Friday, May 30, 2008

Meditation in Schools

Newsweek has an article up about a program in Washington, DC to teach schoolkids Transcendental Meditation. This program has been a source of controversy among parents and I admit that I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly support teaching meditation to kids. I think our society would be a lot better off if we got serious about teaching kids how to manage stress, and there are a number of other possible benefits from meditation including expanded realization for those who are predisposed to it and practice diligently. It also has been shown to calm kids down, which helps them learn better. What I don't completely get, though, is why it has to be Transcendental Meditation that these kids study.

While the TM devotees probably disagree with me, there's no particular benefit to doing TM over other forms of meditation and this assertion is supported by research. The biggest differences found by experimenters were between meditators and non-meditators, not between students of different meditation systems. TM has been accused of cult-like behavior in the past, and while their abuses do not appear to be in the same league as the actions of groups like Scientology, I still think that it is a cause for concern. They do usually charge thousands of dollars to teach students to sit with their eyes closed and repeat a mantra over and over again, which to me seems like an excessive fee for something so simple. This is it, folks:
  1. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Cross-legged is fine, Lotus is better if you can do it - but don't wreck your knees.

  2. Pick a mantra, a simple sound that you can repeat over and over again. The classic "AUM" will work fine for this.

  3. Close your eyes and begin repeating the mantra.

  4. Do this for twenty minutes every day.
Now aren't you glad you read this blog? If you're interested in trying out the technique I just saved you $2500!

I also wonder if the organization might have scrubbed that information from Wikipedia. The article on Transcendental Meditation has a lot of information about the benefits of the technique, but no description of how it's actually done. Also, see the talk page. The organization is clearly trying to spin the article. If the technique is so obviously great, why do they need to do that? And maybe it's just me, but teaching a technique trademarked by a large organization reminds me a little too much of some of the disastrous attempts to commercialize the school system.

Furthermore, some of the other techniques that could be taught instead carry a lot less of the cultural baggage which is the source of most of the complaints. Zazen immediately comes to mind here, as it can be practiced without even the minimal trappings of Soto Zen Buddhism. As practiced by the Soto school, the technique is just sitting - no initiations, no mantras, no pujas. Furthermore, Zazen is done with the eyes open and some research suggests that while eyes-closed meditation makes reaching certain states of consciousness easier it makes those states more difficult to integrate into daily life. I would think that integrating a more relaxed consciousness into daily activities should be one of the key goals of any meditation technique taught to schoolchildren.

I realize that the TM organization is funding the program and without that funding kids probably wouldn't be meditating at all, so I still think that on the whole this is a good thing. Meditation is a positive practice however it is done. It would be nice, though, to see some sort of non-denominational meditation technique taught that doesn't require the support of an outside organization which might have its own agenda.

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4 comments:

AISh MLChMH said...

This strikes me as yet another attempt to make effeminate sissies out of the boys in school.

When recess is increasingly being zeroed out of schools and boys are regularly being prescribed drugs like ritalin - then the push for meditation fits in nicely with the current trend to prevent boys from being active and shutting them up.

Of course, some folks want boys to remain calm (or is it numb?) at all times, knit, play with dolls and prefer the color pink over blue.

On the other hand, if this "war against boys" didn't currently exist within schools (note that more young women are enrolling into college over young men for just one example), then I'd have less of an issue with this.

Ananael Qaa said...

This comment touches on a lot of issues, but I'll try to address them all. We'll see how I do...

First off, this is an elective program. Kids are not being required to do it - and if they were I would have serious problems with it for a lot of reasons.

With children, there's a big difference between being silenced and being taught self-discipline. With parenting, one of the key things that you need to do is cultivate in your child the ability to sit quietly and pay attention for extended periods of time. It's not that they should have to do it to the exclusion of every other activity, but they need to be able to do it without difficulty when it serves their interests. School requires it and so does adult work. And let me tell you, as the parent of a daughter, girls have trouble learning it too - it's not an issue unique to boys.

Here's a question - do you think that there are there other practices that we find beneficial as spiritual practitioners which could be taught in schools and are more active? Yoga, maybe?

I always hated recess because I was one of the boys who got beat up and harassed. I'm not in favor of getting rid of it but I think kids should be able to stay inside and read or something if that's what they would rather do. I got a lot of abuse in school because I didn't have that option. Maybe that makes me an "effeminate sissy" in your book - I don't really know. I would be very interested in hearing any good suggestions that would allow "aggressive play" and at the same time prevent bullying, but that can be a very fine line to an outside observer.

I agree that there is a real problem with overprescription of psych drugs to kids, but I haven't seen much evidence that gender bias is a significant part of it. Ritalin is actually a stimulant - if you give it to a normal person it makes them more active, not less, whereas it calms down kids with ADD - and when properly prescribed it does help those kids learn in school. These days SSRI overuse is a bigger problem - Prozac and other drugs of the same class used to treat "depression" in kids who have legitimate complaints. If I were in elementary school now I probably would have been drugged - because getting constant abuse from other kids does tend to make you unhappy most of the time.

> Of course, some folks want boys
> to remain calm (or is it numb?)
> at all times, knit, play with
> dolls and prefer the color pink
> over blue.

Who? Citation please. Everything after "calm" sounds like hyperbole to me.

As far as the "war against boys" goes, while I'll happily support programs to end gender bias in schools whether that bias favors boys or girls, framing a bias as a "war" strikes me as pretty melodramatic. The mainstream media loves to call everything a "war on xxx" but I think that sort of framing more often provokes people into overreacting than motivating them to look for real solutions.

I found this critique of Christina Hoff Summers written by one of the researchers she supposedly "debunks," and while there's an obvious agenda behind it I think that its factual claims should at least be checked out before Summers' work is taken too seriously. I also came across a transcript of a PBS program in which Summers debates some of her critics. It's an interesting discussion that's pretty relevant to your comments.

AISh MLChMH said...

I agree with and appreciate much of your response - particularly coming from a parent. Much of what I've noted are concerns that have been reflected in the work of researchers such as Deborah Tannen and Christina Hoff Summers.

As an elective program chosen by children I have less of an issue with this.

As far as being silenced and self-discipline, I agree that this is an important differentiation to make - and I'm certainly not abnegating the latter. However, the ratio of boys being prescribed ritalin compared to girls is fairly substantial.

Here's a question - do you think that there are there other practices that we find beneficial as spiritual practitioners which could be taught in schools and are more active? Yoga, maybe?

As with sexuality, I don't think religion (or are you advocating secularized ritual magic?) should be taught in schools and hold that parents should take a little more responsibility in these arenas.

I always hated recess because I was one of the boys who got beat up and harassed.

I got beat up and harassed too (usually as a result of my loud mouth), but I still managed to enjoy recess. Chasing girls was fun too.

Maybe that makes me an "effeminate sissy" in your book - I don't really know.

The items I mentioned were cumulative. For another example, male teachers are close to being an extinct species in teaching elementary education in the U.S.

Who? Citation please. Everything after "calm" sounds like hyperbole to me.

Here's one example from the literature:

"Many boys feel inhibited from playing with dolls or stuffed animals when they're young. Do you see boys making pretty things in art , or is a robot or rocket a more familiar image?...While its okay for girls to dance together, boys wouldn't dare." - "Open Minds to Equality" by Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson.

The mainstream media loves to call everything a "war on xxx" but I think that sort of framing more often provokes people into overreacting than motivating them to look for real solutions.

I haven't seen what you describe with the mainstream media but will provide a few stats that I think justify the expression:

According to Gurian and Stevens(2005), the impact on male students and schools are:
§ Males currently make less than 44 percent of the college population
§ Young men get the majority of D’s and F’s in most schools
§ 70 percent of the children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys
§ According to the U.S. Department of Education, boys lag one to one and a half years behind girls in reading and writing skills
§ 80 % of high school dropouts are young males
§ Boys make up 80 percent of school disciplinary problems
§ 70 percent of the children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys
§ “Over 80 percent of schoolchildren on Ritalin or similar drugs are boys.” (p. 22).
§ This generation of men will be increasingly unemployed
§ Significantly lower lifetime earnings (p. 28).

Thanks for the links - I'll be sure to check those out!

Ananael Qaa said...

I've been reading a lot less about Ritalin lately online, so maybe its use is finally starting to drop off. I certainly agree with you that prescribing it to treat kids who just won't behave is ridiculous. Bad behavior is not a "syndrome," in my experience it's usually the result of poor parenting - that is, parents who don't understand how operant conditioning works. A psychology degree can be really helpful when raising kids.

I wasn't really advocating anything in asking about specific practices, I was just curious what your perspective was on the issue. Secularizing ritual magick would be incredibly difficult and maybe even downright impossible. On the other hand, I think that "building block" type practices like formless meditation and possibly some form of yoga could be useful in later life. I certainly think it would have been cool to have learned meditation earlier than I did studying on my own.

With your citation, there's a difference between stating that (1) it should be okay for an individual boy to like activities that are traditionally "feminine" and stating that (2) boys in general should be brainwashed into liking such things better than activities that are traditionally "masculine." I think (1) is great and (2) is awful. I'd rather children be able to follow their interests rather have them molded to fit some agenda, whether it be traditional gender roles or some kind of social engineering scheme.

By objecting to the "war" framing I'm not trying to say that I think gender bias in schools is no big deal. What I'm saying is more general and goes well beyond this issue. We had a "war on poverty" and a "war on drugs" that started in the 1970's, neither of which had much in common with actual wars. Now we have had a "war against boys" and even a "war on Christmas" in the last couple of years. Why I don't like the framing is that I don't think it adds anything useful to discussions that should be about finding pragmatic solutions rather than taking ideological sides.