If you have been following my last few posts (here and here), you know that I have been venturing into some pretty deep waters regarding accompaniment, algorithms, knowledge vs. understanding, student agency, technology’s capacities and limitations, and more. Today I want to address a loose end from these earlier posts, the practice of introspection and its place in the learning lexicon. In order to do this, I will be returning closer to shore and making some personal observations that cannot be proven or disproven. Much of what I share will be familiar, perhaps even simplistic. Still I hope that by the end there is an insight or two that is helpful to you. Thank you in advance for providing me with a charitable leash.
Two posts ago, I made the argument that, with the ubiquity of information available at the click of a few buttons, we are leaving the age of knowledge and moving toward an age of understanding. Take photosynthesis for example. With the number of online tutorials and videos available explaining how photosynthesis works, more people are asking the next question which is, “Why does this matter?” At the end of my last post, I suggest that the struggle for understanding naturally activates the deeper learning skills of critical thinking and self-transcendence. These are complex skills that everyone above the age of fifteen struggles to assimilate to address the demands of daily life. Many people (especially adolescents whose experiences are limited) can find the activation of these skills unsettling. Other times, critical thinking can be empowering. For most of us, it depends on the situation.
This leads me to the core of what I want to discuss - developing a tested personal framework for understanding from which to operate when circumstances require a deeper consideration of the proper path. There’s been plenty written about various critical thinking tools and models involving algorithms, visualization and more, all of which can serve as valuable decision-making aids. This is where technology can be a big help and I suggest you master the use of at least one or two of these as they sharpen thinking and clarify options. Doing so will get you pretty far in life.
For me, however, the race to the understanding age requires more and to explain why, I want to go back in time to the reign of King Solomon. You may recall from Old Testament scripture that Solomon ascended to the throne at a very young age following the successful reign of his father, David. Noting his vast kingdom and riches, and what in all likelihood was a relatively sheltered upbringing, one could easily imagine Solomon choosing to live an unexamined life. Instead, he humbles himself. More interesting still is when God suggests that He will grant Solomon one wish, Solomon doesn’t ask for an understanding mind, but an understanding heart.
I just finished a really compelling book by Justin Reich, Failure to Disrupt which does a masterful job of exploring 3 frameworks for “learning at scale.” At one point, almost as an aside, he briefly shares his unease regarding the ways in which learning at scale frameworks can be radicalized by bad actors. He raises the issue but doesn’t offer compelling solutions. To my mind this type of unresolved issue underpins the perils of technology-driven learning at scale models. Even if an elegant model could be developed that rigorously challenges the mind to the point of mastery, matters related to the heart would remain largely unexamined or worse exploited.
Fortunately, just as there are numerous decision-making tools to bring understanding to the mind, so too are there tools for introspection/personal reflection/discernment (insert your preferred term) to bring understanding to the heart. I’ve referenced St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and Examen many times in the past though there are other models. Most all of these tools include unpacking our emotions which tends to be quite difficult. What follows are musings about one specific aspect of my personal journey.
When I experience a noteworthy emotion in my daily life, almost always that emotion is preceded by an ache. It’s a real, physical, capricious, unvarnished ache that can’t be dissected, removed, or adjusted. These normally brief aches emanate from the chest area, and it seems as though their only purpose is to serve as a signal that I should pay attention to what’s coming next (joy, resentment, compassion…). I can try to dismiss it, but at the end of the day, to quote fellow Nebraskan J.E. Lawrence, “It is what it is” whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. For me, the goal of introspective practice, then, is to embrace the aches - to come closer to figuring out what the “it” associated with these particular events is. The Examen routinizes this as a daily practice, though even if employed on an as needed basis there are benefits. The key is listening to your inner workings and responding with the greatest degree of generosity possible - toward oneself and others - at that moment.
The fact that these aches live near the heart and not in the mind speaks to me. I imagine this space being where the Holy Spirit resides and from which the magis flows. The clinical nature of reason is VERY important, but a compelling argument toward any position must also be exposed to the light of the human condition. That’s a responsibility we all bear, particularly the privileged. We’re all victims of our go-with-the-flow society to some degree. Introspection creates a slightly askew equilibrium between contentment and restlessness where restlessness holds a tiny bit more weight. (Again, see magis.)
In a world of bootstrapping and quick-fix self helps, introspection is hard. There’s no way to “tech” your way to self-transcendence. That’s why I love working in Catholic secondary education. Minimally, the ethos and orientation of Catholic schools requires young people to consider their place in the world as precious, unrepeatable, talent-endowed persons. That’s a good start. When everything is clicking, however, kids receive so much more. My last post attempted to unpack the systemic struggles of attempting to increase teacher-student accompaniment practices in the classroom. It also highlighted the perils of NOT making this a priority in spite of its difficulty. Thanks to committed teachers, administrators and staff, the vast majority of students in Catholic schools feel safe and cared for, creating the conditions for students to more deeply explore issues of the heart rather than putting on additional coats of armor.
Many mainstream practices of introspection are quite secularized. This post might come across as a bit religious, and I’m glad about that. We all experience the supernatural and the only way for me to reconcile that is through my belief in a higher power. Plus, when I experience and pursue my aches, it’s nice to know that the Holy Spirit is along for the ride.
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President
vol 6 issue 6