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NO—with its roots in religious tradition, teaching mindfulness in public schools violates the separation of church and state.
Wouldn’t every schoolchild and teacher be better off if they had the tools of mindfulness meditation? To those who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness, the answer to this question may seem an obvious “Yes!”
Such confidence in the practice of mindfulness meditation, however, can create an ethical blind spot that ignores its religious content, as well as the context of its implementation. Although it is not uncommon for proponents of mindfulness to assert, in certain contexts, that mindfulness is purely secular, it is also common for them, in other contexts and particularly among fellow Buddhists, to declare that mindfulness embodies the essence of buddhadharma—a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. Certain leading proponents envision “secular” mindfulness as “stealth Buddhism,” a “skillful means,” or a “Trojan horse” for mainstreaming the dharma.
When it comes to bringing mindfulness meditation into public schools, this can create a problem. Children and their parents expect—and laws require—public schools to offer secular education that is neutral toward particular religions and religion in general. There are reasons for this limitation. Public schools serve children, parents, and teachers from diverse cultural backgrounds, many of whom already have deeply cherished religious traditions and spiritual resources that they find effective.
The fact that the majority of public school mindfulness programs are supported and administered by upper- and upper-middle-class Buddhists of European descent, yet target lower- and working-class minority populations, only adds to this problem. These minority communities, mainly African American and Latino, are statistically more religiously active than the non-Hispanic, white American populations who generally run mindful school programs.
At worst, such programs can inadvertently participate in a cultural imperialism that not only condescends to racial and ethnic others, who are seen as having unenlightened religious and cultural practices, but also puts undue responsibility on children for ameliorating symptoms of systemic social problems such as poverty and racism, which are glossed as cultural pathologies. Insofar as these programs reinforce the hope that we can tackle systemic problems with small, low-cost, philanthropy-funded programs that modify the behavior of the disadvantaged, they can even make things worse.
It’s painfully obvious to most observers that the American public education system needs something that will better address rampant challenges afflicting so-called urban schools, such as low achievement, stress, obesity, drugs, and violence, and mindfulness seems an easy fix. Mindfulness could potentially boost test scores and facilitate focused attention, emotional self-regulation, and classroom management.
But it might also constitute both a religious and a cultural encroachment. The fact that there exist secular benefits to mindfulness does not make the practice secular. Abundant scientific research demonstrates that religion and spirituality promote physical and mental health and learning. Studies of prayer, for example, report benefits similar to those of mindfulness. But we wouldn’t integrate prayer into a public school curriculum. In the end, appeals to science can’t simply speak religion away.
Yet mindfulness proponents attempt to do just that, declaring the “secularity” of mindfulness without defining the terms religion or secularity or explaining how mindfulness has been secularized. Alleging that mindfulness is a “nonsectarian,” “universal” human capacity—to simply “wake up” and “see things as they really are”—justifies upholding one culturally particular worldview as superior to others. This not only smacks of cultural arrogance; it is precisely a religious attitude—a claim to special insight into the cause and solution for the ultimate problems that plague humanity.
None of this is meant to argue against offering optional mindfulness training for public school children or teachers—for instance, as an after-school program, if advertised clearly and consented to by children and their parents with knowledge of all it entails. But integrating mindfulness as a formal part of the public school day is a different matter.
Instructors—both mindfulness trainers and public school teachers—occupy authoritative social positions that command students’ respect and trust. The context of classroom instruction (or schoolwide assemblies) exerts an indirect, coercive pressure to conform to what the teacher says to do and peers can be observed as doing. Even when opt-out provisions exist, it is socially costly for children to appear to question the teacher’s wisdom or to deviate from the behavior of their peers. When mindfulness activities are scattered throughout the school day—a few minutes of meditation several times daily—opting out is practically impossible without withdrawing from school altogether.
For those who seek to alleviate the suffering of others, it is crucial to respect the freedom of students and their parents to choose their own cultural, religious, and spiritual resources. Mindfulness instructors have an affirmative ethical obligation to supply full and accurate information needed for participants to give truly informed consent. This is especially important with vulnerable populations such as young and impressionable school-aged children, particularly those from families living in poverty or near poverty, who have been entrusted by their parents to the public schools for a secular education.
Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D., is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the author or editor of five books, including Testing Prayer: Science and Healing and The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America.
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