How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century? How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical, and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world?
The urgent challenges of a globalized and interdependent world demand a new vision of world citizenship that is not confined to national boundaries, but encompasses moral and ethical responsibilities to all humanity. People coming of age in the 21st century will need to develop unprecedented levels of intercultural cooperation, mutual moral concern, creativity, and skill in effectively addressing the challenges of the world today – challenges economic, ecological, and inter-cultural/religious in nature. An education that will prepare young people to become competent and compassionate world citizens in such a context cannot be measured only in terms of cognitive skills and knowledge, but must address wider aspects of the heart, including skills and qualities of awareness associated with conscious self-regulation, ethical and social responsibility, and empathy and compassion for others.
Mind and Life XIX brings together world-renowned educators, scientists, and contemplatives, with the Dalai Lama presiding, to explore new avenues for science and educational practice related to the cultivation of these positive human qualities —mindful awareness, self-control, social responsibility and concern for the welfare of others –among children, youth, and the adults who educate them. This interdisciplinary dialogue will honor insights from various perspectives on this issue, including those from educational theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and the wisdom of contemplative traditions. Our intent is for the synergy of these converging disciplines to inspire and support visions of education that focus on the development of the whole person (including both students and educators) within more caring and effective school communities. At the heart of this dialogue is a shared vision of an educational system that nurtures the heart as well as the mind, and that creates compassionate, engaged, and ethical world citizens whose skills and abilities are not only used for personal growth and advancement, but also for the good of the world.
Educators have recently seen impressive results in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL), a form of education that helps children and adults develop fundamental social and emotional skills conducive to life effectiveness. Studies have documented that SEL has a positive impact on promoting ethical and pro-social behavior in young people as well as supporting their academic learning. The success of social and emotional learning programs is encouraging educators to explore other practices such as those found in the contemplative traditions that may also cultivate, strengthen, and extend skills that SEL teaches.
The world’s great contemplative traditions encompass a shared wisdom on key ethical virtues such as non-violence and empathic concern for the welfare of others, as well as a vast array of specific techniques, including different forms of meditation and reflective practices, that aim to cultivate such virtues. In adults, studies are beginning to document how these practices promote better emotional regulation, improved attention, increased calm and resilience, better stress management and coping skills, and the deliberate cultivation of qualities such as compassion and empathy.
Neuroscience is beginning to build a body of evidence on the positive effects of contemplative practices on the minds, brains and bodies of adults. This leads to the question: would intervening earlier in life to teach young people healthy habits of mind, heart and body amplify the benefits of contemplative practices across the entire lifespans of individuals and provide a host of positive “downstream” preventative and health-promoting effects? As a starting point, research on practical applications for the promotion of stress reduction, health, and well-being is beginning to be examined in relation to the childhood and adolescent periods. Central to this emerging work is an exploration of how to provide contemplative practices to the adults in the lives of children and adolescents – parents, teachers, youth workers and so on – as one key way of “educating” the young in these practices through role modeling. Indeed, it is likely that the most beneficial effects of introducing contemplative practices to young people will occur when educators and parents model the positive qualities arising from such practices themselves. The goal is to “be the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi put it. Moreover, since school is often one of the most stable environments for children and youth exposed to developmental risks, focusing on school-based programs may be the best way to help children develop the non-academic skills necessary to be successful and contributing members of 21st century society.
The time is clearly ripe for scientists, educators, and contemplatives to plan collaborative research on how contemplative practices might be adapted for use in the classroom and how to assess their pedagogical value. Adapting contemplative techniques that were originally embedded within ancient cultures to the secular setting of public schools requires an interdisciplinary approach that includes those with expertise in educational practice, applied and basic science, and the wisdom of the contemplative traditions themselves. This meeting aims to identify new avenues of scientific inquiry and educational practice that aim to cultivate positive qualities that are particularly important in the global context of the 21st century.