Liberal Education

Toward an Embodied Liberal Arts

The social critic and psychotherapist Susie Orbach (2009) has observed that, in an American culture that relentlessly markets the need to be a particular body type, our bodies have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture. In a similar vein, the humanities professor Wilfred McClay (2008) argues that new medical technologies—from human cloning and genetic engineering, to artificial wombs and bionic and pharmacological enhancements—are challenging our definitions of what it means to be human. Are individuals with prosthetic limbs that enable them to leap higher and run farther disabled or enhanced? Is there a limit to the number of implants or bionic limbs that a single human should be allowed? McClay suggests that the potential impact of these medical innovations on our understanding of the meaning of human life offers important and intriguing new lines of inquiry for which the liberal arts, in their basic commitment to make sense of the human experience, are uniquely suited to engage. Furthermore, if liberal arts institutions are truly to serve the public good, which virtually every “home page” of every institution claims, then bringing attention to the nature of embodied experience necessarily broadens awareness of the diverse bodies that are on our nation’s campuses. This, in turn, deepens awareness and understanding of the very public an institution seeks to serve. If, then, we were to imagine the body as a site and ally of intellectual and academic work, rather than as the distraction it is generally thought to be, what would we have to do differently?

I believe there are three conceptual and somatic (from the Greek, meaning “of the body”) changes that could be made in order to better educate the student body and, thereby, help sustain the intellectual and social relevance of the liberal arts as a program of study. First, the commitment to what Sir Ken Robinson has called “the Enlightenment view of intelligence,” in which a particular kind of deductive reasoning is prized above all others, must be reexamined in response to neuroscience research that suggests it is the interplay between the brain and body that creates the human mind. Second, we must take seriously the potential of contemplative practices to inform students’ academic work in the face of a growing body of research on the impact of contemplative practices on both mental health and intellectual development. Third, we should interrogate the hyphen that separates the words “student” and “athlete” (student-athlete) so that the potential for physical activity to inform intellectual life can be usefully explored. Approached holistically, the student body offers an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of a liberal arts education.

Imagining the body as intelligent

The complex interplay between the brain and the body creates what we call the mind. Philosophers such as Mark Johnson (1987), feminist scholars such as Moira Gatens (1995), neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio (1994, 1999, 2003), and sociologists such as Donald Levine (2006) have offered helpful insights regarding why and how the mind-body relationship should be explored. In The Body in the Mind, Johnson argues that the very roots of our intellectual ability lie in bodily experiences. The only way we can understand a phrase such as “the force of moral reason,” for example, is due to the bodily experience of being acted upon and of oneself being an agent capable of forceful, physical action. The ability to understand a concept such as “balance” is dependent upon the physical activity of learning how to balance our bodies.

Gatens (1995) has argued that, contrary to the popular notion in higher education that the finest minds suffer least from the body, our minds are constituted by the affirmation of the actual existence of our bodies. Reason is active and embodied precisely because it is the affirmation of a particular body experience. Who we are and what we think is, to a great extent, a summary of the experiences we have had. Or, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (2003) has put it, “no body, never mind.” In university classrooms, we often behave as if the bodies of our students are simply transport systems for their brains. Certainly, when one is teaching anatomy, it is useful to separate the brain from the rest of the body in order to clarify what is located where. But for the purposes of learning and deepening our understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to reason, such a division has become conceptually incoherent (Doidge 2007; Blakeslee and Blakeslee 2008; LeDoux 2002; Ratey 2008).

In his provocative book, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, Levine (2006) offers both a theoretical framework and an embodied curriculum for how the liberal arts can serve as the vehicle through which to explore the body-mind relationship. As a former dean of the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago, Levine draws deeply from the work of Robert Maynard Hutchins to offer a rich and vigorous academic curriculum. Yet, in addition, as a fourth-degree black belt in the martial art of aikido, he stresses the notion that essential concepts and skills related to fruitful dialogues and constructive disagreement can be taught by incorporating specific movement practices. He uses the natural action of inhalation and exhalation as the organizing metaphor for his book and as the embodied equivalent of the “powers of prehending and the powers of expression” (Levine 2006, 187). “Prehending” refers to the processes of seeing, hearing, feeling, and making sense of things, while “expression” refers to the many ways in which students are encouraged to demonstrate their understanding of what we have taken in. Just as inhaling and exhaling are the most fundamental of all human life processes, the process of prehending and expression forms the foundation of intellectual life. The syllabus for his course titled Conflict Theory and Aikido, which he includes in his book, provides a model for integrating rigorous academic study with movement practices specifically designed to enhance the intellectual concepts being studied. In the course, specific philosophical tenets and specific aikido techniques are studied at the same time that students are reading about theoretical understandings of the sources and resolutions of conflict. Levine’s work offers an embodied approach to learning that simultaneously upholds the traditional rigors of the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Chicago.

On the possibilities of contemplative practices

In 1983, the Harvard Mind-Science Symposium brought together the Dalai Lama of Tibet; professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurmann; professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, Howard Gardner; and psychologist Daniel Goleman to engage in discussions regarding the unique characteristics of the human mind. At this gathering, Thurmann argued that “in the West” our power to affect “outer reality” had far outstripped our power over ourselves. The great achievements of the Enlightenment had provided extensive knowledge of the mechanistic aspects of how the external world worked, but had developed little understanding of the inner world of our minds—the very thing that Tibetan Buddhists, for example, had been studying for over a thousand years. He suggested that if cognitive science and neuroscience were brought together with mind-science—that is, contemplative traditions that focus on developing both an understanding of the inner world of the human mind and greater awareness of what one is seeing, thinking, and feeling—we might transform our understanding of what it means to know the world in which we live.

Since the 1983 Harvard Mind-Science Symposium, the research regarding the impact of contemplative practices has grown steadily. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has documented the positive impact of even moderate experience with contemplative practices on the ability of individuals to respond effectively to stressful situations (1982, 2002, 2005; Kabat-Zinn, Chapman, and Salmon 1997). The ability to sustain concentration and ignore distractions are two characteristics of people who maintain a meditation practice—critical skills in an era of Twitter and texting. Other researchers have found that contemplative practices foster the capacity for insight, that is, the ability to make new connections that link previously disjointed information (Subramaniam et al. 2009). Sustained focus, calmness in the face of new and unexpected challenges, and an ability to see possibilities that transcend old divisions are important benefits of contemplative practices, and they are also critical attributes of a liberal arts education.

The Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado, along with continuing to host ongoing dialogues between the Dalai Lama and various neuroscientists and philosophers, has also been a center of pioneering experiments in neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to undergo wholesale change. These experiments have revealed that, contrary to the assumption that the human brain is comprised of fixed elements, the brain is capable not only of altering its structure but also of generating new neurons, even into old age. This combination of research and ongoing dialogues is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of human consciousness and learning (Chambers et al. 2008; Raffone, Tagini, and Srivinivasan 2010; Subramaniam 2009; Zajonc 2009).

There is also a growing body of research demonstrating the power of mindfulness meditation and other forms of contemplative practice to improve educational performance in students and to foster attitudes and abilities that promote learning. Studies have shown, for instance, that mindfulness training improves students’ ability to maintain preparedness, orient attention, and process information (Jha, Krompenger, and Baime 2007). A 1999 study of undergraduates demonstrated that concentration practice improves academic achievement as measured by grade point average (Hall 2007). Recent reports have concluded that long-term practice of meditation techniques has the potential to increase cortical thickness and slow the thinning of the cortex with age, as well as actually to increase gray matter (Vestergaard-Poulsen et al. 2008; Lazar et al. 2005).

Arthur Zajonc (2009), Andrew Mellon
Professor of Physics at Amherst College and president of the Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado, offers a model of how contemplative practices can be incorporated into a liberal arts curriculum in Meditation and Contemplative Inquiry. The first step is to sit down, do nothing, and observe the patterns of one’s own natural breathing. From this initial practice, Zajonc offers a careful selection of practices that include fostering the ability to perceive relationships and sustain contradictions—two thinking skills tightly connected to the purpose of a liberal arts education. As Eva Brann (1989) of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, has argued, perhaps
the most important question one can ask of a text is, is this true? Contemplative inquiry is intended to develop the habits of mind that foster the patience, careful examination of evidence, and openness to input that enhances the ability to sustain thoughtful discussions around such meaningful questions.

Particular forms of noncompetitive movement exercises such as those found in Brain Gym, the movements of tai chi and aikido, and the postures of yoga—when they are combined with reflection and discussion regarding their philosophical foundation and potential application—enable individuals to tolerate the discomfort that often arises during dynamic discussions (Miller-Lane 2006; Miller-Lane and Selover 2008; Chew 1995). The ability to engage effectively in discussion is a central, undervalued, and undertaught element of a liberal arts education. Increasingly, research on contemplative practices suggests that such practices may enhance the academic experience of students by fostering attitudes that welcome, rather than fear, the cognitive dissonance and intellectual discomfort that any good education should provide.

Using the hyphen to connect student and athlete

The third body-mind division that we need to address is the hyphen that separates the words “student” and “athlete.” We have allowed our student-athletes to perceive their bodies as simply instruments in the service of specific functions on a particular athletic field, court, rink, etc. Many institutions have enabled this attitude to fester by extolling their winning teams, rather than emphasizing the ideal of a student-athlete. Instead of continuing to tread in this routine, what if we asked, how has the physical experience of being a student-athlete deepened or informed your understanding of the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education? Such a question enables the hyphen in “student-athlete” to become a bridge connecting, rather than a divide separating, two competing halves of the same body. Initially, such a question might lead to stories of teamwork, sharing responsibility, dealing with defeat, or pursuing goals. Certainly, when engaged thoughtfully, such topics can be avenues into self-reflection.

However, in the context of unraveling the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education, the goal is to dig deeper into the kind of possibilities raised by the philosopher Mark Johnson and noted above. Is it possible that a refined understanding of physical balance can be an entry point for imagining living a “balanced life”? What would such a life involve, both intellectually and somatically? And, to return to the specific questions posed by Orbach and McClay with which I started this discussion, we might ask, if you could make voluntary changes to your body through medical replacement parts that would make you a better athlete, would you do it? Would those changes make you more or less human? What sources can we explore to inform our thinking? Thus, the student’s own embodied experience provides a path into the study of the academic texts we wish to read and over which we want students to linger. The highly contested nature of the definition of the liberal arts also becomes a source of inquiry for students. We do not have to agree about what the purpose of a liberal arts education should be—the literature is rich with disagreement. But what we should be doing is engaging the literature on the nature of the disagreement so that our own stance becomes informed and grounded in the literature and in a thoughtful analysis of our own, embodied experiences.


In the past decade, colleges have offered students an extraordinary array of extracurricular activities that seem to respond to a vague, incoherent sense that the whole student does matter. Yet for various and legitimate reasons of time and relevance, faculty have generally considered such activities to be a distraction from the academic purpose of an undergraduate education. The end result is a level of disembodied, frenetic activity on college campuses that affects students and faculty alike. If Barrett Seaman’s (2005) description of student life in Binge is accurate, then the only time bodies seem to be addressed in a forceful way is when students want to disengage from the present moment. To sustain the place of the liberal arts in the college curriculum, we have to cross the great divide between body and brain and to create academic spaces in which we can explore the entirety of our students’ embodied experiences in a thoughtful, academically vigorous manner. By doing so, we also challenge assumptions about which bodies are normative and, thereby, might perhaps make our liberal arts colleges a more welcoming environment to a greater diversity of students.


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Zajonc, A. 2009. Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.

Jonathan Miller-Lane is associate professor of education at Middlebury College.

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