Seeking the Heart of Higher Education

Posted on Oct 2, 2013

The education of the young is one of humanity’s greatest communal undertakings. Through it, culture, history, science, art, values, and countless other priceless discoveries, insights, inventions and achievements are conveyed. And at the center of it all is the human being in his or her full humanity. As Wendell Berry reminds us, it is the humanity of our students that is being shaped through a compact between teachers, students, and others in the academic community.

The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal began as a conversation between Parker Palmer and me, but grew into a book full of questions and explorations, probes and proposals, visions and hopes. We sought to uncover, at least in part, the heart of higher education — that which gives learning life and grants to teaching its deepest satisfaction.

Parker and I have tried to express, perhaps with only limited success, what we take to be some of education’s essential characteristics. We have drawn from the sciences to argue for the primacy of experience, relationship, and the interconnectedness of humanity and the earth. We have looked through the lenses of psychology and neuroscience to investigate the stages of human unfolding. We have evoked the spiritual and religious traditions to help us craft pedagogies of attention, equanimity, and contemplative knowing. Our greatest challenge has been to convey in discursive, linear sentences what is, in truth, an integrated, holistic reality.

Education is a vital, demanding and precious undertaking, and much depends on how well it is done. If it is true to the human being, education must reflect our nature in all its subtlety and complexity. Every human faculty must be taken seriously, including the intellect, emotions, and our capacity for relational, contemplative and bodily knowing. An integrative education is one that offers curricula and pedagogies that employ and deploy all these faculties, delights in their interactions, and is spacious enough to allow for their creative conflict.

Values such as compassion, social justice, and the search for truth, which animate and give purpose to the lives of students, faculty, and staff, are honored and strengthened by an integrative education. But to be truly integrative, such an education must go beyond a ”values curriculum“ to create a comprehensive learning environment that reflects a holistic vision of humanity, giving attention to every dimension of the human self. Integrative education honors communal as well as individual values, cultivates silent reflection, and encourages vigorous dialogue as well as ethical action. The geometry of the human soul is dense with such antinomies. They are essential to our nature, and real teaching and learning must reflect that inner complexity.

In our book, we end by calling for “collegial conversations.” They can only take place within a context — and the particular context required for the renewal of higher education is an integrative philosophy of education made in the image of the human being. That is why we have attempted to articulate some features of an integrative educational philosophy that can support conversations about the heart of higher education and provide a loom for weaving together diverse pedagogical methods. The ideas, insights and actions that flow from collegial conversations will be integrative only to the extent that the conversation partners share a full and rich image of what it means to be human.

That circle of rocking chairs at the Highlander Folk School is itself a symbol of what we are calling for. The Highlander conversations were grounded in an image of the human being and the human future that was not partial, but whole. Had the image been fragmented, then the conversations and their consequences would have reflected that brokenness. But the words spoken in that circle were drawn from an aquifer of human wholeness that simultaneously honored and transcended race. As a result, the civil rights movement that flowed from the Highlander conversations helped give American history a more human shape.

While we are unlikely to have the pleasure of sitting in a circle and exploring these matters with more than a few of you, we hope you will feel led to initiate such conversations with colleagues on your campus. As individuals we often reflect, understand, and act in solitude. But we thrive on what arises between us — and never more so than when we are thinking and speaking together about ideas and people for whom we care deeply. The renewal we advocate will germinate first in the soil of these caring and collegial conversations.

We believe that the current generation of educators possesses all that is needed to take on the great adventure of remaking higher education in the fullness and beauty it deserves. To those who might see our suggestions as utopian, we reply that every challenge we face as a society — social, environmental, or economic — calls for an integrative response, one that draws on our most comprehensive understanding and ethical sensibility. Only integrative answers will suffice, and only an integrative education will equip our students to meet those challenges.

Educate our students as whole people, and they will bring all of who they are to the demands of being human in private and public life. The present and future well-being of humankind asks nothing less of us.


This article first appeared on and is re-posted with permission of the author.


Arthur Zajonc is President of the Mind & Life Institute. He is also emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College, where he taught from 1978 to 2012. He has been visiting professor and research scientist at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, and a Fulbright professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. His research has included studies in parity violation in atoms, the experimental foundations of quantum physics, and the relationship between sciences, the humanities and meditation. He is author of Catching the Light, co-author of The Quantum Challenge, and co-editor of Goethe’s Way of Science. Since 1997 he served as scientific coordinator for the Mind and Life dialogues with H.H. the Dalai Lama, whose meetings have been published as The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama (Oxford 2004) and The Dalai Lama at MIT (Harvard UP, 2006). He formerly directed the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society,  supporting appropriate inclusion of contemplative practice in higher education.

One Comment

  1. This book, and the surrounding discussions in the Centre for Contemplative Mind were literally life changing and enhancing. I was open to these offerings, but their impact have been substantial. The spirit of this book, the ACMHE and others has become the spirit that now defines academically. What more can I say?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *