Are our students discovering transcendent visions that can transform the world, or just memorizing our lecture notes?

The planet is melting, the global economy is volatile, and the future is more uncertain than ever for young people. Here in the US, race relations are deteriorating, while social unrest and political extremism are on the rise. The CDC reports that the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds increased more than 57 percent from 2007 to 2018, and that was before a global pandemic ushered in a whole new level of anxiety, precarity, and mortal danger. Our students are living under an unimaginable weight of trauma. But, how much are we taking these factors into account in the classroom? And what would really showing up for our students demand from us?

It is clear that this moment calls for something more than business as usual from professors. Enough with “resilience” and “stress-reduction” and “student success.” We need a bigger mission than simply helping students to keep moving through the pipelines of this broken system of ours. It is time for a deeply trauma-aware pedagogy, one that honors the crushing burdens that young people are facing today. One that provides hope in time of despair. A pedagogy that can contribute to healing, community building, empathy, and spiritual renewal at the deepest level.

What is called for, in short, is a pedagogy of the soul.

Did I really just use the word “soul”? How embarrassing! How romanticized! How unprofessional for a scholar of religions to use such a laden and problematic term.

Many people will probably write me off at this point. But if this phrase resonates with you at all, you already sense that I am not using “soul” in a hyperbolic manner. You can tell that I am not referring to development in the intellectual, political, moral, or self-help arenas. That I mean more than addressing our students’ interests, engagement, or enthusiasm; more than shaping their minds, values, or emotional intelligence. I mean more than crafting their identity, or building their “personal brand,” or clarifying their life’s “vision statement”; more than exposing them to new worldviews or opening them up to new perspectives.

I’m far from the first to put the words “pedagogy” and “soul” together. “Pedagogy of the soul” is not an uncommon phrase among Catholic educators or adherents of other faiths who connect the art of teaching with the development of spiritual virtues. However, when I use the word “soul,” I am definitely not speaking about a Christian notion of the term. Nor do I mean to invoke any other specific system of religious belief. The way I’m using the term, a pedagogy of the soul would be the very antithesis of helping students conform to some pre-existing model, doctrine, or ideal. Rather than pre-determining, scripting, or shaping their path of growth and discovery, a pedagogy of the soul would give each student the freedom to discover and to enact their own individual destiny.

When I speak of a pedagogy of the soul, I am envisioning using our classrooms to catalyze encounters with heretofore undiscovered depths of the self. Planting seeds that could potentially radically reconfigure who a student thinks they are, which might eventually sprout into a powerful new vision of who or what they could become. I’m speaking about helping our students to unlock transcendent dreams of how their lives might unfold, dreams both sublime and terrifying in the scope of what they portend. To discover siren calls from their muse that will lay claim to their imaginations for lifetimes to come.

How do we work on this level? What would soulful pedagogy actually consist of? Whatever it might be, I think it starts with being radically present. Of course we need specific teaching methods that reliably increase impact, engagement, and relevance, as well as unflinching commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Building on that groundwork, we need to learn to see each student as a full human being — not just a name on a roster or a face in the crowd. — and then, we show up for them. 

Fully here. Right now.

Seeing our students as souls instead of disembodied intellects, we can no longer spend all of our time trying to teach new information or new ways of thinking. We can no longer kid ourselves that lectures, reading assignments, and intellectual discussions could ever be enough. We will no longer be willing to stay within the bounds of these comfort zones. We come to see that our exclusive focus on the mind has negated the full spectrum of our own humanity, too. That our own self-constrained identities and unwillingness to show up and be fully present are part of the problem, manifestations of the broken system we work in.

At the end of the day, a pedagogy of the soul can’t just be about our students. It must be about our own souls, too.

So, yes, we will expand our students’ intellectual horizons, of course, for cognitive development is part of the whole person. But, we will also explore the kinesthetic dimension by engaging our physical and energetic bodies. We will pay great attention to the sensory aesthetics . . . what does our pedagogy look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like? We will encourage imagination and creative expression — both our students’ and our own. Emotional development. Interpersonal intelligence. We will talk and share about morality and ethics. We will be transparent about our struggles. And our spirituality. Bit by bit, we will consciously remake our classroom into a place of refuge, a temple of healing and self-care. Each day, we will open up as many doors as possible for personal reflection, story-telling, and dream-sharing. We will take on a sacred obligation to help each and every being in this classroom to discover and begin to embody our hidden potentials.

Of course we need good teaching techniques, but at the end of the day, it’s not about what particular technologies or activities we employ in the classroom. By definition, the details of good teaching will vary from place to place and day to day. (I periodically write about some specifics of what I’m doing in my classes in my Teaching Strategies & Experiments blog.) But regardless of the specifics, a pedagogy of the soul must always be subtly tuned, richly enveloping, and deeply nourishing for each student. And for ourselves.

And, it must be patient. For souls are not easily drawn out into the light, and they will not necessarily be quick to trust us or automatically be ready to come along for the journey. Most of the seeds we scatter will sprout long after our classes are over, if they ever do.

Nevertheless, we remain fully present in the process, and we attentively wait and watch for a spark. Usually it won’t come. But, every once in a while, if we’re tuned in closely, we might catch a glimpse of something magical happening as a soul emerges from the ashes of this broken world, rises above the confines of its former self-limitations, and embarks on its own unique path to transformation.

And, who knows? . . . that soul taking flight might belong to the unlikeliest of students. The kid in the back hiding their social anxiety behind the baseball cap, or the one who works nights and it’s all they can do to make it to class. Or, on occasion, it might even be our own.

A Pedagogy of the Soul