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Holistic Education

Thoughts about education from some of its greatest contributors.

Learning is an important fabric of who we are and what we are able to become. The process of leaning has the ability to change the world- for better or for worse.

Throughout history many great thinkers have commented on this subject and have ideas and learning techniques which if applied on a mass scale would revolutionize our educational system as we know it.

The following are thoughts and ideas each individual has contributed to the field of education.

Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner best known for his vision and creation of Waldorf schools. He has offered many visionary ideas to the field of education.

Child Development

His approach was a spiritual one where education revolved around the child's spiritual development. For example at the age of seven the etheric body (emotional body) is developing, therefore all activities revolve around and support emotional growth. The Waldorf curriculum emphasizes physical and emotional readiness and it engages the child's bodies and artistic sensibilities in all subjects.

His teachings call for cultivation of free, active, imaginative thinking deepened by affect, and strengthened by will. Waldorf does not solely depend on technique and structure, but rather the development of human capacities of children, and of the teachers and parents who are one's to set an example for each child.

The idea that it takes a village to raise a child was is deeply engraved into the Waldorf school system. Steiner stressed family involvement with the schools and vice versa.

Arts in Education

He also believed in using the arts to enhance and enrich the learning process. Steiner believed that art in education allows a connection between subject and object, and a sense of communion engendered in the feeling life of the child.

Steiner's Legacy

Steiner's legacy to the world of education was that he offered an understanding of the developing human being, a curriculum that addresses the stages of development, a way of teaching that engages the whole human being and a educational philosophy which encourages the student to be self aware, compassionate, and to have a sense of responsibility towards the earth.

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore is world renowned for his literary work. His work is imbued with passion and vision which he extended into his philosophy of education. He created a school called Santiniketan (peaceful dwelling) where he encouraged learning through experimentation and exploration.

Child and Nature

He emphasized a child's connection with nature and took great care to nurture this bond. He believed that every child came into this world with a freshness of the senses which permitted him/her to relate intimately with nature. As an example of his support of nature in a child's environment his schools were completely outdoors. There were no chairs to sit on, for Tagore preferred woven mats. One of the reasons for the mats was so that they would not get in the way of a child's play space. Play for a child was also a very important part of the curriculum.

Simplicity in Education

His classes were simple in every way. He was never extravagant with the students' environment, or with anything else to do with education. He believed that poverty led to a personal experience of the world, and the simpler things were, the closer to poverty one could be. Too much educational apparatus, he suggested, suppresses sensitivity for the unique personality of each child. Therefore the classroom paraphernalia was kept to a minimum. If a child needed to study astronomy, he wanted his students to look at the sky first, get a first hand experience of it, and then go to study the subject matter.

Art in Education

Like Steiner, Tagore emphasized art in the learning process. He felt art, music, dance and theatre were stifled by intellectual information. He likened it to hailstones falling on precious flowers. Each day in his class was begun and ended with some sort of artistry.

Commentary on Modern Education

His commentary on modern education was harsh but bitterly true. He eloquently stated that,

"We rob the child of this earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates."

Tagore considered education to be the means to self-reliance. He felt that true education harmonizes an existence with nature and its real goal should be to commune personally with the universe.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson is also a great literary of his time, and has much to offer today's educational system.

Education of the Scholar

Emerson recommends the "education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action."

Like other great thinkers before him, he felt that nature is a very important element in one's learning process. The greater teacher is the world, he thought, by which we learn the laws of nature. Of books he thought that one should read them, but to always remain autonomous of thought. Emerson felt that thought must become action in order to be useful. He felt that whatever one learns, one must immediately put it into practice otherwise it is forgotten and of no use.

Spiritual Nature of the Child

Emerson urges students to realize their own greatness by calling upon our inner resources, for there in lies their illumination. He suggests that to help one realize one's inner greatness is the true aim of education. To help one explore inner realms and to build moral character was a very important aspect of his educational philosophy.

Emerson knew that in every child there lies a revolution, a miracle for this world. Therefore it was no small task to educate a child. He had grand ideas, and aspirations of how we may inspire a child. Yet he worked hard to awaken the educational system to this magic within every child, and often his harsh analysis of the current educational system was met with a bitter silence.

Below is an eloquent critique of the way educational system ignores the spiritual potential of its students and mainly focuses on teaching on an intellectual level.

"We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them training as if we believed in their noble nature. We scarce educate their bodies. We do not train the eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension and comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers, but not to make able, earnest, greathearted men."

He then suggests a greater purpose for education, one that brings out the best in all those who are involved.

"The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust: to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself, with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives. Thus would education conspire with the Divine Providence."

Creating Virtuous Students

As far as method goes Emerson places first a respect for the pupils, encouraging their virtues, but disciplining their vices. He knew that for every vice in a child there was a corresponding virtue, and virtue was to be focused on. In doing this, his/her vice would disappear and their virtue would remain.

He also believed in allowing the child one's own inspiration and perception, and the search for one's own truth. In allowing a child to do this, his/her divine mission would be revealed to them and their moral characters would be built - this was the purpose of education.

Teachers as Role Models

Emerson told teachers that they must learn patience for each student's learning process just as Nature and Providence do. Most importantly he tells the teacher that in order for a child to learn how to be, the teacher should be a divine example.

Have the self-command you wish to inspire. Your teaching and discipline must have the reserve and taciturnity of Nature. Teach them to hold their tongues by holding your own. Say little; do not snarl; do not chide; but govern by the eye. See what they need, and that the right thing is done.

This point is never emphasized in modern day classrooms, therefore it leads to disrespect and distrust between teachers and students. But when students are young they are extremely impressionable, and often times look up to their teachers. It is of utmost importance that a teacher endowed with the responsibility of educating this child and most importantly inspiring within him/her a curiosity for life, is a great example to all students.

Emerson's Gift

Of all the beautiful gifts Emerson gave to the world, the most important was his revolutionary thought on education. If only we heed his advice and truly help to ignite the divine spark within all children, we would create a world where people were respected, animals and the earth protected, and where finally, peace would have a chance to prevail.

Tim Galloway

Tim Galloway is the author of the best seller The Inner Game of Tennis. Though this book is geared towards students of tennis, he has many thoughts and ideas that can be applied to general education.

Below are some of the concepts that he offers in his book. I have extrapolated and interpreted his ideas to make them relevant to the realm of holistic education.

Over Teaching

Galloway found that when he over-taught his students, meaning explained at length the details of how to hit the ball, what to think about etc., his students would rarely perform what was taught to them. It seemed that the more he taught, the less they performed.

Many times in schools, the teachers tend to spend a lot of time with students explaining detailed concepts and ideas, instead allowing the students to teach themselves and each other. Most students who are not following the teacher's every word, tend to get lost and confused about the subject matter which was quite simple, but explained in an extensive manner.

Under Teaching

On the other hand Galloway found that when he did not say much to a student and just directed them gently, their performance would increase. Because the student did not have much to think about, he/she followed instinct instead of instructions.

It is important to not over-teach, but trust the student's ability to teach oneself and others. The teacher's duty is to inspire, not perspire. Therefore when students are under-taught and encouraged to teach themselves, they begin to explore the subject matter themselves and this tends to create a greater curiosity of the subject, and a correspondingly greater understanding too.

Self One/Self Two

According to Galloway, Self 1 is the self that speaks, that gives instructions to Self 2 who is the doer. It is the struggle between Self 1 and 2 which makes it difficult to learn. Often times Self 1 does not trust Self 2 thereby constantly telling it what to do, and worse - judging every action Self 2 makes.

One of the solutions to overcoming this inner battle between the two selves is what a student should learn in school. Self 1 works well through setting goals, and Self 2 learns through receiving images and feelings, not words. In other words, a student should learn to set goals/priorities in his/her life, and also they should learn visualizing techniques which would help them to accomplish their goals.


Through his work, Galloway found a certain truth in the statement, "Compliments are criticisms in disguise." For example when he was teaching a group of women how to make a certain shot, one of the women was doing well, and he said to her, "Look how great your shots are, they are not even hitting the net." Immediately thereafter, all the other women's shots were not making it over the net. He realized he had set an immediate standard in the women's mind of a 'good' and 'bad' shot, and thereby creating a block which was hard to overcome.

In school we do similar things. When a student does well, meaning achieves certain grades, he/she is commended. But that leaves out most other students who may work just as hard if not harder. It is also difficult for the students being commended, because they feel that they need to keep their grades up to maintain a certain image. This is a lot of pressure for a student to handle. Since the deed is reward itself, let's teach this important lesson to students, and not stress them through shiny plaques and gold stars. It is truly impossible to judge one event as positive without judging another as negative. Therefore it is best that teachers and students remain far from judgment, because that is one thing that can really make the learning process difficult.

Effortless Concentration

Galloway has some interesting ideas to offer in this subject. He stresses to his students to always watch the ball, listen to its sound, and not to look at the opponent. This is very helpful because the learner remains focused on the task at hand and his/her mind is not jumping all over the place. He found that deep concentration seemed to slow down time! Tennis players actually found that when they concentrated deeply, it seemed as if the ball was actually reaching them slower than usual.

Extrapolating this information to the realm of holistic education is very interesting.

People who try to educate themselves for a reason such as to receive a degree or to be involved in a certain profession, won't necessarily get the results because they are not concentrating on the task at hand, but are always thinking about the future. They are doing the task for the wrong reasons, and therefore making the learning process very difficult for themselves.

When the student immerses oneself in learning and actually enjoys the work, they are not worried about outcome and therefore the stress factor and the difficulties decrease enormously.


"It is wisdom which is seeking for wisdom."

The ancient tradition of Zen has much to teach the Western world not only about how to live a peaceful existence, but also about education. There have been hundreds of ancient monasteries where a student of Zen learns nothing but of oneself. Quietly sitting, he/she learns how to be still and to listen to the voice of their own soul. This quality is certainly lacking in today's educational system, yet if we learn from Zen we will recognize a rich fountain of knowledge through which students come out alive and ready for life.

Here are few Zen principles and ideas taught by Shunryo Suzuki, and other Zen practitioners which can prove to be most enlightening in this field

Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

Students should learn to always have a beginner's mind. When students are awarded with metals because they have achieved something, they begin to feel like experts. We are breeding experts in today's educational system. In other words we are breeding individuals who can not look outside their expert environment for solutions, therefore are left with few possibilities. Instead a beginner's mind is an empty mind, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.


If a student takes pride in his/her attainment, or becomes discouraged by their effort they will be met with a 'thick wall' which will hinder their learning. According to Zen, pride and discouragement are the same thing - like heads and tails on the same coin. Where there is pride, there will soon be discouragement, it is inevitable. Because these emotions do not contribute to inner calmness, rather to agitation of some sort, the student who is striving will always be frustrated. We must teach our students to do the work because it needs to be done, not because of some material gain.


Finding one's mind is a form of Zen education. In the Zen fashion, a koan may be used to teach students to find the mind. However, a koan is not an ordinary teaching method. A koan is a tool to invoke the student's insight that does not depend on reasoning, ideas, and words.

Not depending on reasoning, ideas and words! This would shock the educational system, for reliance on these three things is what their foundation is laid upon. It would be very interesting to teach students how not to always rely on their intellectual abilities, but on their inner voice.

Many students find themselves lost in the world, and can not decipher what to do with their lives. But if they were taught to be still and to listen their inner guidance would direct them.

A Zen Reflection on Modern Education

Zen does not look fondly upon modern educational methods. From a Zen perspective, modern education has become an occupational training program to promote financial interest. Today, most students are concerned with finding financial stability and material gain. Against this trend, Zen education encourages students to seek spiritual stability. This, they believe, is a natural human inclination, while not everyone is talented to become a computer specialist or an investment banker. Zen education guides students to know themselves, teaching them to be compassionate, understanding, and well-balanced individuals.

Through the eyes of Zen, education can have a revolutionary effect on one's spirit, unlike modern education which has become a mere process, rather than a transformation of one's humanity. Education has become excessively competitive and causes students to become self-centered and reward-seeking individuals who fail to know the true purpose of their lives. Centuries ago Indian and Chinese Buddhist monasteries provided followers with spiritual guidance as the core of education; on the other hand, universities today accentuate occupational training more than spiritual education.


This has been a very brief synopsis of various educational philosophies and techniques. Throughout time we find that many of the same ideas come up over and over again. Perhaps it is time to heed the calls of great thinkers and awaken to a new way of teaching, which would inevitably breed a new way of being.

Ibrary References

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Shunryu Suzuki

A remarkable book on Zen meditation - simplicity at it's best, and that is what makes it beautiful.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Tim Gallwey

Much more than tennis - a book on life itself.

Zen Comics

Ioanna Salajan

Zen teachings through comics - a most appropriate presentation of profound simplicity.


Aldous Huxley

Huxley's utopian masterpiece, this book is more than a novel - it is a philosophy and more than anything it is a book about hope, about what we as humans can achieve with just the right viewpoint.

Irtcles by Sangeeta

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