by David Marshak

Peter Lang, New York, 1997
Counterpoints Vol.48

reviewed by Dr. Margaret Rathwell

The Counterpoint series seeks to break new ground by bringing innovative and imaginative books in education to a wide audience, avoiding difficult theoretical discourses. This is fulfilled by David Marshak’s balanced, easy-to-read book The Common Vision: Parenting and Educating for Wholeness. Marshak looks at how three early twentieth-century spiritual teachers—Rudolf Steiner, Sri Aurobindo and Hazrat Inayat Khan—understood the nature and importance of the human spirit in their educational philosophies and practice.

Marshak describes how child raising and educational practice are a means for the human species to evolve morally and spiritually in order to surpass the current ecological and human crises. A joint growth of adults and children, what he calls a ‘conscious co-evolution,’ is required. As we parents and teachers unfold as whole beings, the more nurturance and aid we can give our children.

For each teaching there is a chapter on the theoretical visions of the propounder and then a chapter on the practical implementation. Despite their different cultural backgrounds (Steiner: Germanic, Sri Aurobindo: Hindu and Hazrat Inayat Khan: Muslim) they have what Marshak calls a ‘common vision’ of human nature and human development up to the age twenty-one. It is holistic and integrative. Although there are differences, they are also similar. Each describes interacting planes of existence from the physical being to the subtler life-force plane, then the higher mental plane and lastly the plane of the spirit which is the true self within us. Education should consider all these layers, not just the physical and intellectual layers of traditional education.

Chapter 4 describes a day in the life of the second grade at the Waldorf School in Lexington, Massachusetts. He brings to life features of Steiner’s approach, such as the insight of the teacher, the rhythm of the day, the aesthetic and artistic core of activity, the focus on stories and the holistic approach to memory. Chapter 6 describes the Aurobindo International Centre of Education at Pondicherry, India where a ‘free progress system’ tries to bring forth the child’s inner teacher to help the child develop her/himself and find the true inner being. Teachers help students to follow their interests and be self-motivated. Chapter 8 shows the principles of the Sufi Seed Centre schools in the U.S., following Khan’s teachings, which set up a controlled environment and allow the child freedom within that environment to explore and discover their own world.

Marshak gives some interesting conclusions about their common vision. He sees that the descriptions of human nature and the stages of the child’s unfoldment are valid today and help us understand the child’s unfoldment in body, emotions, mind and spirit. He reports that for all three, the most profound element for child raising and education is the understanding that we must have faith in the child’s ‘inner teacher’ to guide their development. He observes that freedom and self-direction are not necessarily evident in their educational practice. In Steiner schools the teacher organises both the learning environment and much of the child’s activity within it. According to Aurobindo’s system, the teacher acts not directly on the child but only on the environment. As the school evolved the teacher became more active and directive with the child.

Marshak concludes that the problem lies with attempts by limited, imperfect humans to enact this idea: "We can only give the child as much respect for her inner teacher, as much freedom for her becoming, as the state of our current unfoldment empowers us. If we extend beyond that limit in our enthusiasm or pride, we will inevitably betray the understandings of the common vision and act out hypocrisy or contradiction, most likely through indirect or unconscious authoritarian behaviour." A parent’s or teacher’s own spiritual evolution empowers her/him to increase the child’s freedom. Just as we see many examples of experienced and inspired teachers working well in traditional schools, we also see many imperfect classes in alternative schools founded on good ideals. Marshak believes that Steiner developed the Waldorf school as he did because teachers in 1919 needed a teacher-centred pedagogy and a detailed curriculum according to their unfoldment. At the Aurobindo school there was a movement towards more teacher-direction as the teachers learned how much freedom they could offer to students, given their own levels of unfoldment.

For me it is also important that the philosophy behind an educational system is universal and non-dogmatic, recognising the divinity in all. If the philosophy is flawed, then eventually the teaching must be flawed. Marshak further comments that the free school movement of the late 1960’s (Summerhill in the UK) tried to begin the evolutionary process by giving freedom to high-school age youths; but this is the wrong way to start. We must begin with young children who have never experienced repressive, authoritarian, adult-centred schools. The young child is so eager to learn yet often their enthusiasm is crushed by parents and teachers. Montessori, in particular, stressed the importance of this first period of development, with guidelines for the birth experience, and the education of parents to help the unfolding of the child’s ‘spiritual embryo’ up to 3 years, when the child is supremely sensitive.

Since everything the child experiences will have an impact, we must beware of the powerful influence of the mass-media with the violence and materialism they project. Concentration, contemplation and meditation greatly help children to develop control of their awareness. These are introduced early in the Aurobindo and Sufi schools. Marshak proposes these practices for existing schools. We must remember that it is children who will change society; it is they who, if we are successful as parents and teachers, have the potential to evolve beyond us.