The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
Christopher M. Bache. The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness. Albany: State U of New York P, 2008. 254 pp. $21.95 (paper).
by Suanna H. Davis, Lonestar College-Kingwood
In his book The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness, Christopher M. Bache argues for the existence of a collective consciousness through which people can engage in a deeper and more expansive teaching/learning opportunity than is available at the individual level. Expectations for the book differ, depending on whether the reader begins with the introduction or with chapter one. The first few pages available on Amazon, for example, would lead a reader to expect a plethora of anecdotal evidence becoming data through the sheer weight of numbers. This expectation is not met in the book and readers who begin with chapter one will be disappointed. The introduction, on the other hand, articulates a plan to make the argument of the book more scientifically, with a discussion of theories and studies. This explicit contract with the reader is generally kept.
Just as readers will come to the book with different expectations, there are varying audiences who will read the book. Those who are prepared to agree with Bache's belief in the collective unconscious will find their agreement stretched with arguments that range outside of or beyond that of a collective consciousness. They will be introduced to the idea of choosing students for a class remotely through meditation, the karmic repercussions of reincarnation in the classroom, and the means by which meditation can reduce local crime statistics. Skeptics will find scientific, replicated studies which indicate that knowledge is available and can be accessed through other means than language and genetics and less scientific studies which are more problematic. A hostile reader, one more than skeptical, perhaps actually opposed to the possibility of the concept of collective unconsciousness, will find little in the book to persuade, though points or stories may make an impression. The replicated studies were used by their authors as arguments for other things, not collective consciousness, and the non-replicated studies were not produced by academics or unaligned researchers, but by practitioners. The stories Bache passes on from his students are clearly chosen to present his arguments and so, even when they are successful, they could be suspect. The book is not completely persuasive, but is worth reading as an introduction to the concept of collective consciousness.
The concept Bache introduces is a fascinating one. According to Bache, teachers can tap into the collective consciousness to reach their students where those students are, without having to know the students or anything about them. He discusses the rarely chosen example, presented in one class, which touches a particular person in a deep and personal way. The reason the teacher chose that example that day, Bache argues, was because the teacher was moved by the collective consciousness, which has a living sentience, to answer the students' need. The possibility is an intriguing one. Is there something which teachers can use or engage with to more effectively reach their students? Bache says there is. He offers academically accepted proof through replicated studies of multiple generations of rats, less academically acceptable arguments of experiments in group meditation carried out by practitioners, and scarcely credible theories, such as past-life therapy as proof of reincarnation.
Bache does not present his collective consciousness idea in isolation, but as a system of beliefs arrived at after years of meditation and interaction with various philosophies. He argues that this system of the interconnectedness of individuals, lives, and people groups, meshes with all religious belief systems and, in particular, is not inimical to Christianity. Despite this repeated statement and his own acknowledged roots in a Christian heritage, most of Bache's comments about Christianity are negative; he even extrapolates negative connections from positive student pronouncements about their Christian experiences. This tug-of-war between what he says he thinks and what he expresses makes the book weaker than it could have been.
Bache's systemic approach may also be a weakness for the book. A reader who buys into the entire system Bache presents gains more than (s)he would with a single aspect of the system, but those who are skeptical or hostile can easily find something to dismiss within the system, even if they might have been somewhat persuaded by the discussion and arguments regarding a particular piece of it. If the reader finds Bache's system credible, there is specific advice and further avenues for study presented within the book. Bache does not, for example, articulate how Chöd works or how to implement it, but he does say that it can be learned from “those trained and empowered to transmit it” (107) and that he learned it through a Buddhist teacher.
If the reader does not find Bache's argument credible, there are still useful techniques detailed within the book. For example, the café conversations of chapter five are presented as very carefully crafted group discussions with sufficient detail that the plan can be adopted and adapted for the reader's own classroom use. Bache delineates the seven principles of the cafés, the need for context or clarifying procedures, various ways to grade and encourage participation, other methods of encouraging the development and articulation of diverse perspectives, and a blueprint for perceiving patterns within the conversations. Bache specifically ties the cafés into the learning fields he has theorized, but even without that attachment, the development of a more thoughtful group discussion implementation is useful and usable.
Bache partially develops the concept of the living classroom through a discussion of what teachers can and should do in their classrooms. Again some of the information is accessible and adaptable even by those who do not buy into his spiritual system. Bache discusses teaching as transmission, obviously a traditional concept, but he emphasizes the need teachers have to speak from firsthand knowledge. This will, he says, create “an energetic bridge across which our words travel” (149). Clearly a composition teacher who writes is more credible, but Bache argues that teachers draw on their personal experiences in ways that make their students' understanding of the concepts they are presenting more likely. Whether the reader accepts Bache's system or not, this idea of a specific kind of expertise or involvement enhancing the teaching and learning opportunities makes sense.
The final section of The Living Classroom is composed of five chapters and is made up of the student stories a reader beginning the book at chapter one would expect. These are connected by Bache's commentary and are clearly a supportive sample of what his students have done. They include stories of the negative impact of war on a soldier's life, a woman's personal experience with abortion, and near-death experiences of his students and those close to them. The writings give the students' perspective and in his commentary Bache points out other ideas related to what his students talked about, defends their experiences, and expresses his understanding of the meaning of those experiences.
Bache refers to the book as his attempt to outline a proposal for how a collective consciousness might work and how we might tap into it. Even if the reader does not agree with all he says, looking at the work from that standpoint, it may become more acceptable to those who would initially disagree with his conceptions. For those who agreed with his ideas to start with, the book offers an expansion of what those ideas mean and how they connect with other concepts.
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