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  • “Listening Dangerously”: Dialogue Training as Contemplative Pedagogy
  • Judith Simmer-Brown

Contemplative pedagogies in higher-education classrooms employ methods adapted from meditative practices in great religious traditions in order to enhance student learning and to fulfill the historic purpose of a liberal arts education: to discover the nature of human life. Our Western education systems were originally derived from religious settings in which questions about what it means to be human were paramount. Over the centuries, through the influences of the European Enlightenment, modern science, and postmodernism, questions about personal identity and the meaning of life increasingly have been removed from our classrooms and deemed inappropriate for the university. Now, in a rebalancing of priorities in higher education, the pendulum is swinging the other direction, largely driven by the insistence of our students, who indicate the centrality of religion and spirituality in their expectations of college curricular and cocurricular offerings. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California Los Angeles conducted a seven-year study that surveyed more than one hundred thousand college students, matriculating freshmen attending 236 diverse colleges and universities across the country, and reported this:

The study reveals that today’s college students have very high levels of spiritual interest and involvement. Many are actively engaged in a spiritual quest and in exploring the meaning and purpose of life. They are also very engaged and involved in religion, reporting considerable commitment to their religious beliefs and practices. As they begin college, freshmen have high expectations for the role their institutions will play in their emotional and spiritual development. They place great value on their college enhancing their self-understanding, helping them develop personal values, and encouraging their expression of spirituality.1

The HERI report goes on to say that three-fourths of college freshmen say they are searching for meaning or purpose in their lives; nearly half of the students surveyed say that they consider it “essential” or “very important” to seek opportunities to help [End Page 33] them grow spiritually. Two-thirds reported that they derive strength, support and guidance from their spiritual or religious beliefs.2 Now our students are asking us to return higher education to the meaningful journey that it was intended to be.

However, it is not sufficient to assume that we have fulfilled our responsibility merely by making minor adjustments to the contents of our courses. Certainly, students are asking for information, but they are particularly asking for mentorship and methods of study that require introspection, silence, and aids to inner transformation. Methods like these were customary at the foundations of liberal education, where religious reading, memorization, contemplation, and debate were central to learning.3 In higher education classrooms throughout the country, similar methods are finding their way back into learning strategies, enriching the lives of our students.

Of course, this does not mean that our students are asking for religious instruction, conversion, or proselytizing. We have been through all of that over the last forty years, and finally religious studies as an academic field has secured methodologies that bring critical perspectives to the study of religion. However, we have often stripped the classroom of exploration of the Big Questions and of equipping students for the journey of self-knowledge that is so essential in contemplating these questions. Given our history as a discipline, it is important to distinguish between religious or spiritual practice and educational pedagogy in the methods we are bringing into our classrooms. We must skillfully develop precise and appropriate approaches that remove any prerequisite of religious belief from our pedagogies, and design them to serve the larger educational journeys of our students. And it is important to address the ethical issues inherent in bringing contemplative practices into our classrooms. I have addressed these issues elsewhere,4 and in this paper I will take a different tack.

Buddhist-Christian Contemplative Pedagogies?

I propose this question: What kind of contemplative pedagogy would be most appropriate to introduce students to the priorities of the work of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies? Especially, how could our emphasis on “study, reflection, interchange, and practice arising out of Buddhist-Christian encounters”5 be reflected, not just in the contents, but...


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