Toward a Re-Emergence of James Moffett's Mindful, Spiritual, and Student-Centered Pedagogy

by Jonathan Marine (Volume editor) Paul Rogers (Volume editor) Sheridan Blau (Volume editor) Kathleen Kelly (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection XIV, 268 Pages


Toward a Re-Emergence of James Moffett's Mindful, Spiritual, and Student-Centered Pedagogy is an edited collection comprised of thirteen original chapters and two vital reprints of Moffett’s work that have been out of print for more than thirty years. All of the contributions in this volume are dedicated to pushing forward Moffett’s prescient ideas into the contemporary contexts of teaching, learning, and the language arts which inform current discussions of holistic education.
The volume offers scholars, educational professionals, teachers, and graduate students of writing studies, rhetoric, composition, and English education a practical guide to understanding the theory, methodology, and praxis of James Moffett. This text is perfect for scholars at all levels who are focused on language learning, writing and composition, and mindfulness and spirituality in teaching and learning or teacher educators seeking inventive approaches to literacy learning which account for holistic conceptions of development and the theory and history of composition.
The volume begins with an in-depth introduction to Moffett’s work for those new to Moffett studies and offers readers the tools to deepen or begin the study of Moffett’s ideas as well as resources for continuing that work beyond this volume.

"No history of the National Writing Project, or of English Language Arts teaching more generally, would be complete without a rich engagement with the work and ideas of James Moffett. Written during the tumultuous 1960’s, Moffett’s central books, Teaching the Universe of Discourse and A Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum, sparked a paradigm shift in how the profession came to understand the purpose and substance of teaching language and literacy. As current teachers grapple with another tumultuous time, Toward a Re-Emergence of James Moffett’s Mindful, Spiritual, and Student-Centered Pedagogy is a book that will help them (re)discover the nurturing and humanistic underpinnings of their calling."
—Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Executive Director, National Writing Project

"This collection re-introduces a profoundly influential but largely forgotten voice in English education—especially writing instruction—to a generation that feels his influence in the very intellectual air we breathe, too often without knowing his name. James Moffett was at the molten center of political controversies over language, schooling, and censorship a generation ago that still inflame school board meetings and legislative battles today. Yet he was also a pioneer and prophet of the mindfulness turn in education and the broader culture that is powerfully alive in ways that he advanced from mid-career until his untimely death in 1996. The essays here (including his own, ‘Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation’) reintroduce and reinterpret him for us at a time when his voice of courage, comfort, and composure are urgently needed."
—David R. Russell, Professor Emeritus, Iowa State University

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Tables
  • Introduction: Moffett’s Turn to the Spiritual and Meditative (Jonathan Marine & Paul Rogers)
  • Chapter One: The Moffett Roundtable (Jonathan Marine & Paul Rogers)
  • Chapter Two: James Moffett as Trans-Atlantic Nexus (Gareth Rees-White)
  • Chapter Three: Moffett, Berthoff, and the Art of Conciliation (Paige Arrington)
  • Chapter Four: James Moffett’s Ineffable (Joseph Jones)
  • Chapter Five: Meditation and the Writing Process (Paul Rogers & Jonathan Marine)
  • Chapter Six: (Re)orienting Teachers’ Gaze with Moffet’s Vision (Lisa Chong)
  • Chapter Seven: James Moffett’s Critique of the Harkness Tables (Damian Koshnick)
  • Chapter Eight: The Theoretical Genealogy of Steiner & Moffett (Jonathan Marine)
  • Chapter Nine: Moffett’s Influence on Early Uses of the Internet (Jeff Schwartz)
  • Chapter Ten: The Universal Schoolhouse: Moffett Prophets Reimagined (Shelley Breeden Hernandez)
  • Chapter Eleven: “How One Learns to Discourse” Through COVID-19 and Beyond (Cynthia Miecznikowski & Danielle Chilcote)
  • Chapter Twelve: Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation (James Moffett)
  • Chapter Thirteen: Two Comments on James Moffett’s “Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation” and James Moffett Responds (John Crosswhite, Barbara Schoen & James Moffett)
  • Epilogue: Into the Woods with the Moffetts (Tom Gage)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Moffett’s Turn to the Spiritual and Meditative

Jonathan Marine
George Mason University
University of California, Santa Barbara

“Bajan Bestiary: Hummingbird” reprinted with permission. Copyright 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English.


James Porter Moffett (1929–96) was a ground-breaking teacher, author, and theorist of language learning who, as Neil Warnock reports in his chapter on Moffett in Twentieth Century Rhetorics and Rhetoricians, had a profound impact on the fields of English Education, Language Arts, Composition, and Educational Psychology in the mid to late 20th century. Sheridan Blau, in his 2012 chapter Theory for Practice: James Moffett’s Seminal Contribution to Composition, contends that Moffett also had a lasting impact on the National Writing Project (NWP), was influential at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, and figured closely into the history of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE); speaking at a number of NCTE conferences and events, publishing more than thirty articles across the many NCTE journals, and helping to found the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL). As Spalding, Koshnick, and Myers report in their 2012 article, “James Moffett’s Legacy to English Journal,” it was these accomplishments and his centrality to the field that led him to be referred to by many as “the North Star” of language arts education (Spalding et al. 31).

←1 | 2→Most people who know (or know about) James Moffett know the pedagogical Moffett. His belief that students should be the center of the classroom and learn from one another (“student-centered learning”) and that they should write authentic texts wrought from the plenitude of their own experiences in order to perpetually rediscover the limits of their own perspectives was revolutionary for the time and to this day. The eminent Dutch language learning researcher Gert Rijlaarsdam commented that reading Moffett now “is still a very modern experience,” noting in his 2008 article, “Observation of peers in learning to write: Practice and research,” that Moffett “pointed out new directions” in writing education by “present[ing] a complete L1-learning theory” which “advocated real learning experiences” because “learning ensues from experiencing language” (54—italics added). Similarly, John Harley, editor of the McGill Journal of Education, contended that Moffett’s book, Teaching the Universe of Discourse, pulled the profession of the teaching of English “fifty years forward” (Moffett, “Eighties” 102).

While Moffett is most well-known for his enduring impact on writing education and language learning, the shift to spirituality and mindfulness halfway through his career changed his audience as he offered yet another pioneering and prescient educational approach to language and learning. However, this later change in emphasis has served to obscure the answer to the question “who is James Moffett and why does he matter to contemporary education?” because in many ways his career can be framed as having two distinct constellations of influence: on one side, the pedagogical, stretching from Teaching the Universe of Discourse in 1968, through Interaction (1973), Coming on Center (1981, 1988), Active Voice (1981, 1986, 1987), Detecting Growth (1992), and across the four editions of Student-Centered Language Arts (1968, 1976, 1983, 1992). And on the other side of his work, the spiritual, meditative, and mindful, commonly conceived of as beginning with Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation in 1982 (more on this later), through Storm in the Mountains (1988), and Harmonic Learning (1992). Moffett’s final book, The Universal Schoolhouse: Spiritual Awakening Through Education (1994), served as a capstone to his unique and complex career because it took up the task of merging the pedagogical with the spiritual, and also included a fierce critique of the political and commercial corruption of education in America.

In this final work, Moffett argues that—whether we choose to accept it or not—education plays a central role in the personal development of our future citizens and leaders, going so far as to suggest that education and social work should be unified together as a public service because “education, at its core, is social work” (299). Most important to Moffett was that education and social work be administered and managed at the local level. To his mind, the centralization of educational administration and the federalization of educational policy (the “educational-industrial complex”) not only delimited the local sense making Moffett thought was so important to education and society, but also resulted in a ←2 | 3→deep reluctance by educators to engage in the ultimate civilizing and spiritualizing responsibility which he firmly believed was inherent to language and learning.

Noting that “spiritualizing education does not require any religious indoctrination or moralistic preaching,” Moffett believed that the reluctance of educators to engage in more holistic approaches to education and development was the foremost threat to education in America (xix). To this end, Moffett called for the decentralization of educational administration in order to provide what he felt was much-needed space for the holistic enrichment of students that he went on to contend that our country, and world, may depend on. Moffett’s final book serves as his magnum opus because it synergized his wide array of concerns about education, learning, assessment, policy, spirituality and mindfulness into one synchronized model.

While The Universal Schoolhouse has been cited much less than Moffett’s other work, it may well be the key to understanding his full vision for education and language learning. Accordingly, this volume and this introduction both seek to use the whole of Moffett’s ever-evolving vision as a context from which to re-examine the many influences which led him down these two seemingly divergent but ultimately unified paths, and in doing so, to push forward a clearer understanding of the contemporary applicability of his ideas by accounting for the spiritual (or “cosmopolitan” as Moffett terms them) implications of pedagogical practice in general and language learning in particular

With educational reform and policy increasingly taking center stage in political and social discourse, along with drastic changes to how teaching and learning are perceived resulting from the tectonic shift to (and then back from) online learning vis a vis the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an important moment to reconsider—and advance Moffett’s vision for holistic and student-centered learning. Moffett’s contributions continue to hold value not only because he presaged much of the divisiveness in which we are now immersed (“Schools should not be political and commercial instruments” xiv), or because he himself lived through one of the earliest iterations of educational cancel culture in the Kanawha County protests of 1973 (Durst 114), but also, as we will see, because Moffett offered perhaps the most fulsome, sophisticated and nuanced plan for realizing, how “educational systems [can] sponsor the quest for the … meaning and purpose of life that underlies not only science, art, and philosophy but also the personal acts of everyday life” (xiv).

The intellectual busyness of his many stratified interests may have rendered a simplistic reduction of Moffett’s contributions murky, but it is also what positions him as one of the few thought leaders in our field who dared to take on the ultimate civilizing and (secular) spiritualizing mandate which teachers of language all face. That the values which undergird schooling in our country have been laid bare only serves to amplify the deep need we all have as educators to more thoughtfully account for the humanizing effects of language on those we teach. ←3 | 4→In many ways, then, Moffett’s final message in The Universal Schoolhouse is as prescient and needed as ever.

This essay seeks to answer three questions which rest at the fore of the inquiry into Moffett’s turn to the spiritual, meditative, and mindful:

  • How can Moffett’s life and career inform our understanding of his turn to spiritual and meditative work?
  • What are the general principles of his spiritual and meditative work?
  • How might we put these principles into practice in (and outside) the classroom and respond to the social and political challenges associated with doing so?

In the first section, this essay will attempt to outline the many important biographical events and influences which shaped the arc of Moffett’s career in order to surface and make sense of his turn to and the general principles of his spiritual and meditative work. More importantly, however, this section of the essay will also seek to demystify many of the common misunderstandings about Moffett’s turn to the spiritual and mindful and reframe what has commonly been perceived as a shift in focus as instead an extension of his early work that was at least in part fueled by the intense personal and professional trauma he endured as a result of the 1974 Interaction fiasco, and which led him to intentionally defy the mainstream in education for the rest of his career.

Then, in the second section, the essay will attempt to sketch the basic principles of Moffett’s spiritual and mindful theories by reviewing the development of his major works in this regard. In the final section, the essay will highlight how the chapters in this collection both fill in important biographical and historical context, take up the principles of his mindfulness and spirituality, and attempt to overcome the many social and political barriers which make their translation into functional classroom practices difficult. This account of Moffett’s career and his development as one of the first authorities on the spiritual and meditative aspects of education, to quote Moffett, is “meant to be utilized, not believed … [we] are after a strategic gain in concept” (Universe 15).


XIV, 268
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (April)
Language Arts Literacy Language Learning Writing Writing Pedagogy Composition Theory Mindfulness Spirituality Meditation English Education Toward a Re-Emergence of James Moffett's Mindful, Spiritual, and Student-Centered Pedagogy Paul Rogers Sheridan Blau Kathleen Kelly Jonathan Marine
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XIV, 268 pp., 5 b/w ill., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Jonathan Marine (Volume editor) Paul Rogers (Volume editor) Sheridan Blau (Volume editor) Kathleen Kelly (Volume editor)

Jonathan Marine is a PhD student in George Mason University's Writing & Rhetoric program where his research centers on the life, theory, and work of James Moffett. He was named the 2020 recipient of the James Moffett Award by the National Council of Teachers of English. Paul Rogers is Associate Professor of Writing Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the former Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, one of the principal co-founders and the immediate past chair of the International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research (ISAWR), and a co-editor of five collections. Sheridan Blau is Professor of Practice in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Professor of English and Education (Emeritus) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directed the South Coast Writing Project and Literature Institute for Teachers. He is also a former President of NCTE. He has published widely on the teaching and learning of composition and literature. His book, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, received NCTE’s Richard Meade Award for outstanding research in English education. Kathleen Kelly has been a teacher for over twenty years. Over the course of her career, she has taught at the middle school, high school, college, and graduate school levels. She has earned two master’s degrees along the way and is currently working to complete her PhD in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.


Title: Toward a Re-Emergence of James Moffett's Mindful, Spiritual, and Student-Centered Pedagogy