Teaching to Depth:
Preparing Adult Learners for Transformative Work in the World

Craig Chalquist, PhD

It used to be that idealistic adult learners—the “tender-minded” among us as William James would say—could earn a “knowledge degree” in self-exploration or spirituality or literature or whatnot while others, the “tough-minded,” could train in a “practical” degree aimed at an occupation. However, even before recent proposals in Washington to cut government-backed student loans for programs that do not translate directly into jobs—i.e., for tender-minded coursework—those jobs were vanishing by the millions. As a result, many of the tender-hearted, having learned what they are passionate about, now find themselves better off in many ways than unemployed bearers of “practical” sheepskins.

I wish I could claim some foresight in cultivating a teaching style that weds the psychological, the ecological, and the spiritual to the vocational, but in truth I was never able in my own life to obey the inspirational/practical dichotomy. I held down a “practical” job for more than a decade and hated its fear-based soullessness. Since then I keep seeing how following one's bliss faithfully can lead to fruitful career choices. What counts is to learn what your bliss really is, and how to pursue it once you know.

Although I do not teach with career options in mind, I do connect what I teach to things going on inside students and in the world. I started out this way in part because concepts and abstractions cannot excite me enough to teach them unless I can grasp their relevance. Later, having sat in with expert teachers while having my own teaching evaluated, I realized that how enlivened I felt by a topic could signal me about what I should teach. If it seizes me, it will seize someone else in the classroom.

I mentioned connecting inner and outer. I love mythology, and one day as I stared at the giant bull statue outside the New York Stock Exchange, I realized I stood before the true god of Wall Street: the horned bull god Moloch. The ancients fed him on human sacrifices, much as we do today.

The invisible hand of ever-hungry Moloch, insatiable in its demand for blood, mimics human greed. We have Jung to thank for the observation that old myths and religious impulses do not fade away: they come back to life whenever cultural blind spots revive them. Learning this gives us insight into the lure of the kiosk-altars of the NYSE, where daily ritualists turn their faces upwards at the glowing screens of financial prophecy. They could stare at home, but they still visit in person, unaware of their need for new myth.

I practice holistic education, meaning: I move below surface material to get to the inner dynamics and meanings of the topic; I examine it with multiple perspectives and sources of information; and I rely on seminar-style discussion, class exercises, open-ended questioning, film, humor, and other whole-person learning modalities. Students normally find me relatively informal, easy to talk to, supportive, interested, and passionate about what I teach. The classroom culture I maintain is one of courteous inquiry, exploration, and academic fellowship.

I also know from current educational research that learning increases when course material moves from seeing and hearing to doing and, for maximum retention, to having to teach it. For that reason my courses draw on presentations or small-group work to give students a chance to learn by teaching each other what's been covered and by expressing their enthusiasm for what they make their own from the class.

I also do this because I believe we emerge from deep learning as mentors with an obligation to share what we have learned. My primary educational fantasy is to teach potential Round Table Knights of the World Soul: not crusaders or missionaries, but mentors in deep living who can suggest experiments in learning to belong to ourselves, each other, and the animate Earth toward which we must transform our relationship in order to fashion the kinds of communities in which we most desire to participate.