“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” – Václav Havel
In 1482, at the age of 30, Leonardo da Vinci drafted a letter to Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, offering his services with a list of things he could do. The beginning of the letter telegraphs the rest with the phrase ‘instruments of war’.
“Most Illustrious Lord,
Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavour, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.”
Following up on the introduction, he makes a 11-point list, each a full category. If one could do one item on the list well, one would be thought capable, worthy and valuable. The first nine points refer to instructs of war – the words and phrases one reads are mortars, trenches, bridges, catapults, bombardment, mangonels, trabocchi, means of offense and defense, unattackable covered chariots, artillery, infantry, fight at sea; vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes, fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, bridges secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place.
Almost as an afterthought he writes the last two. Possibly his intelligence did not allow him to merely pander to the rulers.
10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.
And lastly …
11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been acclaimed as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about work of art in the world”. Guinness World Records lists it as having the highest insurance value for a painting in history and his The Last Supper, the most reproduced religious painting of all time. This comes last in his letter.
One may of course ask what is the connection between the military, war, power and subjects studied by children in school. Are war and battles not studied in history to tell us what happened long time ago? In the 21st century, is it really so that these still influence our thinking? When we live in a largely peaceful country, are war and power and conquest likely to influence our thinking very much?
Leonardo’s letter proves with telling effect that employers want advantage, staving for victory in times of conflict. But has not human society been occupied with money, power, war, conquest and success much of the time, if not all the time? Haven’t we spent most of our effort in calculation, estimation, energy communication and conquest, being better than the other, overcoming another? Is it that without this combat, contest for supremacy, all endeavour seems unimportant, insignificant and not worth much attention? Music, literature, art, dance, architecture, metallurgy, craft, poetry, woodwork are also signs of a civilization. We read in history books that these thrived under royal patronage. For being a patron, one had to have wealth, power or status or all three.
Of course, there have been the traditions of toys, dances, theatre, music and festivals among common folk, those that got their validity just from their relevance and meaning to the vast nameless majority.
Why would a man like Leonardo Da Vinci spend so much energy thinking about war machines and instruments of destruction? It may be understandable if he did not have the prodigious capacities for art, sculpture and architecture. Despite being gifted such abilities he did not offer these in the service of the Duke. He offered these as mere supplements to the war efforts. Was this because he recognized that these would not be valued except as add-ons? Or was it that he did not value these capacities in himself above the others? It seems odd to think that someone as extraordinary as Da Vinci, whose painting is called the most famous after five centuries, could not have valued this effort much. How strange the thought! Almost all his other work has been built upon and improved by others, his efforts bearing the hallmark of a pioneer. But not the Mona Lisa in 500 years, nor the Last Supper!
Value is a strange thing and what we value we pursue. Human beings rely on the measurable for determining value. This is not without good reason. We want to be certain that the perceived gain is real and verifiable. The qualitative nature of things begins to be considered only after the most glaring numbers have spoken.
This is true everywhere and school is no exception. Every teacher and principal is asked one question with unfailing regularity. “What is the strength of your school?” Once out of exasperation, I answered, “Conversation!” The dogged pursuit of numbers was not to be taken off the scent. The next question was, “No, not that! How many children study here?” I replied, “Oh, that is an entirely different matter. Are you interested in the strengths of the school or the number of children?” What satisfaction 300 or 500 or 3000 provides is not easy to say. But it seems to answer a question in the psyche, one that is not purely intellectual.
This led me to ponder why the number of children in a school is called strength. It seems to be contemporary usage and accepted usage and one rarely thinks about it. ‘Strength’ in the dictionary has the following meanings –
1. the quality or state of being physically strong.
2. the influence or power possessed by a person, organization, or country.
3. the degree of intensity of a feeling or belief.
4. the extent to which an argument or case is sound or convincing.
5. the potency, intensity, or speed of a force or natural agency.
6. the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure.
7. the emotional qualities necessary in dealing with difficult situations.
8. the potency or degree of concentration of a drug, chemical, or drink.
9. a good or beneficial quality or attribute of a person or thing.
10. a person or thing perceived as a source of mental or emotional support.
11. the number of people comprising a group, typically a team or army.
It is surprising to see that only one of 11 meanings refers to numbers, the rest being qualities that are difficult to measure. But human beings value numbers.
How relevant is Da Vinci’s letter to the present education system? Is it still a fact that war and defence pursuits occupy mankind in learning institutions? Ten out of 11 attributes he wrote about can be measured, the last one is not measurable. The meaning of strength has one definition pointing to the measurable, and 10 other definitions are not measurable but qualitative. Why do we lean so heavily on that which is measurable and devalue those that cannot be measured?
Many studies exist proving that in institutions of higher learning much of the research funding comes from the defence or military establishment. This means they are searching for the killer thing that will provide a breakthrough advantage if we were to attack another or be attacked by another. The enemies remain undefined, as today’s friends can turn enemies tomorrow, merely by disagreeing with our policies on oil, energy or subsidies. The market and stock value run on numbers and anyone who has the potential to disturb our security becomes an enemy.
Is it therefore surprising that we value higher those subjects that can be sharply measured in terms of their immediate gains to the establishment? Math, science, computers. These are occupations that will serve the military industrial establishment and keep one securely occupied, possibly as Da Vinci hoped.
As Liz Ryan (CEO and Founder of Human Workplace, a consulting, coaching and publishing firm) says that measurement is “an inherently fear-based process, because the reason we measure everything in business is to prove to someone who’s not in the room that we did what they told us to do.” She further adds that, “Every grade-school teacher is forced to ‘manage’ their kids’ test scores rather than managing the kids’ actual learning. Teachers are expected to ‘manage’ test scores, without respect or concern on the part of the measurers what else might be going on in the classroom.
“Teachers are actually managing something far more important than test scores. They’re managing, messaging, inspiring, reinforcing and jollying along the only thing that helps a kid learn, which is the energy and trust in the classroom. Good teachers do it instinctively and constantly, though it’s exhausting and painstaking to do. This is the one thing teachers don’t get rewarded for or credit for. They care enough to manage the waves of excitement and wonder and fatigue and frustration in their classrooms. They manage the waves and let the particles take care of themselves.”
A gardener’s work cannot be measured by the number of roses in the garden, or a farmer’s by the sacks of grain produced. It is difficult to value the quality of an essay, or an authentic reflection, or goodness or helpfulness. Is it that we feel disturbed at not knowing the intrinsic value of a bird song or a dance and so are driven to the ‘things that can be measured and agreed upon’?
One may possibly also think that this will leave room for one to express one’s genius and passion … Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic poignantly and simply elucidates what could be a beacon for educational institutions. “There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerably.”
At every turn one faces this question, the measurable or that which is difficult to measure. Teachers and schools work with a long lead time. A teacher cannot expect a quick result because that is not his/her vocation. One works hard at the fundamentals, those qualities one may call strength as per the definition above. Warlike, strategic and clever moves offer quick routes to power and wealth and this is most attractive. Who would not like to move from a small income to a 100 fold or 10000 fold income in a short 5 years? This dream defines goals subtly and we begin to value success through the lens of money, wealth and property.
Will educators and educational institutions take their direction from the age old history of wars and conflict and so unwittingly invest further in them? Or will they stand up for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, the immeasurable qualities of what makes one a human being?
Power, money and influence drive human aspirations and actions. Once set in motion there is rare space for reflection and re-orientation. Schools are places of learning and reflecting on the motivations, the notions we hold and see around us is an essential part of growing up. Reflection on the state of the world around us and the world within can be an important aspect of school education. Such an approach will provide space for the evolution of a direction where the qualitative, difficult to measure attributes will be given attention. Education may then fulfill its deeper mandate of contributing to a just, sensitive and humane society.
After serving The School, KFI, Chennai as its principal for 18 years, the author moved to a new Krishnamurti residential school called Pathashaala. He finds dialogue and enquiry as potent dimensions in the pedagogic process where an atmosphere of learning is co-created by educators and learners. He can be reached at [email protected].