W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

An Interview

Interview #2 with Prof. Arthur Zajonc

On Education

{This is the second in a series of interviews with Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College. Note: for the sake of simplicity, in this interview Arthur and I occasionally restricted ourselves to some standard ways of talking and thinking, for instance about “experience,” which we will want to refine in later discussions.}

photo of Arthur Zajonc

Steven: In this interview, I would like to discuss your general views on education—specifically, ways in which education can take into account the concerns emphasized in WoK. I know you are quite active in this general area, but just for the record, would you begin by saying a few words about your background?

Arthur: okay. Since 1978, I've been a professor of physics at Amherst College, covering all levels of undergraduate physics, but also I've consistently engaged in interdisciplinary studies in which I work with a range of faculty representing diverse disciplines ranging from English literature and sociology to art history. In that interdisciplinary teaching, I've had the pleasure of exploring ways of teaching and meetings across disciplines that I've found enormously fruitful and also perhaps of some relevance to this conversation. Most recently, I've been teaching a course called Eros and Insight with Joel Upton, an art historian at Amherst. In this course, we look at the relationship between love and knowledge, and really try to address deeper questions concerning the different ways in which we know. How do we come to know a work of art? How does this compare with knowing the works of nature, the laws of nature? What are the capacities that we bring to bear, and what are the kinds of knowing that really are important to include in a full epistemology? And how do those relate to very important, but often unspoken capacities for love? That's a course we have taught now for several years at Amherst College.

ST: interesting.

AZ: in addition, I've been active in founding a Waldorf school, based on the philosophy of education of Rudolf Steiner, the Hartsbrook school here in Hadley Massachusetts. This reflects not only a long-standing commitment to college-level education, but also to that of young children. So it includes a broader perspective and explicitly a spiritual perspective, on childhood education... where a child is seen not only as a physically-maturing human being, but also as a spiritual being who is undergoing likewise inner developments, spiritual developments that also need to be part of any pedagogical theory and curriculum. And finally, I've been active outside of formal educational settings, through my work at the Center for Contemplative Mind and Society, where I head up the academic program of the Center. We work with a wide range of professors from all disciplines, who are interested in including contemplative practice as an appropriate pedagogical strategy in classes that range from the arts and humanities to the social sciences, business school, medicine, and the sciences themselves.

ST: I know you are also exploring some of these possibilities with faculty in some of the local colleges in your area ...

AZ: yes, an example of the work that arises out of the Center for Contemplative Mind and Society, is an initiative which took place in the Five College area with an anthropologist Frederique Marglin at Smith College and myself. We convened a set of conversations and also sponsored a couple of lectures in the Five Colleges, around the theme of the role of contemplative practice in new epistemologies and our understanding of higher education. The network grew to a list of 70 people in the Five Colleges who were engaged in one form or another in the conversations, and in some of our events, we had on the order of a thousand people attending the lectures, including graduate students, postdocs and young professors. I think also important in this regard was the work of the Kira Institute, which you Steven, I, Pete Hut and others have been engaged in ... this was an attempt to work with graduate students, postdocs and young professors concerning the integration of science, values, contemplation and an even spirituality to some extent.

ST: yes, perhaps we’ll find ways to unpack the latter reference as we go, or in another context ... the work of the Kira Institute is still important to us both.

AZ: of course.

ST: you have also written in this area... are there specific articles or related pieces that you would like to mention here?

AZ: yes, a couple of things are worth noting: in the September 2006 Teachers College Record, which is put out by Columbia University, there is a special edition called Contemplative Practices and Education, which has an article by me, really of my lecture there, but made into an article, called Love and Knowledge: Recovering the Heart of Learning through Contemplation. There is also an article which you helped quite a bit with, Steven, which just appeared in a book entitled Integrative Learning in Action: a Call to Wholeness, published by Peter Lang. This includes an article called Science and Spirituality, Finding the Right Map.

ST: oh yes, is that related to the one we worked on together in both Amherst and Berkeley a few years ago?

AZ: it's a truncated version of that piece...

ST: but aimed in a different direction, I would expect—

AZ: yes, it's heavily revised for this new purpose. There’s also an earlier article which came out in a volume called Education as Transformation: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality, and a New Vision for Higher Education in America ... my article is titled Molding the self and the common cognitive sources of science and religion.The book is edited by Victor Kazanjian and Peter Lawrence... also published by Peter Lang, as I think I said. So those are three pieces that put forth my main thoughts.

ST: in what we've said so far, we've already alluded to some new angle on education, some perspective that seems worth injecting into curriculum design. But we haven't really explained what that is in any detail. It's one thing to just characterize it by saying that we are combining contemplative and other related disciplines and concerns with more traditional topics, like science for instance... but the previous WoK interview we did explains a little bit about what is at issue inside the practice of contemplation, that could somehow transfer to other kinds of engagements with the world. I would like to recommend that other interview to our readers, but we will also, in this present interview, have to further explore that perspective. Would you like to start there?

AZ: sure, that would be a good place to start. In thinking about the fourth of the pre-interview questions you sent me, it seems to me that there are three limitations or restrictions which higher education, at least, puts on itself. The first concerns what we were talking about in our previous interview, namely what I consider to be a restriction on our epistemology, on our ways of knowing or the methods by which we come to an understanding of the world around us and ourselves. Education shouldn't be so restricted. It should be able to make use of whatever modalities of exploration are available to us, as long as they’re legitimate methods of inquiry. And the "contemplative method," to use the shorthand for the modality we were speaking about in our last interview, seems to me to be a method which is only present furtively or in a kind of clandestine form in higher education. I think that all creative individuals actually make use of reflective and contemplative methods, but they're not part of our educational practice.

ST: not explicitly, no.

AZ: And as a consequence, they are much diminished and more or less hidden away. So one of the things I’d advocate would be a thoughtful and consistent way of developing these practices and applying them to the classroom. And I've explored that myself for some years now, and have worked with hundreds of professors around the country who are attempting it as well. It seems to me a consensus is already emerging about how these practices can be used. I see the first way as what you might call an hygienic or intellectual exercise... one that schools the students’ attention so they come to have an enhanced capacity for focus.

Also, there’s what I might call the issue of emotional balance: students have many pressures on them, not only academic but also personal pressures and explorations that they are undertaking outside the classroom. And sometimes these pressures are disruptive to both their personal lives and academic achievement. I think many of the contemplative practices of the ancient traditions deal specifically with negative or emotional afflictions, and can help students enjoy a kind of equanimity or a centeredness in the midst of busy and complicated young adult lives.

So this is one emerging set of practices, those that school attention and help people cultivate emotional balance. And then there is another set, that I consider even more important in some ways, centered specifically on the content area one is studying. Take for example art history, or the arts more generally. One can imagine that how one engages a work of art—a painting or a piece of sculpture, whatever—can be completely analytical or historical or technical in character. But there might also be a way of working contemplatively, with a kind of "contemplative beholding" or way of engaging the work of art, that allows one to actually enter into the meaning of the work of art in successive layers over a period of time.

I'm thinking in particular of several professors whose work with their students involves concentrating on only a few works of art during the course of the semester. So these aren't survey courses. In one case, the students worked over a long period of time with a single work of art in class, a painting, and another painting in the museum, for an entire semester. They simply learned to observe the painting, and only very near the end of the course did they also study the critical literature on the painting. This was led by Joanna Ziegler, at Holy Cross.

The latter approach constitutes a real turnaround from the "more is better" view of education—"from caves to condos" or whatever. Instead, the students were taking on just the bare minimum, one painting in a museum and one in the classroom, and they learned to "see". And then of course, you can go on to other paintings, bringing a cultivated and refined capacity for observation, which allows you to see so much more detail, so much deeper, so many more relationships that exist within the painting … and you might also read about these in the literature. Joanna says that when the students finally do read the critical literature, they very often feel like they are way ahead of the people who are writing the critical articles. Because, they've seen so much of the painting, not only what is being reported by scholars.

The same thing applies to literature, or to environmental studies—you can imagine practices which are specifically designed to give the student capacities for what you and I were previously calling a kind of direct engagement, leading to a contemplative inquiry. And that contemplative inquiry can in turn lead to contemplative insights, or knowing. So first the student is engaged in a process which gradually becomes studious and inquiring in its character—it is not just sitting empty-minded before a work of art. One engages, then becomes an inquirer, but does so with this contemplative modality. And then gradually there emerges this process of what we were calling before "faculty formation", a bildung process, which creates capacities, so that we can then subsequently see far more deeply than at the beginning, when we were just naïve viewers. That leads to the stage of contemplative insight, where we have a succession of "knowings", insights, into the nature of the work before us.

ST: Obviously I’m very sympathetic to this approach, and use analogs of it in my own teaching. How well is that working, in your opinion, in the contexts you mention? Are the students actually able to develop those new capacities? Do they find that general capability within themselves?

AZ: Well first of all, I think it's very exciting. This is new. Most people understand the practices of attention and emotional balance. Those are the things that you can easily present in the beginning of the class … you can give exercises to promote that. And quite a number of faculty have included such practices.

ST: yes, that sort of thing is not very controversial.

AZ: right, it's neither controversial or complicated. But the idea that this way of engagement can also lead to insights... people become very excited by this. However, it is a new territory, so there is only a relatively small number of faculty who have taken it a significant distance ... and that's only happened in the last few years. But where people have explored it, one can begin to see the fruits of that work. And for example in my own work here in Amherst, with Joel Upton, we've taken it a certain distance, and Joanna Ziegler has worked with it in art history as well, and we are promoting it amongst our colleagues, especially over the last two or three years. In the one article I mentioned in the Teacher's College Record, I point to some of these new approaches explicitly. I consider this latter approach to be a most important direction. As long as contemplative practice and these alternative modes of engagement are seen merely as, in some ways, "hygienic"... well that's very nice, but in some respects it doesn't belong at the center of the university. But if there is a way of knowing

ST: yes, exactly, something that truly qualifies as that—

AZ: right, and that is also neglected … and if you can demonstrate that it provides for a profoundly new way, and an engaging new way, for students to take up some subject content … and if it leads to real consequences, real understanding, then I think the Universities will take far greater heed.

ST: yes. This would be an important advance over the current, restricted orientation.

AZ: Right. So first this requires articulation—what are the stages of this method of contemplative inquiry? And then a certain amount of research, which shows that, based on assessments students and faculty can make within their classrooms, indeed this approach is successful. We need the equivalent of "outcome studies". How you might actually do this, is a complex question... but anyway there needs to be research. In this regard, I could mention as an aside, that a few weeks ago we held a research meeting at Harvard University with about 20 scientists and educational researchers, specifically on the question of what kinds of research could we do concerning contemplative practice and its efficacy in both higher education and in general education. So there is a movement afoot now, and over the next few years I think you'll see research in this area, to try—if not to quantify—to at least qualitatively assess whether these methods, which are anecdotally very successful, can be shown to be robustly measurable or accessible.

We’ll see how it plays out, but I think we are at a cusp, which is quite interesting. More and more people are doing it, and feeling that it's beneficial in their classrooms. Certainly the students in our classes are deeply grateful for these methods and for what we’re doing with them, and also for the content... they feel much more directly engaged with the material, they contact it as human beings, rather than just at arms length. It's a much more intimate set of relationships that you develop with the content, and the insights have a certain bearing on their lives, which is all very appreciatively received.

That’s still anecdotal, but if we could marshal it in some formal way into an assessment vehicle or a survey or research outcome, it would be very beneficial. This is all in response to the first of what I consider to be the three restrictions or limitations in education today. So this first one concerns method and pedagogical strategy, and the uses of—for example, contemplative practice as a way of augmenting those modalities.

The second issue is, I think, also very significant... if maybe more complex. In some ways it involves a critical assessment of relying on a restricted ontology, a restricted understanding of what counts and what "is"... where one, for example, takes the inner experiences of a contemplative engagement with a work of art or whatever, and explains it entirely in terms of neural correlates.

ST: yes, this issue, which I see as both a problem and a desirable challenge, will be discussed a great deal in my various WoK pieces.

AZ: In this view, everything is seen in terms of a materialistic metaphysics. Often one finds in educational and academic circles, at least an implicit commitment to an ontology or a way of viewing the world that is unnecessarily restrictive. And as a consequence, the kinds of solutions to problems that we come up with are framed only in terms of those things which we feel permitted to take as real. For instance, everything is based on a reductive view of the material world, or on economics or social standing or political forces. But those inner dynamics, or more spiritual dimensions of our own nature, which are equally important and real, are essentially marginalized or left completely out of the account. And as a consequence, we also end up with partial solutions to the problems we are facing today. Things seen by a more direct perception might well be explained away in terms of the neural correlates of consciousness or certain materialist explanations, as opposed to being taken at their face value.

ST: which is to say, taken seriously in their own right, properly appreciated.

AZ: yes, exactly.

ST: even worse, people just start thinking of themselves in this truncated or collapsed way, and no longer even notice that something is missing.

AZ: right. Exactly... so we become a computer or whatever the latest image is.

ST: effectively, yes. That trend is already well underway.

AZ: yes. So we take ourselves to be something truncated, as you put it, or diminished … the world around us, the social circumstances in which we find ourselves—all of these are analyzed through a very narrow lens and as a consequence we limit our range of thought, even in the Academy, which is supposed to be open to all possibilities.

ST: right, it’s ironic.

AZ: so this is the second area of concern … a kind of restrictive metaphysics or notion of the world. And especially as one takes seriously this new methodology in education that I just described, we have to be open to wherever it takes us. We’re then going to experience things and have insights which should have their own standing. They shouldn’t be immediately explained away, in terms of something like neuroscience.

ST: valuable as such scientific perspectives may be in many ways.

AZ: yes, of course. But these new contemplative insights must also be valued and given standing for what they are. So it seems to me that even if you are proceeding just directly out of experience, as you enrich your phenomenological domain, the temptation of the Academy is to always explain this new thing away in terms of the old. And the old, in some cases at least, is very narrow and constrained. I see that as a real impoverishment as well. So we'll need to join these two. As the methods are enriched, so also will our worldview be enriched, our ontology will be enriched. And we have to take that enrichment seriously and give it standing.

ST: yeah, not surprisingly, I think the only way to take it seriously must also include further development of—and attending to—the direct experience. At least this has to figure as a crucial component. If people skip that step, then any amount of arguing for its reality or cogency or fundamental status will fail.

AZ: right, it will just end up being some philosophical or logical argument which doesn't actually bear the weight that it needs to. So I think in some ways the first step is the one we've just been talking about, allowing for that enriched methodology or set of capacities to be developed, and for direct experience to then arise. But what is the nature of that experience? Do we then immediately say "oh, it it's nothing but ___" and then go immediately to a neuroscience-or materialist-type explanation? Or do we allow for an understanding which gives it standing and allows us to work directly with it... and I think that's a key component.

ST: yes it's critical for us to have the right kind of "view" here.

AZ: and finally there’s another point, which I might describe as a natural consequence of this: on the one hand it's important to have these enriched methodologies and worldview, but if it stays as an ivory-tower practice, where we just meditate ourselves into some interesting state of awareness, and have deep understandings of certain things around us... that’s not enough. You know, we should also awaken to compassion! Because some of the things we are going to be experiencing will concern the suffering that is present in this world. We will have insights directly about that. So these direct insights or perceptions will also concern our fellow human beings and what might be done to alleviate their suffering.

ST: absolutely. Otherwise the whole enterprise is suspect, probably not really what we are talking about here.

AZ: so I think we must have an enhanced relationship between the Academy and action in the world. I see this as a matter of bridging, making the academies much more engaged with the world... and from a source within us which you might say is the deepest we have. As a consequence, I would have confidence that the solutions or kinds of approaches we would then bring to the problems of the world, would be far better than what we currently have.

ST: yes, we are not just discussing exotica here. Part of what's being "found" through these contemplative practices or sensibilities, and the reintroduction of them into our educational system, is just our humanity itself. It's not just that contemplation discovers unusual or exotic stuff, it's—

AZ: yes (laughs)

ST: it's that we are recovering ourselves, which is very straightforwardly "human", and even ordinary... it's actually quite possible to be divorced from things that everyone knows in principle to be part of our nature, but in practice don't get enacted or appreciated very much, certainly not as much as they should.

AZ: yeah, and in a time of increased misunderstandings by one part of the human race for another, where fundamentalisms of all types show up, and sectarian divides become deadly, to be reminded of our common humanity by direct apprehension, not just by some theoretical idea, could be a real salve.

ST: my point in bringing that up again was partly just to amplify some of what we've been discussing, and partly to clarify the nature of the bridge you are talking about between academia and society. It's precisely because this is quite central to basic human sensibilities and human nature, that it will be possible to forge the bridge. There's no big stretch there.

AZ: yes, and I think this is important to emphasize explicitly, because sometimes people believe that these contemplative methods are isolating or disconnecting.

ST: right... but that is certainly not the way they were understood traditionally.

AZ: no, of course not. And certainly when one undertakes them, as you and I well know, you are brought into a more sensitive and responsive relationship to the world. And you can feel called upon to do all kinds of things, both inwardly and outwardly, actively, as a result.

ST: yes.

AZ: so those are the three main kinds of schemas or emphases that I've come to over the last few years. A new epistemology and methodology on the one side, and an expanded and enriched view of the world ontologically—what is the world, what is it comprised of? And then the third—how should we act as a consequence of this enrichment? And how can we make these insights helpful to others?

ST: yes, these are also core WoK issues.

{at this point we chatted about some of the latest projects Arthur is engaged in. In closing, he went on to mention the following study:}

AZ: … there’s also the Spirituality and Higher Education group. They've been doing surveys for many years, involving hundreds of thousands of college students and the professoria, and are very highly regarded. And Sandy Astin is a long-term meditator who, over the last five years, has found some money from the John Templeton foundation to support a project in this group where he interviews students—and more recently—faculty, concerning meaning, purpose, values, and direction in their lives, all under the rubric of spirituality and higher education. He brought together about 50 of us... I was one of 10 team consultants to consult with 10 universities who sent representatives from their academic side, like Deans of undergraduate curricula, and also from their "student life" side of things... where they'll have their dean of students or director of student services and a couple of other people in those areas.

So 10 teams came from 10 different colleges and universities to take up the question of how one can support, through both the curriculum and co-curricular activities, the spiritual life of students. I was a consultant regarding this for Carnegie Mellon University. They had a nice team of four people, and there were nine other teams of this sort. It was an interesting three-day gathering, very much along the lines of what we've discussed here: what can one say, what strategies does one use? And most of the people there were fully on board and enthusiastic... but some worried about the "spirit" language, and thought we had to proceed more carefully.

ST: yes of course that's understandable and even appropriate. It’s an inevitable challenge for what we’re discussing. Perhaps we can pick that up together in another interview {see a forthcoming, subsequent WoK interview with Arthur on science education}. I will also be discussing it with other educators and scientists in further WoK pieces. At any rate, thanks very much for your thoughts on this very important subject, Arthur!

AZ: it was my pleasure, Steven.

Arthur and Steven, 11/21/06.

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