Friday, September 11, 2009

What is contemplative education?

I've realized I should probably start with some explanation of the concept of "contemplative education." I'll give my own personal understanding first, then next week I'll give some links to people who know a lot more about it than I do.

The standard educational model in contemporary American society is the consumer model. There are manufacturers of knowledge (researchers and creators), vendors of knowledge (schools and instructors), and consumers of knowledge (students). Learning is the process of getting the desired or needed knowledge products "off the shelf" and safely "into the cart." There is no real link between where the knowledge came from, how it is delivered, and how it will be used.

The contemplative model takes a more holistic approach. (There is also a movement advocating "holistic education," which I haven't studied enough to know how different it is from contemplative education). Learning is the process of individuals bringing their experiences into conversation with one or, more typically, multiple traditions. In this model, Western academia and scientific consensus are important traditions--but so are wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism or one of the Abrahamic faiths. Lineage is an important concept (one variant being Kenneth Burke's "unending conversation" metaphor). Learning is not just knowledge acquisition, but personal formation.

Because of this holistic approach, an emphasis on mindfulness is one of the key distinctives of contemplative education. Students are encouraged to fully engage with their studies--to not only use their intellects, but to be aware of their emotional and physical responses. This awareness can be caricatured as "and how does that make you feeeeel?" navel-gazing (just as the standard model can be caricatured as "factory education"), but at its best, mindfulness involves self-criticism as much or more than self-indulgence. Intellectual resistance to emotionally threatening facts, after all, is a well-known but remarkably persistent problem, and often our bodies tell us things our conscious minds can't or won't.

So, that's my brief and possibly idiosyncratic introduction to contemplative education. Next week: professional literature.

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