Key Elements of Holistic Education

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

I argued in my previous article in this column for positive engagement between the best of all educational traditions if there is to be a much-needed revival of authentic holistic education.

I believe that all young people, whether Muslim or not, can derive much from a concept of humane education typical of the best liberal arts programs, which integrate higher-order cognitive activity into a holistic context. As elements in such an educational process (which itself provides valuable preparatory and intermediate experiences on the roads to spiritual integration), I would include the following: engagement in the creative arts as a means to engage the soul, kindle the imagination, develop aesthetic awareness and stimulate the connectivity of the brain; courses which develop communication skills, including discussion and dialectic; courses which develop understanding of the human condition, a pluralistic and compassionate outlook which values and respects diversity and actively fosters intercultural dialogue; courses which give opportunities for direct experiential learning, especially in the beauty and majesty of natural settings; and, not least, courses which develop character and transmit ethical values, whether applied to personal conduct, relationships, citizenship, business practice, or the care of the environment which is now such a pressing concern for all of us.

We need to be aware of how education systems, whether secular or faith-based, can dehumanize us by devaluing those subjects which seek to understand the human condition in all its diversity and complexity. The marginalization of the humanities, of literature, history, archaeology, geography, and modern languages, will only ensure that an ignorance of the richness of human heritage and diversity is compounded by an incompetence in cross-cultural communication, and this will remove our young people even further from that rich educational experience which is a prerequisite for truly human development.

We need to revive a concept of holistic education which values perception, insight, contemplation, observation and experience, and puts lower-order thinking in its place. As a counterbalance to the linearity and one-dimensional explicitness of rational thought processes, we need to encourage a mentality which can escape from the literal, which is comfortable with analogical thinking, metaphor, and symbolism, with fable, parable and allegory, with the heightened language of poetry, with paradox and ambiguity, and with the constructive confrontations and asynchronies which emerge from the process of dialectic. Dialectical thinking, regarded by the cognitive psychologist Riegel as the highest stage of cognitive development, is a powerful means of transcending the limitations of dichotomization.

This advanced style of thought places the human being in an isthmus or meeting-place, a point of intersection. It strives to unify opposites, to attain balance, to resolve conflict, affirming and incorporating logical polarities rather than seeking to avoid contradiction and paradox through one-sided adherence to a single perspective or paradigm. In these times of cultural and ideological confrontation, it would be hard to think of a more pressing educational imperative.

Dialectical thinking, and the intellectual connectedness which its promotes, should be one of the major planks of a holistic education, together with deep reflection (which fosters spiritual connectedness by enabling learners to connect with their innermost selves) and conversation and dialogue, which enable individuals to develop empathy, to connect with others and the society in which they live.

It goes without saying that the dialectical process is not one either of compromise or loose relativism, but one of creative tension which ultimately transforms contradictions into complementarities, releasing the open-minded thinker from ingrained habits and conditioned patterns of thought, established affiliations, fear of change and instability, and reluctance to approach any new ideas which are threatening to a rigid and narrow sense of identity. Associated with this openness to change and uncertainty is the willingness always to seek new evidence and the ability to resist premature closure and fixed conclusions. Albert Einstein said: "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

What distinguishes all these advanced processes and activities is the common thread of establishing relationship and connectivity, either between ideas, between faculties and levels of being within oneself, or between human souls. This is very far from the isolationism, one-sidedness and solipsism which are the consequence of a type of impoverished mental activity that can only dissect and atomize reality into autonomous components.

It was Al-Ghazali who said that the way to "certitude" (yaqin) is through "tasting" (dhawq), the activation of the primordial capacity to perceive and "savor" the truth intuitively and the internalization of the forms of religion as direct spiritual experience. The same connection between wisdom and direct experience is preserved in the origin of the English word "sapience" (wisdom) which is derived from Latin sapere, to taste.

An authentic holistic education will guide us not to a false "certainty" confined by fixed ideas, but to the expansive "certitude" which comes from opening our hearts and liberating our capacity to see.

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