By Theodore Timpson
We cannot live without meaning.
– Carla Rinaldi
We should be afraid when people start measuring education by its functional value. I tremble a little when I read about the need for “21st century skills” or the increasing necessity of a college degree for achieving middle class status. I feel anxious because I work with children every day, and they never seem very concerned about whether they are becoming “competitive in the global marketplace.” (If they ever do start showing concern, it may be my signal to find a new career.)
These ideas make me nervous because I wonder if the people expressing them are losing sight of the point of being a child. One might describe childhood in essence as “growing up without being grown up.” Nonetheless, at younger and younger ages we seem to keep finding ways to make sure children are on track. On track to what? Well, to not being children anymore, I guess. That doesn’t sound very inviting. Is it any wonder that children often don’t appear thrilled with the process?
Social research shows an alarming level of disengagement in schools, which is a surprising phenomenon when considered thoughtfully. Here we have an institution designed for children’s benefit, a carefully constructed alternate world for them to occupy while they approach adulthood and independence. Why would they not feel connected to it? Children spend twelve years or more in the company of adults trained and dedicated to their guidance in a wide range of disciplines. If they don’t feel a sense of belonging there, hasn’t something gone terribly wrong?
I believe — I have seen as a teacher — that the answer lies in making connections. As human beings and as children, we build connection on meaningful experiences in which we establish a sense of purpose and a belief that our participation matters. We feel filled with wonder. We learn to see ourselves in story characters. We fall in love with love. We meet nostalgia, or tragedy, or transcendent joy. Meaning is found, pursued, won. It is never just given. The delight that a child expresses on discovering a new sense of meaning is what keeps an educator returning each day. These wholehearted, committed efforts of children to make meaning are part of a spiritual process. Children are gradually defining themselves in relationship to the world around them.
Spirituality and Personal Formation
What does this mean, a spiritual process? Does everyone really go through it? How is it different from a physical process, or a psychological one? What is the place of religion and spirituality in the classroom? In the interfaith world, we know that these two areas, religion and spirituality, are two distinct arenas, with a lot of shared ground. By separating them, we make possible a broadening of the purpose of education to include perspectives usually left out: transcendent ones, mystical ones, personal ones.
Religion is a part of social studies. It deals with the ways people codify their beliefs and world views into a set of evolving rituals and a way of acting in the world. Children can share their religion in the way they share their cultural heritage: “This is an important piece of who I am. You should know this about me.” This is a good idea. It leads to social awareness, reduces prejudice, and makes people generally more compassionate when done well.
Spirituality is different. It is about the way one understands the world, the way one feels toward life, nature, and other people. Spirituality is bigger than religion – not in its importance, but in what it contains. We need ways to describe the “religious” sentiments of people who do not feel connected to religion, and I think this is what spirituality offers, enabling a growing number of people to identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
Schools cannot really give children spiritual experiences (any more than religious ones), but they can enter a conversation. Beyond physical facts and conclusions, and beyond psychological feelings and desires. We can help them look for meaning and inspiration. We can encourage connection. The purpose of spirituality (and in some ways religion) in children’s education is to hold a space for mystery and wonder. This space is one most of us can probably remember occupying before we started school, or outside of school, but how rare and special the memory of a teacher who created that space in school. Yet that is the space we need in order to form spiritual identity.
This is a critically important idea, one that really threatens civilization if we continue to ignore it. Our spirituality, our fundamental attitude toward reality, determines whether we feel or maintain a connection with others and with the natural world. If we feel no connection, we are likely to become (or have already become) a source of social and environmental devastation. Yet modern education, with its tests and standards and focus on achievement, keeps insisting that what we subjectively feel does not matter. Or at best, it matters only for personal health reasons, to become more balanced, and thereby more effective. This is a perspective devoid of the willingness to transcend oneself, to identify with something greater, from which one can derive greater value.
To become competitive in the 21st century implies that (a) competitiveness leads to desirable outcomes, (b) the 21st century is going to be more competitive than the last, and (c) the destructive horrors that we witnessed in the last century are somehow not relevant to the question of competitiveness, even in the growing awareness that we are making the world a less livable place. The answer to such a dangerous view is not to make the Earth our pet; it is to make life our mentor and teacher. This is the way to preserve mystery and wonder; this is the way that leads to wisdom.
I know, and you know, that we are not the first to consider such an idea. Indigenous traditions have upheld this view for millennia and will continue to do so as long as they have a voice. But we in the interfaith community have a duty to ourselves and to the many traditions we emerge from, to turn back to our respective communities and ask, is there not some way to convene a space for spirituality, a space for wisdom? Could we not agree to teach this to our children as a common identity, linking them across the divides of belief and custom? Could we not instruct our school boards, principals, and teachers that the heart of education must be kept whole?
Wholeness touches everything. What I mean is that an education centered on wisdom does not rest with social and moral understanding. It is embedded in the way we teach math and science, in the way we discuss history, and the way we read literature. These things should matter to interfaith activists as much as any discussion of religion, because the questions that religion and spirituality try to answer are too easily being silenced by a kind of bland, outcome-based reasoning that pervades school culture and has nothing to do with the raw desire to learn. Let’s design schools where students question the fundamental purpose of their lives, and then live.