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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Toward a Mindful General Education


In The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, Jeffrey Sachs describes the challenges facing our culture today and offers some ideas for how to overcome them.  He notes, “the problems of America begin at home, with the choices we are making as individuals.  Through clearer thinking, we can become more effective both as individuals and as citizens, reclaiming power from the corporations” (p. 162).  He calls for the creation of a “mindful society” that takes a “middle path” based on the ethical teachings of both Buddha and Aristotle and identifies eight areas that would “extend to a more considered understanding of our social relationships and responsibilities as workers, citizens, and members of the community” (p. 165)—a goal that is consistent with that of general education as I have described it in earlier posts.   The eight dimensions are:
·      Mindfulness of Self – A middle path of personal moderation to balance the craving for wealth with the need for personal happiness.
·      Mindfulness of Work – Seeking meaningful work, in part by better preparing for the work environment and in part by balancing work and other life activities.
·      Mindfulness of Knowledge --  An attitude that one “must always keep an open door to science” and be “open to revision based on new scientific evidence” (p. 170).  This is especially important in a technology-based society in which the scientific basis for the tools of daily life.  Sachs notes that “mindfulness of knowledge, therefore, properly begins with the recognition of the complexity of our economy and the need for scientific and technical expertise to help manage it” (p. 171).
·      Mindfulness of Others – Sachs believes that the most difficult challenge in today’s society may be to revive compassion for others.  This is a challenge both at the persona level, where many Americans have retreated from public life, and at the civic level, where one goal, for instance, is to address issues of poverty.  Mindfulness of others involves creating an ethic that connects individuals to society.
·      Mindfulness of Nature – Sachs believes that today’s society is fundamentally different from previous eras in two ways: (1) global society is “much further removed from nature than in the past” and (2) “human impacts on nature are for the first time in history so great that they threaten the planet’s core biophysical functioning” (p. 175).   This dimension of mindfulness involves recognizing—and responding to—our impact on the natural world in which we live.
·      Mindfulness of the Future—Sachs notes that this dimension “requires a special act of will:  to take moral and practical ownership of the long-term consequences of our actions and to trace those consequences as carefully as possible into the far future (p. 176).  It involves building a new ethic for the future and taking moral responsibility for what will happen as a consequence of our actions.  In civil society, he argues, “a new mindfulness of the future would take seriously the responsibility to link expert forecasts with appropriate policy actions” (p. 178).
·      Mindfulness of Politics – Sachs sees this dimension as a needed “antidote” to the rising power of corporations displacing individual power in a democracy.  He notes, “Americans must regain a proper understanding of the complementary and balanced roles of government and the marketplace” (179).
·      Mindfulness of the World – The final dimension involves the creation of a new “global ethic” that recognizes the interconnectedness of the world, both economically and socially, which has made obsolete the ethic of national and cultural separation.  As Sachs notes, “The combination of unprecedented economic interconnectedness on the one hand, and the deep distrust across national and regional borders on the other, may be the defining paradox of the world economy today” (p. 180).  Resolving this paradox requires a new ethic that emphasizes respect and tolerance of others and a core value of mutual esteem. 
Creating Mindfulness:  A Context for General Education
            Sachs’ ideas about how to overcome the current crises in American civil society translate very well into goals for general education.  His dimensions of mindfulness describe a vision for the relationship of the individual to society that is consistent with the goals of general education that have been described in earlier posts.    
            The question then becomes:  How would one structure a general education curriculum around these goals?   A mindful general education curriculum would have several characteristics:
·      It would be interdisciplinary, bringing the perspectives of different disciplines to bear on understanding complexity in one or more of the eight dimensions. 
·      It would be problem-centered, giving students direct experience in understanding the complexity of a situation and in framing a solution.
·      It would involve inquiry and active learning, conveying core knowledge and skills through the context of understanding problems and finding solutions.
·      It would be foundational, in the sense that it would require students to understand the cultural, theoretical, or historical foundations of the issues involved in one or more of the dimensions.
·      To the extent possible, elements of the curriculum would be experiential and team oriented, encouraging learning by experience. 
·      It would use a variety of methods and media to engage students in active, inquiry-based, problem-centered learning.
Such a curriculum could work within the distribution system typical of many undergraduate programs.  However, the courses would be multi-disciplinary—ideally, interdisciplinary—perhaps along the lines of the innovative Science, Technology, and Society curriculum (see my September 3, 2010 post on STS).   Many course themes could be developed.  A few off the top of my head:

  • Understanding Globalization:  The Idea and Practice of Community 
  • The Next 100 Years:  Nurturing Nature
  • Human Migration in the Industrial Age
  • War on Poverty: Exploring Middle Path Solutions
  • The Role of Government in a Democratic Society
  • The Role of Free Markets in a Democratic Society
  • The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution