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Bringing equality to life. What Schumacher College did to my hierarchical mind.

Updated: Feb 26

"Satish Kumar is an Indian and British activist who was a Jainist monk before becoming director of that center and working on ecological activism. Jainism is a minority religion in India, which is not dominated by any god and places a high value on nature. In Jainism, nature is an interconnected whole, so if one doesn't take care of nature, one isn't taking care of oneself. Seven centuries before Christ, this principle of interdependence had already been formulated, and in 1974 Lovelock and Margulis confirmed it.

During his childhood, Kumar joined the Jainist monks. Eventually, he worked to promote land reform in India and make Gandhi's vision of a peaceful world a reality. Inspired by Bertrand Russell's example, he began a long pilgrimage when he was still very young. Over 12,000 kilometers of pilgrimage, which he decided to do without taking money with him and relying exclusively on strangers' hospitality. Kumar walked from India to America via Moscow, London, and Paris to deliver a packet of "peace tea" to the world's leaders. He talks about this journey in his book No Destination, but he also talks about so much more. He talks about how we must get rid ourselves of not only unnecessary possessions, but also of fear, anxiety, and worry in order to achieve spiritual renewal.


During the time I knew him at the center, Satish had an outstanding ability: he could make himself invisible. In spite of his prominent status in ecology and activism or his recent taking over as director at Schumacher College, Satish knew how to return to a state of being that made him seem as mundane as anyone else.

I met him during the summer of 1991, while I was taking a summer course at Dartington School of Arts, and he lived in a nearby building, where he ate breakfast and dinner. Satish talked to the students at the long tables. He asked us what we studied, and he didn't explain that he was Satish Kumar and the director of the center. In fact, some people thought he was the gardener, and we had casual conversations with him without really knowing who he was.

Gardeners are very important people. However, I doubt I would have had conversations with any of them before 1991. In my high school, each student or staff member was dedicated to doing his own thing and interaction between generations or specialties was not promoted. The teachers, would teach. The students, belonged to the classroom. The maintenance people, to their work. Maintenance workers and teachers never conversed or became friends in that atmosphere. Despite the fact that we were only young students in our twenties, Satish seemed very interested in what we were doing or what we wanted to do. His presence and his ability to listen and pay attention when he was with us was above average of what I had experienced with center directors. Some of us didn't really get to know Satish during the summer of 1991, but when we talked to him, he made us feel very important. In my opinion, Satish was the source of the greatest amount of homeostasis in the house.

Satish was slim and not very tall. His hair was already white, and when he talked to you, he would show a level of interest that many of us were not accustomed to (at least myself). Despite Satish's prominence and eminence within the environmental movement, he spoke to students in their twenties, and it was apparent that he was captivated by what he heard. It was Satish who made you feel like you were the most significant person in the world when you were talking to him, and he was not. I didn't know it then, but later discovered that it is generated by the listener's presence and attention. That is why some students might think Satish wasn't the director of the center, but he wanted to give you attention that you wouldn't usually get from an eminence.

I've often experienced the following at professional meetings and at conferences. In these meetings, you would start chatting with someone who claims they are more accomplished than you. You notice that they are not interested in what you have to say. And it seems that they are waiting for their turn to speak and tell you what they do. Or, they can turn around and start talking to other people who interest them more. In Satish's case, it was the other way around. In his presence and attention, he modeled what I want to give to my students. However, I have learned that I cannot give it exclusively to them if I don't know how to give it to those around me.

A system with which the tasks of the house were regulated was one way that they used in this place to promote that homeostasis as well as dismantle our mental schemes regarding the relationship between students and teachers. Satish believes that social systems can be changed. And he insists, “the ones we have now are not very old. The trouble is we are driven by fear and so we take panic decisions”

(interview in The Guardian, January 16, 2008).

My school years in Spain were between the seventies and the eighties, so I came from a hierarchical educational system. The assessment was based on how we could have repeated what they said or what we read. Critical thinking was lacking in most cases, not in every case, but in the majority. Two years before I was born, Paulo Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In the 1970s teacher cooperatives flourished in Spain, as well as a desire to involve society in education. Most of the teachers, however, had grown up in the 1940s and 1950s and lacked the necessary training to implement the many advanced theories of the 70s. An entire year of a natural sciences course passed without a single lab test or field trip.

Let's say it was Science class. After a student read a paragraph, let's say about protozoa, the teacher would ask, Are there any questions? Despite not having seen a protozoan except in a photograph, no one expressed doubts. Next, without further ado, came the next paragraph. Thus, the whole course. Freire had already urged educators to take a revolutionary stance a decade earlier. However, we were quite bored in class. As far as I was concerned. Students typed alphabets or answered strange and precise questions from a literature teacher who asked what characters appeared first in a novel. This was in order to find out if we had read the book. Although the General Education Law was established in 1970, it proposed updating the previous pedagogical model. It took time for this to permeate the reality of many schools and study Centers in Spain. This is because teachers had grown up with the model after the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. The result was a total turnaround from the republican model, and a return to pedagogical traditions in which authoritarianism was promoted. The student was reduced to a receiver of information transmitted by the teacher.

In contrast, at Devon's house, we didn't sit around listening to our teachers, but instead sat in a circle and took turns participating. Furthermore, we established who will cook, who will clean, and how we will organize ourselves to complete all the tasks. It was something fun, new, and awesome. Twenty-year-old me dreamed of receiving singing and music lessons from performers as celebrated as the ones I was with, and the last thing I would have imagined was to be peeling potatoes and weeding the garden with them.

In the Center, a series of people lived there and were responsible for managing it for a large portion of the year. There were also the teachers who had come to teach the course and the students who had come to take it. In other summer courses and in other activities related to the University, I have always experienced a clear separation of functions in an orderly manner: there are some people who take care of the catering, who cook, who clean and who prepare the facilities that we are going to use, there are other people who come who are experts and come to teach the class, and there are some young students who want to learn from the teachers and use these facilities and attend to these teachers and do the tasks that the teachers assign them.

This wasn't the case here. In Schumacher College, we divided ourselves into groups of five since there were about 14 students in the course. Not many anyway, and we mixed the people who lived there and managed it, the people who taught the course and I admired so much, and the students and these groups, rotating each day to do various tasks. One day we cleaned the bathrooms, another day it was cooking, or working in the garden, and so on until we finished our stay.

The concept went beyond the organization of a house and caused homeostasis among all the occupants. We were not used to seeing the people we so much admire as people, since we were educated in other systems, especially as teenagers. As a result, we broke down the mental walls we had built up over the years. We found out such a simple truth: Our admired teachers are people! I know it sounds silly, but coming from the schemes we used to come from, for many of us this was a monumental realization, a profound discovery. I, who had been attending singing master classes at the National Music Auditorium in Madrid with singing eminences, who although they could be very pleasant as people, remained on a totally separate plane and different from that of the students. Those famous teachers who would conduct themselves with a studied ceremonial and staged demeanour where replaced by a totally different environment, filled with professors that I admired equally or more. Music teachers lectured students from podiums, using titles such as maestro, and explaining and relating to students in ways they had learned from their previous instructors, a reminiscence of an authoritarian pedagogical style that hadn't yet disappeared in Spain.

We had been musically educated according to old masters' hierarchies and distances, so this new approach was wonderful for me to experience, but also broke all my schemes. I had never dreamed or imagined cleaning bathrooms with soprano Emma Kirkby before; what for a young pianist could have been cleaning with Mauricio Pollini, and it was what largely made the springs of my previous hierarchical mind sprang into action.

Then I realized, not in my head, but in my emotions and body, how there was another way to learn and teach, from living experiences. I deeply understood that the people you admire not only enjoy good days, but they also suffer bad days. You can be their ally as well. Later, I was able to communicate my feelings to them, and what I wanted to learn from them. And this helped me greatly. Moreover, people whose work was previously invisible to us due to their dedication to catering, cleaning, or cooking became immensely important, and they participated in the sessions as well.

When a hierarchical system in our beliefs collapses, it doesn't reappear. As a result, it won't stay in the teaching field, but will become something that you'll take with you into your musical practice and your daily life.

The Schumacher College house, outside Totnes, Devon, regulated itself as an organism in these and other ways.

By Maria Soriano

Excerpt from “Un Angulo Me Basta” Curated by Ernesto Calabuig. Ed. Tres Hermanas, Spain 2021

Note: Summer of 2023, I was very happy that Satish received my email with the link to this blog piece, and mailed me back with his comment on it "It is very well written and captures the essence and the ethos of Schumacher College perfectly. It is most kind of you to say so many nice things about me."

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