Holistic education: A thought experiment

I’ve been pondering a lot about education and what it should look like. As I thought about how I would sum up my idea of what education should be in a few words, I instantaneously thought, “holistic education!” Now, despite my attempts, I can’t get the phrase “holistic education” out of my head. To me, it represents so many things that ought to be but aren’t in higher education. Just to give a little peak into the thought that my mind is exploding with, here’s a few technical definitions for you from Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

  • Holistic: relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts <holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body> <holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system>
  • Holism: a theory that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles

I think these definitions merit a pause, a brief reflection, if you will. Imagine an educational systems where everything is “correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles [parts].” When I talk about interacting wholes I mean everything. I mean courses, ideas, communities! What if undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, librarians, and administration all worked together to form a holistic community of thinkers? What if courses all complemented each other and students didn’t have to learn in boxes? What would that world look like?

I’ll tell you. Well, I’ll tell you in part with a few of my own experiences in getting a glimpse of this. It would be all of the above individuals interacting as equal wholes with different skill sets. The faculty members could move and shape and coach things into being. The graduate students, with their young hungry minds, could implement and create and interact. The undergraduates could react and act again. They would be the huge sounding board for these ideas.  What was once mere ideas would become realities in the student community. Administrative staff would encourage and implement programs that sought out new, effective ways of learning. And librarians, well, they’d be awesome at implementing research and excitement and new tools. It would be glorious.

On the course level, classes would no longer be Statistics 101, Biology 102, this elective here, this specialty there. NO. The university would be a place where constant connections were being made and in which every class could somehow inform and complement others, no matter the field. Students would begin to think holistically. They would think not about how they must memorize this formula or write that term paper, but rather how this formula informs them about the world they live in and that term paper would be about something they are passionate about learning more about and forming thoughts about.

Think I’m delusional? Fair enough. But I’ve seen glimpses of this in my own experience in the university. For instance, when I was an undergraduate, I was part of a program at Baylor University called the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC). The BIC provides a holistic approach to education. In it, students meet their core requirements by taking a series of courses that are designed to be integrated. Philosophy connecting to art connecting to history to political science to math to science and everything in between. The BIC teaches you how to make connections between the knowledge you are acquiring and forces you to get outside of the classroom to implement that knowledge (quite literally – they take several field trips). In the BIC, my learning came alive! And not only was my curriculum holistic, so was my learning community. At the time I didn’t fully understand the depths of it, but all of the BIC faculty members called us, the students, their colleagues. They did this because they viewed us as intellectual peers who had something valuable to add to the classroom. We MUST stop treating students as if they are only their to glean our wisdom. Rather, we must see them for what they are or at least should be – the life and heartbeat of any campus. Once we do that, we can begin to learn so much from our students.

Let’s take this thought experiment even farther. Universities communities should not be limited to one’s own university. Rather, universities should be connecting to other universities in a way that creates a weblike fusion of connections. Networking. The internet. Connections. These are important to the progression of the educational field. We must learn to collaborate and connect with those in other places so that we can take the most holistic approach to education. I can learn something entirely different from my peers at my university, those from East Asia, those from a liberal campus, those from a conservative campus, those in the Middle East, and even the community colleges in my own city.

I’m entirely aware that my thoughts may seem too idealistic. I would tend to agree with you, especially since I often think of myself as a realist. But I’ve seen this model work effectively in small pockets time and time again, and I think it’s about time we start to bring it to the forefronts of education and the university. So I ask, “Why do we settle for so little in education when we could achieve so much?” Certainly there are several barriers to overcome. I do not mean to downplay those. But we need individuals fighting for a change in the often rigid texture of university life. If my time in BIC taught me anything, it’s that learning is a fun, thrilling adventure when people let you explore. And great change never came from retaining the status quo just because it was already there.


About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

2 responses to “Holistic education: A thought experiment

  • Ellen

    Sign me up to be the librarian in your holistic learning experiment!

  • Megan J.

    You know, it’s funny you should mention that. When I thought, “What would the librarians do?” I immediately thought of you and said to myself, “When this thing works like it should, librarians would be totally awesome like Ellen!!” I harkened back to that session I attended at the library that you led on implementing new technology in learning. That would be a significant marker of when I realized, “Hey this stuff is cool. And there are cool people out there helping me learn about it and implement it.” So basically, you’re the librarian of the future! 🙂

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