By Alexa Hyman
Sociology professor Molly Beauregard has taught at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit for 15 years. In 2013, she co-founded Tuning the Student Mind, a foundation sponsored by the Creative Activist Program supporting individuals who use innovative media to ignite social change. In her talk, “Tuning the Student Mind,” on Wednesday, April 15, Beauregard will discuss how she has woven meditation into the core curriculum of her course, “Consciousness, Creativity and Identity.” Using this as a tool in her classroom, Beauregard has enabled her students to clear their minds of outside distraction, reflect on their own identity and think about sociology through a subjective lens. Beauregard’s sincerity is transparent and her passion for curiosity visible, even over the phone. And every day she urges her students to ask themselves “Who am I?” The Pleiad was able to catch up with Beauregard before her talk. The results of that conversation are below.
The Pleiad: Where did the idea for “Tuning the Student Mind” come from?
Molly Beauregard: This program started really organically. I’ve been teaching at the College for Creative Studies for about 15 years and I started to notice, increasingly, that my students were more and more distracted, more and more exhausted and less and less interested in what I wanted to them to be interested in. And so selfishly I kept thinking, “Why don’t they love sociology as much as I do?” And over time, I realized that it was just that they were overwhelmed and they were filled with a lot of anxiety and they were so job-focused that they were unable to sort of capture a class that was more about meaning and Who am I?
So I have been meditating for almost 22 years. And when I learned to meditate, I learned just because my mother told me to, and there really was not a tremendous body of research on meditation. And what I learned about six years ago was that, in the time that I’d been meditating, the body of research had really grown. So there’s a great deal of evidence-based research on the impact meditation has on our brain, on our level of happiness, on our self-actualization, on our sleep patterns, on all kinds of different of factors that make for healthy living. And, because of that, I thought I might be able to justify integrating a meditation program into my curriculum. So that is where this dream started.
What we do in my class is we have the external search for knowledge, which is the intellectual inquiry about sociology, with this subjective experience of transcending the mind and using meditation. So the whole point of my class now is an identity course and it’s all about Who am I? Who do I want to be? And Does my life have meaning? How can I live most authentically? And we use sociology reading on identity to think about the way race and ethnicity and gender and generational aspects and where you grew up.
Since you implemented meditation in your curriculum, have you experienced positive change?
I often say to my students, “Just because you get an infinity tattoo or you grow dreadlocks does not make you a spiritual person.” I’m not a big fan of sitting around talking about meditation or navel-gazing, it’s not my thing. We just do it. We talk about identity and we relate sociological literature to our life experiences, we try and find the intersection between our own personal biography and the cultural context, which is, as [Columbia University sociologist] C. Wright Mills said, “Using our sociological imagination.” So most of the course is really based on academic theories and meditation is simply what we do to clear our space, to clear our mind, so that the foundation of our intellectual inquiry is pure, it isn’t distracted by the stress or the anxiety that we’re feeling when we walk into the classroom. I find that my students are significantly more engaged, significantly more enthusiastic, significantly more connected to one another
How was the program received by your department?
Initially it was very easy for people to perceive me as some voodoo-loving hippy encouraging her students to smoke pot and sing “Kumbaya” in a circle. There was tremendous resistance to doing a course like this. It took me three years to get it passed and I’ve really had to be practical and evidence-based in order to get it approved. I’ve had to speak the institutional language when that’s needed and that’s hard for me. Really it came about because students really, really loved it and wanted this kind of experience in the classroom and their reflections were that they weren’t having enough opportunity to just be reflective. Everything was about, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do when I get out of school?” Which is really missing the point of staying the moment of the experience of being a student.
You mentioned that our generation is increasingly distracted by technology, but do you think that there’s a greater issue at hand? That, starting at a young age, we’re being taught to learn in a flawed way? That we’re not being taught to ask these bigger questions?
Well you’re singing my song now. What I often say and what is sort of my opening line next weekend at Albion is, “We’re constantly asking the question, ‘What is wrong with our students?’ rather than asking the question, ‘What is wrong with our education system?’” To a very large extent, education in this country has become vocational. Most education paradigms were founded on what we might call, “the enlightened age.” If you think of Emerson and Thoreau, you think about people who were really thinking about, to your own point, their own humanity—how they’re connected, how their individual lives are connected to nature, how their individual experiences are connected to the larger functioning of the world, how they are connected to a collective that creates society. And there was a lot of spiritual inquiry in the process of education.
During the industrial age when we started to conceive of the world as a machine, we really eradicated a lot of that kind of inquiry from the process of learning, so everything became very brain-focused, very intellectually-focused and everything became very much about what you do rather than who you are. And what I see on college campuses now is that students are just consumed by this, what am I going to be? What am I going to do? Rather than, Who am I? And what am I now? When we live in a very test-heavy, test-mandated, accreditation-focused education paradigm, we’re constantly trying to measure and we’re constantly trying to put a cap on learning.
[Students] are so ahead of themselves in the assumptions that they’re making about what adult life is and what they have to do in order to create a meaningful life, and it’s all tied to aspects of work. And work is super important, and it’s super interesting, and, if you’re lucky, you get to do something that impacts other people but it’s not all that you are. You also get to grow up and get married and have children and go on adventures… You’re going to twist and turn in the wind and it’s going to be a journey and you’re going to constantly be learning new things and having new opportunities.
Are you seeing other educators trying to reinvent the wheel the same way you are or is there still a lot of room for conversation and change?
I’m optimistic. I think there’s a lot of people that are doing really good, really creative, really important work. That said, it is still unique or viewed as being innovative when I think it should be more foundational. I also have spoken to a lot of people who work in education, one person in particular who is the head of the Design Department at Pratt Institute. The accreditation process now for schools has become so rigorous and so demanding and so focused on measurable outcome. And, while there is a place for that, it also denies a lot of the freedom of exploration for creativity. And his line to me was, “The first art school to give up the chains of the accreditation process will be the first art school to re-invite and re-invigorate creativity.” It’s happening quietly.
Do you think that this is something that’s only going to impact those in the arts and in the humanities? Or do you think that this idea of inducing creativity is applicable to all fields?
I always say, “Every one of us in creativity in action.” Just the act of being alive is a creative act. Getting up every morning, you have the power to shape your day. At the level of consciousness, at the level of unity, we are the same. We are built of the same material. You can speak about that from a spiritual sense, you can speak about that from a scientific sense, you can speak about that from a physics sense, from all kinds of levels. We recognize that to be a true statement and yet we’re constantly denying our uniqueness or putting creativity in one more box. Like, you’re creative if you’re an interior designer but you’re not creative if you’re a mathematician. When in reality, the act of being a 3-year-old is an act of creativity. The act of being a garbage man is a creative activity. It’s the act of doing that role the best you can. And when you start to think about it in that way, you start to really recognize that we all really have creativity deep within us. It’s what motivates us.
What is your greatest hope or vision for this documentary and the future of “Tuning the Student Mind?”
Right this very minute I am living my greatest hope and my greatest goal, which was always to have access to speaking to more students. And there have been times where I’ve dreamed of large numbers and big auditorium but, really, talking to you, today, and feeling the sincerity of your questions and the depth in your understanding of what I’m trying to do is the fulfillment of the dream.
I’m hoping to knock on doors and engage with young people in a way that inspires them to want a different kind of educational model for their children and work in their lives to create more authentic experiences and feel happier. I don’t think of students as a bucket to be filled so they can spit back out knowledge. I think of students as people who inspire me and who I’d like to inspire. And I often say, “My goal for students is to leave my classes knowing less. “ And that always surprises them. You should be so inspired by the learning process that you realize how much you don’t know and how much more there is to seek. Good learning and good education should inspire that kind of curiosity.
Professor Molly Beauregard will speak more on Tuning the Student Mind and premiere her new 30-minute documentary tonight, April 15th at 7pm in Upper Baldwin.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Photo via the Tuning the Student Mind Facebook page. Used with permission.