The Case for The Karuna School: A High School for Peace

Prajna and Ted Hallstrom

Why do we need another independent high school in the Boston area when parents and students have a plethora of excellent schools, both public and private, to choose from?

We live in challenging times. As a society, we face complex challenges: global warming, a global economic system that is near collapse, civil wars, threats of terrorism, and persistent poverty and lack of educational opportunities. How can we best educate the leaders of tomorrow? How can we teach students to turn challenge into opportunity?

We at The Karuna School: A High School for Peace are committed to creating an educational experience that will meet the challenges of the future, not one that is in lockstep with the past. We believe we are witnessing the end of an old paradigm. The cult of individualism and consumerism that has lead to many forms of domination over human beings and the natural world seems to be in its death throes. Although the “developing” world has joined us in consuming without a thought to the future resulting in devastating changes to the world’s environment and economy, there is a global awakening to the critical need for economic justice and ecological literacy. At the same time, as our interdependence is becoming more and more obvious, people around the globe are calling for a return to the universal human values of compassion, generosity, and forgiveness, leaving behind the culture of competition, greed, and retribution.

The failure of the American educational system to respond to the challenges of an increasingly interconnected yet alienating world has been dramatically driven home in the recently released documentary, “Race to Nowhere.” This powerful movie documents the lives of teenagers around the country for whom high school has become “simply a college application” in a culture obsessed with competition and the pressure to perform. It features the heartbreaking stories of young people who have become disengaged, who suffer from stress-related illnesses, depression and burnout, and who often arrive at college without the problem solving skills and independent, critical thinking faculties necessary for success in college or in life. It points to the growing number of American students who have lost confidence in an education that seems to be irrelevant. We leave the movie asking, “Can’t we do better by our children?”

We believe the leaders of the future need to be resilient, creative thinkers who know how to tackle the problems of our world collaboratively, informed by a deep understanding of our interdependence and its corollary, compassion. They will have a highly developed “prospective mind,” a mind that is not fixed on the status quo, but is comfortable with constant change and able to anticipate a variety of futures. They will seek to join with others to create unique solutions to the ever-changing challenges of the 21st century. These new leaders will promote “power with” instead of “power over,” co-creating communities of compassion and change that will replace the existing enclaves of extreme individualism. They will model personal and community sustainability, the antidote to rampant consumerism and its accompanying isolation. Through their collaborative leadership, as Paul Hawken says, we will move “from a world created by privilege to a world created by community.”

What kind of high school can prepare these new leaders? The Karuna School: A High School for Peace will offer a cutting-edge five-year course of study that combines training in self-awareness, communication and leadership, creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and systems thinking into a dynamic, interdisciplinary college preparatory curriculum. Karuna is a Sanskrit word for compassion, a quality to be cultivated in our school community through education of both the mind and the heart. We believe that by grounding ourselves in the wisdom of our interconnectedness, we can develop a compassion that will transform first ourselves and then the world around us. The Karuna School will offer an evolutionary, transformational education that will reflect the growing need for engaged, creative thinkers grounded in a deep respect for the Web of Life. The Karuna School will be committed to education that is relevant, innovative and reflective. Our curriculum will be based in real life experience and informed by an in-depth emotional curriculum that includes the practice of mindfulness. We believe that this kind of education will offer a real alternative to students seeking both to know themselves and to make a difference in the world.

Karuna School students will be part of a learning community that includes teachers and parents, all of whom are committed to a process of self-discovery and growth that encourages them to ask big questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? How can we co-create solutions to the world’s problems? Karuna School teachers will value learning over teaching, inviting students to join them in a place of unknowing, collaborating in the adventure of working together to solve complex problems. As a result, Karuna School students will have an investment in supporting what they have helped to create. As students realize that their teachers are more interested in their capacities than their deficiencies, they will feel empowered to take their seat in the community of learners.

What will be the elements of a Karuna School education?

The Karuna School will be committed to An Expanded Notion of Time. Our current, over-busy life style has all of us, from six year-olds booked with activities every day after school to high school students getting five hours sleep each night because of unrealistic work loads, experiencing disabling stress. Instead of spending four years in high school thinking almost exclusively about getting into college and then taking a gap year to experience “real life”, our students will incorporate expeditionary learning, apprenticeships and service work into a five-year program. For the first three years of their Karuna School education, students will be primarily on campus participating in our interdisciplinary curriculum while studying global cultures, enriched by frequent expeditions to study the ecology and history of the New England area as well as local service projects. In the fourth year at Karuna, students will begin to focus on the history, culture and language of their host country and then travel there for the spring term. The fifth year at Karuna will be a year of integration, finishing course work and applying to college. This sequence will enable students to enjoy and learn from a high school experience that is not “just a college application,” but rather an end in itself. On a daily basis, the schedule will include time for contemplation and reflection in addition to times of activity. In all of our actions, we will be guided by the principles of mindfulness. Thus, the common thread of our time together will be the search for deep connection—to self, to the school community, to the natural world, and to our global community.

The Karuna School curriculum will set as its goal the acquisition of many skill sets and many different kinds of literacy. Global Literacy will be acquired through the study of the cultures and religions of the world as it is reflected in history, the arts, social studies, anthropology, and psychology. There will be no one culture or religion privileged, but as part of our commitment to educate citizens of the world, we will learn about each culture and religion and approach them with respect. Students will learn that the Western academic model is not the only model of learning and knowledge. They will study other “ways of knowing,” including the ways of knowing in indigenous cultures. Students will study at least a second language, particularly the language of the host culture of their Global Service Travel Year (students’ fourth year at Karuna). During the fall semester of their Global Service Travel Year, students will participate in service internships, language classes to prepare to communicate in their service learning country, and a seminar on global service learning that includes ways of knowing, global and cultural literacy, and study of the history and culture of the host country. During the spring semester of the Global Service Travel Year, students will travel as a cohort with Karuna School faculty to the selected country for three months of service learning, returning in May for a month of integration.

The Karuna School will also value Emotional Literacy. We will be a learning community devoted to respecting each individual, to encouraging each student to develop their gifts and honor their inner wisdom. In a school of 150 students, each student will feel seen, heard and known. Our self-discovery curriculum, Passages, will be taught in small, ongoing groups that will provide a safe container within which students can express their hopes and fears, their joys as well as their vulnerabilities. Unlike students in most high schools, our students will navigate their quest for identity without feeling that they have to posture themselves or mask the fullness of who they really are. We believe that if we can give our students opportunities to be their authentic selves, to explore the meaning of their life while receiving the support of their peers and caring adults, they will have a firm foundation for a life of happiness and fulfillment. Empowered, confident students are active, involved learners. Our students’ ability to be comfortable in their own skins, to articulate their feelings and needs, will put them in a strong place to make the most of their dynamic high school experience.

Thirdly, the Karuna School will insure that each student increases their Ecological Literacy, a literacy that requires a fundamental understanding of our interdependence. It involves understanding the systems of the natural world, the relationships and interactions between the living and non-living environments, and the ability to deal creatively with problems that involve scientific evidence, uncertainty, and economic, aesthetic, and ethical considerations. Students will approach environmental and sustainability issues from many perspectives—scientific, relational, and intrapersonal.

As a community, we will speak about our interdependence in multiple ways—for example, from the perspective of Ubuntu, the South African word for interdependence meaning “I am because you are,” from the perspective of living systems theory and of deep ecology, and from the perspective of interdependent arising that is at the heart of the Buddhist tradition. In all subject areas, teachers and students will ask, “How can I live in a more sustainable way and how can we create a more sustainable world?”

Last but not least, the Karuna School will be committed to the Equity and Diversity Literacy of each of its community members. Everyone in the community, from the Board down to the students will participate in ongoing trainings on privilege and equity, working through conditioned responses to “difference,” specifically in relation to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, committing ourselves to deconstructing privilege and striving for equity. As part of our commitment to equity and safety, each community member will practice non-violent communication and learn mediation skills for conflict resolution. We will study the lives of the great champions of equity, the environmental activists, and peacemakers of the world and aspire to live by their example.

In closing, we believe that the Karuna School will provide a combination of engaging academics, training in emotional, ecological, and diversity literacy, and local-to-global service work that will be unlike anything offered in other New England schools or even other schools across the country. We will operate as a global village with the ethics of compassion and respect as a standard for all that we do, including the natural world in both its animate and inanimate forms as part of our circle of caring and concern. Students of diverse backgrounds, encouraged to discover and develop their unique gifts as well as their calling to serve, will thrive and grow in an understanding of themselves and of the world. Graduates of the Karuna School will be recognized by their confidence, their ability to think independently and creatively, and by their commitment to collaborative work that will truly make a difference. We believe that the Karuna School will become an inspiring model of evolutionary education that can be replicated around the world.

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