With his new book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning (Jossey-Bass, co-authored with Mirabai Bush) Daniel Barbezat continues his mission to encourage colleges and universities to become centers of contemplation and self-reflection for students.
Prof. Daniel Barbezat in his office
An economics professor at Amherst College since 1988 and an economic historian, in recent years Barbezat has taught several courses that integrate themes of mindfulness with traditional economics, including Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness. Barbezat, also executive director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, recently spoke with Director of Public Affairs Peter Rooney about his new book and the growing interest in contemplation and reflection among colleges and universities.
Q: How long have you practiced mindfulness and meditation and when did you begin discussing mindfulness and using contemplative practices in the classroom?
A: I started practicing meditation in the early 2000s, and it was around 2005 that I slowly started to work some things into the classroom. I felt that an open sense of first-person inquiry was critical for education, but only if done in a way that didn’t impose implicitly or explicitly my own sense of meaning.
Since becoming the Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, I have been inspired to see the implications for contemplative practices throughout higher education. Certainly, they can be powerful modes for deepening the understanding of material in the classroom, but they also can be effective in all areas: student services, wellness, administration, etc.
I think it’s important to note that I don’t teach meditation. I have exercises where students focus or attend to particular ideas, but I don’t teach meditation or anything from the traditions that I practice because I don’t think that would be appropriate. However, there’s something universal around reflection and introspection. They are human practices that are not linked in a narrow way to a particular tradition, and that can provide access to a very broad group of students.
Q: You argue in your book that contemplative practices are needed in higher education more than ever. Why is that the case?
A: Higher education has forgotten that one of its purposes is to provide students the tools and space so they can live lives of engaged learning and meaning. Instead many colleges have become more focused on narrow vocational training.
We need to return the idea that students need the tools to develop and sustain an inquiry into meaning so they can integrate what they’re learning into engaged action and lives of meaning.
When you’re a young adult, you’re developing your own ethical sense and particular values. Ideally this involves the sort of abstract thinking and maturity that starts to develop at this age. Higher education should be providing the environment and tools that engage in that inquiry, not to provide particular values, but to challenge students as they continue to learn. The contemplative practices we discuss in our book are powerful means to engage in that inquiry.
Everyone is wondering what is the ‘future of higher education.’ Well, if it is narrow training in specific disciplines, I don’t see how current models could possibly be cost effective. While training in the tools and knowledge for successful careers is obviously vital, so is developing and sustaining inquiry into meaning and purpose. This is better done in community, in residential settings integrated and devoted to creating these actively engaged learning environments. Disciplined methods of focus and reflection are necessary for this development and that is what the book attempts to demonstrate.
Q: Do you find that even Amherst students, who in most case have demonstrated the ability to focus deeply and to succeed and thrive at a high level, are more distracted today than when you arrived here?
The modes of distraction are more seductive now, and the way that students distract themselves is cultivated much more than it used to be. A basic condition of being human is the ability to notice and be compelled by change. Amherst students certainly can attend to something, and that which is compelling to them they can attend to for long periods of time.
Residential colleges can provide a community where students, staff and faculty foster an environment where students learn not only to cultivate attention but also to inquire about what is meaningful and how to live out that meaning in the world.
Q: Why did you begin incorporating mindfulness into your courses and academic work?
A: About 10 years ago I began to question the purpose of what I was doing in research and teaching. My field of economic history was increasingly becoming specialized and narrow, and I was writing for fewer and fewer specialized publications. I took a "time out" to work out a sense of what I was doing. I called together a group of really good friends from all over the country and had a weekend with them. I started by stating my sense of being stuck and confused.
Over the weekend, as we spoke, it became clear there were areas in my life that did have a sense of meaning and importance. I thought I would see whether it was possible to do what was personally meaningful to me in a way that was appropriate with my teaching.
Q: How receptive are students to learning about mindfulness and contemplative practices?
A: While students are receptive to learning, they also don’t know whether this is something that will provide benefits to them in the future. Students are receptive as long as they can see relevance. They are intellectually curious and hungry to learn.
Q: How receptive are your colleagues at Amherst about your interest in mindfulness?
A: About a third are curious and interested, a third are happy to let me do whatever I want as long as I leave them alone and a third think this is all crazy talk would be my guess, but that’s not based on a formal survey. When I’ve spoken to colleagues about this, even those who are skeptical at first can see that contemplative practices can be complementary to more traditional ways of engaging in academic material.
Q: Do you encounter resistance. If so, where does it come from?
Contemplative practices can be couched in the form of a particular religious tradition; there are examples of people doing that, and that is problematic to people in a number of ways. It’s important to consider these practices not as linked to a particular creed or credo that needs to be embraced by students.
Secondly, there’s resistance to the lack of clear assessment for these pedagogical tools. When people develop techniques for engaging students they need to show impact—are students achieving greater understanding or retention in a measurable way? For me, these practices are about changing students’ orientation to their own life. I think we have more qualitative than quantitative measures of success at this point.
Third, there’s concern that people are inappropriately appropriating traditions, or manipulating them in a facile way to produce outcomes in a classroom.
Q: Why this book?
A: The book is about the pedagogical aspect of what I’m talking about–directed first-person inquiry in the classroom so students are at the center of their own education, so they reflect on their learning. Doing this helps cultivate attention, deepens understanding of the material they’re working with and creates a sense of connection which can lead to more caring for others and thinking beyond one’s self-imperative.
For example, doing work in the community as part of a course has little impact on the student unless students return and reflect and integrate what they’ve done outside the classroom into the study of the course. It’s that reflection and critical self-inquiry that’s so important.