Book/Video Reviews

To see my favorite books and videos of 2013, hit here.

To see my favorite books and resources of 2014, hit here.

To see my favorite books and resources of 2015, hit here.

To see my favorite books of 2016, hit here.

This resource bank is divided into four sections:

1.  Books for Students
2.  Books for Teachers
3.  Videos
4.  Theological Animation Corner

Books for Students

Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet (2010) by Yangzom Brauen

I used this memoir this year following our reading of Ishmael, a unit which helps students consider the environmental crisis by contrasting “Leaver” and “Taker” societies.  Early on in Across Many Mountains, the author provides a thorough, if fairly uneventful, portrait of a nun’s life in pre-modern Tibet.  Then the Chinese invasion of 1959 takes the nun and her husband (who are the author’s grandmother and grandfather), and their 6-year old daughter (the author’s mother) across the Himalayas into northern India, where the family struggles to eke out an existence as refugees.  In time, the daughter grows into adolescence and, while serving as a waitress at Tibetan restaurant, meets and several years later marries a Swiss young man, who takes the author’s mother and grandmother to Berne, Switzerland.  The book follows the interlocking, yet distinct, personal journeys of these three generations of Tibetan women.

Brauen’s book raises a number of issues that are part of the Humanities I in Action curriculum: “primitive” vs. “civilized” cultures, Asian vs. Western ways of thought, and the role of traditional religion in modern society.  It also served as a model of the kind of reflection I have asked my students to do about their own family heritage.  My primary objective, however, is for my bi-cultural students to gain a critical perspective of the Tibetan-Chinese tensions in search of a solution.  Given the recent spate of immolations currently in the papers, this is a relevant topic to all my students, including the majority of whom are Chinese.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

behindIn our globalization unit, we want our wealthy students to understand what life is like for the bottom 20% of the world who survive on $1.25 US/day. Boo explores this issue, skillfully and compellingly combining intensive ethnographic research with a novel-like style. Whereas readers of a novel may question to what degree an author imposes their own interpretations and embellishments on a given story, the cross-checking that Boo did, as explained in her author’s note at the end of the book, assures the reader that her work emerged out of careful research. This Pulitzer Prize-winning author lived for nearly three and a half years in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, which lies adjacent to its gleaming international airport.

The main storyline follows a hard-working Muslim family that is carving out a living in the slum, and even preparing to buy a countryside home, before a verbal confrontation with a one-legged mother with loose morals turns unexpectedly deadly, resulting in multiple imprisonments and a lengthy trial that threatens the dreams of this aspiring family. Only in the book’s final pages do we learn the fate of the family. In a second plotline, we watch Asha, an ambitious middle-aged woman who wants to become a powerful political player in Annawadi, interact with her gifted and morally conscientious daughter, Manju, who hopes to break out of the slum.  We come to understand that each individual brings their own values and personality to bear upon the undercity conditions.  Readers understand Asha and Manju in ways, we assume, that neither character comprehends the other. If the goal of social conscience education is for generally affluent students to understand the lives of those who struggle in the global economy, this book is a valuable read.

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (1992) by Daniel Quinn

During second semester of Humanities I in Action, our curriculum studies humans’ relationship to nature and  the related issue of globalization.  For some years we have started the semester with Ishmael, which challenges student assumptions about human superiority to and separation from the natural world.  Quinn attempts to redefine the widely accepted primitive-to-civilized trajectory of human history, claiming instead that humans have devolved from “Leaver” societies (those that leave something for the next generation) to  “Taker” civilizations (those that expand indefinitely).  Quinn argues in an extended metaphor that, as a result of Taker dominance, our civilizational craft is crashing.  Many students find Quinn’s  argument persuasive, which reshapes conversations throughout the semester.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (2007) by Immaculee Illibagiza

Immaculee tells the gripping and unforgettable story of the 91 days that she and six other Tutsi women spent in a 3 x 4 foot bathroom, hoping to outlast the Hutu genocidaires who occasionally searched the Hutu pastor’s home in which they were hiding.

While students say that genocide is the most impactful unit in Humanities I in Action, each students wrestles with the question of hope.  Despite the grim material, Imaculee’s descriptions lead the reader through her spiritual journey to find a place within herself that does not hate those that seek to destroy her.  Finding this place comes only after much prayer and contemplation, as she fears for her life through the long days in hiding.  Following the genocide, Immaculee returns to her village and meets her family’s killer, to whom she offers the only gift she has, forgiveness.  For students struggling to come to terms with the horror of this unit, Immaculee’s example shows that some can rise above the violence and – through much spiritual growth – find an ability to be true to something deeper than revenge.

Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding

We start Lord of the Flies in about the third week of Humanities I in Action.  Following our first unit on worldview, the second unit is called, “Problematic Power in Literature, Psychology, and Sociology.”  As we read, we also watch the BBC video, “The Human Zoo” (see below for more detail) and study the Milgram and Stanford experiments.  Through studying these topics, students begin to explore the psychological and sociological dimensions of life, and they come to understand that true service takes human nature into account.  Our goal is for students to understand that if they are going to make a difference in the world, they must build their actions upon a view of human nature that considers what people really need and want, and how best to support them. Although it is a dark book, the sophisticated writing and complex study of group behavior gives students much to think about in preparation for the subsequent topic of genocide, which is the single most impactful unit of the year.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003) by Tracy Kidder.

The first step in social conscience growth for most HKIS students is to awaken to the disparity between their lives and the lives of others who have much less and suffer due to inequality.  Some students are so disturbed by this revelation that they take a radical turn wanting to ‘change the world.’  Over time, however, most students (and teachers as well) learn to the live with the contradictions between the two worlds.

Tracy Kidder’s book about Dr. Paul Farmer tells the story of an immensely talented man who never lost the radical sense that inequality was a moral failure.  Reflecting on the incongruity of the strikingly modern Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and Farmer’s work in Haiti, Kidder said to the doctor,

“It seems like another world.” Farmer looked up, smiling, and in a chirpy-sounding voice he said, “But that feeling has the disadvantage of being . . .” He paused a beat.  “Wrong.”  “Well, it depends on how you look at it.”  “No, it doesn’t,” he replied, in a very pleasant voice.  “The polite thing to say would be, ‘You’re right.  It’s a parallel universe.  There really is no relation between the massive accumulation of wealth in one part of the world and abject misery in another.’  He looked at me. He’d made me laugh.  “You know I’m being funny about something serious,” he said (p. 218).

Throughout the book the reader seeks to understand this man who shuttles between Harvard medical school, Haiti, Peru, Russia and Rwanda; who heals patients enthusiastically at anytime, visits prisoners, writes grant proposals, gives lectures, teaches courses, writes books, and keeps up with with a global network of friends via email. Kidder concludes:

I felt as if for that moment I could see a little way into his mind.  It seemed like a place of hyperconnectivity.  At moments like that, I thought that what he wanted was to erase both time and geography, connecting all parts of his life and tying them instrumentally to a world in which he saw intimate, inescapable connections between the gleaming corporate offices of Paris and New York and a legless man lying on the mud floor of a hut in the remotest part of remote Haiti.  Of all the world’s errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the ‘erasing’ of people, the ‘hiding away’ of suffering. ‘My big struggle is how people can not care, erase, not remember’ (p. 218-219).

This anecdote summarizes the calling of the social conscience educator: to reveal to students the interconnectedness and equality of all humans, and to find a way for students to remember this essential oneness throughout their lives.  Mountains Beyond Mountains inspires and provokes students and teachers to consider a life that does not make false accommodations, but rather strives with all of one’s energy to bring the two worlds together for the sake of healing.

Books for Teachers (arranged in alphabetical order by title)

Actions Speak Louder than Words: Community Activism as Curriculum (2012) by Celia Oyler

A vital component of our Humanities I in Action curriculum are Personal Action Projects, which students take on in groups in which they attempt to remedy some social concern on campus or in the community.  Oyler’s book, which follows teachers from primary to graduate school, is an excellent guide to consider many questions that are raised when initiating these kinds of projects, such as:

  • How can teachers organize action without telling students what to think or what to do?
  • How can teachers balance student-focused, project-based lessons without neglecting necessary content and background knowledge?
  • How can teachers develop the affective dimension of student community activism?
  • How can teachers balance activism with consideration of multiple perspectives?

Not only are the issues discussed intelligently, balancing insights from relevant literature with on-the-ground case studies of teachers implementing projects in the classroom, but the narrative style which integrates scholarship, pedagogy, and activism should appeal to a diverse range of readers.

Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a  Complex World (1996) by Laurent A. Parks Daloz, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Daloz Parks

When my students come back from some powerful service or adventure trip and then become inundated by the heavy demands of schoolwork, they frequently employ the image of fire to describe their longing to feel inspired again.  They often ask, “How do I keep the fire burning?”  The four authors of Common Fire took the general sentiment of this question and developed it into a research study, asking how did 100 Americans committed to the common good become this way?  More generally, how do citizens in an increasingly complex world find ways to maintain their energy for bettering the world?

The researchers were surprised by their most significant finding.  Based on interviews, their research revealed that the key element in people become committed to the common good was “a constructive engagement with the other” (p. 52) during adolescence.  Meeting those different from themselves and experiencing positive growth as a result pushed these young people at critical moments in their lives to go beyond the limits of individualism and tribalism and to dedicate their lives to something greater.

My research at HKIS of students’ social conscience development showed the same key element.  For our wealthy students, the path towards social conscience usually begins with some experience with others who have much less than they and suffer as a result.  Common Fire and my research at HKIS make a strong case for providing students with some experience of “otherness” that pops their bubbles of what is normal, and asks them to consider how they can contribute their lives to alleviating the distress of others.

The Global Achievement Gap (2008) by Tony Wagner

globalachievgap-130pxThe great strength of this book by Tony Wagner, Harvard’s Innovation Education Fellow at its Technology & Entrepreneurship Center, is the investigative spirit in which it is written. Wagner is interested in what is needed in education and what truly works. He shares from a host of resources, including conversations with business leaders (“teaching is by far the most challenging job I’ve ever had,” says a retired CEO); “learning walks” of classrooms in private and public schools; interviews with school administrators, teachers, and students; and research from countries around the world.  As a former English and social studies teacher and school administrator, he sympathizes with people “in the trenches” on a daily basis, and demonstrates respect for all perspectives. He provides ample evidence that American education has become so focused on test prep that students are losing out on the number one survival skill: critical thinking and problem solving. The seven core competencies that he identified “aren’t being taught even in our best schools.” Perhaps this is why, he claims, 40% of U.S. university students need remedial classes in college.  His solutions are practical and realistic: the best way to improve education is for groups of educators to watch videotaped classes and have real debate about what is meant by excellent teaching or teaching for rigor. Motivating students who grow up in the digital age means using creative, indexdiscovery-based, and socially interactive teaching methods. His last chapter looks at model schools that really work. In the end, reading Wagner’s book, watching “The Finland Phenomenon” (reviewed below), and seeing videos of his presentations encourages me that a “teacher’s teacher” is in a position of influence at a leading U.S. educational institution.

The Heart of Higher Education: A Call To Renewal (2010) by Parker J. Palmer and Arthur Zajonc with Megan Scribner.

indexWhereas Palmer’s The Courage to Teach has become an inspirational text for a generation of teachers who want to re-enchant teaching with soulfulness, this book, written with physicist Arthur Zajonc, takes a more philosophical approach, establishing an education of the heart based on the foundation of new discoveries in physics. If the Newtonian approach towards education focused on an objective world devoid of inner purpose, the quantum worldview considers the atom not as a discrete entity, but as a nexus of relationships (26). The authors believe that our most humane qualities – compassion, purpose, emotion, subjectivity – have been excised out of the modern university education. Early on Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard, states, “The students are not soulless, but their university is” (3).  If as Whitehead argues, “every intellectual revolution is a protest against inert ideas” (58), then this book asserts its transformative pedagogies as an antidote to the soullessness of 21st century university.   Rather than technical mastery, the goal of higher education should be wholeness, which needs to be intentional and systemic rather than accidental and piecemeal (56). Zajonc, as the director of the Center of the Contemplative Mind in Society, gives special attention to the role of contemplative pedagogy as a means by which to offer students a purposeful, holistic education.

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World (2011) by Leslie Paul Thiele.

As a high school humanities teacher teaching about globalization, Thiele’s book is a treat to read, and one deserving of serious attention. If the basic epistemological assumption is that our biosphere is interconnected rather than atomistic, how does this paradigm shift affect the ways we approach various disciplines, such as ecology, technology, ethics, and physics? Thiele’s approach is thorough, readable, and oftentimes stylishly written.  For someone trying to better understand how to help the next generation consider the implications of our industrial civilization and what it means to consider a new way of living, Thiele’s book provides well-informed and balanced guidance.

Is There Anything Good About Men?  How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men (2010) by Roy F. Baumeister.

Judging by our Humanities I in Action curriculum, females do, as Baumeister points out more generally, come across as the superior human gender.  Whether it’s reading Lord of the Flies (would girls have acted the same?), discussing the one-child policy (preference for males vs. female infanticide), microcredit (97% of all loans go to women because they are more trustworthy), or poverty (educating girls is the key to poverty reduction), the implicit message seems to be that males are generally the cause of many global problems while women are the solution to these problems.  Baumeister’s book suggests this broad assumption is shared by many both within and outside academia.  In this book he offers a critique that challenges this perspective, and provides his own theory that explains how culture exploits both gender roles in serve to its own end.

Baumeister provides a useful summary of his book in a recent address. While the thesis is controversial, it holds to a critical light an assumption found in courses such as Humanities I in Action.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do (2009) by Michael Sandel

th_1416868Based on his many years of teaching a highly popular undergraduate course at Harvard, Michael Sandel’s book on justice illustrates many of the key qualities of social conscience instruction.  At the end of chapter one Sandel states that his goal is not to present an objective history of philosophical thought; rather, the choice and arrangement of these materials on justice are intended to take readers on an intellectual journey to consider their own beliefs, or worldview.  In the final chapter, Sandel explicitly reveals his own perspective of favoring Aristotle’s argument, which approaches the question of justice with the goal of cultivating virtue in citizens.  Commendably, Sandel does lay out his own contribution to this debate in the final chapter; however, the book’s overall tone of presentation aims to invite readers to engage in moral contemplation more than seeking to convince them of his viewpoint.  To provoke such reflection, Sandel selects highly engaging and often controversial topics (e.g, abortion, stem cell research, affirmative action, same-sex marriage) to provide particular examples of the larger, more conceptual understandings of justice that are the backbone of the book.

For the social conscience educator, many of Sandel’s examples and explanations may be useful resources in various curricular contexts.  Besides the rich content, Sandel’s writing is also notable for its verbal dexterity without compromising clarity.  Every sentence appears to have been chosen with deliberation and edited with precision.  A final benefit of reading this book is that the entire Harvard course on justice can be watched online.

Living Deeply: The Art & Science of Transformation in Everyday Life (2007) by Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, Cassandra Vieten, and Tina Amorok

Researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences surveyed more than 900 people and interviewed 50 teachers, scholars, and practitioners who have had experiences of transformation and/or regularly participate in transformative practices.  The research results are shared in a highly engaging way through clear prose and engaging excerpts from the interviews.  The aim is practical: to describe the transformation process, and to offer practices that make such change likely. The themes explored in this books are quite consistent with the tenor of this blog.  Such common themes include: seeing with new eyes, transformation of consciousness, shift in worldview, sacredness of daily life, introspection, ego purification, and spiritual practices.

I first came across co-author Marilyn Schlitz in the highly recommended documentary, “The Living Matrix,” where she spoke in an authoritative and grounded way about the process of healing through accessing energy fields.

The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells us About Life After Loss (2009) by George A. Bonanno.

George Bonanno, professor of psychology at Columbia, challenges the traditional understanding of the grieving process with his research on bereavement.  Described by reviewers as “a game changer” that turns “our thinking about loss on its head,”  Bonanno asserts that the traditional view of the grieving process (e.g., Kubler-Ross’ 5-stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) is far too prescriptive.  His research suggests that there are many ways for people to find resilience following the death of a loved one.  Whether the traumatic events are in Japan (dropping of the atomic bombs), New York (911),  or Hong Kong (SARS), the surprising good news is that the vast majority cope well with loss.

The Humanities I in Action course, like other social conscience curricula, exposes students to a considerable amount of suffering that has occurred or is occurring in our world.  Whether it is in literature (e.g., the deaths of Simon and Piggy in Lord of the Flies; the loss of Fugwai’s entire family in Yu Hua’s To Live), film (“Shooting Dogs” about Rwanda), current events (Darfur, North Korea, or Burma), or service experiences (meeting refugees, playing with children at a bereavement center, or holding orphans), suffering and death are frequent visitors to the social conscience classroom.  Bonanno’s book offers hope that those grieving cope better than might be expected with these fearful realities.

Most relevant to my classroom, this book prompted me to consider whether the same force of resilience is also at work within students who claim they personally benefit from the study of these tragedies.  Perhaps this explains why students, when given the choice, always opt to study genocide or other hard-hitting topics rather than less psychologically troubling issues.

The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life (2008)by William Damon

Damon begins by explaining why this research study of purpose at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence felt different than any other project he has undertaken.  While others were of great interest, this one he felt compelled to study.  Damon explains that this book is in response to the emptiness and apathy that is prevalent among American youth today, and educators must share some of the blame.  To my surprise, Damon claims that he has rarely, if ever, heard educators talk about why what they teach is broadly important for students’ lives or how their own sense of calling relates to the teaching profession.

In order to remedy this situation, Damon wanted to explore the concept of purpose, which was defined in this way: “Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self” (p. 33).  His research found that American youth can be divided into four groups: the purposeful (20%), the dreamers (25%), the dabblers (20%), and the disengaged (25%).  Damon claims that the most important indicator of adolescent thriving is not GPA, extracurricular development, awards, or college acceptance, but the “direction and meaning of a young person’s efforts” (37).

In the end, this youth crisis is symptomatic of a modern cultural malaise that prizes profit and power more than meaning and purpose.  Social conscience educators can draw upon their own sense of purpose and give witness to their calling to be outstanding educators to help create conditions where young people can thrive in their pursuit of a life of meaning.

Paulo Freire: Teaching for Freedom and Transformation – the Philosophical Influences on the Work of Paulo Freire (2010) by John Dale and Emery J. Hyslop-Margison

Having read some provocative, but rambling interpretations of critical theory and critical pedagogy for my doctoral work, I found this book to be very readable and even of interest to the general, if philosophically-inclined, reader.  While certainly sophisticated in its goal of explaining the philosophical origins of Freirian thought, the books aims, in imitation of Freire himself, to speak to teachers and other non-specialists rather than fellow academics. Key Freirian concepts such as conscientization, humanization, and banking education are explained in layman’s language and explored in light of their philosophical roots.  Dale and Hyslop-Margison deserve much praise for bringing these important concepts, which are often reduced to educational slogans, under careful, but not overly difficult, scrutiny.  (Hit the following link to read a related entry:  “Reinventing Freirian Pedagogy among Privileged Students in Hong Kong.”)

Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth (2010) by Juliet Shor

It’s hard to overstate the importance of examining globalization in relationship to the environment in the social conscience curriculum. The challenge faced by social conscience teachers, however, is lack of expertise in both areas.  How can one avoid being carried away by alarmist views on the one hand or by persuasive supporters of big business on the other?  Sociologist Juliet Shor of Boston College provides assistance with her engaging and sophisticated book, which aims to inform the general reader about these topics in the context of seeking a satisfying life.

In the first half of the book, Shor links consumer attitudes and behavior to deteriorating global environmental conditions.  While this is not new territory, Shor’s scholarship and literary style provide a fresh approach to this material.  Next she takes on basic assumptions posed by the BAU (“business-as-usual”) mainstream economic establishment.  The second half of the book looks to the future, exploring four themes of plenitude: time affluence; self-provisioning; low-impact, but high-satisfaction consumer life; and social re-connectedness.  In the final chapter, Shor provides practical examples how those who follow these four themes will provide not only a more satisfying life, but also produce efficiency-driven economic growth.  While Shor’s suggestions of how relatively small-scale changes can make a difference seems to pale in the face of the  overwhelming toll on the environment, as described in the first half of the book, the book’s very existence as well as its solution-oriented structure point the reader to hope and act for a more promising future.  Her clear-eyed optimism and solution-based approach should be emulated by social conscience educators in their classrooms.

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future (2004) by Peter Senge, C. Otto Schmarmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers.

The four authors of Presence were brought together by a shared sense that the world is in need of profound change, which fundamentally requires a new way of seeing.    The form that this book takes, a series of conversations among the four interspersed with theoretical and personal insights, highlights the importance of fellow sojourners along the path towards new awareness.

This book seeks to address how leaders can initiate not only personal transformation, but more urgently systemic change among groups of people.  The authors’ discussions focus on a holistic approach to leadership: “The changes in which we will be called upon to participate in the future will be both deeply personal and inherently systemic” (p. 5).  Gaining the insight that is needed requires one to understand the whole, the state of the world in all its diversity, in order to sense what each individual is being asked by the whole to bring forth in the present. Thus, contemplation is a major theme of the book: “Every profound innovation is based on an inward-bound journey, on going to a deeper place where knowing comes to the surface” (p. 13).  Only by letting go of old ideas, being present, and then letting come will new visions replace old paradigms.  As Senge says, cultivating presence involves three actions: committing to a regular spiritual practice, studying the thoughts of religious traditions, and engaging in service to society (p. 226).

One of the most common responses by students to social conscience courses is a sense that they have gained an understanding of the ‘big picture’.  At their best, social conscience courses allow students to consider their role and responsibility in society in light of an understanding of this enlarged perspective, and to begin to act in ways consistent with this new understanding.  Presence provides an unusually insightful and inspiring commentary on the journey towards finding one’s place in the big picture.

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (2006) by Madeline Levine

Levine, a practicing psychologist in the U.S. for more than 25 years,  argues in this book that affluent students are so overwhelmed by the need to excel in every area of their lives that normal adolescent development of experimenting with various identities has been left behind.  This period of taking on and shedding possible future selves has been replaced instead with an angst-ridden sprint towards achievement.  Parents, similarly driven in their professional lives, are oftentimes too busy to lead or even model for their children what it means to counter this “bottom line” focus with attention to the inner life.

Social conscience teachers may find parts of this book, especially the early chapters, to be useful conversation starters in which students discuss whether they agree with Levine’s conclusions about the “price of privilege.”  My experience  has been that students are well-aware of the shortcomings of modern adolescent culture and will enthusiastically engage in discussions when a teacher  leads such conversations in a serious, non-judgmental manner.  These can help students define for themselves what values need to be emphasized in our schools and in society more generally.

Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning through Restorative and Social Justice Education (2011) by Amy Vatne Bintliff.

This is the first book that I’ve seen that uses Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory to understand the changes that occur in high school students studying in a curriculum aimed to bring about deep shifts in perspective.  The author and two colleagues led at-risk U.S. high school students from the Upper Midwest on an interdisciplinary summer school trip to study Western Expansion history.  Elements of Outward Bound, experiential education, environmental education, restorative justice, and social justice were included in this alternative educational approach.

Despite vast cultural, socio-economic, and subject matter differences, Ms. Bintliff uses much of the same language in describing her work with students that we use at HKIS in discussing social conscience education: self-discovery, emotional engagement, connecting disconnected students,  separation from their ‘ordinary world,’  relevance to students’ lives, and authentic teacher-student and student-student relationships.  Similarly, this summer school course was the highlight of these teachers’ careers, and has had a transformative effect upon their view of what is possible in education.  Ms. Bintliff’s research came to the same conclusion as my research: students can have profound transformative learning experiences before they become adults.  This is a challenge to Mezirow’s adult-focused Transformative Learning theory, and one worthy of further exploration by high school teachers as well as teacher education programs.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt

imagesThis personally engaging, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking summary of the author’s exploration into moral psychology over the last quarter century has three sections, which he summarizes as:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second: Humans are more intuitive than rational. The message to social conscience educators is to make sure your teaching speaks to the larger intuitive self rather than primarily to reason.

2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness: In his most original contribution, Haidt explains in his Moral Foundations Theory that humans’ moral palate comes in six tastes. Care and fairness are most important to liberals, while freedom, loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity are additional values for conservatives. Thus, conservatives speak with a greater diversity of moral perspectives. Since most social conscience educators come from the liberal persuasion, this may be the most useful section pertaining to this website because it helps liberals understand not just conservatives in the U.S., but those across the global spectrum who value tradition, hierarchy, and religion.

3. Morality binds and blinds: While we may be 90% chimp in terms of self-interest, the haidt_ted2012_026276_d32_1302_1_600other 10% is our desire to lose ourselves as part of a whole. Because our highest aspirations are greater than self-interest, social conscience education should aim to help students find the hive switch. In this section, Haidt, an agnostic, explains the value of religion in finding this switch, which helps to hold groups and whole societies together. To see Haidt’s outstanding TED talk on this topic, click here.

Service-Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change (2010) by Susan Bengigni Cipolle

Ms. Cipolle has been teaching French at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in Minnesota, USA since 1976.  As she became a more experienced professional, her vocational purpose shifted from teaching French to developing social justice consciousness among students, in line with her school’s commitment to Catholic social teachings.  She has initiated and supported service-learning programs that have aimed to develop social justice within students.

Her long tenure at the school has allowed her to address a question that I often face as well: what long-term impact does high school service learning programs make on students?  Through her longitudinal research she developed a theory that responds to this question, which identifies four essential elements of critical consciousness: self awareness, awareness of others, awareness of social issues, ethic of service/change agent (p. 11).  She also offers a developmental path in which students grow from charity to caring t0 social justice to critical consciousness (p. 58).  In the second half of the book, she offers practical advice for developing social justice education programs, even including a brief section on social entrepreneurship (p. 131), a concept that HKIS students find very attractive.  This is a serious, thorough, and well-written book with many similarities to ideas discussed in this blog.

Service-Learning in Theory and Practice: The Future of Community Engagement in Higher Education (2010) by Dan W. Butin

Butin’s book, which won the 2010 Critics Choice Award for the American Educational Studies Association, turns a critical eye towards service learning and asks what should be its rightful place in the academy.  He rejects the “service-learning-as-social movement” phenomenon and calls on service learning practitioners to shift their focus to “service-learning-as-intellectual movement.”  Butin argues that service learning is reaching its limits as a means by which to transform the “ivory tower” culture of universities.  He suggests that service learning should shift its strategic direction and follow the lead of the women’s movement, which abandoned its goal of transforming higher education, and has successfully focused its energy on becoming a proper discipline within the university system.

Butin raises many valuable points about the direction of service learning at the university level in an American context.  As an international high school educator practicing service learning, however, these issues are of less relevance in my immediate context.  Of most practical value to me was Butin’s overview of all U.S. university programs that have concentrations, minor, and/or majors in service learning (p. 90-91).  High school students who hope to continue service learning at American universities should consult Butin’s overview.  An updated list of institutions with such programs can be found here.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Our students at HKIS are among the most fortunate students in the world in terms of family income and opportunity.  It is not surprising, then, that to them that the world economy is working quite well.  However, in our study of globalization we find that most scholars think that global inequality – both between and within countries – has increased in the last 40 years. Living in Asia has highlighted for students that inequality is a major concern and one that that demands our attention every time we travel beyond the boundaries of the 5-star accommodations.

This book uses cross-cultural studies to document what one would probably assume about the relationship of wealth and quality of life: the rich score higher than the middle class, and the middle class have a higher average than the working class.  The real insight that this books asserts, however, is that regardless of the issue – community life, mental health, life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, teen pregnancy, violence, imprisonment, or social mobility – societies that are more equal have a higher overall quality of life for its citizens.

The Spirit Level also argues that when societies want to narrow the gap between rich and poor, it has the ability to do so through policy-making decisions. What is needed is a stronger political will that aims to provide quality of life for everyone in a society.

Students often argue in class that free-market capitalism is the only choice since communism was such a failure.  This book argues that there is a middle way between these two extremes and suggests ways forward to provide greater opportunities for everyone in society.  The authors have created a website to provide access to their research and to encourage groups to form to create social organizations that will increase social equality.

Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? (1999) by Janet Eyler & Dwight E. Giles, Jr.

When I first began researching material for my dissertation in the area of social conscience education, I read this seminal book by Eyler and Giles. The authors summarized current research on service learning in a way that was highly accessible to me as a practitioner as well as a first-time researcher.  Many of the themes that appeared in my dissertation four years later – transformative learning theory, meeting the other, a connected view of learning, self-efficacy, cognitive and affective learning, worldview, spiritual growth – were first introduced to me in this  engaging summary of service-learning research.  I was particularly appreciative of the authors’ respect for student perspectives evident in their inclusion of comments by students in every chapter.

I had the chance to spend some time with Dwight Giles at a service learning conference in Hong Kong in June, 2011.  To learn more about his contributions at the conference, click here.

Whole Child Education (2010) by John P. Miller

Do you need a refreshing reminder why you wanted to be an educator?  Jack Miller’s book on holistic education once again speaks to the heart of teaching.  The basic premise is that purposeful education can only come about when two mysteries are addressed: the mystery of creation and the mystery of the human soul.  Both are sacred treasures that need to be explored in our classrooms – and they need to be explored together.  For only when one teaches from the whole can a sense of purpose for the individual be derived.

Miller proposes three modes of teaching: transmission, transaction, and transformation.  Importantly, he does not exclude any of these, but stresses that education has become dominated by the first two approaches. What is needed is a tranformational educational paradigm, the foremost goals of which are wisdom, compassion, and purpose.  Miller’s visionary program has become the philosophical foundation for Equinox Holistic Alternative School in Toronto, opened in 2009.

Videos, Feature Films, and Documentaries,

See?
The Adjustment Bureau (2011) Matt Damon, Emily Blount

Although some reviewers criticized “The Adjustment Bureau” for being unable to deliver on its intriguing premise, I am looking forward to trying it with my students.  The film’s elements bring to mind other psychospiritual thrillers like “The Truman Show,” “The Matrix,” and “Inception.”  It’s use of well-known stars, slick (New York) backdrops, and cameos by recognizable media and political figures is reminiscent of “Contact.”  While such pandering to trendiness may turn off those interested in indy films, it is precisely those lower-brow, crowd-pleasing theatrics that will make it appealing to high school students.

While Damon’s character is not fully developed and the spiritual journey may not introduce anything truly novel, its suggestion that there may be larger, benign forces at work in our lives that we only come to realize through personal exploration and experimentation puts onto film the conclusions that spiritually-sensitive people for millenia have drawn from lifetimes of experience.  Finally, the palpable chemistry between Damon and Blount suggests to me that they were inspired by more than just a love story; rather, they seem energized by the film’s introspection into the purpose of our existence.

Disconnect (2013) See trailer.

Disconnect_posterTo start off my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this year, I decided to use “Disconnect” as a way to begin discussing the challenge of living deeply in contemporary society. I was a bit nervous since it is rated R, but seeing it for a second time convinced me that the dramatic, intelligent, and professionally directed story would prompt a great deal of reflection about the role of technology in students’ lives. The film succeeded far beyond my expectations. Students were spellbound by the film, and the conversations and blog comments that resulted were among the best I’ve had in my years of teaching.  Students felt that the movie accurately portrayed the disconnectedness of family relationships and the subsequent quest for intimacy and validation in the inauthentic world of cyberspace. While critics found fault with the overly predictable outcomes of worst-case scenarios, students by contrast found the stories hit very close to home. As a follow-up to the movie, I used this excellent and balanced TED talk by Sherry Turkle. Educationally, “Disconnect” set the scene for reading of the book Living Deeply (reviewed above).

The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System (2011)

imagesHarvard professor of education Tony Wagner visits Finland to understand how and why the Finnish educational system consistently scores near the top of all international rankings. In this one-hour documentary, viewers follow Wagner into Finnish classrooms and offices to hear from students, teachers, and policymakers what makes this system successful. Wagner skillfully interviews those in their school settings, then succinctly draws conclusions, including comparisons to his home country. Wagner refrains from providing too much data, analysis, or interpretation, intending to provoke dialogue among viewers. In the end, he provides six key lessons to consider from the Finnish success story:

  • School is about learning, so class time is sacrosanct.
  • Teacher education is noted for its professionalism and quality preparation.
  • Depth and quality of learning is more important than coverage or test preparation.
  • Student and teacher autonomy is built into all levels of the system.
  • Students may opt for a general education or vocational track, both of which are respected by society and inherently valuable to students’ futures.
  • Most importantly, trust is implicit at every level, most notably in how teachers are not overly burdened by evaluation systems, but rather are expected to act as professionals.

While this video does not speak directly  about social conscience issues, Finnish collectivist values are evident throughout the documentary. First, schools provide the same educational opportunities for all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status. Second, academic success is not a competitive endeavor; rather, cooperation is assumed to benefit both the individual and society. Overall, this video is highly recommended for teachers, and it might also provide students an opportunity to gain a critical perspective about their own educational settings and systems.

You may watch Tony Wagner’s engaging 2012 TED talk about education here.

The Human Zoo (2000)  produced by the BBC

Following our initial unit in Humanities I in Action course on the importance of worldview, our second unit explores human nature.  We read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and use various psychosocial constructs by which to analyze the boys’ interactions on the island.  As we begin the novel, we show much of this three-part series in which psychologists Philip Zimbardo, of the famed Stanford Experiment, and Mark McDermott, professor at University of East London, orchestrate the group dynamics of 12 British volunteers who participate in a retreat in the English countryside.  Aided by hidden cameras, the two psychologists comment on the power dynamics of this newly-formed group.  The show focuses on Richard, a middle-aged man who steals to ingratiate himself with younger participants, and Caroline, who quietly emerges to reveal dictatorial tendencies.  Interspersed with this main narrative are fascinating experiments: an expert who can determine who is lying by observing respondents’ facial expressions; test-takers who following the example of others around them refuse to leave a classroom  in which smoke is pouring in and an alarm is sounding; and off-the-street volunteers who are convinced to marry someone they have never met.  Brief discussions of the Milgram and Stanford experiments are also included.

Using this intelligent form of a reality TV show introduces students to various psychological and sociological lenses that help develop depth in their thinking about human nature and human behavior.  Through the novel and this video, we explore various themes important for our study: following a group script, bystander apathy and empathy, identity markers, power of first impressions, obedience to authority, punishment for breaking group loyalty, and ostacization of outcasts.  We have found that ninth graders, who themselves are highly conscious of group norms, are drawn into this unit.  Our subsequent unit on the Rwandan genocide will use these concepts to understand how large-scale destruction of human life can occur.  Finally, this unit helps students to consider the importance of contemplating human nature in a course aiming to make a difference in the world.

The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing (2009) (85 minutes)

Much of social conscience education asks students to consider the deficiencies of a self-focused worldview and to think of themselves instead as members of multiple nested communities.   Re-conceptualizing  this paradigm has profound considerations for almost every sphere of life.  “The Living Matrix” examines this shift from the viewpoint of modern medicine.

The film explains that all pre-modern cultures saw the world as a unity, and the goal of life was to come into sympathetic resonance with these larger forces of the universe.  During the Scientific Revolution, Descartes and Newton split this unity into mind vs. body, subject vs. object, humans vs. nature, and other dichotomies.  Biology and chemistry still today operate on this Newtonian split, dismissing concepts related to fields and energies.  Although quantum physics called this premise into question in the 1920’s, popular culture continues to act on this atomistic and materialistic worldview.

Einstein’s quote, “The field is the sole governing agency of the particle,” suggests that mainstream medical treatments  that are chemically and materially-based are reductionist and therefore inadequate.  The film provides evidence that beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and intuitions have an important role to play in healing. The fact that 1/3 of all successful treatments are due to the placebo effect suggests that such “soft” factors need to be explored further.

This high-quality production features well-edited interviews with leading experts in the field.  While most of the film is ‘talking heads’ and the content is sophisticated, sections of this film may be useful to offer students a thought-provoking alternative to the dominant scientific paradigm.

Of Gods and Men (2010, in French with English subtitles)

How can film portray the best of the Christian tradition without oversimplifying or over-dramatizing spiritual struggle?  Moreover, how can inner spiritual conflict also be depicted as relevant to larger sociopolitical issues?  The film “Of Gods and Men” delivers on these better than any film I’ve seen.  Its deliberate pacing and highly intelligent script presents Christianity as both an ancient faith with a wellspring of liturgical resources as well as a living tradition that is able to make difficult decisions amidst the moral complexity of war.

From the film’s first moments I was entranced by the simple life of worship, work, and service of this monastic Catholic community residing in a rural Algerian village community in the 1990’s.  The monks’ idyllic life, however, comes under threat by Muslim extremists who are battling a corrupt government.

I have yet to try this with students, for whom the slow pacing and sophisticated Christian references may prove too difficult.  Yet I am tempted to because of its demonstration of the best of the Christian tradition struggling to live by its principles in the midst of a perilous situation where matters of the spirit would appear to be powerless.

“Of Gods and Men” has won three awards, including second prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Shooting Dogs (2005)

In my research studying genocide was the most remarked upon unit of Humanities I in Action, and this film probably was the main reason for the impact of these course materials.  Filmed on location in Rwanda, “Shooting Dogs” presents the Rwandan tragedy through the eyes of Joe, an idealistic British short-term teacher, and Father Christopher, a deeply religious and altruistic priest who has lived in Africa for decades.

Coming as it does following our study of worldview, human nature and the history of genocide, this film leaves an indelible emotional mark on most students.  In one scene a group of Tutsi women attempt to flee their school refuge;  however, all but one woman carrying a baby are quickly hunted down by the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia.  The audience holds it breath, hoping that the mother and child will escape detection.  But then the infant begins crying, which results in their discovery and subsequent deaths.

The film leaves students with two overall impressions.  First, while never participating in gratuitous violence, the unbearable glimpses of savagery challenges students to consider that the world remains a dangerous place for many.  Second, the film raises difficult questions about the role of the United Nations and the international community in present-day conflicts.  It becomes clear that only through sustained international pressure can genocide become consigned to history rather than remain an all-too-common contemporary event.

Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil (2011)

As we begin the second semester of Humanities I in Action, we read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael to help students consider their relationship with the biosphere.  This year our team has decided to show this provocative and fascinating documentary before handing out the book.  As explained above, Quinn attempts to redefine the perceived primitive-to-civilized trajectory of human history, claiming instead that humans have developed from “Leaver” societies (those that leave something for the next generation) to  “Taker” civilizations (those that expand indefinitely).  As a result, our civilizational craft is crashing.  Many students find the argument persuasive and become ardent anti-Takers.  This year, however, we want them to think more critically about Quinn’s argument.  The documentary begins with this brilliant inventor explaining why he does not accept death as a natural part of life. He intends to live until the “Singularity,” when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, opening a qualitatively new era in human history that cannot be defined on this side of the event.  Whereas Quinn says that one of the Taker’s fundamental flaws is that they grow without limits, Kurzweil optimistically believes that the Singularity can allow us to live forever as well as solve many of our global problems.  By showing this documentary, we hope that students will find Ray Kurzweil to be a friendly Taker whose promises to use science and technology for good will challenge them to consider more carefully to what degree they accept Quinn’s anti-Taker argument.

Theological Animation Corner

See?
Although my work involves working with people in both secular and sacred worlds, my spiritual life is the core motivation of my work. Borrowing a concept from Ched Myers, my faith life animates my praxis of social conscience education.  Here are some books that have contributed in significant ways to my theological reflections about social conscience education:

The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life: An Invitation to Personal Ecclesial and Social Transformation (1999) by Gloria Kinsler and Ross Kinsler.

Written by two career missionaries, this book explores how understanding the biblical concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee can inspire Christians and other spiritually-minded social advocates to undertake a whole-person and a whole-society approach to their work. Especially of value to teachers is use of “The Champagne Glass Analogy,” introduced early in the book, which demonstrates that the great economic disparity of today is not dissimilar to the gap between rich and poor faced by societies throughout the biblical period.  Most powerfully for Christian educators, the book reveals how Jesus employed the Sabbath/Jubilee metaphor in various teachings and stories, modeling how teachers can integrate biblical principles into service activities.

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004) by Cynthia Bourgeault

If social conscience education offers students an opportunity to consider their place in the world, such a transformation by necessity involves de-centering the egoic mind and replacing it with living one’s life in service for others.  While my research has shown how curricula can be structured to foster such dramatic change, I agree with Cynthia’s proposition that nearly “every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is a non-negotiable.  Period.  You just have to do it” (p. 9). As a skilled retreat leader, Cynthia insightfully presents how to conceptualize Centering Prayer  and develop it as a regular practice in order to facilitate such change.

Despite the appropriate exhortation to serve others rather than oneself in social conscience courses, the human heart remains the ultimate battleground where the practice of service is won or lost.  Cynthia borrows the Buddhist metaphor of the “monkey mind” to illustrate our essential problem: the egoic mind’s incessant grasping for self-gratification.  More personally, she explains, “In my own efforts to live the gospel I have found that it is virtually impossible to reach and sustain that life of ‘perfect love’ without a practice of contemplative prayer . . . .  Ordinary awareness always eventually betrays itself and returns to its usual postures of self-defense and self-justification” (p. 17).  Thus, for social conscience teachers searching for a deeper level of awareness, Cynthia’s book has much to offer, first, in directing and inspiring teachers to develop their own practice of meditation.  In addition, her writing could serve as the basis for lesson plans that assist students to engage in the practice of Centering Prayer or other forms of meditation.

(To read a dialogue between Cynthia and myself about how she helped my class to process our Foshan orphanage experience, click here.)

Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year (2002) by Harvey Cox

indexIn the 1980’s Harvey Cox, highly respected professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School and a practicing Christian, decided to re-marry – this time to a Jewish woman, and begin a mixed Jewish-Christian family. Common Prayer is a summary of what a learned Christian man has come to understand from his personal experiences within a Jewish family and community. At times Cox draws upon his formidable knowledge of religion to bear on the various topics he addresses, but what is most striking is his layman’s tone. He is most interested in whatever practices, on balance, seem the most spiritually beneficial. What emerges is a multi-layered and intelligent, yet highly readable view of key tenets and practices in Judaism and Christianity. In addition, he focuses on fundamental religious questions, such as: how does a person maintain a fruitful relationship with God?; how should we view religious stories of violent triumphalism?; what is the relationship between religious traditions and secular culture? Throughout the book, Cox responds as a man of faith, intelligence, and practical good sense.

Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Spiritual Lives (2011) by Alexander Astin, Helen Astin, and Jennifer Lindholm

The results of a seven-year research study have now been published in this highly readable book.  The researchers surveyed 112,000 freshman students at 236 colleges and universities to gain some baseline data about the spiritual and religious lives of students.  Then more than 14,000 of these students participated in follow-up research three years later to determine their growth in the intervening years.

The researchers refrained from any single definition of spirituality as they began their study, but worked with a cluster of ideas, such as:

  • Inner lives of students in contrast to the objective world
  • Emotional dimension of students
  • Personal identity and values
  • Connectedness to others
  • Qualities of compassion, love, and equanimity

In the final chapter, the authors summarize how to develop the spiritual lives of students.  Their suggestions coalesce around four themes:

1)   Study abroad: Taking students out of their familiar surroundings and daily routines to experience the lives of others brings to conscious attention personal and cultural differences, and causes them to reflect upon their own lives.

2)   Interdisciplinarity: Using resources from more than one discipline suggests that the end goal of schooling is beyond gaining expertise in a particular field.  These goals are related to bigger life questions, such as finding personal happiness or creating a just society.

3)   Service learning: Service learning often incorporates elements of the first two points, but also explicitly emphasizes improving the lives of others.  While the authors of the study note that any kind of charitable actions promotes spiritual growth, the holistic approach involved in service learning is especially powerful.  The study also found that including leadership training also enhances students’ spiritual growth.

4)   Contemplative Practices: While the first three areas are widely practiced at the university level, the fourth dimension of contemplative practics is relatively unexplored.  The research concludes that using intentional practices to increase introspection, such as journaling, group discussion, prayer, and meditation, are potent sources of spiritual growth.

This ground-breaking research has provided a useful baseline to understand student perspectives of spirituality and religion in American universities.  The news is encouraging: students generally grow spiritually during these years, and have an interest in greater growth.  From the research findings summarized above, the way forward is quite clear how colleges and universities can help students develop their spiritual lives.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (2011) by Richard Rohr

indexThis year a small group of teachers at our school, all in the second half of life, read Falling Upward during the time set aside for spiritual growth at our school.  Having perused these kinds of reading materials in the past and found them wanting, my/our experience with Rohr’s book, by comparison, was very satisfying. If the first half of life is about establishing boundary markers, creating an identity, and succeeding at the game of life, then the second half should be about being more inclusive, letting go of the egoic identity, and gaining wisdom on life’s journey. The book is filled with Rohr’s characteristic Merlinesque insights – the ladder of success may actually be leaning on the wrong wall (ix), sin is superficial thinking (95), and the cure for loneliness is solitude (143). As we continue further down the path of the second half of life, Falling Upward is a worthy companion on the journey.

God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007) by John Dominic Crossan

God and Empire is an unusually well-written book that concisely delivers an historical interpretation of the life and mission of Jesus, and does so with an intriguing style that is at turns personal, artistic, and even idiosyncratic.  Through this well-told tale, Crossan explains what it means to challenge the domination systems of one’s day from the 1st century perspective of Jesus and Paul. As arguably the world’s foremost historical Jesus scholar, the reader trusts that this brilliant story is told with great attention to detail.  Through his historical reconstruction, Crossan focuses the reader’s attention on a singular theme: contrasting the differences between hegemonic regimes’ ‘peace through victory’ program and the biblical message of ‘peace through justice’. Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, this telling is likely to inspire readers to consider the spiritual underpinnings of social action.

Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve (2011) by Paul Smith

Similar to Reverend Smith, I have found Ken Wilber’s ideas not only personally intriguing, but useful in my teaching ministry as a high school humanities teacher in a Christian school.  Like Smith, too, I have used Spiral Dynamics as a lens through which to help students consider their own personal journeys.  I have also read and enjoyed Jim Marion’s recent writings in this vein. However, Smith’s book seeks to take these fairly abstract concepts and bring them to a level that is practical to parishioners in the pew or teachers in the classroom.  As Cynthia Bourgeault comments in the opening pages, Integral Christianity appears to be the first attempt to bring integral theory and Christian theology together at a popular level.  To his credit, Smith makes clear this is not the final word; rather, these explorations seek to be true to Christianity’s received texts and make them relevant to those seeking spiritual insight in the 21st century.  Smith has done a great service in furthering this vital conversation.  (For those interested in use of Wilber’s AQAL at a high school level, see this related blog entry.)

Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition (2010)by Christopher Evans

imagesWhile the word “liberal” has become a label of derision in some arenas of American political discourse, Evans reminds readers that historically, Christian leaders, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, have often engaged society with distinctly liberal beliefs: the God of the Bible cares about social justice; society can be improved; and Christians should not only contribute to society, but can learn from it as well. While this book delves into the historical roots of American Christian liberalism, it never strays far from questions relevant to contemporary Christian teachers, pastors, and activists who want to remain faithful to their Christian heritage, yet be committed to causes typically seen as “socially progressive.” Evans’ book  highlights the important intellectual tradition of American Christian liberalism, while candidly also addressing its weaknesses.  This well-written book concludes with specific questions for liberal Christians, such as: are liberals addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of this culture? (146); how do liberals see themselves as continuing to shape the larger Christian heritage (153)?

The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness (2008) by Christopher Bache.

indexThis book by Professor Chris Bache of Youngstown State University opened up a whole new way of thinking about teaching for me. Bache explains how he led a ‘double life’ – teaching philosophy and religious studies at a public university by day and exploring other dimensions of his own consciousness through spiritual practices in his “off” hours. He assumed that he was keeping these two spheres separate, but contrary to his expectation, he slowly began to realize that his private and public lives were interacting on a subtle level. For example, an aside that Bache would drop into a certain lecture would speak to a student in class in ways that seemed more than incidental. “It was as if their souls were slipping messages to me, giving me hints on how I might reach them – telling me where they were hiding, where they were hurting, and, most important, what ideas they needed to take the next step in their development” (p. 22). These experiences caused Bache to question the “paradigm of the private mind” and to assert that the most powerful teaching assumes instead that the classroom involves interconnected and interpenetrating energy fields. Bache proposes that there are class fields, the classroom energy among students and a teacher, and course fields, energetic linkages between previous years’ classes and the present one.  While some of the book relates Bache’s personal experiences with these resonant fields, he is also to be commended for courageously setting forth his tentative theorizing about the nature of these phenomena. The results are compelling. As a result, I now need to consider the possibility that my spiritual practices not only benefit students indirectly in that I have personal experience with the course content, but more importantly that the deepening of my own spiritual awareness may interact directly with the consciousness of my students. Bache’s book has caused me to consider a whole new dimension of what it means to powerfully impact my students.

Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety (2012) by Robert F. Shedinger.

indexThis wide-ranging book addresses questions quite pertinent to me as an international school educator teaching religion classes to high-achieving students. As anxiety is becoming increasingly visible in the lives of our students and teachers, what response can I provide in my study of world religions? Following a frank and eye-opening story of his own struggles with depression related to his mother’s death, Shedinger then explores how modern religious identity has been shaped and perhaps even swallowed up by secular beliefs: “I was very much a functional atheist, outwardly confessing belief in God (at least within the safe confines of the church) while unconsciously living according to the dictates of an atheistic materialist worldview” (p. 103). Shedinger’s solution to this anxiety-producing, divided life is one that is “radically open,” and he uses Islam as an example of a faith that, as the name literally means, “submits” on a daily basis to a transcendent reality that goes beyond the religion/secular divide. Drawing on quantum physics, Jung, Buddhism, and his own personal experience, Shedinger points readers to non-dualism as the only path able to deliver people from a life beyond anxiety in the modern age.

Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity (1999) by Bruno Barnhardt

ResizeImageHandler.ashxBarnhardt provides a powerful vision of the Christian life based on four dimensions of a mandala: (1) unitary consciousness (God), (2) logic and rationality (Word), (3) inclusivity (Spirit), and (4) incarnation (Matter). To become more spiritually mature in the contemporary age means to move from the northwest quadrant of the mandala, a mix of (1) and (2), in a southeast direction. This means seeing the divine in the created world (moving from 1 to 4), and balancing critical thinking with a more personal and emotional sensitivity (moving from 2 to 3). The result is a replacement of a static, institutional belief system with a dynamic, incarnational experience of the Spirit. This more inclusive faith will bring about a second simplicity, a return to the Mystery of the Christ event evident in the first few centuries of Christian history, but lost in much of the intervening time.

Beyond the many useful applications of this mandalic symbolism, Barnhardt writes with a holistic, restorative force that is difficult to resist. Even if at times the reader wishes for greater clarity, the rousing spirit that breaks forth in the writing is itself a testament to the mystical understanding of the author, who serves as a New Camaldoli monk in California.

Science and Faith: A New Introduction (2012) by John F. Haught

indexMy students’ biggest questions in religion class usually revolve around the relationship of science and religion. However, it’s difficult for me as a non-scientist to feel confident that I am providing responsible perspectives on this vital and oftentimes contentious topic. Recently, I came across the writings of John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown, and found him to be highly credible, intelligent, balanced, and well-informed about science as well as his primary area of theology. In his latest book, he takes his decades-long study and summarizes the debate between science and faith in responses to twelves questions, such as, do miracles really happen, is there life after death, etc? Responses to each question are written in the voices of three perspectives: conflict (scientists who oppose faith perspectives), contrast (usually people of faith who see science and religion as separate spheres of inquiry), and convergence (Haught’s own perspective that opens a dialogue between science and faith). Convergence emphasizes that the universe’s 14 billion-year history should be conceived as a drama  rather than a static design in which human intelligence plays a special role in this unfolding story. As a religion teacher, this book provides me with confidence that I can approach students’ big questions with an orientation that responsibly frames these issues, and with hope that there are thoughtful perspectives available which are working towards fruitful dialogue between the oft-polarized camps of science and religion.

Solitude and Compassion: The Path to the Heart of the Gospel (2009) by Gus Gordon

This profound book starts with a provocative opening comment in the forward by Richard Rohr: “Why does religion not seem to be doing its job very well . . . We have gone neither deep nor broad. We have emphasized neither solitude nor solidarity as essential to the spiritual journey.” Like an expertly cut diamond, this book slowly reveals the many beautiful facets of these two poles of the spiritual life. Oftentimes the material is so rich that only a few paragraphs can be read at a time. Gordon, who divides his time between monastic life and providing food for the poor, has expressed a paradoxical view of the spiritual life that allows the apparent tension between spiritual contemplation and social activism to reside in mystery. Through his life-long pondering of classic spiritual texts , the synthesis Gordon shares in this book may itself become a classic. Trying to decide what cause or vocation to devote oneself to is a spiritual quest.  Gordon’s wide reading, his high regard for biblical wisdom, and his confidence that the mysteries of the spiritual life are found in contemplative integration of these seemingly antithetical themes come together beautifully in his book.

The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart (2003) by Cynthia Bourgeault

imagesAlthough the starting point for social conscience eduction is oftentimes service-learning experiences, the most profound benefit to students themselves is inner growth.  Striking a balance between valuable community contributions, or outer work, with guided student self-exploration, or inner work, is the great challenge of social conscience education.

In this compact book, Episcopalian priest, writer, and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault provides clues from the depths of the world’s religions how educators can help students access wisdom from within.  Contrary to popular Western conceptions, Cynthia claims that the wisdom way of knowing doesn’t require some leap into the mystical, open only to certain personality types.  Rather, everyone can participate: “Awakening the heart may sound like one of those lofty but unattainable ideals . . . but actually, it’s only the words that are lofty; the task itself is quite doable.  You could even say that we were born for it” (p. 100).  The way of wisdom is a “lucid and objective way of seeing . . . . that has been precisely developed and handed down from generation to generation” (p. 8).  While this book reveals Cynthia’s rich and intimate knowledge of various traditions, her confidence that such self-knowledge can be found comes from the spiritual retreats that she regularly leads.  She explains that what is often missed is the simple truth that a regular rhythm of prayer, teaching, work, rest, and quiet provides first and foremost time for participants to think.  Such balance, she suggests, is a prerequisite for the natural emergence of insight concerning one’s place in the cosmos. Cynthia’s book moves easily from metaphysical truths to practical suggestions, and offers teachers a trusted resource that can help them consider how to initiate students on the path of wisdom.

To read a dialogue between Cynthia and myself about how she helped my class to process our Foshan orphanage experience, click here.

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