Stepping Stones: The First Five Years of Sant Bani School
by Kent Bicknell
Stepping Stones: The First Five Years of Sant Bani School (1973-1978) narrates the fascinating history of Sant Bani School and its rapid growth into a dynamic educational day program in central New Hampshire. With a focus on the early years (1973-1978) founding head Dr. Kent Bicknell offers an in-depth account of the spiritual/educational roots of the school as it developed a curriculum based on the understanding that all life is connected. Along with a description of the relation of the school to both Master Kirpal Singh and Sant Ajaib Singh, Kent provides a link to the educational theories of the 19th century Transcendentalists, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Alcotts. Contemporary newspaper articles and photographs from the initial years help bring the story to life. Be prepared to wonder, to laugh, to learn – and to be drawn to visit the school’s vibrant campus today (www.santbani.org).
Wow!!! Stepping Stones is so engaging I finished it in one sitting. In this valuable and fascinating book Kent Bicknell provides a snapshot of what the school and the times were like in the early years. The book illustrates the diverse strands that went into building the foundation of the school, which continues today. I especially appreciated the detailed accounts of daily life, including plays like St. Jerome and the Lion, The Little Prince and The Wizard of Oz, as well as the sometimes-contradictory questions and challenges raised by parents. Kent provides an illuminating description of Sant Bani’s sister school in India, Manav Vidya Mandir, and its principal, Miss Sati, and how his time there helped revolutionize his thinking about schools. In an honest self-examination of areas where he needed to grow, Kent shares how important both Miss Sati and the extraordinary teacher Mildred Meeh became to him and to Sant Bani, and how influential they were in shaping the school’s identity. The tribute to Mildred brought tears to my eyes: Kent successfully (and magically) captured her essence, and brought her back to life. All of the many alumni and faculty-members whose lives were changed and enriched by her presence will appreciate this no end. The book closes with some wonderful words of the spiritual teachers who were instrumental in founding and guiding the school, Master Kirpal Singh and Sant Ajaib Singh, along with two fascinating essays on the relation of the school with the educational philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the rest of the New England Transcendentalists. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in: a) the history of Sant Mat in America and its working out in practical day-to-day experience; b) the educational philosophy of two great contemporary spiritual Masters; and c) the connections between the original American philosophy (Transcendentalism) and Indian thought in the realm of education.
Russell Perkins, an independent scholar who has written a number of books including THE STRANGER OF GALILEE: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND THE UNIVERSAL SPIRITUAL TRADITION, holds an MTS from Harvard University and taught at Sant Bani School for many years.
Writing a school history is an effort to preserve the roots of an ongoing story that can easily get lost in the progress of time. It can also be an act of love — as Kent Bicknell beautifully demonstrates in this history of the early years of Sant Bani School. While Kent — an educator, scholar, and founding head of school — sets out to document the initial years of this purpose-driven school, he has also managed to reflect on what we need from schools today. Stepping Stones offers both the early history of a unique and noteworthy school and valuable insights in what carefully constructed education for the mind, body, and spirit can look like… What fascinates me is the way in which SBS anticipated both what brain science now tells us about how we learn best and what schools everywhere are embracing in the name of 21st century education. From the start, SBS focused on curricular approaches now gaining attention everywhere: project-based learning, integrated curriculum, entrepreneurship, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, mindfulness, self-directed learning, community service, demonstration of learning, and a large dose of outdoor education… Through daily practice of improving the process of educating children for mind, body, spirit, and community, the school has evolved, day-by-day, year-by-year, into a truly excellent school with much to offer our divided world.
Michael Brosnan is an experienced author and editor, with a particular focus on education. From 1997 to 2017, he was editor-in-chief of the award-winning Independent School magazine, flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools.
Stepping Stones is a first-hand and engaging account of establishing what would become known as Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, NH. From the first elementary grades to the addition of a secondary school, from a living room to actual classroom buildings, from one dedicated and driven teacher to several qualified and enthusiastic instructors, from a handful of six students to a growing student body: this is a heart-warming and inspirational tour de force of a dream becoming a reality. The Nobel Prize winning poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote, “You cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” Likewise you cannot start a school simply by hanging up your shingle and hoping someone shows up. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment and dedication to garner whatever resources you can, however scant they might be at first, to be willing to start small and perhaps stay small for a time and to strive always to become better at what you do even in the midst of the day-to-day realities of struggling to stay open and laboring to educate young minds and hearts. But if you intend to start a very special school that has a signal and singular basis in the Indian spirituality of Sant Mat (The Path of the Saints), it takes, I think, even more: it takes a willingness to accept with humility and resolve the trust that others place in you to found not simply an educational institution to pass along the traditional elements of schooling (“readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic”) as a branch of the group, but to conceive and create within the context of the community’s very piety and beliefs an integrated extension of its ardent and deep-rooted devotion to the spiritual path it had chosen. The Bicknells and others connected to Sant Bani Ashram did not stand and stare; they set out to cross the sea. It may not always have been smooth sailing (what in life ever is all the time?), but, as this book clearly shows, from its beginning Sant Bani School has always had a clear direction in which to sail and fierce champions to guide it on the way.
Rev. John R. Fortin, O.S.B., Ph.D. is a professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College who served for several years as superintendent of Catholic schools in NH.
Stepping Stones: The First Five Years of Sant Bani School holds a special place among books about the founding of schools. Kent Bicknell, who led New Hampshire’s Sant Bani School into being and who narrates its early progress, was less guided by pedagogic certainties than a desire to see the promise of his spiritual practice at work in the lives of children. With the open-hearted and open-minded support of his spiritual teachers, Bicknell and his colleagues managed to create a school climate at once instructionally sound and relationally rich, a school much appreciated by families of all faiths and dispositions. Stepping Stones should be an inspiration for school leaders and faculties looking to deepen their practice as well as for anyone considering starting a school.
Richard Hawley has published more than twenty books as well as poems, articles and essays in sources such The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Science Monitor. He was head of the University School in Shaker Heights, OH for many years and wrote the highly-acclaimed novel, The Headmaster’s Papers (1983). Richard earned an M.S. in Management Science and a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Case Western Reserve University.