Slayer of Serpents Book Review

The Slayer of Serpents

By George Mathew Muthoot

This is a charming volume. The author’s tone is mature and reflective, the adventures he describes inherently interesting.  Through his sensitive descriptions, Dr. reveals the child who experiences the adventures.  As he does so, he gives insight into the adult who is recalling these events.

Dr. Muthoot’s family was part of a community of Christians in southern India. This community traces its roots to St. Thomas, one of the original Apostles. In India he found followers and established a church.

I recommend this book. It offers insight into a particular culture and permits the reader to spend time with an author who has a generous and gentle spirit. That’s always a good thing.

Rhythm Prism Dialogue on Education

Montessori Materials
These are learning materials designed specifically for a Montessori classroom. Author Attribution:mr suave 2007/Ross Joan On Wikimedia Commons Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

By A. G. Moore

Dialogue on Education #3 Maria Montessori: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; Awarded the French Legion of Honor

Maria Montessori’s ideas about education had much in common with those of both Rabindranath Tagore and Marie Curie.  While all three began with the idea that children learn best when responding to their environment, Curie and Tagore envisioned a more freely structured experience than Montessori did.

Tagore and Montessori met in 1939.  Before that they had corresponded and shared ideas.  Each recognized that they shared a philosophical sympathy.  Both believed that education should be child-centered but that the environment in which that education occurs should be stimulating and rich.  The difference between the two philosophies may be rooted in Montessori’s fixed ideas about child development.  She believed that children go through distinct stages of learning in which they are receptive to distinct kinds of growth.

Montessori designed specific materials and described particular environments that are suitable for children in the different stages of development.  While it is true that children in a Montessori system are allowed to respond to their environment in an organic way, the environment they are offered is very structured.

The Montessori system offers children freedom, but freedom within limits. Classrooms are “learning triangles.”  The three points in the triangle are the teacher, the materials and the student. When the student responds to appropriate materials and the teacher guides that response,  Montessori believed, an optimal environment for learning and development exists.

As discussed in Dialogue #1 on this page, Marie Curie devised a system of education for her children in which they rotated from one rich environment to the other through the days of the week.  The children were allowed to dabble in those areas that caught their interest.  Curie believed that learning, in the right environment, would occur naturally and effortlessly.  She believed knowledge acquired in this way would have a firmer and more enduring hold on a child’s intellect.

In Dialogue #3, Tagore’s informal approach to education is discussed.  He placed his students in a stimulating environment with art, music and nature having principle influences.  Tagore did not structure his program with age-appropriate modalities.  He expected children’s interest to expand with the richness of their exposures.

While Tagore, Montessori and Curie differed in the way they created learning environments for children, all three shared one over-arching principle: the child leads the way.  The child is offered the opportunity to learn and if that opportunity is attractive enough the child will thrive.

Dialogue on Education #2:  Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate in Literature

The first entry on this page described Nobel Laureate Marie Curie’s attitude toward formal education.  The second dialogue discusses the views of another Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi in Santiniketan, the site of Tagore’s school and university. Taken before 1942, public domain.

Rabindranath Tagore was a philosopher, artist, poet, playwright, musician and social reformer.  In 1913, he became the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Despite this distinction, Tagore never earned a formal academic degree.  When referring to his own education, Tagore spoke about  ‘freedom’,  not ‘discipline’.  He described his childhood home, which inspired his point of view,  as one in which “freedom in the power of our language, freedom of imagination in our  literature.. ” prevailed.  Rote learning and routinized instruction were stifling and counterproductive, in his view.

Tagore believed that education was an organic process in which the individual responded to the environment. Much in his philosophy of education resembled that of another Nobel Laureate, Marie Curie.  Both Nobel Prize winners placed strong emphasis on nature.  Both insisted on the importance of physical exercise.  And both believed that exposure to brilliant minds and brilliant work would elevate, not frustrate, a child. Both were certain that bombarding a child with structured lessons was more likely to kill an appetite for learning than to stimulate it. They believed that acquiring knowledge should be as effortless as acquiring language is for a toddler.


While Rabindranath Tagore and Marie Curie  believed that children should live in a harmonious relationship with nature, Tagore carried the theme of harmony further. He believed it was a function of education to foster harmony between people. He wanted children to be taught arts, especially music, because he thought that would enable them to develop sympathy for others. He thought that education should emphasize the progress of nations and not focus on wars and territorial conquests.

Rabindranath Tagore did not simply aspire to educational ideals: he gave them life. In 1901 he founded a school, Patha Bhavana, which embodied his principles. After he won the Nobel Prize, he invested in his school and expanded it into a university. That campus is now the site of one of the most prestigious universities in India, Visva-Bharati.


Were Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas about education misguided? Many people who work in education today apparently believe so. Increased emphasis on standardized learning and objective testing seems to be proof of that. Schools today are  laboratories in which competing theories of education are tested. As the experiment with today’s children procedes, so will the dialogue about their future continue.

This is an artistic mud hut built on the grounds of Visva-Bharati University, Bolpur West Bengal. Picture taken by Rajeev Kumar in 2010 and shared on a Creative Commons 3.0 Unported license

For more on Rabindranath Tagore visit the Tagore Gallery

and Rabindranath Tagore, both on this site

Dialogue # 1: Marie Curie, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist

eve marie irene for site
Wellcome Library, London Portrait of Marie Curie, and her two daughters, Eve and Irene, 1908 From: Madame Curie By: Curie, Eve 4.0

There are few things people hold closer to their hearts than the education of children.  Disagreement arises not about the goal, but on how to achieve that goal.

Theories about education don’t evolve; they erupt.  Most people understand that childhood offers a unique opportunity to influence minds for a lifetime.   Maybe this explains the furor that has accompanied the Common Core roll-out in communities across the US.  While the trend toward rigid standards, uniform curriculum and increased formal instruction seems sound to some, to others it seems a travesty, a squandering of childhood’s most precious gifts:  play, imagination and exploration. Included in this latter camp would surely be Marie Curie, mother of two girls.

If she were alive today, Marie Curie would likely be dismayed to see the imposition of rigid learning modalities on young children.

Marie’s views on education were described by her daughter, Eve.  In the acclaimed biography, Marie Curie, Eve recalled that her mother dreaded sending her children into the sterile, confining atmosphere of a structured classroom.  The Nobel Prize-winning scientist regarded formal schooling as  “hours of attendance”.  Curie’s philosophy was that children should be encouraged to find their talents through exploration.  It was in this way that Irene, the older daughter, early discovered an  interest in mathematics.  In like manner did Eve learn that she had a talent, and a passion, for music.

Essential to the daily regimen of both Curie children was vigorous physical activity.  Marie installed gym equipment at home and took the girls on camping trips. Together the family biked across the countryside on extended expeditions.  “Formal” instruction was put off for as long as possible.  To replace  this instruction, Marie devised a scheme with her colleagues at the Sorbonne.

The two Curie girls, along with several companions, would be exposed to the finest minds at the university.  Each day the children–they were affectionately called ‘little monkeys’– would spend hours with a professor from one discipline.  On succeeding days they would rotate to other classrooms. The weeks would pass in this way, with the children engaged in a casual rotation between specialists in various fields.  There was no regimentation, no pressure.  Learning was accomplished in a stimulating, cheerful environment.

The time did come when Marie’s daughters were obliged to attend formal classes.  They apparently adjusted well after what some might regard as a bohemian introduction to learning. Irene eventually earned a Doctor of Science degree and Eve earned two bachelor degrees, one in philosophy and one in music.

Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1935 and later continued to do groundbreaking research in nuclear physics.  Eve tried her hand at a number of pursuits. She was a concert pianist, journalist, diplomat and humanitarian.

Irene died in 1956, Eve in 2007. It would difficult to imagine two more accomplished sisters.  Did their mother’s approach to education lay the groundwork for the extraordinary achievements of these women? Impossible to say. What is certain is that Marie’s approach to education did not impede her children’s development. It might even be suggested that the accomplishments of the Curie sisters help to support the argument against a rigid academic curriculum.  Certainly, the example of these women offers the possibility that a rigid curriculum may not be the only, or even the best path to a successful future.

Prompting Students to Write Poetry

Rupert Brooke was known for his war poems. On his way to battle, in 1915, Brooke was bitten by a mosquito. It was the mosquito bite and not a gunshot wound that killed him.
From: Teacher’s Manual The Artist Inside

•Suggest to your students that anyone can write a poem.

•Explain that, in a way, writing poetry is easier than writing prose. There are no punctuation or grammar rules in poetry. There is something called poetic license, which means an author can break all the rules if breaking the rules helps to advance the poem.

•Tell students that sometimes prose is like poetry and sometimes poetry is like prose. It’s usually up to the author to decide how to characterize a piece.

•Rules were much stricter years ago about poetry. Today there are almost no rules.

•Suggest to your students that poetry might give them more freedom to express ideas than a prose piece might. Poetry, more than prose, is the medium of feelings.

Sample Poems

Both selections in this section were written during war time.

•Explain to students that war provokes strong emotions.

•Ask students if they detect emotion in the two selections. If so, how?

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln of the United States gave one of the most famous speeches in American history–The Gettysburg Address. This speech was so artfully written and conveyed emotion so eloquently that it is has often been called a prose poem. The speech is printed in its entirety on the following pages. The first version of the speech is in prose, as Lincoln wrote it.

The second version of the speech is in verse, the way many people believe the poem sounds.

•Ask your students if they think the speech works as a poem.

•Ask them to find phrases that are particularly eloquent and moving.

•Ask students if they can hear a cadence, a kind of music, in the words, whether they are presented as prose or verse.

The selection following the Gettysburg Address is excerpted from a poem, Safety, by Rupert Brooke. Brooke was British; he wrote Safety in 1914, the first year of WWI. In 1915, as the poet was headed toward battle, a mosquito bit him. The bite became infected and Brooke died shortly after of blood poisoning. His poem, Safety, was written in sonnet form; this means it has a definite meter (like a beat in music) and it rhymes.

•Ask your students if they think this poem is of a very serious nature, or if the subject matter is not terribly significant.

•Ask your students to find words that help to set the mood. Ask them how they would describe the mood of the poet.

•Invite your students to try their hand at writing any kind of poem they’d like. Remind them that they want to choose their words carefully so that mood and tone are conveyed.

•Tell them to have fun; writing poetry is personal and can be a very rewarding experience.

lincoln PinkertonLincolnMcClernand
This photo of Lincoln was taken at Antietam by Alexander Gardner, in 1862. Allan Pinkerton, head of Union Intelligence Services, is on his right. Major General John A. McClernand is on his left. The picture is available from the US Library of Congress. It is in the public domain.