- CARITAS IN THE
- THE OPENING OF THE
AMERICAN STUDENT'S HEART
- by John D.
- John D. Lawry is a professor of
psychology at Maryrnount College in Tarrytown, New York. This
article is based on a presentation at the annual meeting of The
Freshman Year Experience, University of South Carolina, Columbia,
S.C., February, 1989.
- Editors' Note. Due to the
unusual ideas and point of view expressed in this article, College
Teaching has asked Dr. Lawry to respond to some questions that
were raised by the reviewers of the manuscript. These responses
are at the end of the article.
- If Allan Bloom (1987) is right,
that there has been a gradual closing of the American mind, then I
believe it is due to the closing of the American heart. Indeed,
the more I listen to college students, the more I come to realize
that American higher education has focused on the eye of the mind
to the virtual neglect of the eye of the heart. This has resulted
in a kind of moral astigmatism and spiritual blindness. To quote
Bernadette Roberts (1985, 153): "After two years at the
university, I suddenly realized I had not learned a thing. Despite
the influx of information, nothing really happened. I was the
sarne person with the same mind&emdash;I had not grown at all. If
learning could not bring about change, if it was not a way of
growth, then the university was a waste of time. "
- More and more I have come to
realize that the quality of the relationship between student and
teacher is critical in opening the heart as well as the mind.
Though there is little empirical evidence, I believe the highest
form of learning occurs when the teacher loves and accepts the
students so fully that they feel safe enough to go within to see
themselves and to emerge with new answers about themselves and
their lives. As Parker Palmer (1983, 69) asserts: "To teach is to
create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced."
Similarly, Goethe said in the last century that it was not the
most brilliant teachers who had the greatest influence on him, but
those,who loved him the most.
- The Research
- There are few authorities in my
field of educational psychology who have written about the place
of love in the classroom, with the exception of Leo Buscaglia and
the recently deceased Carl Rogers. In a little-known study
published more than a decade ago, Aspy and Roebuck (1974) found
that what Carl Rogers calls empathy, congruence (psychological
integrity), and positive regard, as measurable characteristics in
grade-school teachers, contribute significantly to classroom
learning. In other words, teachers who measure high in empathy,
congruence, and positive regard produce students who score higher
on standard tests than do t~achers who measure low. Moreover, the
students of the teachers with empathy had better student
attendance rates and fewer students with school phobia. Aspy and
Roebuck (1977) published their updated research with the telling
title, Kids Don't Learn From People They Don't Like, and, they
might have added were it not a tautology, kids don't learn from
people who don't like them.
- More recently, three educators at
the University of Utah's medical school, Whitman, Spendlove, and
Clark, (1986) have published an ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report,
Increasing Student Learning, arguing that professors should become
"professionally intimate" with undergraduates to minimize student
stress. The authors observed that "When students feel that the
professor cares [emphasis mine] not only about their
progress in class but also about their academic progress in
general and [about] them as people, they are more likely
to feel a collegial relationship with the teacher and adopt the
teacher as a role model" (p. 15). Furthermore, "Teachers should
consider sharing their thoughts and values in a manner that
encourages students to disclose theirs" and commit themselves to
"personal growth for all students" (p. 34-45).
- Anthropologists tell us that this
tradition of ignoring the emotional connection between student and
teacher is peculiar to the West. In his brilliant analysis of the
human life cycle as experienced in different cultures, Colin
Turnbull (1983) contrasts British attitudes and educational
practices with those of small, "primitive~' societies like the
Mbuti and the Ituri Forest people of central Africa. Every teacher
of adolescents should read it.
- |t took me twenty years of college
teaching to allow myself to see the fear on the faces of my
- The chapter on adolescence, "The
Art of Transformation," emphasizes how little our education has to
do with the spiritual and how that neglect fragments our
understanding of the world and our place in it. In contrast, all
of Mbuti education involves the spirit and the heart. There is one
particularly telling account in which Turnbull informs the Ituri
Forest people elders that it is the students, not the teachers,
who control the rites of passage ordeals in Western society. "Did
you have no teachers?" they asked. Then when I told them that our
teachers were not kinsmen or friends, or even known to our
families, and that they only taught our minds and trained our
bodies in sports and games and didn't teach our hearts or spirit,
they understood, I think, why we seem as cold to them as we do."
- In Western education the exception,
of course, is the enviable relationship between student and coach.
Who can forget Greg Louganis' tearfilled victory embrace of his
coach, Ron O'Brien, in the 1988 Olympics? How infrequently we
teachers hug our students who are beyond the 4th
- But objectivism, this schizophrenic
split between mind and heart, does not have to be the case in the
college classroom. As Palmer (1983) reminds us in the last
chapter, "The Spiritual Formation of Teachers," of his
little-known book: "The transformation of teaching must begin in
the transformed heart of the teacher" (p. 107). My own personal
journey has been to explore the implications of creating a
classroom where love, caring, and cooperation are the predominant
themes in place of fear and competition and to develop some ways
for doing so. Though I have tinkered with strategies and syllabi,
I keep coming back to myself and the words of the Roman Catholic
theologian, Romano Guardini: "It is not so much what we say nor
even what we do that speaks loudest to our students; it is who we
- Religion and Psychology and
- On the first day of my Religion and
Psychology class (a new course for me) in the fall of 1988, I
asked the class to "check in" with "where they were" at the
beginning of the term. The drama of human joy and brokenness began
to tumble from their lips. One student shared her triumph over
drug addiction. Another revealed a broken heart and questioned the
purpose of her young life. A freshman spoke of her dreams and
excitement at finally making it to her first college
- And then it was my turn. Because my
students had bared their souls, I was challenged to do likewise. I
told them about my recent engagement to be married to a woman with
whom I had been li- ing for ten years. Two and-a-half weeks before
the wedding, she informed me that she could not go through with
it. I talked about my shock and disappointment, my heartbreak and
slow recovery. There was a reverent silence in the room.
Apparently, no teacher had ever shared like that before. I
remembered the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:12): "The knowledge
that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I
- The ice was broken, and we were not
afraid of each other. (It took me twenty years of college teaching
to allow myself to see the fear on the faces of my students.)
There was an atmosphere of trust and compassion in the classroom.
There was also cooperation. Students gratuitously shared books,
which was necessary because of an unexpected shortage. Indeed, the
students learned about religion and psychology and the
relationship between them. I could see it and hear it. And most of
all, they learned about themselves.
- It is no coincidence that articles
on collaborative learning&emdash;cooperation as opposed to
competition&emdash;have begun to proliferate. As Kohn (1987, 53)
reported, "Students who learn cooperatively not only learn better,
but feel better about themselves and get along better with each
- How did the students react to this
course? One of the requirements was a self-evaluation submitted at
the end of the semester. I would like to quote from two of the
students in an attempt to answer the question. The evaluations I
have chosen are typical of the class's reactions except that the
chosen two were among the more articulate.
- Dear Dr. Lawry,
- Or rather, if I may, "Dear Friend."
Although this course required me to do a lot of one of the two
things that I dislike doing most, I believe that I have done
nothing but benefit from the readings. This course allowed me to
return to my true self. It has allowed me to shed all my masks and
let people see the naked me. Fortunately, I have found that I do
have emotions and that I am somewhat of a warm person.
- At first, when I wrote to 'Dear
Friend' in my journal, I knew thal I was referring to myself. But
I was referring to myself in a negative way. I referred to myself
because I was new here. I did not really know anyone. At that
point, everyone was just an acquaintance. Also, I was determined
to remain an island. The repercussions of being part of a
friendship are too painful. 'Friend' was just another word for
- Later on, I came to realize that
'Dear Friend' meant much more than it did in the beginning. It
dawned on me, after many a forced reading, that I am my best
friend. This is where I must begin. I must understand that before
I can even begin to be someone's friend, I must accept that I am
my best friend.
- Finally, I accepted that not only
was I writing to my best friend, but I was accepting that the
stranger who was going to read my journal had mystically become my
friend. He was just my teacher at first, but he became much
- You magically turned a room full of
virtual strangers into a family of friends. We all knew that we
had the potential of being friends. But you helped to take it one
step further. Although we may not know everyone's name, we know
that forever how short a time, we were a family. We cried
together. We laughed together. We trusted each other. And, most
importantly, we loved each other.
- This time will have been a precious
one for me. I have learned a lot about myself and hope to continue
to do so. Most importantly, I have learned that I am truly my best
- P.S. The other thing that I hate
doing most is writing.
- Dear Dr. Lawry,
- I want to start my evaluation by
thanking you for this course. I feel I have been "healed" and have
grown from the knowledge I have gained in this class.
- The atmosphere of trust in the
class had a really profound effect on me. I felt as though there
were a bond linking all those present. It was~as if we were all
sharing some sort of positive awakening, and we were all able to
feel the growth taking place within us as individuals and amongst
us as a group.
- I felt comfortable enough to speak
openly and emotionally. I remember the way I used to speak to my
psychotherapist. I would intellectualize my feelings and thus
distance myself from them. I would merely describe how I felt; I
would never actually speak what I felt inside- I never spoke "from
the heart." I did not have to do that in this class. I was able to
reveal my true feelings without having to put up barriers. I was
able to reveal all the emotions I experienced during the
- I have been honest with myself for
the first time in my life. This has undoubtedly had a therapeutic
effect on me. I could feel my self-esteem growing as we progressed
through the course. I was able to purge my brain of so many
negative thoughts. Rather than analyzing my belief system to get
at the root of my problems I learned to release the negative
energy of my problems and allow myself to forgive....
- One of the most enriching aspects
of this course was, for me, the emphasis on spirituality. I have,
for the most of my life, felt as though there was a void within
me. I have tried to fill the space with food, alcohol, and love
(what I used to think was love). But I was never able to rid
myself of my emptiness. I think I was spiritually starved. I have
learned that the void can only be filled from within, with the
love of God that we all possess within us.
- Guidance is a very new concept for
me. I used to think that things happened in a person's lifetime
with little if any help from God. I think I was wrong to view
things so secularly. I am positive now that God is leading me on a
certain path and that He is providing me with "grace" or gifts to
aid my spiritual growth. I think it was God's grace that led me to
this school. It is as though He intended for me to come to this
place sol could attend this class. I hope that doesn't sound
corny. But the things I've learned in this course have helped me
or will help me grow spiritually. I've never had a class like
this. I don't really even consider this a class, I feel as though
I embarked on a spiritual retreat this semester.
- I never had a class like this
either. I don't know if I ever will again. I do know that I have
become a different teacher and that it is time to challenge
Bloom's (1987, 21) contention that 'book learning is most of what
a teacher can give."
- Interview with
- CT: When you described what
happened when you asked your class to "check in" with their
feelings and experiences at the beginning of the term - how did
you get them to feel this open on the first day in a class of
- JL: First of all, the class was not
entirely a group of "strangers." Marymount College, Tarrytown, is
a relatively small, residential women's college of around 800
students. Most of the students know each other by face if not by
name, with the exception of freshmen. Classes are rarely larger
than twenty-five, and somewhere around sixteen to seventeen is the
average class size. This particular class had approximately
fifteen students enrolled on the first day though it jumped to the
limit of twenty-five by the end of the dropadd period. Also,
because it is a women's college, there is more friendliness in the
classroom or at least less guardedness than I see in typical coed
classrooms. It tends to be a very caring environment unlike the
usual competitiveness that is more typical.
- Secondly, I begin my classes in a
rather unusual way. We chant "OM." Then I greet the students with
the Sanskrit, "Jai Bhagwan," which translates into something like,
"I honor the divine within you," and the students are requested to
return the greeting. At the beginning they humor me in this, but,
after awhile, they get into it. In fact, if I should forget, they
will remind me that we forgot to chant "OM." It may sound weird,
but something begins to happen as a result that is very
- Thirdly, you must realize that like
any other professor at a small college I have a certain
reputation, and so the class is self-selected on the basis of the
teacher and the course, "Religion and Psychology," which is an
elective. It's hard to know what your reputation is, but I think
mine contributes to a certain trust in the classroom. As a result
of my own spiritual journey, I am much more comfortable with
myself, including my shadow self, and therefore I think I
communicate a certain permission, non-verbally, to the students to
be who they really are. In spite of this, I must confess that I
was shocked and surprised at their utter candor and the extent of
their pain. I have never had a class quite like that before. The
only explanation I can give is what I call "grace.'! That class
- CT: But isn't there some slight
risk of too much "confession" tumbling out and the other students
not knowing how to handle it or some students being too vulnerable
to handle it?
- JL: I suppose that's always
possible, but, in that particular class, all I can tell you is
that it worked in just the opposite fashion. The more transparent
we all became with each other, the better and more powerful the
learning. Remember that this was a course in religion and
psychology, and I had made a very fortunate choice of texts in
Peck's The Road Less Traveled. To keep it abstract and theoretical
would have been a grave mistake in my judgment. Once you invite
students to be themselves, you have to accept what comes. I do not
think that these students were atypical. I see a lot of
woundedness in our young people today. I was moved by that quote
from Bernadette Roberts and have taken it as a challenge that,
hopefully, none of my students can say that they have not been
changed by my courses. The fact is that my students have reported
that they have been changed profoundly as exemplified by Erica and
- I know some people may feel I am
getting close to therapy, but I prefer to think of it as teaching
the whole person. Peter Drucker put it well in Time magazine
(January 22, 1990, 6) recently: "We should know that the old
approach to education is theoretical and unsound. We still believe
that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin, but we
ought to realize that they are not: one learns a subject, and one
teaches a per$on (emphasis mine)." There is an important
difference between thinking of myself as a teacher of students
rather than as a teacher of psychology.
- CT: Early on, you mention
"developing some ways" for "creating a classroom where love,
caring, and cooperation are the predominant themes in place of
fear and competition." Can you elaborate on these
- JL: The answer is really another
article that I am working on, but, briefly, I try to do what
Belenky, et al. have called, "connected teaching" in their book,
Women's Ways of Knowing. "The connected class provides a culture
for growth, as Peter Elbow says in Writing Without Teachers; it's
a "'yoghurt' class, as opposed to a 'movie' class (in which
students are spectators)." I have discussion classes rather than
lecture. The students take turns leading the discussions and,
therefore, take more responsibility for their own learning and
have more opportunity for finding their own "voice." I also
require the students to keep journals, which I read at the end of
the term, comment on, and return. Basically, I try to be more of a
coach and less of a referee or judge, though I know I must be
- That's part of the answer. But the
real secret, I think, is contained in Guardini's remark that I
quoted: "It is not so much what we say nor even what we do that
speaks loudest to our students; it is who we are." That was the
real message for me in the movie, Stand and Deliver. Jaime
Escalante was not only a genius at teaching high school math, but
he also loved those kids and they knew it. Apparently, my persona
is such that the students do not have to be afraid, and,
therefore, the natural love and caring that we all want and have
deep down are allowed to surface. My favorite comrnent from a
student in the course evaluations at the end of that class was:
"Dr. Lawry is about as old as us teenagers. He relates really
well." I'm 52, and I bless the student who wrote that!
- REFERENCES AND ANNOTATED
- Asby, D., and F. Roebuck. 1974.
"From humane ideas to human technology and back again many times."
Education 95(2): 163-71.
- Aspy, D., and F. Roebuck. 1977.
Kids don't learn from people they don't like. Amherst,
Mass.: Human Resources Development Press.
- This book is a goldmine of
empirical research testing the validity of Carl Rogers'
educational theories. The authors document rather conclusively the
critical importance of the student-teacher relationship in the
learning process, although it is restricted to the pre-college
- Belenky, M. F., B. M. Clinchy, N.
R. Goldberger, J. M. Tarule. 1986. Women's ways of knowing.
N.Y.: Basic Books.
- Bloom, A. 1987. The closing of
the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Elbow, Peter. 1973. Writing without
teachers. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
- Greenleaf, R. 1979. Teacher as
servant. New York: Paulist Press.
- A fictional parable about a
student residence at a large university that is dedicated to the
teaching of "servant leadership," written by a very successful
Quaker. "Professor Billings," housemaster and professor of
physics, is a model of the caring teacher and servant leader
extraordinaire. This book has been very important in the
development of my own educational philosophy.
- Kohn, A. 1987. "It's hard to get
left out of a pair." Psychology Today
- Profiling Roger and David
Johnson, pioneering researchers on cooperative education, Kohn
reports that eighty original studies have led the Johnsons to the
following conclusion: "Children who learn
cooperatively&emdash;compared with those who learn competitively
or independently&emdash;learn better, feel better about themselves
and get along better with each other" (p. 53).
- Palmer, P. 1983. To Know
as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education. New York: Harper
- If you only have time for
one book on this list, this is the one you should read. More than
any other, it has shaped my current educational philosophy and has
given me the courage to become more transparent with my st~dents.
It also is the first book I know of that discusses the importance
of "the spiritual formation of teachers."
- Palmer, P. 1987. "Community,
conflict, and ways of knowing." Change,
- In extractions from the
speech that he delivered at the AAHE annual meeting in 1987 (and
for which he received a standing ovation), Palmer bewails the lack
of true community in most institutions of higher learning.
Concluding that love is what makes community possible, he
describes in essence "two ancient and honorable kinds of love. The
first is love of learning itself.... And the second kind of love
on which this community depends is love of learners, of those we
see every day, who stumble and crumble, who wax hot and cold, who
sometimes want truth and sometimes evade it at all costs, but who
are in our care, and who&emdash;for their sake, ours, and the
world's&emdash;deserve all the love that the community of teaching
and learning has to offer" (p. 25).
- Roberts, B. 1985. The path to
no-self. Boston: Shambhala.
- Turnbull, C. 1983. The human cycle.
New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Turnbull, an anthropologist,
contrasts British attitudes and rearing practices with those of a
small, "primitive," society, the Mbuti. The chapter on adolescence
emphasizes how little our education has to do with the spiritual
and how that fragments our understanding of the world and our
place in it. In contrast, all of Mbuti education involves the
- Whitman, N., D. Spendlove, and C.
Clark. 1986. Increasing students' learning: A faculty guide to
reducing stress among students. Washington, DC: ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report No. 4.
- "The purpose of this report
[was] to help college faculty increase students' learning
by reducing stress among students" (p. iii). After surveying the
literature, the authors concluded that "the frequency and quality
of teachers' contact with students, inside and outside the
classroom, affect students' involvement in their own learning.
Positive teacherstudent relations have been linked to students'
satisfaction with college, their educational aspirations, and
their academic achievement" (p. iv).
to the bookstore (take a look at John Lawry's book, May You
Never Step Dancing)
to the School Experiences page
to the Exceptional Teachers page
to Chris Mercogliano's teaching articles page
to John Lawry's article,
"Strategies for Unearthing the
Genius in Our Students"