University students are burdened by more stress compared to any other time since such things were measured. We see this escalating among iGen students — those who have never known a world without the internet. Their lives are mostly inputs and outputs that lack time for integration, evaluation, or reflection.
Recently, I was in a meeting with a wide-ranging group of student leaders, and they said that they found themselves too busy for periods of sustained reflection. It’s hard to imagine a more significant time in their lives for deep, soul-searching thought.
At Susquehanna University, we are challenging our students to coöperatively reason when faced with countervailing ideas, to cultivate their personal philosophies, and to develop the skills to defend their viewpoints. Such emphases will foster the development of leaders our society so desperately needs.
A decade ago, educators began to emphasize information literacy as the academy’s challenge transitioned from limited access to a constant overexposure of wholly unvetted, information. Information literacy continues to be successful, and is becoming ever more important, yet none of us sensed how swiftly immediate access stole the precious reflective experiences innate to our historical modes of researching and learning. We’re quickly losing slow learning.
The information age has fueled society’s teach-to-the-test obsession, and the ways in which we assess learning continue to drive our focus on content retention and testable skills. While those are important, the ineffable components of a broad, holistic education are being lost in the rush. Students complete majors and minors as if they are collecting merit badges, and we praise them for their ambition and effort, but is this luring them away from intellectual germination?
In Creating Minds, Howard Gardner examined the careers of seven stellar geniuses of the 20th century whom he credits with transforming their respective disciplines: Martha Graham, Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Mohandas Gandhi, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky. He identified a number of fascinating parallels between their work, including a deep focus and mastery of the traditions of their discipline, followed by a series of innovations, and then a period of maturation and integration. For the individuals in his study, each phase lasted about seven years. More importantly these innovators were dependent upon sustained and deep reflection. The true mother of invention appears to be prolonged and intentional mindfulness.
At Susquehanna University, we have begun a campaign to encourage mindful habits and regular periods of reflection. Signs around campus read, “Breathe.” Institutions that have adopted these practices have seen improvements in student mental health, reductions in sexual violence, and a decline in acts of biased behavior.
Early this semester, Holly Rogers, M.D., co-founder of Koru Mindfulness and a psychiatrist at the student counseling center at Duke University gave a series of presentations on campus, including a session for the entire first-year class. She encouraged all of us to adopt a mindfulness practice. She challenged us to dedicate at least 10 minutes each day to being mindful, to be reflective in the moment through meditation, prayer, or deep-focused thought.
We need to ensure that the sources of contemporary stress don’t mitigate their cure. As our contemporary challenges continue to grow in complexity, so too will the solutions, which in turn will demand progressively more mindful approaches.
The promise of each meaningful solution deserves our unhurried and focused attention.