Education reform has long been a topic of heated debate. On the one hand, people generally seem to agree that the administration of a public school system requires some measure of checks and balances to ensure that all children receive roughly the same education. Although there are clearly issues with standardized testing and a system that forces kids into a very small box, it seems to be the only fair way to assess the effects of academic instruction. And yet, there is more to our nation’s children than the number of facts we can cram into their heads and ask them to regurgitate. They have the capacity for so much more than rote memorization. Through a holistic approach to teaching by which educators strive to address the whole human, including not only the mind, but also the heart and soul, we could help students to develop a strong mind and a spirit to match. At least, this is the concept at the heart of Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc’s audio book, ‘The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal’.
Palmer is a prolific author on the overarching subjects of living life with integrity, purpose, and an awareness of self, while Zajonc, the current president of the Mind & Life Institute, spent many years as a physics professor and has studied subjects as diverse as quantum physics, humanities, and meditation. The two may seem like something of an odd couple as a writing team, but their thoughts on education are apparently aligned. And they’re not wrong in their assessment of the current educational system as a vehicle for mental development at the expense of other important areas. In their estimation, it is time to create educational reform that addresses the whole human through the development of a learning environment that integrates lessons for the mind and the spirit, teaching students not only how to think on a critical level, but also helping them to develop a sense of compassion and a love of learning that enhances cognitive abilities.
The audio book ostensibly presents the argument that it is possible to create a holistic system of education at the collegiate level, but there’s a lot more to it. Not only do the authors posit that this is possible, but they provide concrete suggestions for how such educational reform could be implemented, namely through the integration of science, the humanities, and contemplative arts. They seem to want to emphasize that their goals are more than just conceptual pipe dreams to create students that love learning, and they do this by offering practical suggestions that educators and administrators can implement. And while the payoff for students is obvious, this approach to teaching can also have an extremely positive and fulfilling effect on educators, as well.
Of course, there are bound to be detractors to this line of thinking, especially those that benefit from the current system in some way, or those that would rather push the problems under the rug than face them and seek a solution. But ‘The Heart of Higher Education’ presents a compelling argument for changing the system, as well as a practical approach to doing so. And it can be applied at not only the collegiate level, but for all education reform, although naturally, lessons would have to be tailored to different developmental stages. Whether students are attending an Ivy League college or a UC online program, they deserve to be treated as whole humans, and they should learn to interact with others in the same way. If we want a society populated by people who are compassionate and socially responsible in addition to being smart and innovative, holistic education is the path that will lead us there.