What Ought We Do

One of the questions I struggle the most with is the idea of the place of contemplation within the classroom. Contemplation and meditation can and have found a place in the select, elite colleges and universities, a place that is slowly expanding and creating a proper Western discipline that can be taught. But the students at such schools are already the best of the best. We have been culled from thousands of applicants for our willingness to learn, as well as our willingness to please. We want to do well, and we are never satisfied with a B. Graduate programs and law school are our finishing schools, our undergraduate degrees a box to check off for our resumes.

To borrow some terminology, we are the 1% of educational attainment. (Well, actually, we are 7%, worldwide [1].) We are the lucky ones.

That’s all and good, and I’m not suggesting that the best and brightest not be taught these methods, but I wonder how we can bring this type of thinking to a very different type of classroom. There are plenty of classrooms, after all, where classroom management is a daily struggle that never quite gets beyond, “Because I told you so.” There’s certainly something powerful to be said about the use of contemplation in such a classroom. But how does a teacher, particularly a new teacher struggling to maintain order, instigate such inquiry? In a world of dedication to the Test, this seems particularly daunting.


Studies have shown that students who learn to meditate do well, do better. Like meditation in other circles, it is the cure to what ails ya. Stress, concentration, bullying, this is the remedy. And maybe it is. I found the way that Hart phrased it to be curious.

“Bringing contemplative practice to the classroom is not exactly bringing something new to children. Children—young children especially—are natural contemplatives. They ponder big questions, they daydream, they fall in woner with nature, they reflect on their own existence and find silence in their “special spot.”[2]

Perhaps teaching contemplative, he suggests, would not be a completely foreign concept. To adults it feels strange, like teaching a new language to our bodies and minds long after the old ones have become ingrained in us. A child experiences a world very different than that the adult sees. Meditation and contemplation may only give words to phenomena that children already know.

Tobin goes on to write a reason that we should take contemplation seriously pedagogically as well. The entire paper argues that there is a practical reason to teach contemplation, and he now concludes it by saying:

Long dormant in education, the natural capacity for contemplation balances and enriches the analytic. It has the potential of enhance performance, character, and depth of the student’s experience. Perhaps most important, the contemplative helps to return the transformative power of wonder, intimacy, and presence in daily learning and daily living.[3]

As I see it, cutting out meditation is a bit like cutting out art or music, except in the fact that mediation was cut long before the other two found their designated time sacrificed at the altar of accountability. It is not an either/or decision because we do not have compartmentalized brains. We make connections between subjects, but we can only truly see the links if our minds are uncluttered. Contemplation helps to open up our minds in a more literal sense than the simple idea of moving towards tolerance. Rather, it opens our minds like a mechanic opens the hood of a car, to understand the processes that make up all of the higher level functions that cause us to move forward each day. It allows an understanding of not just the material, but the mind itself. We hope.


It is encouraging to know that there are people who are making meditation in the classroom work. In Oakland, for instance, Piedmont Avenue Elementary School brought in a specialist to teach the children for a total of thirty minutes a week. They interview professors and principals who all agree that the program has done wonders, but what strikes me as a more truthful statement comes from the author of the piece, Patricia Leigh Brown. She writes, “It seems alternately loved and ignored,” a sentiment that rings truth of any classroom[4]. A child can be lead to the water but not forced to drink.

In my soon-to-be hometown, Detroit, a similar program was installed a middle school. However, when watching the interviews, I was struck by something Jane Pitt, a coordinator at the school, said. “It’s not a philosophy, it’s not a way of life,” she reassured the camera. “It’s simply a mental technique.” The video goes on extol the various virtues of the program, the quantitative results. Grade improvements are noted. Even though the principal seems to genuinely be concerned with the students’ stress, she also uses that word, technique[5].

It’s a clinical word, defined by the OED as, “the formal or practical aspect of any art, occupation, or field[6].” Though I have no doubt that meditation is helping children in these kinds of programs, I think they have also missed the point. As an outsider, it seems like the program has become a box to check off on a list. There are even kits and procedures for the willing teacher, with readymade lesson plans and links to other guides[7]. This paper itself is looking for a way to teach the concept to children in a way that can be replicated from class to class and year to year. There is a paradox, the conflict between wanting to teach the technique and wanting a student to own it.

The kind of results-driven meditation is not quite right. Gunaratana writes, “The benefits start right away, and they pile up over the years… the more hours you spend in meditation, the greater your ability to calmly observe every impulse and intention[8].” Meditation is a way of life, in as much as it requires a commitment. It is a discipline, one that can be taught in schools, but one that must also be allowed to be what it is. Gunaratana also writes, “While many people are drawn to meditation because of its wonderful benefits…, in the context of the Four Foundations, it’s important to keep another set of goals in mind[9].” Meditation may not necessarily be a religion, but it is certainly a philosophy, insomuch as it is a love of knowledge of oneself, a quest for self-awareness.


I am perhaps asking the wrong question. I had a professor who once asked, “What ought we do?” He clarified when the answers he was getting didn’t meet his criterion. “Not what we can do, what we should do. What ought we do? What do we have a moral compulsion to do?” The question wasn’t about the what or the how, but the why. It is a question from the land of theory, but it is a very useful one. Ought we to teach contemplation? I think the answer is yes. The rest, of course, must follow.


[1]Wilson, David. “College Graduates to Make Global Economy More Productive: Chart of the Day.” Bloomberg. 18 May 2010. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-05-18/college-graduates-to-make-global-economy-more-productive-chart-of-the-day.html
[2]Hart, Tobin. “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom,” p 43. Journal of Transformative Education 2004 2:28. : 10.1177/1541344603259311 (accessed November 17, 2013).
[4]Brown, Patricia Leigh. “In the Classroom, a New Focus on Quieting the Mind.” The New York Times. 16 June 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/16/us/16mindful.html?pagewanted=all (accessed November 17, 2013).
[5]“School fights end at Detroit school thanks to meditation.” As originally aired on NBC. David Lynch Foundation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbgCK8pUED8#t=76 (accessed November 17, 2013).
[6]”technique, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198458?redirectedFrom=technique (accessed November 17, 2013).
[7] Nobori, Mariko. “How to Start a Meditation Program in Your School.” Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/stw-student-stress-meditation-school-tips (accesssed 17 November 17, 2013).
[8] Gunaratana, Bhante, Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
[9]Gunaratana, Bhante, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English. 2012. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition


One thought on “What Ought We Do

  1. eddievcpp says:


    Our class puts contemplation back on the table as a feature, quality, or theme of philosophy. Contemplation has always been — it is a mode of mind. We cannot dispense with it without dispensing with observation, attention, concentration, awareness and all the qualities we cultivate in education. How we move to practices such as meditation — that vexes us. The Garrison Institute is a good place to search for evidence. They are bold enough, daring enough to explore the question of educational reform via contemplation. The resistance often comes from those who appreciate what it means for them — teachers and administrators must practice what they preach. Research agendas alone will not do. The reformation is within and move without. Be brave. Offer your students the space. accept what arrives. Offered sincerely, you’ll find, as we have, that the obstacles melt away. You are on the threshold of something marvelous.

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