Gregory M. Nixon
Gregory M. Nixon is a visiting professor of education in the Department of Integrative Studies, Prescott College, Prescott, AZ, USA 86301. His doctorate in curriculum theory, from Louisiana State University, was awarded in 1992. Born in Saskatchewan, he remains a Canadian citizen.
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The uses of a great professor are only partly to give us knowledge; his [sic] real purpose is to take his students beyond knowledge into the transcendental domain of the unknown, the future and the dream -- to expand the limits of the human consciousness. (Eiseley 1987: 118)
Whatever happened to consciousness heightening as a curriculum objective? Did it disappear because, as an expression for the naïve optimism of the 1960s American counterculture, it became outdated, or does it represent the losing ideology in a major confrontation in the annals of curriculum theory? The evidence, at least in the US, seems to point to the latter case.
In the 1970s, US and Canadian schools finally awoke to what had happened in the 1960s. It was in the 1960s, as all the world knows, that a youth movement emerged that expressed disenchantment with the material rewards offered by the establishment as an incentive to repress more vital instincts and participate in the social game of wealth-building. Instead of playing the game and accepting socially defined roles, many youth fell into the nebulous counterculture movement through which they hoped to transcend mundane, everyday consciousness. Whether through the use of psychedelics, meditation, or prolonged rock jams, youth (and many who no longer fitted this category) actively threw off their obligations and sought higher states of awareness. To the horror and disgust of generation formed in the upsurge of World War II patriotism, US psychologist Timothy Learys call to turn on, tune in, and drop out spread rapidly, promoted by cult heroes from the rock n roll subculture and by the underground passing of many a marijuana joint or hashpipe. Note: the call was to drop out, not to man the barricades.
To be sure, much of the mass of the movement was illusory because many of those who appeared to be degenerate freaks to the straights were in fact no more than weekend hippies out to get high, engage in some free love, or just feel good vibes. Yet, despite their lack of commitment to overthrowing the establishment, many of them picked up counterculture values concerned with tolerance for the lifestyles of others, openness to new experience, and an almost spiritual sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused (Wordsworth 1904) within the mundane reality of daily life. All of this was tied in with the meaning of heightened consciousness: it referred to awakening from the isolated and narcissistic ego trip of the war of all against all. This new mind expansion promised escape from the prison-house of self (and self versus other) to see the world as though for the first time.
It was a powerful image, involving as much unlearning as learning. There were exemplars everywhere of those who seemed to have reached, at a minimum, Maslowian self-actualization (Maslow 1954) or some sort of psychological peak experience. More intriguing yet were those who appeared to have broken on through to the other side, to the oceanic bliss of universal oneness: nirvana. And, of course, there were those who had shattered all contexts whatsoever and were ambiguously said to have blown their minds. For many, this was a consummation devoutly to be wished: if only the establishment would stop being so heavy!
At length, elements of the counterculture became dissatisfied with merely dropping out and sought instead to drop back in and revolutionize the political system they felt was imprisoning them. Heightened levels of awareness seemed both too esoteric and too boring for many of those who had expected instant gratification. The political activists were getting all the media attention so most of the new disaffected wanted to go where the action was. With real social issues to deal with like war, racism, sexism and poverty, those who had previously awaited private awakening became drawn back into the social game with its zesty marches and mass confrontation.
By the 1970s, the radical political arm of the counterculture had absorbed some of the quiescent transcendentalism. The non-establishment quest for expanded levels of awareness became absorbed in the anti-establishment quest for expanded power. The remaining seekers of heightened reality stole quietly away to their ashrams or mountain and desert communes, or they grimly accepted establishment jobs and families.
Mind-expansion had never been among the specific goals of educators, including the progressives from earlier in the century, although it could be argued that Plato called specifically for heightened consciousness for his philosopher-kings or that such was the goal of learning in the gnostic/alchemical tradition. Certainly, many Eastern religions developed educational techniques to bring about the awakening from illusion. Even in the 1960s, there had been few attempts to suggest an educational institution that openly pursued expanded individual consciousness, despite retrospective perception. Experiments like Neills Summerhill in England (Neill 1960) and Rochdale College (Sharpe 1987) in Toronto, Canada, seem in retrospect more like invitations to anarchy than attempts to heighten consciousness. Rogers (1969) and others suggested humanistic education, but such educational personal autonomy and authenticity were not widely attempted until the 1970s when US teachers at last were transformed into facilitators. In any case, the humanistic connection with heightened consciousness remains unclear.
The idea of expanded consciousness as an educational goal did enter the literary arena by the late 1960s, as indicated by two US titles from that period which perfectly represent the conflict of interpretation which was arising. The radical political awakening perspective is exhibited by Postman and Weingartners Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), whereas the transcendent personal awakening perspective is portrayed by Leonards Education and Ecstasy (1968). Like the earlier conflict among progressive scholars (Cremin 1970) between John Deweys child-centredness and George Counts social reconstructionism, this conflict between the personal and political versions of consciousness-expansion was to play a major role in the agendas of curriculum theory for decades to come.
It was in the 1960s that curriculum theory as educators now know it in the USA was essentially born. Among the foundational figures in this period were Huebner (1967), Macdonald (1964) and Phenix (1964), each of whom became drawn into transcendental visions of curriculum in the next decade. It was also in the 1970s that this model of personal transformation ran directly into the model of political transformation as Marxists and other radicals demanded that social revolution precede any revolutions of consciousness. They saw the call for awakened personal awareness as narrowly self-indulgent in its way as the me-generation disco-groovers that surrounded them. They asked with some justification How could educators use their privileged positions to seek expanded awareness for themselves or for their students when so many of the socially oppressed had no such opportunity?
Philosophers of education and theorists of curriculum found themselves being forced into one of two camps: either they stood with those who dreamed of heightening personal awareness in an often-metaphysical sense, or they stood with those who took expanded consciousness to refer to waking up to the inequities and injustices rampant in the sociopolitical system. It seemed to be a choice between heightened consciousness or consciousness-raising. The so-called reconceptualist movement (Pinar 1975, Pinar et al. 1995) that appeared at this time in the USA attempted to draw these disparate voices into a unified protest against the status quo. With some bravado, Pinar (1974a) edited the results of the 1973 University of Rochesters College of Education Conference into a book whose title betrayed the schizophrenic nature of curriculum theorizing from then on: Heightened Consciousness, Cultural Revolution and Curriculum Theory: The Proceedings of the Rochester Conference. Here in one fell swoop, curriculum theorizing attempted to promote both heightened consciousness and cultural (read: political) revolution.
Pinar has since drawn a telling portrait of the divisions the conference revealed (Pinar et al. 1995: 218-226). Among those representing the political responsibility group, mostly Marxists, was Donald Bateman (1974: 64) who directed a withering attack at humanist and, by implication, transcendentalist world-views:
Racism, sexism, classism -- those deeply internalized social values -- are at the root of our problems. They are deep in our psyches, and they cause our liberal reforms to fail because they treat the symptoms and not the causes. Even humanistic education
. . . tacitly accepts the class system with its racism, its gross commercialism, its male chauvinism, its institutionalized violence, its imperialistic wars -- accepts them by failing to mention them, by pretending to be apolitical.
Such a strong statement was probably enough to make anyone feel ashamed for dreaming of a higher state of consciousness when there was so much injustice all around. This put the political wing on the moral high ground and indicated that the seekers of consciousness-breakthroughs were irresponsibly indulgent.
It was precisely against such declarations of moral (and intellectual) superiority that another participant, William Pilder (1974: 125-126), was led to declare that all such social confrontations were externalizations -- projections -- of unresolved personal conflicts. In his presentation, In the stillness is the dancing, he could only recommend the inner journey against the institutionalization of well-intentioned reforms:
Here, then, is my despair as a professional: human survival cannot depend on social programmes directed at present institutional structures. Personal consciousness development and subsequent cultural transformation cannot be programmed in a mechanistic fashion; a curriculum for consciousness development and cultural change is a blatant contradiction.
Although Pilders view of the necessity for the inner quest before political engagement is clear, he does not believe that such an inner journey to heightened consciousness could ever become a workable curriculum objective.
At this time, many US theorists stood with him in his views on the inner journey but still believed in the potential of the curriculum becoming personally transformative. Klohr (see Pinar et al. 1995: 224), for one, listed nine reconceptualist articles of faith, including the recognition of the resources of preconscious realms of experience and personal liberty and the attainment of higher levels of consciousness. Pinar (1974b: 15) himself opposed premature political activism and, instead, suggested the design and evaluation of experimental curricula which will attempt to explore the inner life, hence to underscore and possibly aid in an ontological shift from outer to inner.
After this, the walls came crashing down. Pilder was proven prophetic in that politically oriented scholarship presented much more to get angry over or pontificate about and provided a much clearer programme of action. It filled the bookshelves and journals, whereas the call to consciousness did not. The call to work collectively for individual
self-realization or higher states of consciousness became irrevocably associated with the 1960s and drug abuse. As US culture veered away from such countercultural activities, so did all educational thinking. Speaking for the mainstream, respected curriculum historians Daniel and Laurel Tanner (1979: 9) castigated reconceptualization because, in their view,
it favours mystical illumination (heightened consciousness) over reason and is therefore not curriculum knowledge but a promiscuous enthusiasm for whatever advertises itself as counter to our culture.
The whole consciousness-approach was fast becoming tainted as subversive. To stay competitive and play the game of academic advancement -- not to mention to retain the respect of their peers -- scholars previously committed to individual expansion of consciousness soon found other things about which to write. There was so little to say about experiences that were so unpredictable, and so rarely visible to others; heightened awareness may occur as in a form as subtle as a quiet aesthetic moment. As to actual transcendence, no curricularists dared write anymore of preparing the way for mystical enlightenment of no-self.
Pinar (1998: 3), referring to two terms in the theme of the Rochester Conference, heightened consciousness and cultural revolution, wrote in 1988 that they make one wince today, a statement he (Pinar et al. 1995: 219) recently repeated in his Understanding Curriculum. The chapter titles of Understanding Curriculum clearly indicate what Pinar considers to be the present state of the field: Understanding curriculum as political text, Understanding curriculum as racial text, Understanding curriculum as gender text, Understanding curriculum as poststructuralist, deconstructed, postmodern text, Understanding curriculum as autobiographical/biographical text, Understanding curriculum as theological text, and Understanding curriculum as international text. There is no chapter specifically focusing on heightened consciousness. Clearly, curriculum theory has become issue-oriented, and the political agenda has largely taken the field. Even the autobiographical and deconstructive texts of Understanding Curriculum are somewhat justified in terms of political engagement.
Part of the problem is terminological. The vertical imagery of heightened consciousness points only up, and leaves one with little grip on terra firma. Theorists began to resist the celestially oriented, psychedelically suggestive notion of seeking height. As Daniel and Laurel Tanner (1979) noted, the entire idea seems to smack of 1960s-era altered states -- and people are at present living through times of excessive paranoia with regard to drugs. American society has now reached the point where newspapers tell of one middle-school girl being suspended for sharing over-the-counter tablets, another for offering a cough drop containing zinc, and yet another for having the mild analgesic ibuprofen in her locker. A US surgeon-general appointed by President Clinton, Joycelyn Elders, was later fired after a political furor by Clinton for merely suggesting that the decriminalization of drugs might be investigated. The fear of experience is so deep that the selling of compressed nitrous oxide capsules can be declared illegal, even in the decadent French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana (despite no suggestion of side-effects or after-effects in such small doses).
The whole view of 1960s mind-expansion is also tainted in public memory by its unjustified association with the me-generation of the 1970s. Rather unexpectedly, the slick disco crowd emerged -- a marketers dream -- and took the values of free love and the quest for experience in new directions entirely. The 1970s disco-fever crowd reinterpreted the quest to seek higher levels of awareness as the hedonistic urge for unbridled physical pleasure. This change was symbolized by the change of the drug of choice from psychedelics to stimulants. Psychedelics -- LSD, mescaline and such -- tend toward visionary experience, allowing for soul-quakes or self-transcendence (to the bliss or horror of the experiencer). They are not known to have any physical after-effects. Stimulants on the other hand -- speed, cocaine, etc. -- simply crank up the nervous system into emergency alert so reality is experienced as extravagantly intensified. The nervous system and organs of the body eventually pay the price for this artificial adrenaline. Experience was still being sought but not heightened consciousness. This heavy-beat, laser-light, mirror-ball phantasmagoria has come to be the image many have of altered states of consciousness.
It is interesting to note that the State University of New York at Geneseo declared the 1997/1998 college term as The year of the sixties, corny as it sounds. Judging by the antics that went on it seems clear that the era is regarded from this perspective as one of noble political engagement or excessive self-indulgence. The youth of the time, it seems, were either carrying banners in protest marches or they were destroying their minds by wallowing in sex, drugs and rock n roll. Nowhere was there mention of the more subtle and less public activity associated with dropping-out and tuning-in to context-shattering, consciousness-expanding levels of transcendent awareness.
However, the whole notion of transcendence is much more than a carryover from the 1960s. There has probably been a felt sense of worlds unrealized since the first shamans went on their spirit journeys and returned to tell their tales. Even this sense of beyond has been dismissed by the public as an illusion deriving from the desire to escape from reality with all its problems. The Zen writer Suzuki (1964: 179) however, has made it clear that transcendence is not an escape:
To transcend suggests going beyond, being away from, that is, a separation, a dualism. I have, however, no desire to hint that the something stands away from the world in which we find ourselves.
It is bitterly ironic that the actual moves made toward transcendent awareness have come to be seen as politically or personally self-centred. The first obstacle encountered by anyone seeking an awakened mind is the image of ones own self. Whether using psychedelics or techniques of mediation, this self must be faced, accepted and passed through. This is not an easy thing to do, and those who felt the need to cling to their old ideas of selfhood often had horrifying LSD experiences when that self on which they depended seemed to lose its reality. Meditators who cannot get past this barrier soon suffer unbearable agitation and must give up. The very experience of satori is sometimes described as one of no-self (Suzuki 1964).
Those who are one day politically naïve and the next come to see the fabricated moral structure of the greater part of society, may suddenly feel the need to strike back against these perceived lies and injustices. In its sincerity, this is indeed fighting the good fight. The problem here is that too often these white knights of radicalism have never encountered their own moral ambiguity and the prevarications by which they themselves live. In fact, one of their motivations for striking out against the perceived conspiracies of the power élite may be to protect their self-concept: by projecting their fear and anger onto externalized agents of oppression, they may postpone indefinitely critical self-encounters which might make them feel diminished. This stance is as egocentric on the Left as on the Right.
By breaking through the contexts of ones socially constructed egocentric consciousness, political engagement may follow as a necessary consequence. To awaken can be painful, for it opens us to a poignant awareness of the pervasive waste of life around us and in us (Leonard and Murphy 1995: 202). Thus seeking consciousness from within expanded contexts is never selfish, but is, instead, the way out of selfishness.
How far can consciousness expand? What levels might it reach? The extreme edge of awakening seems to be full-blown mystical experience, beyond explanation or language of any sort, beyond even socially created contexts of consciousness. This is the experience that has been described by various traditions as satori, nirvana, moksha or oceanic bliss. Surely, I can hear the protests now, to seek such bliss for oneself and ignore the plight of those less privileged is the height of selfish irresponsibility!
Without protesting in return that expanded awareness knows no privilege and without calling up distant Buddhist traditions of the bodhisattva, readers can find a spokesperson who is both a mystic and a respected philosopher. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who died not long ago, was a contemporary American who underwent the profound awakening and wrote about it in clear, empirical terms. For him (Merrell-Wolff 1994: x), transforming oneself was only possible by forgetting oneself and working to transform the world:
The seeking of this Attainment is not simply for the sake of ones own individual Redemption but for the sake of the Redemption of humanity as a whole and, in addition, of all creatures whatsoever, however humble they may be. He [sic] who forgets his own Attainment and his own Redemption in seeking for the Attainment and Redemption of all creatures, is following the Path which is most certain to involve that very Attainment and Redemption for himself. The motive should always be the good of all creatures, not ones own private good.
It seems as clear as light that expanded consciousness is a very good thing both for ones own existence, for the society in which one lives, and likely for the world itself. Such enlightened awareness need not attain to the contextless levels suggested by Suzuki and Merrell-Wolff but might begin with something as simple as guided self-reflection -- perhaps autobiographical writing and sharing -- and the encouragement to undertake empathic feeling and relentless critical thinking.
Aligning oneself immovably with a political stance -- whether that stance be called Marxist, Christian-conservative, or critical-postmodern -- only hardens the ego into an us-against-them posture. The way of self-forgetting, on the other hand, is the way of service -- mind-expanding precisely because the other becomes a presence in consciousness.
Notwithstanding, my purpose herein has not been to make anyone wince by suggesting a return to a curricular directive of heightened, or even expanded, consciousness. Because such decontextualized awareness is perennial and everpresent, it need not be promoted or sought as an objective in any form. Its eventual return need only be awaited. Curriculum theorists in the meantime, I would suggest, should avoid shutting out such hopeful potentials by denying the reality of awakened awareness.
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