Transformational Education: Developing Real Persons as Mature Human Beings

In his current NY Times editorial on “Becoming a Real Person,” David Brooks identifies three philosophies of education: commercial, cognitive, and character-building. He maintains that the first two are going strong, but that the third approach has been neglected if not entirely abandoned in our modern secular educational system. The commercial approach corresponds to the “instrumental” tradition that is oriented toward work skills and career success. The cognitive approach as Brooks discusses it in reference to the views of Steven Pinker corresponds to the aspect of the “canonical” tradition that teaches general knowledge, critical thinking and scientific method. The character approach corresponds to a combination of the American pragmatist “progressive tradition” (John Dewey) with its emphasis on democratic citizenship and ethical leadership and the “radical or transformational tradition” with its emphasis on a combination of spiritual values, moral purpose, ethical characteraesthetic taste, emotional intelligence, social awareness, self-cultivation, life-balance and cultural literacy (“Bildung”).

To what extent ought education, especially higher education, adult education and life-long learning, to be committed to developing “real persons” and not just commercial success stories and effective cognitive machines? What is a real person? Ought there to be more to education than commercial and cognitive values? If so, what is it and how can it be realistically cultivated within educational learning environments? To what extent can character and virtue be taught? This is a continuing debate that gets at the heart of what we consider to be the purpose of education, and also what is our vision of “the good society.” It is a discussion as old as Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and Lao Tzu.

Brooks article sent me scrambling through my library to see what kind of books might be included if a course or rather a whole curriculum were developed around cultivating real persons, or if you prefer, the nurture of the holistic and integral life of Sophia. Here are a few books that would be in my reading list:

A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular Age, by Thomas Moore

Beauty: The Invisible Embrace – Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope; Anam Cara,  by John O’Donohue

Connecting with Our Spiritual Intelligence, by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall

Creativity, and Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihallyi

Emotional Intelligence; Social Intelligence; Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Four Spiritualities: A Psychology of Contemporary Spiritual Choice, by Peter Tufts Richardson

Happiness: A History, by Darrin McMahon

Healthy Pleasures, by Robert Ornstein and David Sobel

In the Absence of God Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred; To Love and Be Loved, by Sam Keen

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, by Paul Woodruff

Slow Is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure and Joie de vivre, by Cecile Andrews

Solitude: A Return to the Self, by Anthony Storr

The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal, by Frederic Hudson

The House of Intellect, by Jacques Barzun

The New Diary: How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity, by Tristine Rainer

What Does It Mean to Be Human: Reverence for Life, edited by Frank, Roze and Connolly

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen S. Hall [Topics include Heart and Mind, Emotional Regulation, Knowing What’s Important, Moral Reasoning, Compassion, Humility, Altruism, Patience, and Dealing with Uncertainty]

Such a reading list could include western classical texts as well in the Socratic, Sophistic, Epicurean and Stoic traditions, as well as several eastern classics as well. In addition, the entire genre of “bildungsroman” could provide some exemplary reading. I would recommend Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as two contrasting narratives on coming-of-age in different social milieus.

The point here is that there is a rich reservoir of educational resources available here but to a great extent it has been overlooked and ignored as merely “personal growth,” hardly worthy of academic study and scholarly rigor. Such an attitude neglects the entire German tradition of “Bildung” and the French tradition of “Le Seduction.” It also ignores the classical sacred and secular wisdom of both Western and Eastern Civilizations.




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