On Saturday April 16th at 6:30am, a plane will lift off from San Francisco International Airport carrying fifteen students from Mount Madonna School (MMS). The students will be on their way to meet a connecting flight in Chicago to take them half way around the world to New Delhi, India.
This departure will mark the beginning a journey of a lifetime. For each student it will be a significant outer journey to different culture, where they will experience a civilization that is far older and significantly different in almost every way from what they know: different in language, history, values, food, religion and social customs. At the same time, it will be a unique inner experience for each student to discover something about themselves as they engage in the many unique experiences of the journey.
The trip, known as the Vidya Dharma (Path of Knowledge) Project, is part of the School’s two-year “Values in World Thought” program, an innovative high school social studies curriculum. In Delhi, the students will be meeting with U.S. Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, and a member of the Lok Sabha (Upper House of Parliament). Later they will be meeting with the students of the Heritage School in Gurgaon.
Next, the Mount Madonna students will board a train for the city of Haridwar and spend several days meeting and learning with the children at the Sri Ram Orphanage and school. Their itinerary also includes a train ride to Amritsar to visit the famed Golden Temple, and the infamous site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre during the British Raj. From there they will make the climb by jeep to Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, home to the Tibetan community in exile. The students will visit the Tibetan Children’s Village School and speak with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
It is impossible to predict what each student will learn on this journey, but it is a surety that they will learn more about themselves and about another culture in the two weeks of this trip than they ever could from years in the classroom. This journey is part of a continuing experiment in what can happen when we create open context for learning, in which the student simply learns what they are ready to learn.
This of course does not mean that there is no curriculum and pedagogical preparation. The students are studying the culture and preparing for interviews by researching those they will meet. They also are preparing themselves emotionally to stand up to the uncertainties and discomforts of traveling in a foreign land. They know they must surrender their comfort and personal preferences to be part of the group and to participate in a larger cause.
While the outcomes of the journey are uncertain, there are a number of clear intentions behind both the preparation and process of the actual journey. First, as Americans we tend, in general, to be a bit isolated from the rest of the world by our two oceans and our relative economic wealth. Without experiencing other cultures we can’t truly understand our responsibilities as American citizens, or the impact of our role in the world. Secondly, coming together in positive regard with others who occupy a very different place on the social, economic, and cultural spectrum has a way of helping us understand our own humanity and develop empathy for others. Finally, surrendering our need for comfort and security to accomplish a collective mission is quite liberating.
A significant aspect of the journey process is the “return,” which will be held at Mount Madonna School on May 20, and presents an opportunity for parents and friends to hear first-hand from the students about their experiences. This project is intentionally designed to teach students about the larger journey of life, and to provide a context for them to develop skill sets that will be useful in negotiating the ‘unexpected turns in the road’ that are part of the human experience.
Of one thing we can be certain, and that is that when the plane lands in San Francisco on April 30, the students who disembark will be considerably more knowledgeable and even transformed from those who departed just two short weeks earlier.