Sunday, November 16, 1997 Ventura County Edition Section: Metro Page: B-1

Huxley’s World Still Brave; 34 years after his death, author-founder’s Ojai school remains as thought-provoking as his literary legacy;


At the Happy Valley School, there will be only a brief nod Saturday to the lesser-known death that took place Nov. 22, 1963. While the nation mourned a slain president, Aldous Huxley, one of the tiny private school’s founders, died of cancer, an injection of LSD perhaps cracking the doors of perception as darkness fell. The author of “Brave New World” and 59 other volumes, Huxley was one of four people, including the religious philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who opened the innovative school in 1946. But it’s Huxley, one of the century’s foremost intellectuals, who still colors life in obvious ways at the 93-student high school.

Happy Valley is the only school anywhere whose official T-shirt sports his face.

The school’s motto is one he suggested: ‘Aun Aprendo,’ Spanish for “I am still learning.”

Each morning, students straggle from their angular white dormitories into a Mongolian yurt for announcements, music, a short reading and a moment of silent reflection—Huxley’s ideal way to kick off the academic day.

Students receive detailed evaluations of their progress, but if they want to see their grades, they must ask.

Some don’t check them until they apply to college, said Dennis Rice, the school’s director since 1980.

“We don’t want people working for an A or a B,” Rice said. “The idea that competition for grades would be the motivation for learning is definitely alien to Huxley’s views on education.”

It also doesn’t gibe with Elly Mason’s.

“What do grades really mean?” asked the junior from Fresno during a break between classes on the pristine 400-acre campus.

Although Huxley experimented with psychedelic drugs in his later years, the school has a zero-tolerance drug policy.

“He came to LSD and peyote respectfully and spiritually,” Rice said.

“He would have been appalled at people using his work to justify the recreational drug use that started in the ’60s.” A Passion for Eastern Thought

A British aristocrat transplanted to Los Angeles, Huxley first came to Ojai during World War II. He had a passion for Eastern religions and was fascinated by Krishnamurti and his followers.

Radha Sloss, whose mother Rosalind Rajagopal became the school’s first director, remembers him from afternoon teas, dinners and long rambles with her family.

“I first knew him when I was 9, and I loved him,” said Sloss, now a writer in Santa Barbara. “I didn’t see this rather sarcastic person at all. He’d get down on the ground with me and talk to my ducks and geese. He and his first wife, Maria, gave me a dog and a goat. They were very involved.”

Huxley, who picnicked in the hills with the likes of Bertrand Russell and Greta Garbo, was known for his all-consuming erudition.

He traveled with specially built luggage for his Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he could expound on anything. In a memorial tribute, his friend Humphry Osmond marveled at his range:

“He loved a good gossip, on every variety of subject—the latest scientific discovery, theological principles, books, paintings, new developments in sewage treatment, utopias, the water supply system of Los Angeles, the effect of mass-produced clothing on political and social systems, parapsychology.

“The best tribute one could get was his delighted, ‘How absolutely incredible!’ “

After the war, Huxley and his friends felt it was crucial to finally start the school they had frequently discussed.

“They felt that if there was to be any hope for world peace, there would have to be education for sanity,” Rice said. Huxley never taught at the school that opened with utopian hopes and just 10 students. However, he visited often, served on its board for 15 years and helped create its policies:

Happy Valley would always have fewer than 100 students. It would draw students from different cultures. It would encourage critical thought as an antidote to the “brave new world” and its crushing conformity.

Nothing about the place was orthodox. Philosopher Alan Watts sent his children there and would drop in to talk metaphysics. Students called teachers by their first names and could attend class barefoot.

At commencement in 1951, Huxley lamented the society that conventional schools were training students to accept. Most people, he warned, “settle down to an existence as nearly static as they can make it—the existence of creatures confined to ruts and grooves, and rejoicing in that confinement, bitterly resent any break with established habit, any attempt to make them leave their rails and take to the open road…. “ Zen and the Art of High School

Life at Happy Valley still is anything but conventional. There are no bells to mark the end of class.

“The world has no bells,” Rice explained.

Students complain about plowing through three hours of homework nightly, but many view teachers as older and more knowledgeable pals.

“They’re your friends,” Elly Mason said. “They won’t let you fail. If you’re doing badly, they’ll hound you, they’ll jump on you, they’ll follow you around.”

Subjects sound ordinary enough—English, algebra, physics, psychology, lots of music and art—but the usual academic categories are frequently blurred, as Huxley advocated.

An art class might incorporate an observation from Zen Buddhism—”A rock is a cloud”—as well as exercises aligning the hues of the rainbow with the tones of the scale.

“They’re not just making art here,” said art teacher Stephen Sylvester. “They’re tuning the eye.”

The rest of the body isn’t overlooked either. Despite its tiny student body, Happy Valley fields teams in soccer, volleyball, basketball and baseball.

One girl recounted a coach rallying trounced Happy Valley players with some ethereal war cries: “It’s OK, you guys; your aura’s still in place! Now just take a minute to center yourselves, and remember: You’re scoring points in the playing fields of your mind….”

It might sound hopelessly New Age, but some students say it’s a better environment for learning than the garden-variety high school.

Many enjoy collaborating rather than competing. Starting a pop quiz in math, a handful of students clustered over some graph paper. Instructor Louis Prussac gently reminded them to work on their own.

“I really want to encourage you guys to move away from helping each other today,” he said.

Karleigh Harris said she hated school in Pasadena when she landed a scholarship to Happy Valley, which charges boarding students $24,500 a year.

“I feel like a person here,” she said. “At most schools, they believe in a kind of selective breeding. All they want is a class of top, wonderful students. Here, they help us until the bitter end.”

Most students go on to college—some to such countercultural bastions as Antioch but others to places as mainstream as MIT and Yale.

The school’s unconventional approach doesn’t put off admissions officers at top colleges.

“Some of the brightest and most creative kids come out of schools like Happy Valley,” said Joe Allen, dean of admissions at the University of Southern California, which admitted half a dozen Happy Valley graduates in the last 10 years.

Even so, Rice said that competition to make the big time has never been the point at Happy Valley. That comes back to haunt him, he joked, when he tries to hit up alumni for donations.

“They tell me, ‘You taught us to be social workers and teachers and artists,’ “ he said. “You never taught us how to make money.’ “

Still, many Happy Valley graduates have.

Tom Pollock, a former vice chairman of MCA, the entertainment giant, graduated in 1960.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I feel it contributed enormously to my whole outlook on life,” he said.

“So much of it has to do with this feeling of Huxley’s and Krishnamurti’s that learning is a wonderful and valid experience for its own sake,” he said. “That’s an attitude you don’t find at too many secondary schools or even in colleges.

“School is often treated as just a way station for learning a craft, so you can go on to make lots of money.”

By the Numbers

* Student population: 93

* Faculty: 16-18

* Nations represented: 12

* Cost: $24,500 for boarding students, $11,700 for day students

* Annual scholarships available: $250,000

PHOTO: Students gather in a yurt, left. PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO: Above, Principal Dennis Rice gazes across the 400-acre campus. PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO: Austin Baumgarten and Hilary Meyer hug,… PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO:…while music teacher Eddie Guthman, top right, jams with students. PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO: Ruby Cossairt and Karleigh Harris work on art,… PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO:…and teacher David Anderson lectures on history. PHOTOGRAPHER: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times PHOTO: British writer Aldous Huxley. His Happy Valley School helps carry on some of his philosophies.

Copyright (c) 1997 Times Mirror Company