The culture classes

Shailesh Shirali

What are culture classes, and why do we need them?

It is noteworthy that when I type ‘culture class’ into Google, I get nothing of any value. (I only get references to ‘working class culture’ and other such phrases!) It appears that the culture class as a component of the school curriculum is practically unknown. In this article, I will argue that this is a serious error on the part of educationists, one which we must undo.

According to Wikipedia, culture refers to “the social behaviour and norms found in human societies.” We learn these norms in relationships, by being punished or rewarded in subtle or not-so-subtle ways for our conduct. By and by, we pick up the attitudes of those around us. Thus we replicate society in ourselves.

Such learning falls outside the formal school curriculum, which is concerned mainly with the learning of subjects and skills. We learn about the universe, the planets, the stars, the galaxies; about the continents and oceans and mountains and rivers; about life on earth, about how species appear and evolve; about how our bodies function; about civilizations that have died away; about religious movements; about how nations form and how they are governed; we learn how to play games; we learn music; we learn how to write and calculate, how to program a computer, how to speak in public, how to paint, and how to write poetry. We learn a lot!

Alongside, other learning takes place. We learn that not all people are equal: some are rich, others are poor; some are highly capable, others struggle with their subjects; some are extraordinarily talented, others have few talents; some are proud and aggressive, others are soft-spoken, inclined to be timid. We learn how to conduct ourselves in relationships; we learn bad words; we learn about bullying; we learn about aggression and power; we learn how people misuse power; we learn how to get what we want; we learn how to lie. We also learn that there are different kinds of people in the world: people who are kind, who listen, who are reasonable, who do not demand too much, who are helpful in a spontaneous way; and people who are manipulative, who speak behind your back, who demand a great deal for themselves, who are possessive, who love the taste of victory and will do anything to secure that experience. Oh yes, we do learn a lot!

What do we not learn? Is there anything left to learn? Indeed there is. We learn about everything except ourselves! The element missing from the above list is self-awareness.

In the traditional model of education, as practised everywhere, one can be computer-savvy, at ease with the latest software and smartphones; one can be scientifically literate, aware of the latest advances in cosmology, genetics and particle physics; one can be financially literate, capable of navigating through the worlds of corporate and personal finance; one can be aware of what’s going on in the worlds of art, literature, poetry, film, and theatre; one can be aware of the latest environmental movements as well as the latest political movements and the latest ideologies, of the left and of the right; and all the while remain unaware of oneself.

What do I know about myself? I may know I want something; I may be possessive; I may be jealous in my relationships; I may identify with a particular religion and feel proud to belong to it; I may want to own a powerful car; I may want to take a selfie, posing next to such a car; I may want to purchase the latest iPhone model; but do I know why I am so inclined, in any of these matters? Do I know why I wish to belong to some particular group? Do I know why I wish to proclaim to the world that I possess a particular car? I doubt very much whether we have looked deeply enough into such matters.

Why is self-awareness important? We see the world disintegrating before our eyes. We see societies in chaos, with contrary forces acting, all at the same time: fundamentalist forces; nationalistic forces; the demand for possessing more; forces of individualism; the demand for space to do what one wants. There has been no time in history when the consumerist culture has been so strong, or the demand for entertainment so obsessive. Have we asked why we fall prey to advertising so easily? Study the advertisements for the latest smartphones or the latest car models and you have your answer. They point to the emptiness within us, and the need to fill that space with the latest gadgets; they hide the emptiness and make it possible to escape from ourselves. On our roads these days we see people roaring along in powerful cars; the car has perhaps more life than the owner.

There has been no time in history when the need for self-awareness has been greater than now. Our desire for possessing more (and that, very simply, lies at the bottom of consumerism) has brought us to the environmental disaster enveloping us across the world, threatening us along with so many ecosystems and species of wildlife. Our latent insecurity and the ever-growing desire for identity have brought about forces of nationalism which are destructive and deadly in their outlook. We live in a time when the demand for the more, for identity and for expression of power all seem ‘natural’; it seems axiomatically true that one should want all these things, and more. But do we ever examine the consequences of such demands? At which stage in our lives do we learn about consequences? Must we leave it to chance, to individual reflection? Images of the destruction of ecosystems are routinely splashed across the media; so also images of the refugee crises in many parts of the world, of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean; but do we ever examine how we individually are responsible for these crises? Or is the culprit always someone ‘out there’, some politician or terrorist different from us? Horrific tales of power-play in relationships are being splashed across the media; but do we examine power-play in our own relationships, in the way we treat each other?

We tend not to realize how great a role each one of us plays in the making of the world crisis. Understanding that role and understanding our responsibility is part of education. But we have totally neglected this aspect of education.


Long back, there used to be a subject called “moral science”. It has since perished, consigned to the dustbin of history – rightfully so; all it did was to tell you what you should do and think, and whom you should emulate in life. Unfortunately, we never learn from examples, no matter how great. We learn when we see something at first hand, directly, without the screen of explanation, without the prompting of desire. For this, we need to be intensely aware of the world, not according to the latest theories of psychology and sociology and economics, but by our own eyes and ears. We need to be aware of what it means to be related, and of the world within. As J Krishnamurti wrote in “Education and the Significance of Life” –
The ignorant man is not the unlearned, but he who does not know himself, and the learned man is stupid when he relies on books, on knowledge and on authority to give him understanding. Understanding comes only through self-knowledge, which is awareness of one’s total psychological process. Thus education, in the true sense, is the understanding of oneself, for it is within each one of us that the whole of existence is gathered.

This is what a culture class is all about. Here, ‘culture’ refers to the shared culture of mankind. Such a class cannot have a curriculum or a textbook; or rather, the curriculum is life itself, and the book is oneself and one’s relationships, in the widest sense possible. It requires a teacher who is aware of the world without and the world within, who is aware of the desperate need to talk about what is happening in that world. It does not require any ‘tech’; all it requires is that we give ourselves time to enquire, to talk with each other, to ask questions, to become aware of ourselves. It requires that we question each other in a free and affectionate way; not just question the other person (that would be bullying), but question myself: my demands, my assumptions, my attitude to power and authority and the role they play in my life. It requires honesty and courage, and a simple willingness to talk with others and enquire into life together.

And once one begins to ask, why, there are so many questions to ask! Why am I afraid to be alone? Why do I feel lonely? Why do I depend on anyone? Why do I feel bored? What is boredom? Why am I ambitious? Why am I competitive? Why do we compete with others? What does competition do to us? Why do I gossip? Why do I want more? What is the taste of fear? What is violence? Why do I want power? Why is there bullying in schools and colleges? What is my relationship with nature? Why do I casually pull off leaves from a plant as I pass by it? Why are we cruel to each other? Why are we cruel to animals? Why is there cruelty at all? Why do I feel pleasure at someone else’s pain? What is the nature of hurt? Why do we remember hurt? Why do we compare one person with another? What do I feel when I am compared with another? Why is there so much disorder in society? What is corruption? What is religion? What does it mean to believe in something? Why does one believe in anything? What does belief lead to? What is love? What does it mean to love another? Why do we long to be loved? Why is there so much talk about sex, why has sex becomes so problematic? Why are there so many taboos? What is the true function of education? Why are we being educated? What is beauty? (Not who is beautiful, which painting is beautiful, but what is beauty in itself?) What does it mean to be simple? What does it mean to be straightforward? What is goodness? (Not which person is good, or how to be good, but what is goodness in itself?) Why are we here? What is the true work of man? Is there anything sacred in life?

Surely we must ask such questions and enquire passionately into them – to the deepest extent possible, till we can reach no deeper. We owe each other that kind of intensity and honesty.

One wonders why we have not felt the need for such education. It is striking that it hardly exists anywhere. Yet, the visible fact is that we are tearing the world apart – not just human beings but the natural world as well. And the cause for this disintegration lies in each and every one of us. Unless we wake up to this simple fact and take responsibility for learning about it, no change can possibly come about in the world.

The author is Director of Sahyadri School KFI, Pune. He can be reached at

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