Report on Calcutta Academy

This winter two students accompanied Clive Gray (Residential Staff), on a school trip to India. They spent three weeks, with former staff Ashna Sen and Brian Edwards at their home in Calcutta exploring culture and academics in this inspiring city.

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A New Academic Venture 1st February, 2010

Above the door of the original Academy (named after the park called Akademikos), Plato wrote “Ageometretos medeis eisito!”–“Only those who have grasped geometry may enter here!”  By geometry Plato did not mean the branch of the subject we now call mathematics, but rather the proper foundation of knowing anything at all and the *position* we take based on this foundation.

Mathemata in ancient Greek meant all of teaching and learning, not only teaching and learning in relation to numbers.  This survives in one modern word polymath, meaning broadly learned.  Geometry, then, was the part of mathemata concerned with position–the fundamental position we take towards a thing which determines how we come to know it.  So the decree written over the door of the first academy was a demand, both to know in the broadest sense (mathemata) and in the foundational sense (geometretos) and to understand how one determines the other.  The history of how these terms changed their meanings and the accompanying change in western civilization was one of the themes of this, our first academy.

Going back to first principles is always enjoyable, gloriously impractical, and useless for everything except what is most important.  With this proud aim we kick started this New Academy 2500 years on, to plumb the depths of uselessness. What better place for this than India!  Practical matters would be settled in the simplest way possible, so that maximum space and time could be devoted to the things themselves– the mathemata in the ancient sense of everything that is learnable, and therefore everything that is teachable.  How did it go?

We were lucky enough to be able to reside in the large house of Ashna’s parents, situated across from a park-with-no-name which we now call Akademikos.  This newly named park is part of the newly named town of Salt Lake of one of the oldest intellectual centres of the world: Bengal.  So the vibe was right, and very very old.  Another ancient tradition of Bengal is good food so the gust was right, and very very fresh.  Finally, winter in this part of India is very mellow and sunny with barely a drop of rain or a cloud, so the weather was right, and very very warm.  With these basic three well disposed, and a cadre of three polymath teachers to draw upon, what could go wrong?

Mosquitoes.  Not much else, though.  Indeed, the 3 weeks were so full of pleasure, of good company, and the passion of learning for its own sake that we were all quite dizzy with happiness by the end.  It had that fine sense of being helped along by invisible hands, where each thing that came up, effortlessly threaded with everything else so that even minimal planning yielded most satisfying results.  This only happens when everyone present is “on the same page” as it were.  And by some gift this came about.

As to the particular subjects, we started the day with an intended 90 minute Yoga/Indian philosophy section, but the rather cold early mornings cut this down to an hour.  This was followed by a quick breakfast, then two long sessions of philosophy and mathematics.  Philosophy stayed closely concerned with mathematics so as to create a thematic link between all the varying focuses.  To give a small example, a fair amount of mathematics time was devoted to understanding and becoming adept at calculus.  The mathematics session on one particular occasion lasted for seven hours with only a lunch break in between acting as a divider for the day. In philosophy we looked closely at the philosophical revolution that led to a world in which calculus could be discovered. That is, we practiced calculus, and deeply questioned its essence at the same time.  How can one both learn something well and yet question it absolutely?  This does call for a certain quality of mind which did, I’m happy to say, manifest rather strongly during these three weeks.  We might call it “passionate impartiality.”

After a wholesome home-cooked lunch, the afternoons became more freeform.  We did several sessions of drawing and painting led by Clive’s son Kevin, an excellent painter and sketcher as well as an expert on Goethe. Among his other talents, he provided us with his ‘signature masala chai’ an amazing concoction of tea blends laced with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves.

Other sessions included music theory and history which meshed beautifully with the other themes that came up throughout.  For example, for early mathematics and
philosophy, Pythagoras is a towering figure of influence.  Clive showed us the details of how Pythagoras worked out the musical octave, which then became altered from the natural ratios or “tempered” as it was called in the 17th century. This was the same time as the Cartesian revolution in Philosophy and Newton’s and Leibniz’s invention of Calculus.  All these strands drew together in perfection as History teacher Clive Gray exlaimed, “Thus we now live in the Tempered age!”  We also had a nice addition in Tintin Samantha, a fine Indian historian who luckily shares the same boundary wall as us and actively contributed in many of the seminars.  He and Clive conducted a “big picture” history seminar in which they laid out a total history of the world from the Big Bang to present.

Finally, there was a great deal of time for free study, animated talking, exploring the oddly attractive community of Salt Lake and even gazing at the sky or hearing early morning birdsong. We looked forward to drinking fresh green coconut on most mornings and our quintessential clay pots of home-style or home-made yoghurt. The cacophony of a yowling pack of dogs kept us awake on some nights, a not so silent reminder of the fact that we were living in India where all full stops come to an end…

All this felt very easy and natural, and since no one was being goaded into something they did not like, everyone seemed to find a natural pulse of work and study that suited their own needs.  Willie and Bela, though being the youngest members of the group worked hard all day long and pitched in all sorts of helpful ways and chronicled the events in photos. They seemed bewildered and amazed at the plethora of new sights, smells and cultural experiences they were exposed to – every moment seemed pregnant with newness and possibilities. As an unexpected treat Ashna’s parents invited us all for lunch at the Calcutta Club for a taste of the old Raj and to see the other side of Calcutta – a memorable event in itself and a day that transported us to a bygone era.

Thought experiment, historical reconnect, evolutionary learning, or a celebration of uselessness?  However one might struggle to define what took place, one word describes the result: enlightening.

Thank you everyone, Brian and Ashna

To view the photo gallery, please click here

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