Exploring contemplative practices within Higher Education during times of social, economic, and environmental turmoil
By Steven Stanley
This event on Contemplative Pedagogy in August 2018 is an excellent opportunity for educators, students and professional services staff in further and higher education to come together to discuss meanings and applications of ‘contemplative’ practices – such as meditation and mindfulness – within universities and colleges during times of social, economic, and environmental turmoil.
‘Mindfulness’ has become a buzzword especially in educational circles and is being sold as a panacea for the ills of competitive consumer capitalism, rapidly being implemented across educational institutions for diverse age groups, to address worsening mental health amongst learners and workers, and to additionally promote ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’. Much of the discussion of mindfulness and meditation in higher education has revolved around their potentially beneficial therapeutic effects and ability to enhance academic attainment. Yet, the substantive, curriculum, and pedagogic aspects of meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation – as embodied, social, and relational processes and practices – have been largely neglected in popular and academic literatures. The social conditions and contexts of contemplative practices in education, along with their potential meanings and functions in relation to broader historical changes in further and higher education, have also received scant attention. This event provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political contexts and functions of contemplative pedagogies in contemporary higher education. Can discussions of contemplative practices go hand-in-hand with informed analyses of our studying and working lives, as well as the wider conditions and contexts in which education is embedded?
Discussion of such questions have now become urgent. Contemplative practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, are now being promoted by some university managers and Vice Chancellors for the purpose of enhanced performance and efficiency – cultivating ‘self-care’, ‘work-life balance’ and ‘resilience’ to further institutional goals, often during Universities UK-sponsored ‘wellbeing weeks’. Some VCs even hope for their University to become a ‘Mindful University’. Yet such initiatives are often implemented without democratic debate about the conditions and contexts which arguably give rise to the distress and suffering so common to our contemporary studying and working lives in the first place.
Recently in the UK, proposed cuts to university staff pensions prompted unprecedented industrial action on a massive scale, with many staff and students posing profoundly challenging questions about the nature and purpose of higher education:
- How can we create cultures of care and value in the academy?
- How can we reclaim and democratise ‘the university’ as an institution in the face of managerialism and marketization?
- How can we challenge and rethink metrics, grading and rankings in increasingly competitive times?
- How can debates about worsening student and staff mental health be better tied to discussions of the conditions of ‘academic capitalism’, neoliberalism, precarious and casualised labour, and endemic inequalities and injustices?
- How can we foster and sustain staff-student solidarity and resistance, with members of other affiliated trade unions, in the face of ‘austerity’ and ongoing attacks on public services?
- And how can we ‘decolonise’ our educational institutions, research and teaching?
Critics of ‘academic capitalism’ and ‘neoliberal’ reforms of universities, such as in critical university studies, have been slow to propose practical alternatives to ‘business-as-usual’ in higher education. Yet practical applications of alternative, popular, progressive, radical and critical pedagogy abound globally. For example, the University of the Future Manifesto sets out an alternative vision for what our universities should be . For many educators and students in the UK, the strike opened up rare and valuable spaces for practically rethinking universities outside of ‘business’ models, as well as considering alternatives to marketization, such as in ‘teach-outs’ organised up and down the country. However, such critical debate and discussion is rarely connected in a meaningful way to the increasing attention given to wellbeing, mindfulness, and contemplative practices. This event on contemplative pedagogy in higher education allows a potential space for connecting contemplative practices and pedagogies up with our current educational climates – contemplating and reflecting on the impact of the strike for all, not only those staff who were on strike, but also for those who did not strike, as well as for those students who supported the strike and stood in solidarity with university staff.
Critics of mindfulness and the expansion of therapeutic cultures within our contemporary institutions sometimes appear to be dismissive of the potential benefits of such practices for those who are suffering the most – especially those at the intersections of damaging classed, raced, and gendered dynamics. We will discuss critiques of ‘McMindfulness’ in education as well as attempts to develop social, civic and critical versions of contemplative practices, including ‘socially engaged’ mindfulness, public ‘flashmob’ meditation protests, integrations of mindfulness with anti-oppressive pedagogies, and ongoing research attempting to understand the social functions of contemplative pedagogies in institutional settings. For example, what happens when mindfulness goes ‘on strike’?
We will launch the ‘Social Mindfulness Toolbox’ – an online resource for students, educators, change agents, and activists, within and beyond universities – and discuss the ‘Mapping Mindfulness’ Leverhulme Trust research project, which is a landmark social study of the mindfulness ‘movement’ in the UK.
Dr Steven Stanley, Lecturer in Social Sciences, Cardiff University