Friday, August 9, 2013

Personal Experience of Discovery

One of the nice things about so many colleges and universities represented in the various degrees earned by members of my family is the range of alum magazines that come through the mail.  Not only do I see the schools my wife and I attended, but also I get the benefit of my two kids’ educational excursions.  My alum magazines represent some of American educational elites.  Routinely, a bunch of really smart people come in the mailbox and I get to read their thoughts.

Of course, not all the articles are interesting to me.  Some I can’t even understand.  And some are surprisingly good.  One of the latter turned out to be an article on the practice of teaching.  The focus was hands-on learning.  I know I have been teaching quite a long time now and have my share of cynicism about new trends.”  Some trendy stuff comes and goes.  But I try to stay open. 

So it was with some mixed interest that I began reading a short article called, “Making Science Stick.”  The article did not present much that I already did not know because I employ those kinds of ideas.  I gave up on lecturing a long time ago, so to hear news about “student-centered” education is hardly novel.  I recognize that lectures offer a mostly passive way of learning.  But I read on.

Then I landed on a sentence that struck a chord in me.  It seemed to me that it had almost nothing to do with science per se.  I think it also has to do with religion and, probably, almost every other learning discipline.  The sentence read, “One of the most important goals of a liberal arts education today is to give students the personal experience of discovery.”  The words were from Michael D. Smith, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.  He also teaches engineering and applied sciences.  I do not know him or anything about him.  But I liked the line.

Since I teach at a liberal arts institution, I liked how Smith put emphasis on the liberal arts.  I appreciate how he articulates the goal.  There may be other goals, but I think this one is important.  The goal is to give students the personal experience of discovery.  Let’s look at this idea in some detail, because I can see how closely it links to my view of spirituality.

In the first place, the grammar of the sentence tells us the goal of education is discovery.  The idea of “discovery” is both specific and quite general.  It is specific in the sense that it specifies the focus of “personal experience.”  Without the prepositional phrase (“of discovery”), the goal of liberal arts education would be very general, namely, “personal experience.” 

We all have countless personal experiences throughout a day.  I have the personal experience of brushing my teeth, taking a shower, etc.  I like personal experiences (well, at least, most of them), but certainly would not claim that all of them are significant and, certainly, not educational.  So the prepositional phrase adds wonderful specificity.  Smith says the goal of education is personal experience of discovery.

However, this idea of discovery is itself still quite general, even if it is a personal experience.  Let’s take this opportunity to link the idea of a personal experience of discovery with spirituality.  I like to link spirituality to both the idea of “personal experience” and to the idea of “discovery.”

The way I understand spirituality is to see it as an experience.  In fact, I often differentiate spirituality from religion by saying spirituality is always experiential---that is, it always is an experience.  So spirituality has to be more than a belief.  For example, if I say I believe in God, that claim is religious, but not a spiritual statement.  For it to be spiritual, I need to have an experience of the God in Whom I believe.  So I could claim the goal of spirituality is to cultivate and nurture experiences of God, of grace, etc.

And I also like the link of spirituality to the idea of discovery.  In fact, the notion of discovery seems to be more appropriate to understand spirituality than does the assumption that spirituality is a list of answers to religious things.  The idea of “discovery” fits my understanding that so much of the spiritual is a mystery.  God is as mysterious as God is known.  Spirituality is the personal experience of discovering the mystery of God’s presence and desire in the world.

Spirituality is my own involvement in the discovery process.  I don’t know how else to understand knowing “God’s will” than to engage this discovery process.  It has to be my own personal discovery because nobody else is I!  I need to relate to God and you need to relate to God---even if it is the same God that we each seek to know.

I am sure part of why I like this idea of spirituality, as the personal experience of discovery, is that it becomes a lifelong quest.  I never exhaust mystery.  It means that life is a spiritual quest.  I find it exciting.  It keeps me fresh.  Every morning I wake up and wonder, what kind of personal experience of discovery will I get today?

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