Today, education and the development of youth in the United States is facing a host of challenging issues. Despite outspending a majority of the advanced nations throughout the world on a per-student basis, we lag behind significantly in many key metrics such as math and science literacy, graduation rates, and diversity within school systems.1 That being said, I believe one of the most crucial areas our system is falling behind in is a difficult one to measure: self awareness of our global impact. The US education system stifles our students ability to understand the larger environmental picture through it’s country-first mentality and overemphasis on traditional economic growth. Looking to educational systems throughout US history that have challenged this status quo in some way, such as the theosophical community’s system of education in San Diego, may offer some guidance and insight as we look for ways to address this issue in future generations. Katherine Tingley, the leader of this community, came to Point Loma to establish a cultural center based on the principles of theosophy – a religious philosophy grounded in Christianity, Eastern religions, modern science, spiritualism, and an ethical existence. The theosophists of this time rejected materialism and promoted oneness, the divinity of nature, and the principles of karma. Much of this had to do with the fact that they believed in a system of re-incarnation where each soul is continually evolving towards a higher state of existence and a greater understanding of eternal truths. Because of this belief, theosophists held a unique view on how their actions towards the environment would affect their own lives and the lives of others, and it was reflected in their teaching methods and overall approach towards learning. From the lense of modern educational theory, their Raja Yoga school subverted the role and purpose of educational institutions in American culture through valuing and demonstrating ideals of self-sufficiency. The visual artifacts and primary accounts of this community held in the special collections archive has given me deep insight into their philosophies, while my discussion with Robert Ray, the head of the archive, has provided an additional layer of understanding around their educational impact at a regional and national level.2
The Raja yoga school was the educational arm of Tingley’s community, a boarding school created for the intellectual and moral development of young people. Similar to the many western religious educational institutions that came before it, however, unique in its approach to the development of its land and policies relating to sustainability. From a modern perspective, our educational system has always placed tremendous value on the development of specific skills, and how those skills will translate into economic gains – either for the individual or broader US economy. Following the industrial revolution, the primary function of schools and universities was to meet the needs of the expanding industrial machine.3 Consequently, this has led to a rise of individualism and a lack of understanding on how our actions affect our peer communities around the world as well the health of the planet. Western economies flourished under this model of education for decades, however, it has fostered an educational culture that disregards the accelerated depletion of our natural resources in pursuit of economic expansion. The curriculum, subject matter, and conversations taking place on US campuses does not reflect a sustainable approach to economic advancement. The intellectual development of young people is geared towards propelling the economy forward, but it does not inform – or in many cases even discuss – sustainable ways of doing so.
Tingley and her university differed substantially from this model in that they sought to be self-sustainable in all aspects. This was reflected in the infrastructural and agricultural layout of the community, as well as the curriculum. Core subjects, such as the humanities and sciences, were taught to students from a perspective of oneness with the environment. For example, in the first and second visual artifacts attached, students are being taught a lesson on biology while simultaneously seeing how the plant life cycle is physically taking place. In the third artifact, we can see the integration of the environment and nature into the communities imagery and messaging. This model of informing students of their environment and the importance of maintaining it throughout the educational process was a departure from the cultural attitudes and practices in the US up to this point.
Along with promoting intellectual growth, the school aimed to develop students from a moral and spiritual perspective. This wasn’t a practice that differed much from other universities and schools throughout US history, however, is an important aspect of how the cultural subversion came about. The ethical decision-making component of the curriculum at the Raja yoga school had been present in educational environments in US since the very first universities and public schools were developed – even as these institutions shifted away from being dominated by some form of Protestantism.3 What made the Raja school unique and impactful in terms of American educational culture wasn’t its push for moral righteousness, it was its philosophies around environmentalism. The beliefs that guide the majority of western faiths contain valuable lessons about moral decision making in one’s life, but lack empathy towards our environment and the future generations that will inhabit it. From a modern lense, the Raja yoga school was distinct in that it shared this perspective with young people while also preparing them intellectually and economically.
Despite the rise of globalization and increasing interaction among cultures, it appears that educational programs in the US continue to attach little importance to the balance of economic growth and sustainable strategies as students are groomed to shape tomorrow’s economy. Tingley and her school represented a significant subversion of this American cultural philosophy. As shown in the visual artifacts, young people were taught the value of a healthy ecosystem while simultaneously learning the core subjects and hard-skills that would allow them to produce for their community. Schools and universities have long served as a microcosm of society, and our nation’s lack of consideration towards the environment is reflected in the coursework and culture on US campuses. From a modern perspective, the Raja yoga school serves as a valuable example of an interruption of this cultural practice. The philosophical driving forces behind this subversion of culture, such as the belief in reincarnation, can clearly not be diffused into school systems and university campuses in the US, nor should it. However, the community’s approach towards education, and deviation from traditional US educational culture, provides a valuable perspective for today’s students and educators.
- Desilver, Drew. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries” Pew Research Center, (February 2017)
- Ray, Robert. “Katherine Tingley and the Theosophical society of Lomaland” SDSU Library Special Collections and University Archives, (March 2017)
- Rosenblith, Suzanne. “Religion in Schools in the United States” Clemson University, (June 2017)