- The Soul of Higher Education: Contemplative Pedagogy, Research, and Institutional Life for the Twenty-First Century ed. by Margaret Benefiel and Bo Karen Lee
In many ways, The Soul of Higher Education: Contemplative Pedagogy, Research, and Institutional Life for the Twenty-First Century is most remarkable for the scale of its aspirations. As the subtitle and series title suggest, the collection explores contemplative approaches not just to teaching, but to research and workplace structures as well. Further, the book aims not just to study higher education, but to help change it—as co-editor Bo Karen Lee writes, to “increase compassion and kindness in our institutions, and to promote healing in the academy and beyond” (xv). In the process, the book takes on the challenge of bridging the divide between the guilds of contemplative studies and Christian spirituality. Following Louis Komjathy’s observation that contemplative studies generally “privileges Buddhism, especially ‘secular” Buddhism, and Western science,” co-editor Margaret Benefiel presents the book as “a modest attempt” to bring “Eastern and Western perspectives together, to let those with different perspectives inhabit the same territory and perhaps begin to speak to one another and learn from one another” (xiii).
The book’s tripartite structure embodies its ambitious scope, with sections on the “epistemological foundations” of contemplatively grounded higher education; “contemplative teaching, learning, and research”; and “contemplative organizational structures.” In the first section, Benefiel argues that “contemplative higher education has stronger epistemological foundations than the dominant world-view” (4), which privileges scientific materialism and “objective” knowledge at the expense of “subjective.” She then turns to alternative models—from William James to Bernard Lonergan—that productively overcome the subjective-objective bifurcation. The second essay seems to offer another such model, as Mary Frohlich’s carefully argued chapter draws on the methodology of spirituality to propose “a meta-method that invites us consistently to ground ourselves in the spiritual foundations of ‘why and wherefore’ we do what we do in our research and teaching” (25).
The second section begins in the humanities classroom, with three chapters by scholars familiar to many students of Christian spirituality. Barbara Newman offers an engaging, wide-ranging “homily” (38) on the question “How can we nudge our students toward a more contemplative mode of being, even as they take advantage of new digital worlds at their fingertips?” (33). Stephanie Paulsell’s elegant essay on reading ties the history of lectio divina to contemporary pedagogical practices like rereading, compiling, and contemplatively based writing, ultimately offering a lively apologia for the humanities, indeed for the liberal arts as a whole. Lee’s deeply self-implicating reflection asks, “Is it possible to teach [whatever subject we teach] so that we engender more compassion in the world?” (54, brackets in original). She responds by recounting her experience teaching Ignatian meditation, echoing her introduction as she envisions how Christian contemplative traditions, and indeed Christ, can promote compassion in the academy and wider world (64, cf. xv). The next two chapters bring important disciplinary breadth to the volume. Dan Barbezat, a major voice in contemplative pedagogy, describes exercises that lead students to approach economics through self-awareness and [End Page 263] altruism. The chapter contributed by the late André L. Delbecq reports on a focus group of six alumni of his MBA seminar on Spirituality of Organizational Leadership, identifying themes and practices that support professionals living “contemplative spirituality in a secular organization culture” (99). Moving from the focus on teaching, Jacob Holsinger Sherman’s thought-provoking essay, previously published in Spiritus, explicitly engages the guild divide, proposing that “the maturation of contemplative studies requires it to engage more fully with scholarship produced by those in spirituality” (106). Applying Harold Roth’s important concept of “’cognitive imperialism,’ the more or less subtle ethnocentrism involved in taking European religious, philosophical, and scientific conceptions as academically normative” (109...