Katherine Tingley Explains Her Work and Aims: An Interview

By Gertrude Stevenson
[Originally published in The Boston Herald, September 21, 1913 as "Newburyport Girl Evolves Amazing New Educational System: Katherine Tingley Here Explains Life Work and Aims."]

Just what one individual can accomplish provided that individual is gifted with a vision of what the world can and ought to be and isn't, and is possessed of enough force and executive ability to make the vision a reality, is demonstrated in the accomplishments of Katherine Tingley's life.

Everyone who reads the newspapers has read much of Katherine Tingley. . . . Woven in with facts has been much fiction. Coupled with scant praise has come criticism and condemnation. Hailed on one side as the greatest leader the theosophists have ever had, she has been characterized also as a charlatan and an insincere reformer. If the results of one's efforts are any criterion of one's ability and sincerity, then Raja Yoga College alone is all the monument that Katherine Tingley needs. If the opinion of one who has seen and talked with her is of any worth, she is not only a remarkable woman but above all other things sincere.

In the course of an interview with Mrs. Tingley in her suite at the Copley-Plaza in which the headquarters at Point Loma and the Raja Yoga School was the chief topic of conversation, . . . I suddenly realized that I was having the unlooked for privilege of hearing Katherine Tingley outline to me her life and work from the time she was a child in Newburyport until the present day when she has just returned from a wonderful trip through Sweden and is about to return to her headquarters in California.

"I think I must have been born a humanitarian in the first place," she said. "In the second place I have had enough personal suffering and sorrow to develop sufficient humanitarian qualities in case they were originally lacking. When I was a little girl in Newburyport I saw in my childish imagination the schools I was later to erect at Point Loma. When I was little more than five years of age I used to build with my blocks the plans of the buildings now part of the theosophical establishment in California. Every building was octagonal in shape. Every one contained a piano. Every one was presided over by a mother and a teacher included in one person. Thus in later years at Point Loma I built octagonal buildings with a piano in each one and a housemother at the head. Just as when a child I demanded that music be a part of those collapsible schools of A B C blocks, just so as a woman and a leader I realize that the power and value of music in the daily life had never been sufficiently appreciated or properly utilized."

The woman in the chair opposite me impressed me as being unusual in many ways -- imposing in appearance in the first place, remarkable in her conception of service and in her outlook on life and her comprehension of its needs, but most of all in her broad understanding of people. . . . Her eyes are as warmly luminous as those of a girl of 20, with the added value of all the depth of understanding that only years -- many, many years of living and experience -- can bring. Round her iron gray hair she wears a wide, flat band of rich Oriental embroidered stuff, although that merely intensifies, rather than produces, the atmosphere of exceptional individuality. Her costume, too, is unlike that of other women, as much in its absolute comfort as in appearance. Over a white gown, with just a suggestion of adornment in the way of Persian embroidery, she wears a very long, white, robe-like garment. She is a living contradiction of the statement that only slender women may successfully eschew corsets.

"I can remember that even as a child I was restless and uninterested in the pursuits of the other children," the rich, full-fibred voice continues. Of all things else, Katherine Tingley's voice has retained all the qualities of youth. "I used to spend much time in the woods and under the trees dreaming of a land where flowers bloomed all the year round in an eternal summer. When I finally established my school I built it in a climate which quite fulfilled, if not exceeded, my youthful dreams . . .

"Living the sheltered life in a well-to-do family, I knew nothing of the poverty and misery of life until I saw the families of the Irish immigrants who came to work and make their home in Newburyport. I can feel even now the sickening shudder that went through me as I realized that life was not all comfort and happiness as I had always known it. My very soul rebelled at conditions. Why couldn't everyone be comfortable and healthy and happy? Why should anyone in the world want for the proper things to eat and lack the comforts of life? These questions assailed my consciousness again and again. Even as a young girl I felt an urging to change these conditions -- to bring joy and peace and comfort to the world and its people and wipe out sin and suffering and care.

"As I look back now I realize that I had three very distinct interests in life -- people, architecture, and music. Today those three interests are still predominating -- people, architecture, and music -- the one typifying my ambition to be a humanitarian, the other two expressing my love for the beautiful in life.

"After a time I was packed away to school in the conventional and accepted fashion and was very much in danger of being railroaded through life according to the ideas and convictions of other people rather than in conformity to the dictates of my own individuality. That's the tragedy of so many lives. Life and education is a round hole -- the square pegs must be forced through somehow, even though some very important and characteristic corners are knocked off in the process. Possibly I was one of the square pegs who refused to have the corners cut off, and the world is slow to forgive such an insurrection.

"At any rate everywhere around me I saw suffering and the harvest of sin. Constantly I realized that something was vitally wrong with all our scheme of things -- with our conventions, our efforts, our charities. In the very shadow of the churches I saw vice and suffering and want. Everywhere I saw people going along the even tenor of their ways, blissfully oblivious or frankly indifferent to it all. Never could I reconcile myself to a bland acceptance of such things. I must at least try to ameliorate conditions.

"Finally, I found myself in New York. I had already known enough sorrow and suffering in my own personal life to place me even in closer sympathy with people and conditions. I started what I called the Emergency Society."

There was just a fleeting smile as Mrs. Tingley recalled the prosaically-named society of the earlier days. "It was long before anybody had even thought of settlement work or settlement houses, but I opened the place on the East Side, right in the center of that great mass of congested humanity that lived and worked and struggled, at that time far more unknown and unconsidered by the people fortunate or unfortunate enough to reside west of Fourteenth Street than it is today.

"Day after day I went about in the homes of these people. I saw the pathetic woman with the drunken husband, and sometimes I understood why the husband drank. Then, too, I saw the industrious husband with the worthless, slovenly wife. I saw hardship as the result of vice, and vice as the outcome of hardship. I realized that all our systems of helpfulness were totally backhanded. We dealt then, and most people deal now, with effects rather than causes. After the damage is done we attempt to repair. I saw a vision of getting to fundamental causes, starting the child right and fitting him to meet the exigencies of life with some possibility of keeping the upper hand and retaining originality, purity, and ideals. What I wanted to do was to prevent the damage being done. The world was well equipped with havens for the beaten and the fallen. I wanted to evolve an institution to take humanity in hand before it was worsted in the struggle of life.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people came to my emergency headquarters. I could tell a fraud the moment he stepped in the door. Some people attributed my insight into people and their characters to some psychic quality. It was nothing of the sort. It was merely the result of common sense and long experience in dealing with various types of men and women.

"Finally, William Q. Judge, then the executive head of the Theosophical Society and closely associated with Mme. Blavatsky, heard of me and my work. Unknown to me he was watching my progress. One day he came to the headquarters. I can remember as well as if it were yesterday. . . . From that time on I became closer in touch with theosophy . . .

"New York, I knew, was far from an ideal location for the headquarters of the Theosophical Society and when I discovered Point Loma in San Diego, I knew that the goal of my ideal had been reached. It is now a veritable nature paradise.

Academy Building and Temple of Peace, International Theosophical Headquarters, Point Loma

I called the college Raja Yoga because that means the kingly union of mental, spiritual, and physical development, aimed to return to the pure ideal of Greek simplicity. Much has been said and written of my 'peculiar methods' and all sorts of attempts have been made to make a mystery of my work and my system of education. It is the very simplicity of it all that baffles the ordinary understanding. The ideas are as old as the world. I am simply applying them. The Greeks realized that the body was the temple of the soul and that a sound and perfect body was essential for a sound and perfect mind. I have repudiated dogma and all arbitrary standards of living and education. I have thrown off the shackles of traditional compulsion. A child at Point Loma is taken as a precious, wonderful entity and is developed as such. Each child is interpreted and understood. Probably no two children are alike, and therefore no teacher at Point Loma has more than a few children to instruct at a time. The present system and overworked teachers are vicious and fatal to national welfare.

Classroom at Point Loma, about 1900

"Our children have different instructors for each study. After a teacher has had a class, she takes a recreation period. She gets out close to nature. She is given an opportunity to restore her own poise and spiritual equilibrium. How can a teacher teaching continuously every morning and afternoon bring anything vital into the lives of children, especially when she has, as nearly every public school teacher has, anywhere from 30 to 50 children to handle? Those precious little lives, each one totally different by heredity and environment and individuality must go through a curriculum that demands that they be as much alike as a pod full of peas. If they aren't they are made to be, and still we pride ourselves on our wonderful public schools! . . .

"The greatest beauty in the world is beauty of character. That is our aim of beauty at Point Loma. Everywhere we went while abroad the students who accompanied me impressed the audiences by their calm demeanor and their perfect repose. They know themselves. That is the great secret of life. I am not growing angels at Point Loma. That is not my mission, but I do know that our students have something that other students, for the most part, have not. They are at peace with themselves and the world and that alone makes for wonderful concentration and composure.

"Music is a very vital part of our lives down there and I attribute the musical success of so many of our students to the fact that their education is well rounded. How can a composer compose pure melody if his soul is full of hate and inharmony? How can a musician interpret the music of others unless purity dwells in his own life and heart?" I asked Mrs. Tingley to tell me just how her system of education differs from general methods.

"I'll give you an example which will explain how we work," she answered. "Take the study of history, for instance. In most schools and colleges a student is given an accepted history and is made to learn it by rote and accept its contents as absolutely true. Now we know that every history that was ever written was influenced by the character, beliefs, and prejudices of the man who wrote it. We also take the accepted histories and study them, at the same time we study the men who wrote them. We find out just what sort of a man each historian was -- just what influences surrounded him -- just what pressure was brought to bear upon him. Then we take his output and judge it accordingly and form our conception of the history of the country along with the conception of the historian.

"Theosophy is too big a subject to dismiss with a word, a sentence or a paragraph, but this much you may say -- theosophy can never be an abstract study. One must live theosophy and apply it in a practical way to everyday life -- to every thought and deed and action. Theosophy is something one does not get in an afternoon's reading. So many people who tell you there's nothing to it are the sort of people who take up one of Madame Blavatsky's books, scan it hurriedly, find nothing in it, and therefore conclude that there is nothing in it. One might just as well take up a book of Greek and because one had never studied Greek or had forgotten all one had previously learned, declare: 'There is nothing in it." '

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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