University News

U. approves new concentration in contemplative studies

Program will combine science and humanities courses to explore human contemplative experience

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2014

The College Curriculum Council approved contemplative studies as Brown’s newest concentration at its meeting last week.

The concentration will become the University’s 79th field of study, excluding independent concentrations.

Contemplative studies will be among the first college majors of its kind in North America.

“It’s not just a new concentration,” said Harold Roth P’17, professor of religious studies and director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative, who has spearheaded the effort to make contemplative studies a regular concentration. “We’re really attempting to build a whole new academic field.”

The concentration “looks at how we think about the world and how we think about thinking,” said Chloe Zimmerman ’15, an independent concentrator in contemplative studies.

The field addresses the “underlying philosophy, psychology and phenomenology of contemplative experience, across time, cultures and traditions,” according to the Contemplative Studies Initiative’s website.

The concentration will comprise two tracks, one focused on humanities and another on sciences, Roth said. Both tracks require varying courses in neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy and religion.

Originally included was a third track focusing on the arts, but “in the end, we were unable to include the arts track” when pitching the concentration to the CCC, Roth said. Students will still be able to pursue this area of contemplative studies through additional coursework, an independent concentration or a double concentration, he added.

A 2005 graduate created the first independent concentration in contemplative studies, and a total of 16 students have since pursued independent concentrations in the subject, he added.

One proposal to make the concentration official failed to gain approval from the CCC a few years ago, wrote Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and acting dean of the College, in an email to The Herald.

The recently approved proposal included a stronger spread of courses and more faculty involvement, she wrote, adding that the field of contemplative studies has grown since the initial proposal was rejected.

Increased student and faculty interest also contributed to the CCC’s decision to approve the new concentration, as evidenced by the high number of independent concentrators as well as teaching and advising positions that have grown from contemplative studies over the past few years, Klawunn wrote.

With the University’s increasing investment in neuroscience and a larger number of scientists at Brown looking into contemplative studies in recent years, the field’s popularity has grown, said Monica Linden, lecturer in neuroscience.

Affiliated faculty members pushed to make the concentration official so “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” each time another student wishes to concentrate in the field, she added.

Zimmerman said contemplative studies can be much more accessible now that the concentration is official. Students will no longer be discouraged by the daunting amount of work needed to create an independent concentration, she said.

Contemplative studies incorporates an “integrated contemplative pedagogy,” which entails learning subjectively through the critical first-person perspective as well as the purely academic and objective third-person view, according to the initiative’s webpage.

Students can take a step back from analyzing empirical evidence and “subjectively engage with the material,” Roth said, referencing how some courses incorporate labs that analyze meditative practices, such as noticing breath on the tip of the nostrils, he said.

“This allows students to discuss how their experience relates to what they have studied, instead of uncritically accepting the truth of normative claims,” Roth said.

The concentration also encourages second-person work, through group projects and person-to-person communication, Roth said.

The integrated contemplative pedagogy lends insight to scientists’ attempts to understand contemplative traditions of religions, Linden said. Scientists can study why meditation reduces stress through both quantitative research and personal experience of meditating, she said.

Many students in the science track have gone on to medical school or graduate programs in psychology or neuroscience, while some students in the humanities track have gone to graduate school for education or to become academics, Roth said.

Contemplative studies proves especially useful in education fields, as concentrators can truly understand what others are experiencing, Zimmerman said.

Linden said some concentrators even choose to become monks after graduating. “There’s no real trend in what people have done.”

Roth said the benefits of concentrating in contemplative studies also lie outside the classroom, as the field stimulates both intellectual and personal growth. Students have reported that their attention spans improve significantly, and they can experience drops in anxiety and depression levels and feel more compassion for themselves and others, he said.


A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed information that the concentration would be the first of its kind in North America to Margaret Klawunn. The Herald regrets the error.

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  1. johnlonergan says:

    I think that this major should be pursued in Marin County, preferably in a hot tub.

    • Ken Yamasaki says:

      I understand what you are thinking. I might be able to suggest how you can understand the issues more deeply. But that’s for another time. The sad thing is that that flake Chris Paxson does not stand a chance of having a thoughtful conversation with you about this. You are a serious and accomplished person. She is a lightweight.

      • johnlonergan says:

        Hi Ken,
        Thanks for your words.
        I’m not mad at Chris Paxson. I’m simply disappointed that her idea of ‘leadership’ is defending the status quo against needed reforms.

      • Brown '16 says:

        Could you define “flake” and “lightweight” since your constant usage of these words in comments seems redundant and trollish.

        • Beige Ever says:

          No substance. Not serious. Wordy. Shifty. Absent any time frame. Absent any paradigm. Argumentative about peripheral issues. Full of excuses. Ineffective. Empty-headed. Rabbit feed. Ridiculous. Stupid. Uninspiring. Uninspired. Schlock. Unwholesome. Unethical. Immoral. Shall we continue?

    • ^^Students can take a step back from analyzing empirical evidence and
      “subjectively engage with the material,” Roth said, referencing how some
      courses incorporate labs that analyze meditative practices, such as
      noticing breath on the tip of the nostrils, he said.

      “This allows students to discuss how their experience relates to what
      they have studied, instead of uncritically accepting the truth of
      normative claims,” Roth said.^^
      Was it ever in fact the case that liberal higher education promoted “uncritical acceptance”? Isn’t the Academy precisely where normative claims are vetted – in all fields – through ongoing defense, criticism, and exploration? Why is this a formal concentration/major? Oh, right. Because 16 students have expressed interest in the topic over nine years. …

    • Hot Tub Party says:

      It’s OK John, I know you need a break from the big boy work so you decided to make fun some 20 year olds instead.

      • johnlonergan says:

        No, I’m making fun of their parents who will have to provide food and shelter to their little darlings after graduating from Brown, $250,000 poorer and 4 years older.

    • You know, internet trolls typically make a practice of not showing their face or providing their real name. You, therefore, must be either incredibly courageous or incredibly stupid.

      Given the comment of your comment, I would wager the latter. The Contemplative Studies concentration isn’t about “finding yourself”, it’s about applying a liberal arts approach to studying how others “find themselves,” the same model used in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and all the other social sciences.

      So if you’re going to criticize the program, at least criticize, you know, the actual program, as opposed to your ludicrous strawman.

      • johnlonergan says:

        Hmm. It’s “straw man,” not “strawman.”

        It seems to me that this is an arrow in one’s quiver, not a major field of study. It’s easy to make fun of this because it’s even further removed from reality than sociology or anthropology. I suppose that if a student’s parents are willing to support such folly for four years and $250,000, then they can do so with the realization that they will continue to support their progeny for years after he/she graduates from Brown, as no profession would hire the little dear.

        Using my real name? How shocking! You’re welcome to look me up on LinkedIn.

        • professor says:

          Sociology and anthropology are not removed from reality! Clearly you are misinformed as to the value of a Brown education!

  2. Concerned Alum says:

    Contemplative Studies? Really? Hi, my name is Margaret Klawunn and I’m graduating from Brown with a major in Contemplative Studies. I admit, it has a certain ring to it. As in really, really embarrassing.

    • Bey Conc says:

      Margaret is not intelligent enough to graduate from Brown. But she is good enough to be a dean at Brown. As for that other thing, she does not contemplate, and she cannot study.

    • The name is not original to Brown. If the CCC had chosen another name, people would be complaining about how Brown wasn’t using the standardized name used in the broader academic community.

  3. Concerned Alum says:

    More inmates running the asylum. Unfortunately, the value of the institution continues to be be diluted.

    • Concerned Alumn says:

      Because contemplative studies is so much worse than things like psychology, literature or art history, amirite?

      • Concerned Alum says:


        • Concerned Alumn says:

          Good to see you learned a lot at school too.

          • Concerned Alum says:

            I’m not sure about that. That said, in case you missed my point on Contemplative Studies, I think it’s a stupid name and dilutes the Brown brand and the value of a Brown degree. I suspect that others might find it cutting edge and “progressive”. They might also find my opinion crass if not boorish. So be it.

  4. Charlie daMonk says:

    The subject matter is researched and taught at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Divinity School. Some parallel work is done also at Oxford University and UVa, although I am unfamiliar with UVa. There are many more things about it that are yet unknown or as yet unknowable, but there is steady progress. I am sure that Brown University professors who support the studies of the subject know what they are doing. It’s just that Margarett Klawunn and Chris Paxson have not a clue. Therefore the two dudes do serious harm to the cause at hand by having opened their mouths. That cause could otherwise at least be a curiosity worthy of serious academic investigation (as it has been at the two graduate schools of Harvard, at Oxford, and at UVa). They cause harm because everybody knows that anything Margarett and Chris say has personal career agenda, has nothing to do with serious academic pursuit, and has nothing to do with the welfare of students or faculty. The two are not capable of anything serious.

  5. After reading this article, I am still unclear as to what exactly Contemplative Studies studies. What exactly is “contemplative experience”? How will Contemplative Studies address “how we think” in a way that is different from Cognitive Science? And what on earth is an “integrated contemplative pedagogy”?

    Perhaps most troubling to me, though, is the phrase “learning subjectively through the critical first-person perspective.” All I can say is that I hope that this type of learning — which apparently contrasts with “the purely academic and objective third-person view” — will be used as a supplement, and not as the main component of study.

    I’m not saying that Contemplative Studies isn’t or can’t be a true academic discipline. But for the moment, color me skeptical.

  6. Brown2008 says:

    While I will always support Brown, I am extremely concerned about how heteronormative this concentration is likely to be. If it does not expand its focus on race, class, and gender issues, I am concerned that its real-world value will be diminished, as well.

  7. I gather the smarminess of this thread is normal? Couldn’t you use your ego-equipped quips to come up with a really solid margarita. I wonder if there’s a class in bartending at Brown. If you’ve graduated from Brown, if you’re not a stoner and a dreamer on the couch, you’ll go pretty far in this classed society. (I.e. Brown is Ivy League.) Or if worse came to worst, at least you’ll be pondering on a more informed and intelligent scholastic level, maybe you could come up with a new spin on heteronormative.

    • I assume that one could write an A-grade Contemplative Studies class paper in the manner of this post: pseudo-intellectual stream of consciousness. Or would a Contemplative Studies paper be an assessment of each jump (via loose association) … a post about the post? What you are reading now is, by the way, my Contemplative Studies dissertation. After I click “post,” I believe I will graduate with Honors. Topic: thinking about thinking about thinking, a race-class-gendered perspective.

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