At Oak Grove School, the private pre-K-12 institution hidden amongst the trees that are its namesake just off Highway 33 in Ojai, students take a class called Fundamental Questions. There is no curriculum, no homework or tests, no clear objective outside opening young minds up to simple inquiry. “I don’t teach them anything, really,” admits director of teacher development Paul Herder, who runs the class.
And yet, it is perhaps the most important course the school offers. “We look at things that are important to them and find the question in it,” Herder explains from a wooden bench just outside the administration building, squirrels and blue jays milling about in the field behind him. “If they don’t have a question, I ask them what’s on their minds, and we start to look at it a little bit. I try to find a question and see if we can think through something together. I’m not trying to get them to go anywhere; there’s not like a secret place I want them to go. It’s listening and facilitating and going with what’s meaningful to them. We keep probing to see if they can get through the surface into some more basic stuff.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up the philosophy of Oak Grove and its founder, author-speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti: asking questions to chip away at the falsity of modern society and get to the core of human existence, whatever that may be. Here, education is not limited to reading, writing and arithmetic. It is also the study of fear, authority, competition and, most significantly, interpersonal relationships. With a total student population of 200 (40 in the high school) kids cannot hide from one another in the safety of cliques, and teachers cannot treat their classes as a nameless, faceless collection of bodies. Everyone is forced to learn with each other and, at the same time, learn from each other. And that, says Herder, is exactly what Krishnamurti wanted.
“It’s not just about mathematics and geography,” he says. “It’s also about how we get along together.”
Questioning the human condition
If all this sounds like a bunch of hippie-dippy gobbledygook to you, the question Krishnamurti would likely ask is: why? Why is using school to explore the deeper complexities of life a fringe idea? He would not have challenged your position — he wasn’t interested in debates. But he would have prompted you to challenge yourself, to look inside and ask honestly where those beliefs come from.
“His teachings included the whole range of human psychology,” says Mark Lee, executive director of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America (KFA) and Oak Grove’s first principal. “He covered everything, all human conditions, from fear to love to jealousy. He talked about the intelligent way to live, which included everything from what you eat to when you sleep. He approached it not as telling people how to deal with these things, but like holding up a mirror to the way people behaved and thought and said, ‘Can you look at the mirror? Can you look at yourself? What can you discover about yourself? And then, can you break the mirror?’ ”
Krishnamurti founded Oak Grove in 1975. He first came to the area 30 years earlier. Having spent a lot of time living in cold and rainy Europe, he hoped to find a place that reminded him of his native India. According to Lee, he found it in Ojai. “He described Ojai as a very quiet, rough, country town, with no paved streets. No one locked their doors, there were very few cars, and everything was focused on horses and ranch life. Because it was so simple, he particularly enjoyed it.”
Krishnamurti continued to visit over the next several decades, giving speeches in an oak grove. Meanwhile, he established schools across India and in England, to introduce people to his views at a young age.
“He thought we should all be concerned about the way we live and the right way of living, and that we should start early raising our children so they’re not heavily conditioned — by culture, by media, by the horrors of modern life,” Lee says. “They would be raised to be sensitive, caring, affectionate young people living in some psychological security so they can discover who they are and how to live, and at the same time being well-educated academically.”
Lee, who discovered Krishnamurti’s teachings as a teenager in Santa Barbara and befriended the man after graduating from college, taught at Krishnamurti’s 350-acre Rishi Valley School in India. In 1972, Lee returned to America with his family; three years later, Krishnamurti asked him to help launch a campus in Ojai. The school was built on the largely untouched parcel of land Krishnamurti used for his lectures. Almost immediately, Oak Grove attracted students from around the world. “We became an international school fairly soon,” Lee says.
Initially, says Herder, the school adopted a more literal interpretation of Krishnamurti’s philosophies. Over the years, however, the methodology has become looser, to the point where there is no methodology at all. One principle remains intact, though: Think for yourself.
“Krishnamurti wanted the kids here to make a difference in the world, and that starts inwardly,” Herder says. “It’s their ability to not be deeply conditioned. That was the key to it. If a kid comes in programmed by Madison Avenue and Nintendo, he’s not going to do anything significant in terms of facing the kind of issues we have in the world today. It doesn’t mean don’t play Nintendo, it doesn’t mean don’t pick up a magazine — we’re not a religious order or anything, it’s not restrictive — but all these things are questioned.”
Living peacefully and happily
Krishnamurti remained involved in Oak Grove’s progression — giving talks, meeting with students and staff — up until his death in 1986. Although it has been 20 years since his passing, his presence can still be felt in Ojai today. The Krishnamurti Library and Archives, operated by KFA, on the east end of the valley houses the largest collection of Krishnamurti material: tapes of his speeches, manuscripts of his books, photographs and letters. KFA itself continues to disseminate his teachings internationally from their headquarters on the Oak Grove campus, publishing books, releasing CDs and DVDs and hosting annual dialogues at the Krishnamurti Retreat, located at the philosopher’s former home.
And, of course, there is Oak Grove. As a college preparatory program, many students graduate to top-shelf universities and, according to Herder, most report having an enlightened college experience. “They tend to be people who are more willing to ask the questions and not be intimidated by professors or experts,” he says.
“His long-term legacy is a teaching that has no psychological, political or nationalistic boundaries, because he addressed the whole human problem,” Lee says of Krishnamurti. “It’s a psychology for the world without a psychologist, without a leader, without a teacher and without a follower, and it’s what the world is moving toward because of a serious disillusionment with organized religion and different philosophies and self-help movements that are not able to address the real human problem. Krishnamurti proved there is a way to live peacefully and happily — it just means changing the age-old approach and thinking about and discovering who you are.”