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Cultivating compassion

Universities offer many courses on war, genocide, justice and injustice. But can we teach students how to become more compassionate and ethically driven, asks Linda Hess. An experimental course at Stanford University seeks to help students understand the roots of violence within themselves as well as in the world around them. It is a course that attempts to put the ‘heart’ back into higher education which tends to focus only on intellectual learning

For the last 15 years I have been teaching undergraduate courses on Hinduism and other South Asian religions in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. One of the threads I have developed is concerned with violence and non-violence and includes courses on Gandhi and on religious conflict and co-existence in the region. I have taught ‘Gandhi and Non-violence’ and ‘Hindus and Muslims in South Asia’ on an ongoing basis since 1999. In 2008, Professor Clayborne Carson and I co-led a Stanford overseas seminar in India, ‘Gandhi and His Legacy’. Professor Carson, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Martin Luther King Jr, also co-taught a course with me on the Stanford campus called ‘Gandhi, King, and Non-violence’.

I am designing a new, experimental course on violence and non-violence, which aims to test the possibilities of combining academic study with experiential learning. One premise of the course is that understanding the roots of violence in individuals is important to understanding large-scale violence in the world. Another premise is that students are hungering for educational experiences that allow them to grow in self-knowledge, even as they develop their knowledge of history and politics, their skills in reading and critical thinking. 

Meeting three times a week, the course will run as a normal academic class for two days. The third meeting will be a two-hour experiential workshop, led by a number of expert facilitators.  Workshop approaches will include: Understanding the body-mind connections in violence and non-violence; Non-violent communication (;; Facing history and ourselves (;  How we learn to behave with cruelty and indifference or with compassion and courage, in situations of violence, danger, suffering (by Philip Zimbardo and associates --;; Theatre exercises; Mindfulness and Metta: Meditation as a way to prevent violence and to heal the traumatic effects of violence; Compassion cultivation training as developed by CCARE.

Wearing a 128-channel geodesic sensor net, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard sits in a soundproof room and prepares for an electroencephalography (EEG) test at the EEG facility in the Waisman Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ricard is a long-time participant in an ongoing research study that monitors a subject’s brain waves during various forms of meditation including compassion meditation

The new project was born from a conversation that took place in my course ‘Hindus and Muslims in South Asia’, in spring 2010.  Some students were stunned by what they learned about the 1947 partition of India-Pakistan. First, we read conventional history about the events and politics of Partition, which did not produce a strong reaction. But students were deeply affected by a book of oral histories and a powerful narrative film, which gave some answers to the question that always arises: How can people do such things? These sources revealed the emotional and physical upheavals that people went through, the loss of control, the fear and rage, the inexorable disintegration of social bonds, the swiftly accelerating cascade of reactions to violence, the functioning of belief systems and authority structures, and so on. As students came to realise that extreme and massive acts of violence are often committed by ordinary people, not just criminals, lunatics, sociopaths, or evil politicians, they raised these points in quick succession: (1) Could we do such things under similar circumstances? (2) How could we prepare ourselves not to behave that way? (3) Academic study is irrelevant and useless to this undertaking.

I took this moment as a challenge and inspiration to test whether the academic setting is “useless” when it comes to touching students in a transformative way. Can we engage with the histories and present conditions of violence/non-violence both in the world and in ourselves? Can we see connections between the social-political and the personal roots of violence/non-violence, and can this vision inform and inspire our attempts to confront injustice and violence in social, political, economic, environmental, and other contexts?

I did not want to believe that our university education is useless and irrelevant to such goals. But it was striking to see how sure the students felt at that moment that what they did in their Stanford classes would not help them in circumstances like those of the Partition and comparable situations of hatred and atrocity. 

From a certain point of view, structures and values at Stanford would seem to support this endeavour. We have a Centre for Ethics in Society, a degree-granting Programme on Ethics in Society, the Haas Centre for Public Service, to name just a few entities. We laud social service and praise people in our community who do it. Renowned researchers like Philip Zimbardo shed light on the psychological roots of evil and cruel social behaviour as well as on kindness, courage, and compassion. We have many courses and centres that deal with war, genocide, justice and injustice.

But do we teach students how to become more compassionate and ethically driven? Is this something we can properly do within the domain of academic study? Do we need to leave such learning to the informal sector, where students independently search for inspiring models, engage in service projects, apprentice through internships, or look to other programmes that allow for exploration of personal meaning? Is there a place for such learning in the classroom? If we move in this direction, are we treading a dangerous line between intellectual and moral or psycho-spiritual education?

The answer to the last question is -- yes. It feels dangerous. We keep things compartmentalised. Feelings are important but they are a distraction to analytical thinking. We have a high respect for arts practice but keep it separate from academic study of the arts. Some at Stanford will be inclined to avoid or discourage what may appear to be a confusion in mission. But it is also this hard separation between what we call ‘intellectual’ and the other parts of our being, including the emotional, imaginative, and moral, that gives rise to the kind of sudden despair about the meaning of education that erupted in my classroom last spring.

Potential advisors, allies, and collaborators for this course at Stanford include the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), which hosted a recent conference on ‘Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism’, featuring Stanford researchers in conversation with the Dalai Lama ( CCARE’s current projects include research on the neuroscience of compassion, the psychology of cruelty and kindness, and the implementation of educational programmes.

The Centre for Ethics in Society, under the direction of Professor Debra Satz, is currently sponsoring a two-year series on ‘Ethics and War’. We will coordinate class activities with this programme. 

Professor Rob Reich, director of the Programme on Ethics in Society, said in response to a description of this project: “Academic study is not useless, but only if academic study is connected to a kind of character education or soulcraft that is all-too-often absent from modern classrooms. Academic study is most frequently seen as skill transfer, and I’m with the students when they say that academic study (conceived as skill transfer) won’t help prevent the sort of transformation they witnessed in the film. But of course academic study need not be skill transfer. It can be something grander -- something that provides students with resources for guiding their lives, shaping their identities, instilling a moral or spiritual compass. Religious education more often aims at this, but secular education can too.”

At Stanford, at this time, many developments seem to encourage this kind of exploration. The proposed experimental course has one distinct feature that I hope will add something to the rich mix of people and programmes seeking to understand compassion, altruism, ethical/unethical behaviour, violence/non-violence, and so on. That feature is an attempt to bring together academic study and transformative experiential learning in the undergraduate classroom, with a course design that acknowledges connections between inner and outer worlds.

At the CCARE conference with the Dalai Lama, Professors Philip Zimbardo and Linda Darling-Hammond spoke of education programmes for schoolchildren that cultivate empathy, compassion, courage, and other qualities/skills conducive to a more non-violent world. Can we imagine and implement such education in the university?

Neuroscientist and Medical School Professor James Doty, the director of CCARE, opened the conference with a story about Buddhist monks in the 1990s who volunteered for empirical studies of the neuroscience of meditation. They laughed when they saw the EEG caps that would plug into their brains to measure signals of compassion associated with meditation. Their laughter arose not because the caps looked funny (though they did), but because they knew that the seat of compassion is not the head but the heart. 

The culture of higher education, for reasons many will understand, reinforces a split between intellectual-analytical-critical functions, on the one hand, and emotional-imaginative-spiritual functions on the other -- what the monks meant by head and heart. This split is itself a kind of violence from which students and others in the university suffer. The experimental class format I propose does not devalue the intellectual or propose to replace it with ‘heart’ functions, but seeks to provide a venue where these functions may be integrated, consciously experienced in each other’s presence. Such a format would reinforce the belief that a person can be whole, and that even ‘higher’ education can address the whole person.

(Linda Hess is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University. She has written several books and papers on the saint-poet Kabir. She conducted a workshop on understanding violence and teaching peace in 2010 as part of CCDS-Open Space’s ‘Keeping the Peace’ lecture series)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011