Glimpsing Contemplative Pedagogy

Posted on: November 6, 2014

college-classroom-1-300x300A few weeks ago we talked about what contemplative pedagogy is and how Wake Forest is starting to spread the word about it. Today, Professor Eric Ekstrand shares a bit more about how and why he uses it in the classroom.

When the mystical Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, delivered his Norton Lectures in 1955, he warned of a “danger”: that critical analysis “shuts the poem in upon itself as an object, not of enjoyment but of scrutiny, and cuts it off from the air it should breathe and its spontaneous operation on those who are capable of receiving it.”  Interestingly, this is a sentiment from the era when creative writing began to be taught by poets and fiction writers instead of by literary scholars for the first time in universities. Why might people hate poetry? Because they are asked to use the poem for analysis instead of enjoy their own senses in it.  Can we educate our students to enjoy their world?

Instead, we strip-mine them for one commodity—analysis— when we know intelligence is diverse, and we teach by it, singularly, when we know modes of learning are equally diverse.  We reward one kind of learner while the creative, the emotional, the physical learners, are left to assume they are less smart and have less to contribute. I was one of these students.  We need analytical thinkers—of course!—but are they all we need?

Why are we surprised when as even liberal arts instruction drives further into the instrumental, analytical, (and curiously) the professional, and away from the ethical, the interpersonal, the heartfelt in mistrust, we see a student culture trained to talk past each other, that are sexually violent, that cyber-bully, that degrade their physical environment, that are anxious and depressed, that are wasted in its multiple meanings? We should be careful not to catastrophize as we take these things seriously and not to only blame and subject students. Of course, our students are also quite bright and caring, eager, and passionate for justice in the way we want our young people to be.   And I don’t mean to say that education is necessarily the proximate cause here, either, but couldn’t it be more and more an aid?

Blaise Pascal warns at the dawn of the Enlightenment that we can go too far into the project of reason and that there are questions better answered through other human faculties, so a balance is required where the scales may have tipped, “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling have no understanding of matters involving reasoning. For they want to go right to the bottom of things at a glance, and are not accustomed to look for principles.  The others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, have no understanding for matters of feeling, because they look for principles and are unable to see things at a glance.” (Pensées, 1669) Contemplative pedagogies are a set of teaching and learning practices that aim at this balance between a study of the within and without of things by integrating, in classroom practices, the intellect with the heart and body.  Contemplative pedagogies are part of the larger umbrella of the experiential and integrative learning movements already enjoying institutional and practical success in our service learning and problem-based learning classrooms.  Its distinction is that it uses mindfulness-awareness practices to train first-hand in self-reflection, listening, adaptability, curiosity and compassion—qualities instructors expect to show up in classroom conversation, papers, and even the dorms and Greek lounges, but are rarely trained with intention.

Contemplative pedagogy (as any teaching stance does) presents a few gnarly questions that provide a productive tension for contemplative teachers and learners: “What is the role of feelings in academic conversation, wouldn’t including them be self-aggrandizing and muddying?” ;  “Isn’t it important for the university to remain secular, I mean, doesn’t this smell a little medieval?” ;  “What happens when my students become troubled, looking inward is scary, uncomfortable and messy?” ; “Is it appropriate to require students to take-on what has been a religious perspective or practice even when it is couched in secular terms?” ;  “Is it appropriative to take practices rooted in particular, often East Asian, cultural-geographical contexts and transplant them in our still primarily Eurocentric liberal arts classrooms?”  And there are others.  I cannot respond to all of these persistent and important questions here, but will turn you to the early pages of Palmer and Zajonc’s The Heart of Education: A Call to Renewal and to Barbezat and Bush’s Contemplative Practices in Higher Education for thoughtful responses, if you are interested.

I will, though, briefly, use Muir again to ask: by our education do we shut our student’s world “in upon itself as an object, not of enjoyment but of scrutiny, and cut it off from the air it should breathe and its spontaneous operation on those who are capable of receiving it”?  I find that my students are thirsty for an education that meets them as whole people (as I overhear our student tour guides in front of ZSR proudly saying we do here, and do we?) that challenges them not only through skill-building, content-downloading and frantic workloads, but through self-reflection and character-work also.  They are thirsty for an education with soul power.  For these students, contemplative pedagogy may be one transformative offering.

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