Whole Person Education
East and West
by Jay McDaniel
This talk was given at United International College in Zhuhai, China, in June 2013. UIC is an liberal arts college in China and an emerging leader in whole person education.
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What is the purpose of Whole-Person Education?
The purpose of whole-person education is to help students become creative, compassionate, thoughtful, problem-solvers who find happiness as individuals and who contribute to the well-being of their families, communities, societies, and the world. It is to help students become whole people in a whole world.
Whole Person Education seeks to avoid the traps of narcissism and collectivism.
Whole person education rightly seeks to avoid two traps: narcissism and collectivism.
The first is to focus on individual happiness at the expense of the well-being of society. This is a trap into which liberal educators in the West sometimes fall. They can be too student-centered, wrongly encouraging students to think that their own individual happiness and that alone is what is most important in life. When educators fall into this trap, they encourage narcissism. In the United States today, many thoughtful educators are trying to determine how to avoid the trap of excessive individualism, which has been a problem in the West since the rise of modernity. They are emphasizing community service and undergraduate research aimed at solving practical problems in the world as integral aspects of holistic education.
The second trap is to focus on social need and group coherence at the expense of the individual. This is a trap into which Chinese education sometimes falls. It is too society-centered and authority-based, wrongly neglecting the value and worth of the individual student. In China today many thoughtful educators are trying to determine how to overcome this problem, both for the sake of the student and for the sake of the nation. They are emphasizing that a whole nation needs whole persons, and that a more student-centered approach, tailored to the needs of individuals, is good for the students and good for the nation.
Whole person education is built upon the proposal – the hope -- that seeking happiness at a personal level and contributing to the well-being of others can be complementary rather than contradictory. Its implicit motto is “Whole Persons in a Whole World.”
Whole Person Education aims at beauty.
A whole person can also be called a happy person. By happiness I do not mean pleasure alone, although pleasure can be an important part of happiness. Instead I mean a sense of satisfaction that comes from fulfilling one’s creative potential and dwelling in harmony with other people, the natural world, oneself, and the larger context of life or heaven, in a good or virtuous way.
I borrow the idea that happiness and virtue are conjoined from Aristotle, who believed that the cultivation of happiness and the cultivation of virtue are two sides of a single coin. And I borrow the idea that virtue consists of harmony with other people, the natural world, one’s own heart, and heaven from The Western Inscription, short article of only 253 characters written by Zhang Zai (1020-1077), a Neo-Confucian philosopher in the Song Dynasty.
My suggestion, then, is that the four horizons of harmony are also four sources of happiness. Sometimes some of these sources are not available to us and we must look elsewhere. We are unhappy in our relations with other people but we turn to the natural world or heaven for solace. We are doubtful about our relations with heaven but we find something divine – or at least sacred – in our relations with other or with the natural world. In the course of a lifetime people may turn from one source to another, but the ideal is to be nourished by all four.
Of course “happiness” is not the only name for happiness. In Whitehead’s philosophy other words and phrases are also used to name the aim or goal of an individual’s journey in life: satisfaction, richness of experience, harmony and intensity, adventure, peace, and strength of beauty. Beauty is especially important, because there is indeed an aesthetic dimension to happiness that is sometimes neglected if we limit ourselves to ethical categories. Indeed Whitehead believes that the whole universe and every creature within it is always seeking beauty, understood as a combination of harmony and intensity in the enjoyment of experience. For Whitehead even heaven – even God – seeks beauty. God’s beauty, thinks Whitehead, is God’s love for the world and God’s reception of the world into the beauty of the divine life.
Whole Person Education recognizes multiple forms of intelligence and emphasizes empathy.
Here beauty is not a name for beautiful objects perceived by the senses, though such objects can indeed be beautiful. Instead beauty is a kind of richness that emerges in, not apart from, relations with others. In human life and also in divine life, this richness includes sadness that arises through empathy. Empathy is by no means limited to human beings or, for that matter, a divine being. Studies show that other animals – elephants and chimpanzees, for example – can also empathize. Empathy is (1) a capacity to understand and appreciate the perspective of other people, including people who are very different from them and (2) a capacity to share in, and be affected by, the subjective states of others. It is perspective-taking and state-sharing. From the perspective of constructive postmodernism, then, one of the aims of whole person education is to help people become empathic, not only so that they can help bring about the well-being of society, but also so that they can become happier in their own individual lives.
Empathy is a form of wisdom in its own right, complementary to other forms of wisdom which are also important. A cognitive psychologist and educational theorist at Harvard, Howard Gardner, speaks of empathy as one of eight forms intelligence. They eight forms are (1) verbal-linguistic, (2) logical-mathematical, (3) visual-spatial, (4) rhythmic-musical, (5) bodily-kinesthetic, (6) naturalistic, (7) intrapersonal (self-awareness), and (8) empathic. Constructive postmodernists agree with Gardner that each form of intelligence tells us something about ourselves and world within which we live. Philosophers sometimes speak of three kinds of knowing: knowing about things, knowing how to do things, and knowing with things (or knowing by direct acquaintance). Empathy is a way of knowing with others by imagining their perspectives and sharing in their subjective states.
Whole person education seeks to foster all eight forms, not just empathy. In higher education there is sometimes a ranking of these different forms, with verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence ranking higher than the others. Constructive postmodernists disagree, saying that each form of intelligence is important in different contexts and that each person can develop all of the forms to one degree or another. There are different ways of knowing, and whole person education values them all.
Moreover, whole person education in the constructive postmodern tradition widens the meaning of critical thinking beyond conventional uses. Often in higher education people say that an important aim of education is not simply to acquire knowledge and skills, but also to learn to “think critically.” Constructive postmodernists agree, but add that all eight forms of intelligence can be part of critical thinking. Indeed empathy plays a special role. In order to think critically we must imagine how the world looks and feels to people whose experience is markedly different from our own.
Whole Person Education helps students contribute to the well-being of their families, their communities, their nation, and the world.
One purpose of living empathically is to help build a better world. A better world is not a perfect world. There will always be tragedy. But a better world is one in which people live in greater peace and security, greater joy and creativity, than they now live; and it is one in which other living beings and the earth itself simultaneously flourish. In the language of the Western Inscription, there is a meaningful degree of harmony among people and harmony with the earth, both of which add to the harmony of heaven.
The twin ideas of harmony among people and harmony with the earth at the heart of Whole Person Education as conceived in a constructively postmodern way. In East Asia, Confucian traditions have highlighted harmony among people and Taoist traditions have highlighted harmony with the earth, beginning with harmony with one’s own body. Constructive postmodernists believe that both kinds of harmony are important. Both form an essential part of the well-being that Whole Person Education seeks to promote.
In the twenty-first century the idea of an Ecological Civilization combines these two kinds of harmony, and this idea comes close to naming the social ideal which rightly guided Whole Person Education. For constructive postmodernists an Ecological Civilization is a culture as well as a physical state of affairs. It is a culture that is creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
Constructive postmodernists believe that these qualities – creativity, compassion, participation, respect for difference, spiritual satisfaction – are relevant to families and local communities as well as nations. They form the cultural part of what many people in different parts of the world now call sustainable communities. Sustainable communities are sustainable in two senses. They can be sustained into the foreseeable future given the limits of the earth and local bioregions to absorb waste and supply resources, and they provide sustenance for human life. An Ecological Civilization consists of sustainable communities.
Whole Person Education is immensely incomplete if it focuses on human happiness alone, much less individualized happiness. It lapses into narcissism. It is also incomplete if it focuses on social well-being alone, neglecting the importance of the individual. The better hope is that it can keep its eye on the four kinds of harmony: harmony among people, harmony with the earth, harmony within oneself, and harmony with heaven.
For constructive postmodernists, heaven dwells within each human being as an inner calling to reach out and help others. In Buddhism this calling is articulated as the Bodhisattva vow: the promise never to enter into final salvation unless all beings can follow. In our time, the Bodhisattva vow can be rearticulated as a call never to lapse into privatized happiness at the expense of social service. Buddhists tell us that the Bodhisattva knows that his or her own well-being cannot be separated from the well-being of others. Advocates of Whole Person Education say the same.
The need in our time is to foster whole-person education at every level: primary, secondary, tertiary. The hope of the world -- in China and the United States, too -- is that this can be done. And the need, of course, is to get practical. Universities and colleges with engaged education programs, such as Hendrix College where I teach and United International College in Zhuhai, China, are examples of implementing Whole Person Education at a collegiate level. These experiments build upon the pioneering work of John Dewey and, in the case of UIC in China, the work of East Asian wisdom traditions. And yet their administrators rightly recognize that Whole Person Education must begin at home and in early childhood education.
An excellent start has been made by the Roots of Empathy initiative, which started in Canada. It is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Its mission is "to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults." It has impressive success stories in Canada, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and the United States. Its aim to expand to other parts of the world by partnering with lead agencies in those regions. It is from seeds such as these, planted by gifted teachers and administrators, that hope arises.