of the World Teacher who she had already identified as Krishnamurti and who was a part of the entourage that made the muddy journey up the grade to the Tucker walnut farm. In the event, K (as he was known to his acolytes) had other ideas.

Annie Besant was what we would now call an activist. Originally a Fabian Socialist and friend of George Bernard Shaw, she came under the influence of H.P. (Madame) Blavatsky a Russian noblewoman who claimed to have infiltrated the secrets of Tibetan Bhuddhism and who in 1878, became the first Russian woman to be granted U.S. citizenship. HPB (as her adepts called her), was a spiritualist, mystic, voyager on the astral plane and the co-founder (along with Colonel Olcott, an American military officer) of the Theosophical Society. Annie joined the Society in 1889 and by 1908 was its leader.

This Society was already well established in Ojai at the Krotona Institute, when Annie Besant arrived to shop real estate. The original purchase of the 300 acre walnut farm was augmented over the next 20 years with a further 200 acres and in 1946, Happy Valley School was opened - as a manifestation of the special purpose with which the land had originally been imbued by Annie Besant, who had died in India in 1933.

This is a heavy legacy for the class of 2010, but a little ignorance goes a long way and it falls lightly on them.

Traditions hung in the air on this Saturday morning and after the Procession of 25 graduates trooped onto the lawn we were treated to a mystical 'Blessing of the Land'. Madame Blavatsky's spirituality drew from an eclectic range of beliefs including Tartar shamanism, Egyptian hermeticism, the kabbalah, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, Christianity, paganism and Tibetan Buddhism. We were treated to a simple pastiche of native American traditions.

These included tobacco in an abalone shell scattered on the lawn, water from a 'sacred' spring (in a plastic bottle) sprinkled from a hand broom made up of rosemary and lavender and a brief whirring of the bull-roarer, a serrated wood paddle swung around the head of the professional chumash elder, Julie Tumamait.

In her blessing she claimed kinship with the Chumash people going back over 13,000 years. Amateur students of archeology in the audience were aghast (for surely I was not the only one). It is generally accepted that the Chumash have been around for about 7,000 years and the flowering of their culture only occurred about 1000 B.C. Before that, the Oak Grove People of the Milling Stone Horizon (an artifact complex dominated by handstones, millingslabs, and crude stone tools most frequently associated with the early Holocene in Southern California) held sway - these were a people who shared a time and a technology with the makers of the skin scrapers, hand axes and arrow heads that we collected in Surrey (see Stoned 2010-05-28).

The opportunities for intellectual angst were not over. Karen Brown gave the Commencement address and it was a wonderfully funny, poignant and wise speech. While the headmaster, Paul Amadio had lost his notes and was unable to regale us, in his introduction, with her curriculum vitae, I was aware that she worked for an outfit dedicated to the 'greening' of schools. It turns out that Karen is the creative director for The Center for Ecoliteracy 'a leader in the green schooling movement'.

As Kermit reminds us, "it's not easy being green". Glomming ecological awareness onto schools fundamentally dedicated to continuing the untenable approaches of re-invention, creativity and enterprise  is, it seems to me,  merely masking this gnawing cancer that infects our education system.

Progress, growth and improvement are the benchmarks of our societal aims for the education of our children. These values are inherently un-green - they run counter to the basic life processes that are in fact recursive, slow to change (or evolve) and conservative of energy, effort and enterprise. Our liberal education model could not have been designed more perfectly to ensure the continued and potentially fatal friction between the planet and its people.

The fact is that traditional societies with deeply conservative values passed on from generation to generation do a lot better job of living in harmony with the planet than those where an education model places an emphasis on creativity, invention and, above all, originality. These characteristics have for the last 600 hundred years, and at an increased pace since the Enlightenment, vastly increased our energy footprint and effectively doomed our co-existence with the earth.

It happened first in that primeval solar energy sink, the forest. Robert Pogue Harrison writes in Forest, University of Chicago, 1992 that Descartes notion of mastery and possession of nature through the scientific method led directly to the "rise of forest management during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...where forests are apprehended in terms of wood volume ..and resource management". In other words a multi-valent wilderness that was sanctuary to some, offered hunting and grazing lands for others and constituted a parallel world of spirits and totems to all was traded for an energy and construction resource that existed as an appendix to the City.

In searching for a time when Americans used energy at a sustainable rate Saul Griffith (see Cosmic Futility 2010-05-24) found that even in 1800, we were burning New England forests at a rate double the energy use of the average global citizen in 2010. That average reflects excessive energy use, broadly, by the North leavened in the South by societies untainted by notions of liberal democracy and where tradition has helped maintain a balance between people and environment.

Notions of originality run directly counter to the values inherent in most traditional societies. There, people have found ways to live in balance by refining a basic societal construct over many hundreds of years or, millennia. New ideas threaten this balance and even when adopted, are required to stand the test of time (which is often thought of as exhibiting a recursive or circular character rather than the cartesian linearity with which we are familiar).

Teaching our children to think creatively is what got us into this mess. We are forever prisoners of our planet. We need to look to life processes to understand the limits of innovation. Organizations such as The Center for Ecoliteracy are enormously adept at applying (green) lipstick to the pig and as such are a hinderance to initiating the essential debate:  what should be the fundamental nature of education in societies that have been spinning out of control for over half a millennium?