Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beyond dichotomy

In a recent letter of the Universal House of Justice, dated August 9th 2012, addressed to the US National Spiritual Assembly on the occasion of the gathering of the ten newly constituted Regional Bahá’í Councils near Chicago at the Mother Temple of the West several subjects related to development of communities is discussed. One of these topics is the emerging and the more mature understanding of the US Bahá’í community in connection with the education of the children.

It might be worthwhile to review this subject briefly. During the years 1968 to 1973 the Bahá’í community of US increased in size over five fold. Many of the new members of the community were young people at or near their college age. Over the next decade many of these folks formed their young families. At that time however a program for the systematic education of children was not yet developed. Certain ideas and misunderstandings related to freedom of choice that may have come from a background of liberal democratic tradition may have also influenced their thinking and posture to this subject. During this time the Baha’is of Iran had developed and were using a program for the education of their children year after year. This program however was focused primarily on delivery of information about the history and teachings of the Faith to the children from Bahá’í families. Inspired by this model many larger cities in US adopted a model of Bahá’í Schools that involved transportation of children from around a larger metropolitan area to a central location, often in a large Bahá’í Center.

The Five Year Plan of 2006-2011 put much emphasis on the education of all children in a neighborhood including many children from families who may not necessarily be Baha’is. This imperative then gave rise to a dichotomous discourse in US about central schools versus neighborhood classes. This is of course a false dichotomy. Now in August of 2012 the House of Justice wrote that “[i]n each of your regions, encouraging signs appear. A perceived dichotomy that had arisen between classes offered for children living close to one another and centralized schools covering a broader area is yielding to a more mature understanding.”

What are the characteristics of this “more mature understanding”? What lies beyond this dichotomy?

Some communities may understand that if there is no dichotomy, then it means that they can do either, and both are equally acceptable. Further reflection makes it clear that this is not the case.

At first sight it might appear that if there is no dichotomy, then it means that both options are equally acceptable and each community can choose which model to follow. This, I submit, is an inadequate response to the above question. Indeed, there exists a clue for the resolution of this question in the text of the letter of the House of Justice, which goes on to refer to the imperative of multiplying the number of classes.

The answer to the problem of dichotomy posed in the form of an “either/or” is neither both, nor an arbitrary selection. In fact a community that implements both a central school and a number of neighborhood classes is further contributing to fragmentation of thought and practice. What needs to change is the conceptual framework within which the question arises in the first place.

The letter further elaborates that “[t]hrough participation in the courses of the training institute, an ever-greater number of friends are enhancing their capacity to offer spiritual education to those they encounter in the wider society.” It is in this increase in capacity, in the increase in the number of teachers, and in this multiplication of resources and classes that we will find the ultimate answer.

Let us start with what was the common conception of a central school. We can examine some of its features and transform each of these characteristics in light of our new learning.

In such a conception, let us say, the friends from a wider area come together each Sunday and hold 12 concurrent classes for 12 years of study. Every one from the ages of 5-6 to 17-18 is participating. The curriculum is based on some set of textbooks that cover the history and teachings of the Faith. Twelve teachers teach these classes from September of each year to May of the next year, and the school closes from June to August for the 3 months of the summer. Some 100 to 200 children from Bahá’í families may participate in such schools. There may be a board, assisted with a principal, that oversees the operation of the school. The school is funded by voluntary contributions from some dozen or more Bahá’í communities. This was the dominant model of central Bahá’í schools.

Now let us examine each of the above features, and see what we may have learned during the past 15 years from the operation of the training institutes throughout the Bahá’í world.

On the question of the age of the students: we note that Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i-Aqdas regards 15 as the age of maturity. How can we then regard our 15 to 18 year olds as children in need of instruction in a classroom? Should they not be expected to arise to serve the Cause and humanity? Are they not ready to engage in study circles to raise their capacity for service? And what about those from 12 to 14 years old? Do we not regard them as junior youth, in a transitional phase, who should form groups, assisted by an animator, to explore the many questions of excellence in all things? Such a realization will then help the communities who are still holding central schools to release everyone above the age of 11 and set them on a path of learning and exploration for excellence and service in both theory and practice.

On the question of curriculum, for the remaining children from 5 to 11: we note that we need appropriate material for 6 years of study. We also note that under the guidance of the International Teaching Center already extensive material has been produced for grades 1 to 3, consisting of 24 lessons for each grade. Each lesson consists of prayers, quotes to learn and memorize, songs with the same theme as the lessons, cooperative games, and artistic activities such as coloring that further reinforce the lesson. The subject matter is designed to start simple and generic and build on from year to year with added depth and breadth, as capacity is slowly built. Teachers of classes can then supplement this with any other material that they can find in the interim months or years until the material for the final 3 years also become available. The teachers have complete choice in this regard and neither the training institutes, the Local or National Assemblies, nor the Councils will mandate what supplemental material are to be used. In time and with experience a rich set of material benefitting from experience of people of diverse cultures will become available.

On the question of the timing of the classes: we note that summer time many children are free from school and have the greatest availability for engaging with activities and studies of Bahá’í classes. Therefore many communities are providing these lessons year round. Indeed many children from the wider community yearn for organized activities during these months of the year.

So what has happened to our conception of a central school? It is still being held in a central location with families from a wider area driving long distances to it. But it is no longer a 12-year program, as only 6 years of study is needed for those between 5 and 11 years old. Its curriculum has changed to the courses recommended by the training institute, and it no longer uses other recommended textbooks. It no longer closes for the summer and offers its lessons year round.

We might want to ask ourselves when does a central school stop being a central school? When the age of its students have changed? When the number of classes has been reduced from 12 to 6? When its curriculum has been renewed? When it offers summer sessions? When its doors have been opened to the wider community? Is such a transformed entity still a “central school”?

Now we can see the many benefits of this form of transformed school. We wish we could have many more such schools. We notice that all of our 15 to 18 year olds who were previously regarded as children, are now free and available. Our resources have multiplied. Having been trained in Ruhi Books 1 to 3, this newly released army of co-workers is able, ready and willing to translate that which is written into reality.

Perhaps someone suggests that these new forms of schools are so good and useful that every town, and every section of a city can have its own Bahá’í school. Every one of those dozen or more communities who previously used to send their families to the central school, can now have its own “central (?)” school. And since such schools are at a closer distance to our children and their friends there are many willing participants for such classes, drawn from the wider society.

Is there still a need for a school board with a principal? Is there a need to raise funds? Will each community that now has its own school still need to contribute to others? The answer to some of these questions may still be considered on a case by case basis.

In this hypothetical scenario we started by loving our central schools. Many more children wanted to participate. By increasing their numbers we can now have dozens and eventually hundreds of such “schools” in every corner of our towns and cities. Do we dare call these entities “neighborhood” children classes?

And if we had started our exploration by consideration of neighborhood classes, and added one class after another until we have a “unit” of six classes held regularly so that the children are able to participate consistently year after year progressing through a well designed system of education with some degree of formality, maybe we can then refer to these units as schools.

You can now see that the dichotomous framework within which there existed an essential duality and tension in connection with these children classes has evaporated. Could this be that “more mature understanding” referred to by the Universal House of Justice?

Abdu'l-Baha wrote: "Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children, young plants of the Abhá Paradise, so that these children, fostered by grace in the way of salvation, growing like pearls of divine bounty in the shell of education, will one day bejewel the crown of abiding glory. It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it. I hope that thou wilt acquit thyself well in this most important of tasks, and successfully carry the day, and become an ensign of God’s abounding grace; that these children, reared one and all in the holy Teachings, will develop natures like unto the sweet airs that blow across the gardens of the All-Glorious, and will waft their fragrance around the world."

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