When it comes to education, ISKCON has learned a lot.
In the sixties and seventies, when our society was but a tottering toddler itself, we had young children with an undeniable need: to be educated. Not even considering outside schools as an option, we began to teach them ourselves without first educating teachers.
The result was catastrophic. Child abuse on many different levels destroyed our childrens' lives and shattered parent and teacher morale. ISKCON schools around the world began to close down, and the traditional Gurukula boarding school system collapsed like a pack of dominoes.
Distrustful of our own education system, we changed our opinions and began sending our children exclusively to outside schools. This, of course, had its own ramifications – the new generation missed out on the positive things Gurukula had brought: strong devotional values, appreciation for the deities, a deep love for kirtan, and an international network of friends with a bond so strong it was virtually unbreakable.
Now the question was: how could we marry at least some of this spiritual comraderie, social structure and philosophy with professional care and academics, while simultaneously avoiding the mistakes of the past?
Sesa Dasa and his team at ISKCON’s Ministry of Educational Development (MED) decided to take a different tack than those who had gone before them: educate educators first, they said. If we could train people to grow in Krishna consciousness, function in our society, become materially and spiritually qualified, and establish themselves as responsible mature adults before becoming teachers, we could create a truly safe educational environment for our children.
Members of the MED launched several high profile educational initiatives to make this a reality, including Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium.
Today there’s a sense of urgency that they deliver qualified teachers quickly, with new ISKCON communities developing and a whole new generation of children on its way. “Schools are already springing up all over ISKCON to fulfill their educational needs,” says Laksmimoni Dasi, MED member, GBC deputy and former principal of the Vaishnava Academy for Girls in Alachua, Florida. “The cycle is beginning again. And that’s great. But it’s important to make sure that we control the horse this time around, rather than letting it gallop under a bridge and knock us off like last time.”
Some qualified teachers are already emerging from ISKCON’s premier adult education facilities, and could potentially serve future schools in Kiev in Russia, New Vraja Dhama in Hungary, Lima in Peru, Mumbai, Manipur and Tirupati in India, and a whole host of countries in Africa.
But many of these MAs and PhDs are currently employed by outside schools and universities, rather than completing the circle and teaching in ISKCON schools. And the reason is as elemental as it gets.
“If our vision for quality education in ISKCON is to become a reality, teachers will have to be paid proper salaries,” says Laksmimoni. “Most devotee teachers would rather teach devotee kids exclusively – and teach them about Krishna – but they can’t do that and get the same salaries and benefits.”
There are some ISKCON schools where teachers are paid at least what Laksmimoni calls “I can live on it” salaries. In America, where the separation of church and state means religious private schools can’t be directly government-funded, this is difficult, since tuition fees alone can’t support a school.
But Alachua’s New Raman Reti School has done it. Supported by Children First Florida, a program that earns corporations tax breaks if they donate towards education, the elementary school is presently serving fifty-two students. And with its commitment to academic excellence and a strong Krishna conscious program, it’s attracting high quality teachers -- Krishna Priya Dasi MA, an alumni from the Vaishnava Academy for Girls, is moving to Alachua to run the school with her husband Naveen.
In other countries, governments do fund religious schools – in fact, Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula in Australia and Hare Krishna Primary School in New Zealand have to teach Krishna consciousness, or else their funding will be pulled. Other examples include London’s Krishna Avanti School, the first all-Hindu school in England, which involves some ISKCON members teaches ISKCON and other Hindu children.
Bhaktivedanta Gurukula and International School in Vrindavana, India, is also highly recognized. The only full boarding school in ISKCON, it comprises over 150 students, and there are so many more on the waiting list that management is planning to purchase more land and a larger building. “Their situation is unique – since most of the residents of Vrindavana are Vaishnavas and are happy to wear tilak to work and teach Krishna consciousness, BGIS can hire outside teachers,” says Laksmimoni. “And with the dollar still worth a lot more than the rupee, they can afford to pay them well too.”
How can we establish more schools like these? Well, the Ministry for Educational Development doesn’t set up schools, provide staff, or fund projects. But Laksmimoni advises parents and communities looking to start schools to approach it for a wealth of advice and resources, much of which is available on the organization’s website, http://iskconeducation.org. “We are amassing much of the excellent primary, secondary, and homeschooling information put together by ISKCON’s best educators over the years,” says Laksmimoni. “We can show you your options and help you navigate through the government labyrinth that stands in your way in many countries before you can take your child’s education into your own hands.”
The MED is also discussing accreditation for ISKCON schools, although different standards and laws in every country, as well as the high level of resources and staff needed, present difficulties.
As we work our way towards establishing such accredited schools, there are other options for ISKCON children, with homeschooling leading the way. “Homeschooling is an excellent option because it allows you to give the necessary education within a Krishna conscious framework,” says Laksmimoni. “It also gives the parent the opportunity to become very in tune with the individual child’s needs, and craft a learning experience that they can thrive in.”
But parents should remember that school is more than just learning, she warns. Its social structure is essential for childrens' development. “Parents need to network with each other and create social environments where their children can interact with each other,” Laksmimoni says. “Parents can also rotate the homeschooling job, teaching or providing after-school engagement for several children as well as their own. This allows the children to learn together, and is a very viable possibility for stay-at-home moms or even mothers who work part time.”
Other devotee parents choose to place their children in outside schools that are more open-minded than most, and support a vegetarian or progressive lifestyle. Some have good things to say about Christian schools, while others prefer Montessori or Steiner. Caution is advised, however, with schools that propound an impersonalist “It’s all okay” kind of philosophy – this environment removes the harassment that Hare Krishna children sometimes deal with at regular public schools, but can be confusing and misdirecting.
Of course, none of these options are a substitute for good parenting. “In traditional Indian families, the parents and grandparents would spend a lot of time with the children, teaching them moral values and philosophy through the Mahabharata and Ramayana,” says Laksmimoni. “The more parents spend quality Krishna conscious time with their children, the more they’ll excel, no matter what their educational situation is.”
Sesa Dasa, ISKCON Minister for Education, surmises this point perfectly when he quotes the six Goswamis of Vrindavana: “Always remember Krishna, and never forget Krishna.”
“How to do this throughout one's life, regardless of what one's individual circumstances will be,” he says, “Should be the goal of educating our children.”