A Case for International Mindfulness and Compassion in Education by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

“Reasoning and education, though we are willing to put our trust in them, can hardly be powerful enough to lead us to action, unless besides we exercise and form our soul by experience to the way we want it to go; otherwise when it comes to the time of action, it will undoubtedly find itself at a lossMontaigne

If education is to be liberating, then it must begin with liberating the self.

There is a case to be argued for the inclusion and recognition of the significant influence religion; culture and spirituality have in the world today. I would argue for a paradigmatic view of religion rather than a traditional interpretation limited to religions said to have been spawned from the time of the prophet Abraham. Furthermore I would argue for a definition of spirituality in its broadest sense too, as the unique ability of individual human beings to transcend the rational and acknowledge the experience and understanding of the non-rational in their lives. These two concepts of knowing and understanding the world of the ‘visible and invisible’, are inextricably linked to, but not necessarily limited by, or beholden to, the concept ofculture. International schools by definition are inextricably linked to a variety of cultures.

The eminent ethnologist, anthropologist and academic, Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture is significant here, because of its reliance on a simple truth that human beings give significance to their actions which in turn creates meaning in their lives. Moreover, these actions become the means by which we attempt to understand ourselves and others, and communicate our experiences to one another.

Some years ago, while teaching at an international school in Papua New Guinea, I viewed original footage of the first contact between Europeans and the Papua New Guineans who had lived and worked in the Highlands of their country for millennia without encountering other humans. They had evolved a complex and highly developed cultural system, incorporating several hundred different language groups.  In their first encounters with the Europeans the indigenous people sought out common signs to attest to their understanding of who these strangers were and where they had come from- clothing, bodily waste, and human emotion and actions became the measure by which the Europeans were defined eventually as fellow human beings. David Attenborough explores this further in his fascinating and inimical documentary series ‘Life on Earth. In the specific program entitled ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ (BBC, 1984) he and his crew meet with a group of Papua New Guineans in the Highlands, who do not speak English – they communicate with one another using signs and gestures, but what is most fascinating, and reassuring is the lack of aggression in the encounters, and the attempts by both groups of people to disarm one another fears and apprehensions about who the other party is by smiling and laughing, thereby establishing common ground, in an attempt to understand one another. It is as Geertz so eloquently puts it a case of us humans being suspended in our own “webs of significance.”  Geertz also delivers a cautionary message; he argues that culture is “public, because meanings are necessarily the collective property of a group. When we say we do not understand the actions of people from a culture other than our own, we are acknowledging our “lack of what is familiar with the imaginative universe within which their actions are signs to us.” (Geertz, 1989) We are in a sense demonstrating an ignorance which is partly of our own making, and ironically a residue of culture, a sort of cultural dissonance if you like, founded on what we want and choose to acknowledge, rather than seeking an understanding what there is to be understood.

Culture, Religion and Spirituality, are three of the most significant, yet problematic concepts humans have devised for themselves and their fuller inclusion in international education and would support a greater realization of our goal to assist young people to become compassionate thinkers and participants in an increasingly interdependent cultural world community.

My argument is predicated on the proposition that thinking and being are a form of prayer. This is not an original idea, in fact I heard it on television, being somewhat distracted by what was happening in the program, but conscious enough to jot it down on a ‘post it’ note. It has a very strong resonance with me, because it says that we do not need to compartmentalize our lives in order to acknowledge spirituality, practice a faith or understand our own and other’s cultural expectations on life, religion and spirituality. When I was 10 years old, myself, along with my brothers and sisters had to change schools. We were withdrawn from a local Catholic primary school, and placed into a local state primary school. We took it in our stride, nothing traumatic in it at all. It was, I think, one of my earliest experiences of discovering the impermanence of everything. But one aspect of this change still resonates with me – each week we had a lesson in “religious education”. I remember the first lesson well, a very kind elderly woman came in, and spoke to us about scripture, and recalled a biblical story – and it ended with a quiet but gentle admonishment on the importance of being good for the remainder of the week. I recalled the experience that evening, at home, where upon it was pointed out to me that I didn’t have to attend these classes because I was Catholic. At 10 years old it wasn’t my first introduction to religious difference through dogma and doctrine; but it was the awareness of the experience of this difference for the first time, something I hadn’t been aware of before- I want to emphasize here awareness, because it is a quite distinct area of knowing – it is the merging of the intuitive with the rational to create a deeper understanding. This awareness informed me of the divisive nature of the experience – it wasn’t so much a celebration of difference, it was a difference founded upon a religious and cultural worldview which claimed the moral high ground of certainty for a select group. I recall this without rancor and condemnation of others – it is just the way it was then, and at 10 years old my protestations were considered insignificant – even to myself.

Some 40 years later it can be argued that circumstances have changed – or have they?  In a pre September 11th world, I may have been bold enough to claim that cultural plurality, difference through unity in diversity, along with ecumenism were shaping our world, and the world of secondary and post secondary education, but regrettably in a post Sept 11th world the converse is true. While some have argued that a ‘Post September the 11th world’ has been with us for a long time – that extremism has always been around-we are today living in an age of unprecedented polarities – culturally, philosophically, economically, socially, and politically – the grand narratives of our own collective histories have fragmented, and a cultural dissonance seems to vibrate throughout the world. Such a timeforces debate and discussion upon us, and seeks from us a time to pause and reflect upon our own“webs of significance”. George S Counts, an American Educator from the mid twentieth century argues  that: “we must abandon completely the naïve faith, that schools, and education generally automatically liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress”, he argues that “we know that it may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth, war as well as peace, death as well as life…”(Counts, 1962) As educators there’d not be many of us who’d disagree with his assertions, and those of us who teach within the curricula offered through the International Baccalaureate Organization are aware of the significance of this organization’s efforts to serve the “cause of human freedom”, and how its curricula are “designed for that purpose”. The question to ask now is: given the challenges that face us as human beings on this planet – exponential global population growth; dwindling natural resources, global warming; resurgence in religious nationalism; widening gap between rich and poor; to name a few – is it enough? In focusing on international education two further questions arise:

  1. How do we realize the human quality of compassion through our curricula?
  2. How can we promote ‘reflection’ through our curricula?

Educators and academics who have a longer and more personal standing with the IB and the Diploma program are not new to these questions; in fact the late Alex Peterson provided a partial answer when he argued that IB students should be “aiming to recognize all persons are of equal value, they should develop skills to empathize, acquire the knowledge to understand the emotions, and motivation of oneself and others; gain awareness of the seriousness of moral situations, and form a commitment to generate an autonomously accepted set of moral principles and act upon them.” (Peterson, 1987) These are a commendable part of the Kantian ethic to uphold; but, these ideals, even when realized are exclusive to a humanist tradition, which has often found the spiritual and religious dimension of human history either antiquated, and no longer relevant to academia, or too fraught with a history of controversy, that silence is preferred over debate, disagreement, and perhaps inevitable divisions.

Kant’s vision of a civil ethic to guide humanity through the trials of existence has produced the foundation for a just society; but his belief and vision that the individual would develop his/her own moral sense given the right conditions, we know, from historical experience, has had only a moderate success. It is nothing less that a lament for humanity that there are too many examples to draw from to support my assertion, but  one that moves me on a deep emotional and spiritual level is Dr. Pascal Ngoga,-the Ambassador for Rwanda to Ethiopia- account to an IB regional conference on the genocide in his country. “Who” he pleads, ‘in international education will speak with passion and conviction for the refugees, the famine stricken, the illiterate and the genocide survivors if not the IB?” (Ngoga, 2002) What are we to do? In essence we find ourselves revisiting our religious paradigms, and their respective positions on what constitutes a good education, a just society, and a humane world.

In his Peterson Lecture of May 2002, to the IB Annual General Meeting, His Excellency Ahmad Jalali, the President of the General Conference of UNESCO summarizes four different positions on the role of religion and spirituality in education.     Firstly, he argues they can be used as a source of social and political power, the effects being freedom, liberation, social harmony or oppression and tyranny. Secondly, they are distinct and separate from secular powers, thus religious and spiritual knowledge can be ‘taught’ in schools to those who want to learn. Thirdly, nothing is taught in schools except that the history and philosophy of religions is taught as a subject among others; and to some how know “the other” as one knows “oneself” The fourth option he suggests is to follow none of the above. Moreover he argues that we ought to consider the importance of understanding ethics and spirituality within an ecumenical framework, and that such a paradigm would not eschew the humanist tradition from which we have drawn so much of our ethics throughout the modern period, but develop it to suit the times.  I agree with him. (Jalali, 2002).  Our challenge he argues is to “create an atmosphere of dialogue among different religions with the aim of codifying the common core between them, to be introduced in our educational curricula, thus providing a basis for the wider acceptance of the IB diploma programme in the eyes of different partners” (Jalali, 2002)

He offers us part of the answer through suggesting that religious dogmas and doctrines be spurned in favor of teaching religious paradigms of understanding, and their respective traditions. This could include autobiographical accounts of the great men and women who have inspired tens of millions of people throughout the course of human history in matters of the spirit.

I want to briefly return to my point that thinking and being are a form of prayer and contextualize it through an experience I had during my appointment to an IB school in Saudi Arabia. In a somewhat cynical aside, an IB graduate in his valedictorian address made the point that he felt cheated if he had to wait another 5 years or more to gain benefit from what he described as “two horrendous years of study”. It would be easy to dismiss his point as just another example of modern youth seeking instant gratification – but I knew this young man, and only a few months earlier, as he was attempting to complete course work, an extended essay, CAS requirements, prepare for his trial exams, and complete several vitally important University applications he broke down, and in a moment of vulnerability and near defeat said “ it is just too much – what if at the end of it all I fail or I don’t get in to College?” Now, there was no way that this young man was going to fail – his human qualities would not let him down, and we explored this very point for sometime in the moment. It is my view that what he hadn’t allowed himself to do was take time out to think and reflect on what he was doing, and why he was doing it.  In his defense it wasn’t just a matter of him being more organized, sacrificing his social life, staying on top of the program – he was organized, he didn’t socialize during term time, and he was never late with any aspect of his studies. He was like many other young men and woman in the final phase of their secondary schooling, and perhaps like the tens of thousands of IB candidate throughout the world who are so consumed by their opportunity in it, and their commitment to complete it successfully, they seldom take the time to “think and reflect” on what they are doing. Yet, my experience over a decade as an international educator in the Middle East, Europe, South East Asia and South America suggests that there is time during the day to do so. It seems to me the time is there, but perhaps we need to create the right conditions.

The modernist international educational curriculum offers subjects within a sphere of influence that has a causal historical link to the early grand Universities of Europe. These in turn evolved from the Monastic, scholastic institutions of some of the great Monasteries of early Christendom. The intellectual traditions of the Orient are also strongly connected to their respective religious cultures and traditions. H.E Ahamad Jalali upholds the view that his own religious tradition of Islam cannot be delineated from an intellectual tradition either. This point was illustrated beautifully for me in a recent Theory of Knowledge Class. After giving a brief summary of how Christendom developed its secular tradition one of the young men in the class rather perplexed by this separation of the sacred and the secular explained how Islam is his life. “My scholastic tradition” he said, “is founded upon the Prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran”.

Clearly for this young man ‘thinking and being are a form of prayer’. It is the case that a great majority of religious world views are founded upon an intellectual tradition, which is not separated from the day-to-day activities of life. So, I think the challenge for the IBO, and for educators and curriculum writers, is to create the right conditions whereby our young people are less incline to compartmentalize their lives, and are able to integrate their lives at school with their lives in the wider communities and societies from which they emanate; however I am not suggesting that we begin a crusade of sorts legitimizing the concept of a religious education. Quite the opposite.

Rudolf Otto, in his seminal text ‘The Idea of the Holy’ argues that before “religion became “morality touched with emotion” it was emotion itself, or a group of emotions, and still is…” (Otto, 1950) He argues that the feeling of the ‘uncanny’, the thrill of awe or reverence, the sense of dependence, of impotence when confronted with immense, indescribable power, or of nothingness, or again the feeling of mystical rapture and exaltation – are called the non – rational feelings, the sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, or in a word in which he sums up all of these extraordinary aspects of the human experience the ‘numinous’. (Otto, 1950) It is somewhat to our detriment as educators that the non-rational more often called the intuitive no longer holds its rightful place in our sphere of learning and education. He cautions us that we cannot experience this if the conditions are not there-for some individuals they may never experience this, for others they will. The experience cannot be extracted through dogmas or doctrines of any kind, but rather is a unique individual calling to discover from within the dependency of a “creature on his/her creator.”

We are all dependent – notwithstanding the importance of interdependency, we seem a little ashamed to admit any kind of dependency, yet everyday in our lives we are dependent on someone- from a person we know, and love, to a complete stranger. Some people fly regularly, now there is an example of complete dependency. But more to the point, children and young people in our schools are dependent on us to create the ‘right’ conditions for them to grow and develop into whole persons.  A couple of years ago, while on an assignment at an English Medium comprehensive school in Kuwait, I noted that on the school campus there was a mosque, which the Muslim students use regularly for prayer. There wasn’t another ‘space’ for non- Muslims to use, so a few ventured into the Mosque, but most didn’t bother.

Recently, while in transit at an airport in Thailand, , I noted their international prayer room, with its simple instructions for peoples of all religious denominations. It is a spacious room, painted in soft hues of pastel shades, heavily carpeted, with a few cushions and prayer mats-nothing else. I was struck by the ecumenism shown in a devoutly Buddhist country. It occurred to me that such a ‘significant space’ for ‘thinking and being’ could be set aside for students in international schools. I envisage this ‘space’ becoming a sacred place where the fruits of our intellectual tradition can merge with the innate spiritual qualities of our youth and children, and that the whole person can be recognized in the educative process. Such a space would be non-denominational, and in its silence on religious specificity, would speak of ecumenism, cooperation, tolerance, understanding and compassion. It would be a sacred space where young people can fulfill their faith requirements, and find strength of purpose through reflection on all that takes place in their lives as participants in the
post-modern world of international education. This will only contribute in a positive way to their holistic development, and in the fulfillment of our responsibilities to see the aims and objectives of our particular school philosophies and mission statements realized earlier in the lives of our students. All we have to do is create the right conditions-the rest will take care of itself.

So, a final question becomes what of the spiritual, and its vexed relationship within our own intellectual tradition within the post modern period? How can we readdress this balance in a subtle, non- intrusive way whereby we are educating the whole person?  It is my argument that intellectual traditions are imbued with innate spiritual values – whether opposing (rather ironically) or arguing for their existence. Through invigorating international curricula with knowledge, skills and sustainable values, including religious and spiritual ones, we can reaffirm our status as ‘knowers’ in the truest sense of the concept, and claim that the reflected life is well worth living. This will rekindle hope and the quest for open-mindedness, understanding and compassion for future generations of students in international education


Attenborough, D ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ in Life on Earth, BBC

Productions, 1984

Counts, S.G Education and the Foundations of Freedom, Pittsburgh, University

Of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.

Geertz, C, The Interpretations of Cultures, Routledge, Great Britain, 1989.

Jalali, A, Religion and the Education of Young People: Address to the IBO Annual

Meeting, Geneva, Switzerland, 2002.

Ngoga, P, A Case for Genocide in the Curriculum of International Schools. Address

To IBO Europe and Middle East Conference, 2002.

Peterson, A, Schools Across Frontiers, Open Court, Chicago, 2003.


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