A R T H U R . Z A J O N C We Need an Educational Philosophy Fit For Human Beings

Reprinted from GREEN MONEY JOURNAL winter08/09


The educational imagination of one age is simultaneously a foreshadowing of the society we will live within a generation later. An impoverished educational imagination will inevitably lead to a diminished human society and an abused planet. In his essay “The Loss of the University,” Wendell Berry said that the goal of higher education is, “…not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.”Berry is right; the human being in the fullest and most comprehensive sense should be in our minds and hearts when we take up the high task of education, and We must seek to educate the whole miraculous human being for the sake of the individual, society, and our planet. 

While specific pedagogical interventions and strategies are important, of urgent significance now is a coherent and encompassing view – an educational philosophy. 

The three dimensions of an educational philosophy of education originate in an understanding of child development and age appropriate curriculum. An understanding that is holistic and multi-dimensional. An understanding that cultivates social and self-responsibility.
1. Understand child development at different ages. 

  • Acquire rich, expansive understandings of the children we teach and the world in which they live. We need to embrace and elucidate the multi-dimensional nature of both ourselves and our world – body, mind, and spirit. Our education needs to address each with a pedagogy that is as rich and varied as our own nature, engaging all aspects of the student: head, heart, and hands. It should be an embodied learning that moves the soul and speaks to the highest spiritual ideals.To educate the whole human being requires teachers who teach out of their full humanity. We teach who we are as well as our subject matter. 

2. Teach the whole child. 

  • Cultivate all capacities in our students for knowing and creating. If we and the world have several aspects, we should not expect a single mode of exploration and understanding to be sufficient. Rather to each domain of nature and to each level of our own being, we should craft a nuanced means of inquiry suited to that realm. Specifically, of equal importance to the scientific method, which is so well-developed, we should recognize the crucial place of contemplative forms of inquiry. They lead from humility and a gentle engagement to a full and intimate participation in that which we would understand. As Goethe wrote, through a participatory epistemology we make ourselves “utterly identical with the object thereby becoming true theory.” He was pointing to the truth that we only genuinely understand that which we love. Such deep connections shape us, transform us so we become more insightful. “Every object, well-contemplated, opens a new organ in us,” said Goethe. Living patiently yet energetically with real questions allows time for the changes required in us that enable us to live our way into the answer, to paraphrase Rilke. 


3. Foster free will and social responsibility 

  • Foster values that balance individual freedom with an ethic of compassionate concern and social commitment. The third aspect of an adequate educational philosophy concerns the practice of life. With a full appreciation of body, mind, and spirit, and with multiple ways of knowing, we must contribute to society and the planet in ways that are of greatest benefit. As students become more self-aware and cosmopolitan, the strictures of their childhood fall away and the new basis for values is sometimes slow to appear. If we would shun a fundamentalist return to blind obedience to religious dictates or social customs, then we need to locate the source of a free ethical understanding and action. Here again a partial and reductive view of the human being can offer nothing, and we are left with a sophisticated but ultimately empty nihilism. However, the fuller view we advanced at the outset is one that embraces the body, mind, and spirit of our students, ourselves, and our world. This opens up the possibility for the ethical refinement of our moral sensibilities such that genuine moral insight becomes available to the individual. And yet, it also honors and serves human culture in all its diversity within a complex, contemporary global community. 

With this view of our full humanity, we can cultivate a knowing that becomes love, and an active, compassionate, and inclusive ethic that honors both individual and community. Our education can and should support such development. 

Article by Arthur Zajonc, Chair, Physic Department, Amherst College 
Arthur Zajonc partners with Parker Palmer on his next book about the future of higher education; he directs the Academic Program at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society http://www.contemplativemind.org 
More information at http://www.arthurzajonc.org