For most of my forty-four years as a classroom teacher, dreaming in the classroom was not high on my happiness list. Today, I almost miss it. Dreaming, you see, meant that students were adrift in their own imaginations, engaged in some reverie that had won them over from the conversation that I had tried to lead or the monologue I was performing. They were still ostensibly conscious, but they were inattentive and distracted. They were “day-dreaming.”
Today, they may be equally inattentive, but they are more likely to be electronically connected to the alternate world of cyberspace. They may be texting and tweeting, exchanging banalities with another easily untroubled soul, perhaps in some other classroom or maybe just a row or two back in my own. At least, I sometimes think, the old day-dreamers were doing something potentially interesting. When they came back to Earth or to my little corner of it, I sometimes asked where they had been and what they saw there: very occasionally, their answers were surprisingly entertaining and sometimes even informative — not so with the twitterers.
What I describe may be familiar to educators, but it is not what Phil King and his co-authors have in mind in their new and fascinating book, Dreaming in the Classroom. They are far more intrigued by other manifestations of human mental states. The results of their work are not just informative and engaging; they are comprehensive and seductive. It’s not that I came to this volume with no interest in the phenomenon of dreaming, nor even with some of the preliminary assessments of the classic psychologists, Freud and Jung. What was, however, mainly a matter of idle curiosity became much more and I progressed through the book.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Phil King has been a personal friend of mine for as many years as I have had the audacity to stand before a collection of students and pretend to speak authoritatively on matters loosely described in a course syllabus. Dr. King and I have approached similar topics, him largely from the perspective of psychology and me from a background in political economy. In the current phase of our dialogue, he makes me increasingly aware of the ecological issues confronting our species, and I try to remind him of questions of equity, so that we both may learn something of the environmental-economic nexus that lies behind most of the problems now facing humanity. Our talks (largely electronic) have been endlessly engaging and enlightening, at least for me.
I have, on the other hand, never met Kelly Bulkeley and Bernard Welt. From the evenly excellent quality of Dreaming in the Classroom, I am sure that I would be happy to be a friend of theirs as well. Dreaming in the Classroom, you see, has taken me in a direction and located me in a field that I would never have explored if left to my own devices. For that I am grateful to all three of them.
Before considering the theme and content of their book, however, I must register one small complaint. The supporting blurb on the back cover is by Ernest Hartmann. He is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University, the former director of the Sleep Laboratory at Lemuel Shalluck Hospital and the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and the author of over 350 articles and eleven books including The Nature and Functions of Dreaming (2011). No small achievements! This is what he said about Dreaming in the Classroom: “it can be considered the King James Bible in the field of dream education.”
Setting the bar that high, I worried that no one could meet such expectations. I was almost wrong, and for a very good reason. Dream studies (or any other kind of exploration that depends in large measure upon empirical research and grounded theory) can never produce a sacred text if that phrase is to mean a compendium of absolute truths, ordained by God or Nature, non-negotiable, eternal, immutable and utterly static. It is the essence of a science that its statements be testable and its generalizations subject to constant refinement, if not outright rejection. Still, I think I understand what Hartmann was getting at. As an authoritative and inclusive introduction, summary and stimulus for the study of dreams from diverse perspectives and for varied purposes, this is simply the best book available today. And, I guess, for its purposes, so is the King James Bible.
Part of the reason for the book’s success no doubt lies in the diversity of the three authors’ backgrounds. Phil King recently retired after a lengthy career teaching Psychology and Quantitative Methods at Hawai’i Pacific University in Honolulu. Kelly Bulkeley is Visiting Scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and Bernard Welt is Professor of Humanities and Cinema Studies at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington DC. They are all, of course, active in the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
An initial problem with which King, Bulkeley and Welt must deal is a generalized scepticism about the value of dreams in general, and especially the worth of devoting scholarly time to understanding them as well as classroom time teaching about them. Exemptions might be made in psychology and anthropology, where the seminal figures as Freud and Jung loom large in traditional dream analysis or where the function of dreams in the spiritual beliefs and practices of premodern societies can be the stuff of endless ethnographies and doctoral dissertations. They might even be tolerated in the elastic categories of the humanities, where courses on language and literature are permitted a latitude, if not a lassitude, not normally allowed in the natural and social sciences. The authors are not unaware of these initial misgivings and are earnest in their efforts to overcome them.
As a one-time undergraduate who is not immune to the chattering of students as they select their courses and especially their “options” in various displays of “general education,” I can certainly imagine young people taking a course on “dreams” and thinking it to be a “bird” course (or whatever the contemporary dismissive adjective is for a subject with little substance and almost a guarantee of a grade of “A”). It may be that such courses exist, but they are not what the authors of Dreaming in the Classroom have in mind.
After a sturdy introduction in which not just the endless self-referential fascination of the dream experience is acknowledged, but the analytical tools required for exploration of everything from individual states of mind and subconsciousness to cultural studies of religion and the arts are identified, empiricism, logic, aesthetics and personal reflection and the sharing of subjective awareness all have their places.
Oddly, it seemed to me at the outset, the book describes dreaming as an academic skill. Yet, it did not take long for the authors to convince me that such techniques as journal writing could make for an initial connection between student and analyst and, in time, the ability to use the internal language of the dream experience to work outward into a better understanding of the related discipline, whether it be psychology, anthropology, literature, film studies or any other domain. What’s more, I also allowed myself to believe that “dream studies” does not simply enhance personal understanding, but also constitutes a discipline in itself, with subject matter and methodologies that overlap but remain distinct from traditional academic pursuits.
The chapters that connect dream studies to other fields are written with care and obviously with more than a passing acquaintance with the state of those arts. The professional research that is rehearsed for the benefit of novices in the humanities, the social and the psychological sciences are well-written, comprehensive and knowledgeable. Having some background in one or two of them, I felt confident using the others to survey those with which I was less familiar. As someone with a preternatural scepticism regarding religion and what is called “spirituality,” I was hesitant to involve myself too deeply in these areas that I have generally consigned to the intellectual dumpster labeled “the occult,” and ignored except as evidence that this or that person or idea was not worth breath. In the authors’ hands, however, a lucid and attractive exposition was put forward that allowed me to retain my profound doubts and disbeliefs, and yet to take such matters seriously. This, I quickly add, does not count as some sort of conversion, but it is also different from my normal knee-jerk materialist reaction to matters metaphysical.
An especially important part of the book is to be found in the closing chapters when questions of applicability arise to the various levels of education from the early primary school to the domain of continuing or lifelong education for adults in both academic and community settings. King, Bulkeley and Welt have some excellent suggestions for developing curricula in this still somewhat unconventional and untried field. They have some excellent ideas about how to create a template for introductory and more specialized courses in what will remain, for practical purposes, interdisciplinary studies for some time. Above all, they are sensitive to criticism and open about the controversies that surround their subject matter. In a fine chapter on the future of the field, they address specific concerns and present an array of approaches and methods from philosophy through ethnology and on to contemporary neuroscience. The result is a broad, fair and very helpful assessment of dream research as well as a prudent estimation of what we may expect in the coming years.
To conclude, over one-fifth of the book is taken up by ten appendices which provide any qualified but novice dream educator with practical advice and instructions about how to design course outlines, assign projects, perform assessments and move outside the academic institution to organize community study groups while working well within professional ethical guidelines.
There are plenty of substantial and serious domains of study which sometimes escape notice or become a focus for professional scepticism from traditional academics. Many aspects of “popular culture” fall into this category, as did areas of “identity politics” including ethnic, gender and postcolonial studies. Although dream education originated within the once questionable field of psychiatry and cannot be blithely dismissed by intransigent conservative scholars, it may still raise some eyebrows in a faculty common room or a subcommittee meeting. By handling the history, the inherent controversies, the serious theoretical and methodological questions and the broad applications and co-evolution of dream research with more established disciplines, Dreaming in the Classroom performs a singular service for practitioners and prospective professionals. It also stands as a splendid example of how to lay out a book of fundamentals for aspirant academics eager to investigate areas of human experience that lie, at least temporarily, at or near the margins of school, college and university culture.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy in the degree-granting programs at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org