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Joseph L. Subbiondo Headshot

From Liberal to Integral Education

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The public media, including an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times, have been reporting a sharp decline in the number of college students majoring in the humanities (English, history, philosophy, etc.). Yet, many of us in liberal arts education, especially in the humanities, continue to talk about the perennial relevance of the humanities to all aspects of life and career as if our mantra could fix the problem. Unless we expand the humanities, however, we speak to a rapidly diminishing choir. The time has come to consider a radical makeover of the humanities in particular, and liberal education in general.

We have inherited our view of the humanities as a core part of a liberal arts tradition rooted in Western thought and culture, as in Robert Maynard Hutchins' The Idea of a College (1950); and focused on habits of the mind, as in John Henry Newman's Idea of a University (1852). These are the areas most in need of a radical makeover -- the exclusive preoccupation of our colleges and universities with the West and with the mind.

The first area for a makeover, the West, has been somewhat addressed in recent years. We are living in an age which Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, aptly refers to as the "second renaissance" -- the discovery of ancient Eastern texts. We include these texts in our courses, yoga centers, spiritual traditions, and mindfulness practices. However, we continue to ignore the wisdom of the North and South -- the indigenous cultures of Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Asia, and Europe. Even though a growing number of international students come from these areas and US students visit these areas in studies abroad programs, these areas are only studied in specialized programs. Because the humanities are as universal as we claim, they should reflect the global diversity of our times. While inclusivity may pose a challenge, it will help us revive our courses, attract students, and enrich ourselves.

As for moving beyond the cultivation of the mind in higher education -- well, here we've been far less responsive. We've not yet coherently connected the mind, body, and spirit --something our students seek to do on their own outside classes, or at yoga and qigong classes in the university gym, or at off-campus centers for bodywork and meditation. In their impressive research on the preferences of students over more than the past 50 years, Cultivating the Spirit: How College can Enhance Students' Inner Lives (2011), Alexander Astin, Helen Astin, and Jennifer Linholm -- all of UCLA -- document how students increasingly explore their inner selves, and usually have to do so outside their courses. While some meager data give us hope that this may be changing, embodied learning and spiritual practices are taboo for most professors and academic administrators.

When students graduate, they continue their inner journeys into their careers as exemplified by those in the high tech community who very comfortably search inside themselves in plain sight. For example, Google's Chade Meng-Tan for years has been facilitating on-site programs on aligning mind, body, and spirit. This movement has spread outside the Silicon Valley as we can see in the increasing participation by corporate communities all over the country, and the world, for that matter. Just look at the attendee list of conferences like Wisdom 2.0 and Conscious Capitalism. Fortune 500 corporations such as General Mills in Minneapolis, for example, offer yoga classes on-site that attract large gatherings of employees. While some attention is paid to improving the bottom line, the programs are primarily intended to cultivate in employees a sense of higher purpose and greater life balance.

It is my good fortune to be the president of a progressive and regionally accredited university, California Institute of Integral Studies. CIIS was founded 45 years ago by a philosopher from the University of Calcutta, Haridas Chaudhuri. He came to San Francisco at the invitation of Stanford Professor Frederic Spiegelberg to teach the integration of the intellectual, physical, and spiritual dimensions by studying Western as well as non-Western traditions. Chaudhuri's goal was to advance studies in multiple traditions, especially Asian. Over the years, CIIS has added to its curriculum studies of the North and South.

Integral education advances liberal education and offers a radical makeover of the humanities by expanding them to include embodied and spiritual learning as well as global diversity. Integral education provides what students passionately seek today, but cannot get in traditional academic programs. It supports the concepts of multiples ways of knowing and the evolution of consciousness - ideas that have deservedly made Daniel Goleman and Howard Gardner very popular. For example, the training that students at CIIS get in integral wellness coaching within our Integrative Health Studies program, is gaining support from students and employers alike because it meets a critical professional and personal need for balanced living. Another new program in Human Sexuality draws extensively on anthropology, history, psychology, and philosophy. Both programs are integral not only in linking several disciplines, including those in the humanities, but they also promote self awareness and multiple ways of knowing, framed within an educational milieu that advances an evolution of consciousness.

Our present age offers us fresh opportunities to improve what we do in liberal education; and if we are willing to engage in its progress, we can create a vibrant integral education that will better serve our students and future generations than traditional liberal education.