Turning the soul

The great Greek philosopher Plato once described education as seeking to ‘engage and turn the soul’ towards the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is not unlike Ignatius Loyola’s famous dictum from the Spiritual Exercises which claims that ‘it is not an abundance of knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but rather an interior understanding and savouring of things’. Education as engagement, as a process of learning to savour what moves and affects our hearts and minds, is essentially a spiritual journey for us all. The quest to understand and provide a conceptual framework for this inner world of education is the timely focus of Professor Roslyn Arnold’s latest book, Empathic Intelligence: Teaching, Learning, Relating.

For many years Roslyn Arnold has been a leader in English-teaching in Australia, principally in New South Wales and more recently as a professor in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania. Steeped in the Loreto tradition of education, and therefore attuned to the emphasis Ignatius Loyola placed on the whole person—mind, heart, and will—entering the learning experience, Arnold has spent a lifetime helping people to understand that thoughts and feelings are inseparable companions in our development as learners. The genesis of this fine book is, in her own words, ‘as long as my life’, and we readers are the beneficiaries of this lifelong research.

As one interested in the spiritual formation of staff and students, I found this book valuable for the underpinning of research methodology and knowledge it provides for many of the themes which I occasionally teach—enthusiasm, imagination, reflection, empathy, care, respect, and story. Indeed, the author concludes her book by saying that empathic intelligence, as a theory of relatedness integrating thought and feeling, ‘is a poetic theory that works between the lines and in the spaces housing the ineffable’. It was no surprise, therefore, to read that several of the author’s empathic educator colleagues ‘have drawn attention to the understanding and practice of empathy by spiritual writers’. Education as engagement, as ‘turning the soul’, is very much a process of spiritual formation.

The overseas research cited by Arnold in Empathic Intelligence confirms the findings of our own Australian practitioners like Professor Ken Rowe—that the quality of the classroom teacher is the single most influential ingredient in the learning mix. In an era when the role of the teacher has been somewhat demeaned in the wider community, this is an important message to reiterate. Arnold’s focus on the teachers’ empathic intelligence, their capacity to engage and enthuse their students, does a great deal to enhance and restore value to the teaching profession. For teachers to show their students that it is not just what they learn but how they feel about this content that matters in the longer term, is to help them get in touch with their deeper selves. It is what Arnold, ever the consummate teacher, does so well in this book.

Throughout Empathic Intelligence Arnold returns to those famous storytelling words ‘once upon a time’ as encapsulating many of the themes she explores. If I could express a wish for the book, rather than a criticism, I would have liked to have been engaged by more stories. After all, teachers are innate storytellers. Stories act as a bridge of shared experience between the teller and the hearer, such that the hearer of the story becomes with the teller a shared caretaker of that story. Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul and connecting teachers and students.

To complement the author’s treatment of the theme of care in her book, it is worth recalling its roots in the Latin word cura, meaning ‘attention to, observation of’—what we might also term today ‘watching out for’. In his excellent work Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes that we should ‘honour the symptom and let it guide us in close care of the soul’. In our race to solve problems, however, rather than befriend them, we have often been more intent on finding a cure than providing proper care. It is instructive that the Gothic word for care is kara, which means ‘mourning’. Care in this sense is a participation in the pain of another—what we might term true empathy. It is what Arnold explores so well in her book as ‘a powerful learning tool and a source of satisfaction for the educators who employ it’.

While research on the relational aspects of teaching and learning might be ‘sparse’ and deemed to be a tad ‘soft’ in some circles, Professor Ros Arnold’s work in Empathic Intelligence not only fills this lacuna but provides a hard edge of argument to demonstrate her thesis. If it is true that imagination is ‘the eye of the soul’, then Arnold’s research ‘as long as my life’ has made a significant contribution to the understanding of education as ‘turning the soul’.  

Empathic Intelligence: Teaching, Learning, Relating, Roslyn Arnold. UNSW Press, 2005. ISBN 0 868 40591 4, RRP $39.95

Christopher Gleeson sj is the director of Jesuit Publications.



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