reprinted from the November 1999 issue of Thresholds Quarterly

Dreaming the Cosmos Forward

An interview with John Cathy
founder of the School of the Plains in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The recipient of the $50,000 School of Metaphysics seed money is the School of the Plains in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Just beginning its third year of life, the School of the Plains is a significant step forward in our ideas of what comprises quality education. John Cathy, head and founder of the School, is a man of vision, compassion, leadership, and wisdom. As Thresholds editor-in-chief remarked, "If I wasn't already dedicated to the work I'm doing, I'd pick up and move to OKC just so our son could attend the School of the Plains and I could volunteer to teach there." That's high praise, and well earned as you will soon learn.

Thresholds: Let's begin by introducing everyone to your school. How many children will you have here?

Cathy: School starts August the twenty-fifth and we'll probably have just over a hundred children at the beginning of our third year. We've built about four buildings here that are kind of different. As part of wholistic education we want the campus and everything to reflect our internal value of Self. When you look at the buildings they're very Oklahoma, like a farm house, and the new classroom building is the barn. We have a greenhouse and an outdoor pavilion and a pond. It's the siding you see on a house and the rough cedar from Oklahoma. So everything we do communicates to the community that we're deeply Oklahoma. Our seal is the Scissortail Flycatchers encircling in kind of a perennial symbol, and that's our state bird. So everything we've done is affirming and embracing the place where we are and what we're about. My feeling about it is being in the center of the plains where we are here, things spread rapidly.

We do multi-aged classrooms which have been found to be more effective than chronologically placed kids. It's not just a flaky idea. The state of Kentucky is mandating it state-wide. They found it to be so successful. Their system was in a poor level like Oklahoma is now, but rather than do politically correct things they decided they were going to turn the whole thing around and they brought in people and did some real reforms in the way they teach children. They're making a lot of progress. So we do multi-aged grouping. Since we don't give grades and we don't compare the kids to one another it works real beautifully. Our kids are ahead. They could advance any school in Edmond. We don't try to motivate from outside or force them to do things. We try to help connect them to internal motivations, things that are very exciting, real and with lots of choices.

Thresholds: That is a thread in all of our visionary schools, whether self-initiated like the School of the Plains or affiliated with visionary thinkers like Rudolph Steiner or Maria Montessori.

Cathy: School of the Plains is a wholistic school. It's probably the only one in this part of the country. It's driven by an underlying philosophy we try to stay consistent to, of trying to support the development of the child Spirit, Mind, Body, Soul and building in connected ways. It is our belief that traditional education is very fragmented and is very driven by memorization of facts and regurgitation of facts. It's driven by standardized tests, obviously, and driven by a view of the child as a potential consumer or producer in the global economy. Since we have a spiritual view of the child as well, our mission is to help children find their own place in the world verses fitting in.
We think that is a profoundly different task since we believe we are a non-sectarian school so we don't name whatever that ultimate reality is. We believe that every child is worthy of respect. We use the word respect and sacred inter-changeably so there is something of ultimate value in the child other than being a part of the economy.

We believe all children come hard-wired with some sort of fate that is to be worked out in the world. So as adults, it's our calling to help children discover their own genius, their own particular calling and to nourish it. And of course in order to do that, first of all you have to have a belief about the child that they are not blank slates or fodder for the economy.
Then you also have to create an environment that supports the kind of development that we're talking about.

Thresholds: What is the environment you're striving to create? What makes up the "curriculum" at School of the Plains?

Cathy: Here we're try to create all the experiences a child could explore, so besides doing science and math and reading and writing in a really deep way, a really connected way, we also have a working farmstead with goats and chickens and chores for the children to do to connect them to the land. We also have a low ropes course we're putting in at this time. There's nature trails in the wilderness and wetlands. We also do art, music, dance, and drama every day.

Most schools, even the most expensive schools, maybe give thirty minutes a week in the arts or the music. And it's kind of considered the icing on the cake, and we turn it around. We think this is the heart of it; this is the cake. Again being wholistic you can't really divide and say this is the academic side of the child. This is the creativeness. This is the spiritual. They're all so entwined we know that supporting them in a wholistic way, in a connected way, supports all, the total development of the child.

For instance, our children do music every day. When they're five they start to learn music notation. At the end of that year they can play a musical instrument in an ensemble or read music. And they do it with small half-hour classes that they enjoy. We're not doing creative movement, and dance, and art in order to buff up academic skills, but it's not surprising that when you attend to the needs of a complex human being that they're going to have optimal development in other areas.
Everything we do here has been inspired both by the underlying philosophy of supporting the child and what we have learned in the area of brain research in developmental psychology. For instance we don't use grades; we don't use competition in the classroom which kills collaboration and we don't compare children with one another. We do a lot of authentic assessment of children.

Thresholds: Without the traditional evaluation measures, how do you know where the child is in his development?

Cathy: It is a difficult work in trying to be conscious of the child. It's like knowing all about developmental psychology between children and theories and then setting that aside and being inspired by this real child in front of you, not the divine child or the naughty child that needs to be disciplined, but the actual child that's in front of you that inspires the practice. And each child is unique in that way.

So we have abandoned the fantasy of pre-construction or that all three-year olds are all the same or whatever, and it's sort of like evolution. We've learned so much in the past few hundred years and in education probably the last forty years that to hold old principles is to really live in a rejected past.

I think today in education we do things that we're comfortable with that were done to us without questioning their unconscious practices. I was a successful attorney. I achieved as a child. I went to public schools and got this kind of education, so look at me. I'm successful. But if you don't suffer childhood amnesia, if you remember what it was like to be a child, these experiences weren't stimulating. Many of them weren't supportive. They were grueling, boring, and many of us survived the system or were resilient, - we did it in spite of it many times.

On the other hand there are many people who are my age, who are middle aged, who are just now reaching a process which is typical in this culture. And I think middle aged people try to remember the selves that they lost as children. They have done what they were told and controlled externally, and now their lives have no meaning. It is at the mid-point of their lives, they're trying to discover what was lost.

One of the fantasies of this kind of school is what if we didn't dis-member the children to begin with and we left them intact -- all their images -- and respected the child and trusted the child that they already contained within themselves what is needed to have a full life and to bring the cosmos forward. It's already there, and so if we support it maybe they won't get dismembered and have to go through mid-life crisis and buy red corvettes and have affairs and things like that in order to try to find meaning.

Thresholds: Was it a mid-life crisis that spurred the creation of the School of the Plains?

Cathy: Well, I guess the inspiration for it was - I have seven children of my own, and earlier I had two boys I had custody of raising alone. They were gifted children and I was finding the school system very difficult to negotiate for them. I had been a school teacher. They were going to the same school where I had taught earlier before I was a lawyer, and it was very frustrating. One son had finished the curriculum in the first two weeks of school in one of the classes and they didn't know what to do with him. It was just very difficult, so I decided to leave my law practice and go back to school. Initially I was studying gifted education and got involved in Jungian studies and analytic work and death psychology and toward the end of my program I got involved in wholistic education. I had been consulting with public schools. I had been a public school administrator and my path was, I wanted to help public schools transform, and from the inside when I became an administrator. When I consulted with the public school districts, it became very clear to me that that wasn't going to happen in this way.

Thresholds: The "old principles of a rejected past" you mentioned earlier?

Cathy: Yes. This bureaucracy's been set up that they have an agenda that really doesn't even include or discuss much the best interest of children. It has to do with money and lots of things but the interest of children just didn't get there. So I decided finally, in order to do what's right we needed to step aside from the system and recreate it. Abandon, I don't care how sacred the practice was, if it didn't make any sense and it wasn't supported by research that it was a good thing for children, we wouldn't do it. Then we would just hold to what we felt was right with children. Several of the people on the board had been administrators with me and we had those kinds of discussions. Well, what if there wasn't a union or what if we didn't have to take the ITPS or what if there wasn't this and this and this, then what would we do?

When I used to do consulting work and I used to do courses on motivation, how to motivate children, in the classroom. Teachers would always stop me immediately with that creative process by saying, "But we can't do that, we can't do that." So there was never any imagining beyond the boundaries of where they were. I would try to get them to say, let's just pretend for a minute that money's no object, there is no administrator. What would you do if it was just what you thought was best for children? Lots of wonderful ideas would come out, so that's really what we kind of have here.

The academics are very high. That's piquing people's interest in the community. Probably the biggest concern when I tour parents, they see this is probably the most beautiful facility for children, and the most creative and interesting. But they worry whether the kids are going to get what they need academically. Well, once you address that and these kids are doing science and math on a more profound level and are performing in that area, then they're willing to allow them to go on the ropes course or do music. It's usually not quite as valued by the community as a whole.

John Cathy on Columbine...

That (the slaying of over a dozen students and an instructor by two fellow students in a Colorado high school in April 1999) isn’t an accident. I get so angry when they try to point out - like they did with the Oklahoma City bombing - that it was just some nutcase that’s dead now and we’re all safe. That’s not true. That was part of the climate at that school that was perpetuated by the administration and the staff and the community. And it’s happening here in Edmond, Putnam City and everywhere else where you have ingroups and outgroups and those who are good looking blondes. Football players are heroes and they are allowed to shame and humiliate other children and it goes on.

To me it was damning of that principal when they had this trenchcoat gang with their picture in the yearbook labeled “trenchcoat gang” and the principal said he didn’t even know they existed! That’s not exactly having your finger on the pulse of the school.

It can happen here too. What we’ve noticed is kids are kids and live in a culture that likes to separate kids and teaches kids that we get our worth in life by being better than another racial group or ethnic group or homosexuals or whatever group you want to shame. And this is how we get our identity by being better than somebody else, kind of pitting kids against each other. Here, we’ve had situations arise with some of our kids where they’ll start to make fun of a child because of a difference and we don’t brush it off in the hallway. They don’t deal with it there at the time or push it off or where teachers frequently single out a child who’s different and allow them to be shamed or put down because they’re not complying. Then you breed that kind of environment.

Here once we had a special needs boy who had difficulty controlling his temper and we had a group of the kids who pushed his buttons. He was on the edge of being expelled and had pushed his buttons deliberately knowing he would blow. And then he did. He broke something and he was weeping and crying; he was going to get kicked out. And then they started feeling remorseful and didn’t know what to do.

They told a counselor. They had really set the thing up. So rather than brush it under the rug I went over in Math class and sat and had a whole meeting with all the kids. The concern wasn’t with something broken. We dealt with that, and he was going to have the responsibility for paying for it. In fact the group decided on their own they were going to help him pay for it because they actually did participate in it happening. I was more concerned with children who deliberately humiliate to push the buttons or get a rise out of people. Then we talked about community and caring. Also we don’t have to be everybody’s best friend, but we all have a right to be part of the community, to live a life and be happy. It will be another day when you’re having a bad day and somebody will reach out and be compassionate to you and not use your pain as a source of recreation. That little group consciousness shifted after that.•

©1999 Vol. 17 No. 5

Thresholds: Are you teaching these children a different view of community? Encouraging new values that reflect the whole?

Cathy: (We try) to get the children to connect to their selves, to have a sense of awe and wonder about the universe. It's more than learning about stuff about the cosmos. It's the miracle, how incredible this universe is and the earth you're part of, and that their lives make a difference. I think we're in a place where kids get depressed and they feel meaningless. They become kind of cynical consumers or a lot of suicides and things like this go on. It's not "if you do something your life makes a difference" but you're shifting the universe one way or another, whether conscious or not, with all of our actions. That's what's really wholistic. It's not child directing really; it's child connecting. It's helping kids make the links in everything they do, and they learn from the time they're three about recycling and composting and worms.

We have worm culture here. We raise worms here so we know we are not walking on dead earth. We're walking on a teaming community of living beings that we are participating in. I know that my three year old at the time saw trash thrown out on the way to school and he was saying how awful it was that people did that. In his very first year here he said, "But the worms can take the trash and turn it into dirt." My feeling is before children here can care about the rainforest or something that is so abstract, they have to learn to love and care for the earth right here.

That's why the School of the Plains carries the name of a place rather than calling it "'Something' Heritage" or wearing English plaid jumpers or things that carry people away to England or to prestigious places named after Bishops, male leaders of religious groups. I find it a lot of times, being an Oklahoma native, people think that someplace else is sacred, Santa Fe or the mountains or something. This is the center of the universe, where we are. We're learning now in cosmology that it really is the point of the center of the universe.

Thresholds: So community becomes understanding the cosmos and the connectedness of all life in the community is the science learned?

Cathy: We're teaching cosmology with science. Our text book we're using is A Walk Through Time and it has both the Hewlett Packard pictures from their one mile walk through the evolution of time with narrative by Brian Swim as the Cosmologist that talks about the bigger picture. We try to get kids to know this place, to work the land, to love it, to honor this place here. We have a Creek Indian who's on our staff in early childhood who speaks Creek. We do lots of things, a lot of ritual that honors the land as sacred. They have their own council circle back in the woods hidden, a place where we camp and have council circle meetings where we learn to be heard.

We look at the various cosmologies. Our social studies teacher has a degree in anthropology from Harvard. We've been studying clans and as we begin our first theme of the year our children, instead of being called the twelves and thirteens they'll create their own clan and they'll study clans and what energy they think represents them. They'll study family and clans and each one might be the Buffalo Clan or the Hawk Clan and together we'll create a totem pole at our sacred space that will create the whole tribe. So we'll talk about collectively we're more than and different than the individual fragmented parts of Self. All these things that we do that we act out that we talk and do, help make connections in the experience of knowing that part of the cosmos. It is a bigger picture.
Maria Montessori talked about it years ago. We're not here just to get kids to be technologists. We're here to dream the cosmos forward. And if you feel that's what you're doing, you're moving the whole cosmos then let these children know you're part of it. We are doing these things. Then we'll talk about (Montessori's) butterfly principle and other things, where they learn the smallest actions - even little people like you - change (the world).

Thresholds: Your teachings reflect very high spiritual ideals.

Cathy: We teach things that are interconnected and developing. We teach evolution as a fact. The difference is some people hear evolution and think it means this Godless, meaningless doom. It's not. We know it is a fact, the process of the developing of the cosmos. It is as much a fact as the earth is not flat or the sun doesn't go around the earth. We have enough observable information like telescopes that we can actually observe, we're actually observing the evolution of the cosmos that happened millions of years ago and the light's just getting to us now so we're actually observing the beginnings of time that have travelled a long long way.

As a wholistic school we believe it's purposeful like whether you believe it's Jesus Christ or God or the Tao. We believe there is a purposeful force and meaning and that's a family issue. So when we meditate here twenty minutes every morning we teach quietness because we believe every major religious tradition, whether you're a Christian or a Jew, or whatever, they all teach there is a small voice inside you or the Holy Spirit or something. It always slays me that a lot of fundamentalist Christians are put off by meditation, I always thought what do you think Jesus is doing in the wilderness or in the garden. The Bible talks about meditation, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to Thee."

To believe kids are meaningless or evil, is not Christian or Jewish teaching. If we believe children have a soul or they have something of ultimate meaning and their lives are being directed by God then you have to teach children to listen to the voice of God, not just video games and TV. And how are they going to hear the voice inside themselves. The Bible calls it a still small voice. If it's small you're going to have to get quiet to hear that little voice. And we believe that that should direct the lives of the children, that they have a fate, they have a job, they have a marriage, they have things in their lives that they need to follow and it needs to be led by that voice, not by the global economy. We need a place to work, but these things change too.

We can't teach children an exact skill, that your children will use. We can teach them processes of how to learn and how to adapt and access the tools, but there isn't any job that they can learn in 1999 that's going to apply to them in twenty years. What a lot of the schools do is not preparing them for the next millennium. Competition in the classroom where you're right and they're wrong and that's the way you've been taught to deal with things, is a problem. We have to take perspectives and listen to others from different cultures. The future is being able to work with a team and come up with an answer to a big problem. And that's what education needs to prepare children for.
(from Thresholds Quarterly, November 1999, © 1999 School of Metaphysics) 

Return to Directory

Contact Us

Course of Study

Copyright© 2002, School of Metaphysics