29 Mar 2014

The History of the Ashram School (1) – Kittu Reddy

[Kittu Reddy came to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, in 1941 at the age of five. The Mother started the Ashram School on the 2nd of December 1943 and he was among the first students of the school. He had all his education at the Ashram and was appointed a teacher in December 1957. In the middle of 1958, he joined the Registrar’s office and assisted the Registrar Kireet Joshi in the administration of the school. It is in that capacity that he often wrote to the Mother regarding the administration of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.]

The history of the Ashram school – now known as the International Centre of Education – can be probably divided into four periods. The first period is from 1943 to 1950, the second one is from 1951 to 1958,  the third is from 1959 to 1967 and the fourth one is the period after that.

This article will deal mainly with the third period – that is to say from 1959 to 1967. However, the first two periods will be briefly touched upon.

Before the 1940s children were, as a rule, not permitted to live in the Ashram. But when, during the war, a number of families were admitted, it was found necessary to initiate a course of instruction for the children. Consequently, on 2 December 1943 the Mother opened a school for about thirty children. She herself was one of the teachers. The number of children increased gradually over the years to around 150 by the year 1950.

The first striking feature of the school in those early days was that almost all the students were children of devotees or disciples, most of whom resided in the Ashram as sadhaks.

Another feature was that the Mother was in constant touch with the teachers and students, guiding the teachers and following the students’ progress. All students and teachers would meet Her at least once a day and the teachers would submit reports about their classes regularly. Sri Aurobindo too was kept informed of all the developments in the school, although he did not interact directly with the school.

On  2 December 1946, the Mother came for the first time to the playground to see the demonstration of Physical Education. From then onwards, the Mother started coming regularly to the Playground in the evenings.

In 1950, Sri Aurobindo left his body and from 1951 the Mother started taking classes in the playground for the children (known as the Wednesday and Friday classes).

On 24 April 1951 the Mother presided over a convention where it was resolved to establish an "international university centre", and on 6 January 1952 she inaugurated the Sri Aurobindo International University Centre. In 1959 this was changed to the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

In December 1958 the Mother stopped coming to the playground on a regular basis and the classes too were stopped.

The first two periods from 1943 to 1958 may be called the luminous seed-time and a period of enthusiastic effort guided by the direct presence of the Mother. That was the time when most of the basic ideas and concepts on education were expounded by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. This was done through the classes, their interaction with the students and teachers and Their writings in the Bulletin. As a matter of fact, the Mother was constantly in touch with both students and teachers and intervened whenever She felt the need to do so.

However, the outward organisation was not too different from other schools. No doubt, the teachers and the administration were distinctly aware of what the Mother wanted but this was not translated in the organisational structure. The Mother’s direct presence and involvement obviated the need of any such organisational structure. She was there to look after everything in its smallest detail.

Even though, the Mother stopped coming to the playground on a regular basis from December 1958,  contact with Her continued through letters or through interviews. Indeed, the Mother kept a constant watch over the school and playground activities from Her room.

During this period, 1959-1967, certain experiments were made which were to have a great bearing on the future development of the Centre of Education.

Firstly, some tentative experiments were made in organising the Free System of education with a small section of students and certain organisational structures were put in place; all these attempts were gradually evolving and were to prove very useful in arriving at the more developed and organised system that was built later on.

But more importantly, from 1959, the overall structure and organisation of the  Centre of Education was laid down. Here are some of the main developments that took place during this period:

1. The Higher Course was restructured. It was divided into the Art and Science sections. Earlier, there was no clear demarcation between art and science courses.

From this point on, like in other institutions, art students and science students were divided into two distinct categories with different compulsory subjects. 

At the same time, two other courses were introduced, the Common Course which was compulsory for all students and the Optional course open to both Art and Science students; in the Common course, both Arts and Science students had compulsorily to study selected books of Sri Aurobindo. There were five books in this course, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human Cycle, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Life Divine and the Synthesis of Yoga. These were studied for one year. Thus all students of the Higher course had to study these 5 books spread over the three years . In the first year, The Ideal of Human Unity was studied, in the second year, it was the Human Cycle and The Foundations of Indian Culture, and in the third year, the Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

But in the Optional Course, the same books were studied over a period of two or three years. This more intensive study of the books was optional and was open to both Science and Art students. Each one of these books was studied after a preparatory course; thus for the book The Ideal of Human Unity there was a course on World History; for the Human Cycle, there was a course on Sociology, for the Life Divine there was course on Philosophy, both Western and Indian, for the Synthesis of Yoga, the course was History of Religions and for the Foundations of Indian Culture, a study of Indian History was added.

2. It was also during this period that the Boards for all subjects were constituted. Thus there was an English board, a French board, a Mathematics board and so on. A group of teachers was selected to form the Boards and these teachers overlooked all the details concerning their respective subjects. Their work was mainly to define the syllabus, the course, the text books and to monitor the overall performance of the students and teachers in their subjects.

3. A whole new system of evaluation was determined. This system was based on the following: Regularity, punctuality, behaviour, homeworks, class tests and quarterly tests. This last item – quarterly tests was introduced in 1959. All students of the secondary and the Higher course were to sit for tests four times a year, reduced from 1960 to three times a year. These tests conducted  over a period of two weeks, were held at the end of March, June and October. The test for more important subjects like English, French, Mathematics etc were  of three hours each,  while for the other subjects they were of one and a half hour each. The results of the quarterly tests had a great bearing on the evaluation of the students.

Quite naturally, these tests were a period of great tension for the students, for the results were given great weight in the final evaluation of the student. As I was working in the administrative office at that time, I was entrusted with the organisation of the Quarterly Tests. My duties consisted of the following tasks.

1. Fixing the dates, the timings, the rooms and the invigilators for the tests.

2. Collecting the question papers at least ten days in  advance from all the teachers and getting them typed in strict confidentiality and finally distributing them to the concerned invigilators just before the commencement of the test.

3. Handing over the answer papers of the students to the respective teachers after completion of the test.

4. Getting the results of the tests from the teachers in the form of marks allotted and computing the final quarterly report for each student. The report for each student was based on the following principle: 40% marks were allotted to the Quarterly Tests, 30% marks were allotted to Class Tests, 20% marks were allotted to Home Works, and the remaining 10% marks were given to Regularity, Punctuality and Behaviour.

Evidently, it was quite a complicated exercise and entailed a fair amount of work and coordination among teachers and the administration.

This was a period of great tension for most students and slowly and in a sense, quite inevitably, certain tendencies started manifesting themselves right from the beginning in 1960 and began to take serious proportions in the later years.

These included copying from notebooks which the students smuggled into the test room, trying to find out the questions before the tests, and sometimes even tearing whole pages from the text books which they managed to smuggle into the test room.

In 1967, while invigilating a class, a student was found copying. I just tapped the boy on his shoulder but did not chide him or speak to anybody else; instead, I wrote a letter to the Mother. Here is an extract from the letter:

(Concerning cheating in tests)
What should I do? Must we do what is done outside— put three teachers in a room to invigilate? The teachers do not like doing things in this way here in the Ashram. Or should we abolish tests? I find this proposal doubtful, since the same thing happens with homework and essays.
     In any case the problem exists, and in order to find the real solution we should understand why the children behave like this. Please tell me the cause of this misbehaviour and the solution to this problem.

Mother sent me a reply immediately reproduced here in full.


It is very simple. It is because most of the children study because they are compelled to do so by their families, by custom and prevalent ideas, and not because they want to learn and know. As long as their motive for studying is not rectified, as long as they do not work because they want to know, they will find all kinds of tricks to make their work easier and to obtain results with a minimum of effort.

June 1967

She also added that a prayer should be repeated each day by all the students. Here is the prayer.

To be repeated each day by all the students

It is not for our family, it is not to secure a good position, it is not to earn money, it is not to obtain a diploma, that we study.

We study to learn, to know, to understand the world, and for the sake of the joy that it gives us.

June 1967

Later, She wrote to me another letter regarding the Quarterly tests. We reproduce it in full. 

The whole question is to know whether the students go to school to increase their knowledge and to learn what is necessary how to live well or whether they go to school to pretend and to have good marks of which they can boast.

In front of the Eternal Consciousness, a drop of sincerity has more value than an ocean of pretension and hypocrisy.

We reproduce below more letters on Tests written by the Mother in answer to teachers. Most of these letters were written during the period June-October 1967 with the exception of the first one.

Sometime I would like to know, Mother, Your intentions with regard to regrouping these classes in the new year, whether with an examination or without.

I consider an examination as quite necessary. In any case there will be one in French.

My love and blessings.

29 October 1946

It is not by conventional examinations that students can be selected for a class. It is only by developing in oneself the true psychological sense. 
Select children who want to learn, not those who want to push themselves forward.

29 October 1965

The only solution is to annul this test and all that are to come. Keep all the papers with you in a closed bundle—as something that has not been—and continue quietly your classes. 

At the end of the year you will give notes to the students, not based on written test-papers, but on their behaviour, their concentration, their regularity, their promptness to understand and their openness of intelligence.

For yourself you will take it as a discipline to rely more on inner contact, keen observation, and impartial outlook.

For the students it will be the necessity of understanding truly what they learn and not to repeat as a parrot what they have not fully understood. And thus a true progress will have been made in the teaching.

With blessings.

21 July 1967

I find tests an obsolete and ineffective way of knowing if the students are intelligent, willing and attentive. A silly, mechanical mind can very well answer a test if the memory is good and these are certainly not the qualities required for a man of the future.

It is by tolerance for the old habits that I consented that those who want tests can have them. But I hope that in future this concession will not be necessary. To know if a student is good needs, if the tests are abolished, a little more inner contact and psychological knowledge for the teacher. But our teachers are expected to do Yoga, so this ought not to be difficult for them.

22 July 1967

Naturally the teacher has to test the student to know if he or she has learnt something and has made a progress. But this test must be individual and adapted to each student, not the same mechanical test for all of them. It must be a spontaneous and unexpected test leaving no room for pretence and insincerity. Naturally also, this is much more difficult for the teacher but so much more living and interesting also. I enjoyed your remarks about your students. They prove that you have an individual relation with them—and that is essential for good teaching. Those who are insincere do not truly want to learn but to get good marks or compliments from the teacher—they are not interesting.

25 July 1967

The immediate impact of these events and remarks made by the Mother was a radical change in the attitude and organisation of the school.

Briefly, consequences were:

All quarterly tests were abolished once and for all.

The secondary classes were restructured as the consequence of some interaction with the Mother by some teachers.

The Higher Course organisation was radically restructured.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Kittu for choosing this significant date for your valuable article.
    One point. When you write about the Mother's classes (Wednesdays and Fridays), maybe you could mention about her classes for adults on Mondays and Thursdays when she undertook to translate Sri Aurobindo's major works into French : here I learnt to love translation both as a piece of scientific and artistic endeavour. Pavitra-da sat by her side with an artillery of dictionaries, suggesting the exact French equivalent of a given English word; in the midst of a tension, at times Satprem came out with an intuitive solution which was known to no dictionary, and the Mother welcomed it with a great relief.