Ecological Pedagogy, Buddhist Pedagogy, Hermeneutic Pedagogy: Experiments in a Curriculum for Miracles
reviewed by Jed Hopkins - October 21, 2015
Title: Ecological Pedagogy, Buddhist Pedagogy, Hermeneutic Pedagogy: Experiments in a Curriculum for Miracles
Author(s): Jackie Seidel, David W. Jardine
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433122529, Pages: 207, Year: 2014
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Call it the human condition, call it the cycles of life, call it the fragility of existence, call it the mystery of understanding, or just call it knowing that being alive means you have life. Whatever you call it, schooling these days, maybe more so than in the past, seems hell-bent on having teachers and pupils not simply ignore such truths but positively to forget them. Despite the notion that such knowing may be the source of deep spiritual gratitude and moral responsibility, the situation is grave. For we live in a time where our technologies are not just the useful and distinct tools for efficiency, but they have actually fused with the ways we think. Hence, the school district, the school, the teacher, the curriculum, and the learning are envisioned as a total system that can be measured, analyzed into discrete components, with the chief and singular goal to deliver. To deliver what? You can bet it will be something measurable. In the Anglo-American world at least, we live in an age where school, and whatever is left of the child, would be machine, andif there are any gods leftit is the god of accountability.
For as the book Ecological Pedagogy, Buddhist Pedagogy, Hermeneutic Pedagogy: Experiments in a Curriculum for Miracles points out, we still have children who can take us by delightful surprise and ask things like, What would have happened if we had called trees weekends and weekends trees? (p. 16)a provocation, if all involved are receptive enough, to encounter the extraordinary uncanniness of things. As the authors show and explain with many examples taken from situations inside and outside the classroom, we can be surrounded by opportunities where truths can be disclosed and the appreciation of life and each other become realized in a vital presence if we ourselves are receptive. Such a way, the book makes clear, is not the frantic pursuit of competency, the fraught busyness of machine schooling, but the readiness to seize those opportunities where we can experience the extraordinary in the ordinary and where our encounters carry the promise of a sequel. This is living well and is connected to what is really at stake within an educational experience.
The authors quote philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer here: Experience has its proper fulfillment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself (1989, p. 355). Essentially, the experienced person is not the most knowledgeable but, owing to their experiences, the most open to more experiences. Crucially in all this, time plays a significant role. The young reawaken the traditions of the past while educational encounters open up possibilities for their futures. Given all this, it turns out that receptivity is the real way of the teacher. In this, the authors are joined in one chapter by fifteen other teachers who share accounts of the practical and concrete ways they have been able to seize disclosive opportunities in their own pedagogical work. Through scholarly reflection, a little poetry, and practical examples, this book is a work that tries to prepare us for such ways. Most chapters are divided into partly self-sufficient short sections preceding and often ending with a provocative citation. The purpose seems clear, our reading is to be slowed down and we are to savor the material. In a sense, the work is meant as a tonic or a sheltering from the storm as much as an analytical argument.
In fact, it would be tempting to call it a kind of interfaith trialogue involving Buddhist, ecological, and hermeneutical philosophies, except that discussion of religious faith itself is something that this work chooses to avoid. We are currently stuck with a mainstream educational discourse where professionalism plays the role of dignifying the educational endeavor of teachers. Though this might be preferable to the school as machine mentality, too many rationalist assumptions are still associated with what professionalism tends to mean to make room for what we might call a non-religious respect for the spiritual. But, perhaps a work like this is just what we need to enrich or reawaken what is being professed in an educator and to do this without having to take a stance on thorny and easily misunderstood issues such as religious faith. The authors state: Human life is [best seen] not gradually overcoming its fleeting lot of struggle and impermanence, but only, here and there, coming to learn to live with this lot [emphasis added] and still pursue beautiful things (p. 186). Essentially, this is also the idea that pulls the philosophies of the trialogue so powerfully together.
To accept the impermanence of things (Buddhism) and the cyclical nature of nature (ecology) and pursue beautiful things receptively (Gadamerian hermeneutics) constitutes a view of life, which contrasts with the Enlightenment ideal of progressespecially inquiry for anonymously amassing knowledge towards more undistorted representations. But such a prejudice ought to be replaced, where living life is at stake and where we might entertain a completely different notion . . . the movement of human existence [issuing] in a relentless inner tension between illumination and concealment (p. 186).
The practice of living in this tension is not only to be a way to the authentic human life and the real work of teaching, it is also meant to serve as a justification for what counts as success in the authors endeavors:
Through the course of becoming experienced in this way of experiencing the world and practicing it ourselves and with our students, we dont end up with an ever-mounting success in ever-more schools. The course of our work is not fulfilled by progressively more and more widespread miraculousness, but in ever increasing, quiet and generous confidence in the truth of miracles despite the success or failures of such matters in the world. This misplaced hope that the world might get increasingly better if we just try hard enough or work long enough is only a path to despair. (p. 187)
This seems to say we may take solace in the truth even when we dont anticipate significant numbers of others benefiting from it, which may be hard to take for those who do not believe in the enlightenment version of progress but the social justice one. For in addition to the laudable goal of not letting the machine get to us, shouldnt we also be concerned for the iniquity that allows some privileged minority to do more than survive the system of schooling while so many others seem to be alienated? We can agree with the authors that there is more to education than cybernetic managerialism's bloodless pursuit of getting results, though Im not suggesting that it is right to see this as essentially a matter of closing an achievement gap. Such a perspective is, I believe, tied up with the wrong way to promote authentic teaching. But, I am willing to see that achievement gaps might speak about an imbalance in the distribution of certain meaning-making resources, which should be the focus for achieving progress. The question I have then is whether such a concern could also fit with an ecological, Buddhist, hermeneutic pedagogy?
Id like to suggest that the responsible way is indeed to attempt such an integration. The authors point out that it is unwise to be caught in the grips of panic about standardized examinations, because . . . no student has ever become stupider by doing good work (p. 116) and marks on standardized Provincial examinations go up when one stops teaching to the test and instead teaches to the real work that the topics of the test require if they are to be treated rigorously, fully, and properly (p. 116). There is probably no argument to be raised against this observation as the general reference to teaching to the real work could be open to many interpretations. But, there is one possible interpretation that seems sorely missing from the book that I believe is unfortunate.
Engaging children in authentic inquiry is laudable, but in order to do this requires negotiating and mastering academic discourses. Children are not equally equipped as adults to broach such discourses without very skilled scaffolding from a teacher who likely has some technical expertise on how certain rhetorical structures allow academic texts to perform meaningfully.
I would argue that "pursuing the beauty of things" (p. 186) is compatible with the mindful expansion of childrens meaning-making repertoires. The more ways we have of reading and thinking, the more ways we have to pursue the beauty of things. This follows from a recognition of the practical nature of human understanding and therefore that the joy in life often means experiencing the disclosive power of practices (Hopkins, 2014). However, it is also true that the practices of the school disciplines do not allow the same degree of access for all students. This takes a teacher who is skilled in the art of scaffolding, a concept equally absent from this work as is academic discourse.
This could mean that teachers need to understand how the rhetorical resources of academic texts are deployed in ways that embody the ethos, values, and purposes of the text. History essays naturally invite a historians read just as a scientific report naturally invites a scientists read. Of course, we can challenge the preferred reading and read against the text. This is an empowering and critical thing to do especially if it discloses its otherwise hidden ideology. But such a reading is still contingent on being able to understand how it was intended, which many children are going to need help with. Too often this gets framed as a matter of cognitive, intellectual, or affectual deficiency, but perhaps the only lack is access to certain repertoires of linguistic codes. To confound the situation of misdiagnosis, many school subjects are not even primarily understood as sites of disclosive practices so much as quantities of discrete procedural and informational materials that have to be correctly reproduced, especially for tests.
How can we take a technical interest in better ways to scaffold without letting such an interest lead us to becoming technicians or instrumentalists? Is there a place for the technical, where understanding is taken categorically, in an existentially rich and wise pedagogy? Wise musicians often practice such an integration and wise music teaching consists of ways of passing this on. This integration or balance between technicality and receptivity in pedagogical spaces is undoubtedly something that, for the sake of progressive social justice, we might do well to start exploring this more deliberately to challenge the disaster of schooling manifested from technologized thinking.
Ecological Pedagogy, Buddhist Pedagogy, Hermeneutic Pedagogy beautifully puts us in touch with an existentially rich and wise account of human experience reminding us of what ought to play a significant role in thinking about education and teaching. We should also make the effort to deliberately tackle the disclosive possibilities of genres embedded in those practices or school subjects that seem most worthwhile to us. In doing this, there is a role for technical thinking without making educational thinking technological. What this means and looks like is not what this book was able to explore but without something like it, it may also constitute an injustice to the spiritual life itself.
Gadamer, H. -G. (1989). Truth and Method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum. (Original work published 1960).
Hopkins, J. (2014). The joy of educating. In D. Gorlewski, J. Hopkins, J. Gorlewski, & B. Porfillo (Eds.), Effective or wise? Teaching and the meaning of professional dispositions in education (pp. 95115). New York, NY: Peter Lang.