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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Turning the Education System Inside-Out: A More Contemplative Paradigm for a World Gone Mad

Ancient Tibetans created a rather unique culture of introspection and self-awareness.

At one point (about the fifteenth century), Tibet created an education system where its people could attend universities for free and devote their time to self-reflection, self-discovery, meditation, and the “inner” or science of the mind.

A critical mass of young people in the society felt part of something meaningful and were provided the guidance and time to develop their inner potential. Buddhist psychotherapist Miles Neale writes about this in his book, Gradual Awakening:

“Can you imagine that happening in the United States now? What if we directed most of our wealth, energy, and surplus away from defense and put it into education, creating technologies and institutions that feed the human soul and usher in a new paradigm that values contemplation as much as we presently value consumerism?”

Consider the possibility: U.S. public schools grounded in a curriculum that offers more space and opportunities for students to learn more about inner world: who they are, what provides meaning for them, to under their mind, emotions, and motivations, to learn to self-regulate stress and anxieties (which our society pumps full of prescription drugs), to develop a sense of interconnectedness with each other (rather than the sharp divides we now experience).

Yes, it sounds rather crazy, or esoteric or too “Eastern.” But consider the alternative:

How is our present system of education working out? What kind of citizens (and society) is this system helping to produce? What have been the results, as reflected in our current society. Let’s have a glance:

  • A society rife with racial tensions and conflicts, social injustice, systematic racial discrimination, major economic disparity, and civil unrest.   
  • An inability for people to civilly enter debate and discourse over matters of politics, government, and other issues that impact us all (don’t believe me, watch the upcoming election).
  • Stress and anxiety levels are at all-time high (as reported by the CDC), including in high school and college students. Depression rates are soaring.
  • An unprecedented level of global and societal challenges that are not being solved or efficiently addressed, including climate change, terrorism, a viral pandemic, and overpopulation.

While our education system is clearly not the only factor, as educators, we need to focus there and see what reforms need to be made. Our schools provide an important and valuable function.

Helping students become literate, develop social skills, learn to think critically, and to understand the knowledge needed to be successful in their chosen fields and careers is essential for society.

But we can do better. As Neale states, we need an education system that also focuses on the human soul—the inner mind, the development of potential, the nurturing of intuition, insight, creativity, compassion, and wisdom. Why can’t we design a more holistic system that honors a student’s inner potential as well as provide the outer academic tools? Why must we choose?

One way to accomplish this is to reconceive how much time and energy should be spent on accumulating knowledge and studying specific subject areas, when information is so readily available in the digital age. Students can be taught how to locate and apply information but don’t necessarily need to spend large chunks of time committing it to memory.

We also need to reimagine required coursework, particularly in high school and college. Without naming specific subjects, we can all remember having to take courses and learning information that we would never use in our lives, unless we pursued a specialized profession. Instead of being required to take that course, why not create contemplative courses that students could complete, which allow them to spend structured time on self-discovery: meditation and mindfulness workshops, emotional intelligence seminars, volunteer projects and transformative pilgrimages?

Finally, we need to reconsider how we are using resources and how much is going not only into the education system but how those funds are being used. What greater investment can we make than investing in the development of the innate potential of future generations?