INTERVIEWS: SANSKRIT AT ST JAMES PREP
Posted on: 12/6/2021
Kris Spencer, a writer, father of two and Sanskrit enthusiast is a key member of the St James’ community. As the new Head of the St James Prep school for two to eleven year-olds, he was asked about his role and opinions on Sanskrit.
Why is it so important to have Sanskrit as part of the curriculum?
Sanskrit is a subject only a few schools offer but there are a number of things about Sanskrit at St James’ Prep that make it a particular asset. Pupils enjoy it, parents respect it, and colleagues enjoy it – so we are winning on all counts. It is taught exceptionally well by Warwick and Elena Jessup, so we are very lucky
How has Sanskrit benefited the children studying it?
There is a weight to Sanskrit. It is a language of gravitas; it is difficult, and so the pupils have to persevere to master it; which builds resilience and a growth mindset. By the time they reach Year 3, (or even Year 2), they know more Sanskrit and have a mastery greater than the majority of the adult population. Imagine that – an expert at seven years old. It amounts to an educational advantage and brings a real advantage in terms of thinking skills; which, in turn, supports clear thinking and reasoning. One of the reasons we have such good results at the Prep is because our pupils have experienced the rigour of Sanskrit.
Moreover, there is also the musicality of the language – it is a performance language. Pupils find it pleasing to say and speak, and we do a good deal of that at the School. And, there is joy in that. I had a parent say that their child doesn’t sing Taylor Swift or any of the current artists – she is more likely to be humming and chanting Sanskrit around the house because it is so musical and appealing.
Looking outwards, when pupils come to the interview for a senior school, a classic question is ‘Tell me about your current school’ – then they can talk immediately about Sanskrit and ‘The Pause’, (regular peaceful pauses used to enhance feelings of well-being), which is really useful.
That is what it means to me at the moment. Because I am new here, my understanding of it is still growing and developing.
Do you think Sanskrit has benefited children in any other ways – has it helped with their wellbeing?
Sanskrit is linked to The Pause that we say at the beginning and end of every lesson – it is a very neat and enjoyable way of thinking about wellbeing*. Also, when Sanskrit is being spoken or chanted, a person has to be in the moment and concentrate on the words, and the mouth shape; and we know that mindfulness is very good for well-being. The links to mindfulness and wellbeing seem to be part of the DNA of Sanskrit.
What would you say to someone who is curious and wants to start learning about Sanskrit? What has become apparent to you about Sanskrit?
Well, I am certainly not an expert on that aspect of things. I still fall into that ‘curious’ camp myself. Initially, as an outsider, I knew nothing about Sanskrit. I knew the word, its relation to the East but my knowledge base was low. Now as someone who is leading the school there are a few things I can say:
– It is an interesting new language, despite its great age. It is new and fresh to a lot of people and it still has life and energy. In terms of age, I compare it to Greek and Latin when explaining to others what Sanskrit is.
– Another aspect is its written beauty which I don’t think Greek and Latin have to the same extent.
– It has a different voice, a different mouth shape in some of the words. When I hear the pupils speak, it always sounds appealing. The difference in sound, and the care you have to take to sound it, is important
– I know from observing Warwick’s lessons and weekly assemblies that there is much great literature which is entertaining and full of wisdom
Which part of Sanskrit fascinates you the most?
I am particularly interested in the links that Sanskrit’s beauty as a language has to music and poetry. So you have Gustav Holst who was a teacher at St Paul’s Girls’ and taught himself Sanskrit at the age of 25 because he identified the beauty of the language and the stories. He actually wrote some pieces based on Sanskrit Song. Two poets I know of – W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot – both have strong links to Sanskrit too. There are ways to explore Sanskrit through the Arts. Also, there are big collections of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the British Library and Museum and people are very interested in those aspects – these are different areas we are exploring at St James Prep.
I published a poem on one of the parts of Warwick and Elena’s translation that they called ‘Self Discovery’. I wrote something on the Five Veils which they had translated. It is an interesting and non-Western approach to understanding the self. ‘The Song of the Self’, based on Warwick and Elena’s translation, is published in issue 99 of Acumen, a poetry journal. You can read the poem here: https://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/kris-spencer/.
* After a few moments of stillness and calm, the beautiful words ‘Om Paramatmane Namah’ meaning ‘to the universal Self a bow’ are usually spoken. This is a unifying expression acknowledging shared consciousness. ‘Atha’ meaning ‘now’, or ‘here begins’ is also said at the beginning, having the sense that everything needed for the activity is available. At the end, ‘iti’ is said, signifying that the activity is complete and can be let go, leaving the mind clear for the next event.