Monday, 29 April 2013


Education Sunday

The schools and universities of Europe owe their origin to the medieval Christian church, yet it’s not obvious what link that church saw between education and the approach to life suggested by Jesus of Nazareth, the promotion of which you might imagine to have been its core purpose. Degrees in canon and civil laws and in medicine were vocationally useful to both the institutional church and secular society, but only theology even gestured towards the spiritual. Yet spirituality, the concern with what really makes life worth living, has to be at the centre of any truly successful approach to bringing up children and inducting young people into adulthood. If how we teach today in schools and universities lacks this perspective, it will only do half the job required of education: it will give children and young people the skills and knowledge they need to get a job, manage their lives and understand their environment, but it will fail to help them develop any clear sense of why they might want to bother.
Sensing this, we have tried two ways of supplementing the teaching of necessary skills and knowledge: compulsory worship and religious education, both of which are still requirements in English state schools. Useful assemblies are held in many schools in which teachers attempt to develop something like a spiritually informed approach to life within the constraint of having to shoe-horn their efforts into a ‘basically Christian’ framework. Yet compulsory worship is seriously compromised both by the variety of religious traditions in England today, and by the fact that the sort of beliefs that underpin any kind of genuinely religious worship are not shared by many school pupils or their teachers. And Religious Education as a school subject is now generally a combination of factual knowledge about the unfamiliar beliefs and practices of various religious communities with some discussion of ethical issues – both no doubt useful in themselves but not-at-all the same thing as spiritual education. The most spiritual of religious teachers down the centuries have often warned about how easy it is for the elaboration of religious ritual and the study of religion to supplant the spiritual insights they were meant to express and communicate. They were right: a spiritually informed approach to life is not something that can be separated off from life itself. Consequently, the place where the spiritual approach is to be developed in school cannot principally be in religious assemblies or in RE classes; it has to be across the curriculum.
In science students learn both how insignificant within the universe we are and how wonderful is the power of our brain; to learn either without picking up a sense of awe is to reduce science to fact collecting and job training. Science teachers may not use the words of the Old Testament writers, but they are teaching that we are only ‘a little lower than the angels’, despite being like ‘dust on the weighing scale’. A key element in maths is probability, the study of how things happen in a patterned yet still random way; we can’t foretell what will happen in any particular case, because that, using theist language, would be to see into the mind of God, but we can be sure that what happens is not out of ‘God’s’ control. Probably one reason art classes feel less demanding than maths is that they are essentially about how students as individuals see the world and express their individuality; that sense of self is necessary before we can have much sense of other people as individuals. Part of the spiritual point of studying literature is to deepen our appreciation of the differences between people and the patterns of their lives, both the characters of fiction and the authors of poetry; without such an appreciation we cannot begin to love other people. Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness, the necessary corollary of people trying to live free and fulfilled lives; one of the important things learnt on the sports field is that we will occasionally hurt and be hurt in the course of the game, and that those regretted hurts need to be met with forgiveness. These are of course only a few examples of how every part of the curriculum as well as the ordinary life of the school has its contribution to make to spiritual education; I’m sure you will be able to think of many more.
I’m also sure that many teachers would resist any attempt to require them to make explicit the contribution their subject has to make to their students’ spiritual development. And they may well be right. It’s an odd thing to say in a sermon, but always trying to put things into words is not the best way of communicating awe, love, forgiveness and the rest. At best words can only draw attention to, and remind us of, real experience; at worst they can divert us from real experience. As adults, never mind as teachers, it is our responsibility and privilege to pass on through our own approach to whatever issues we are tackling with children and young people a sense of the factor that illuminates life and makes it worth living, despite and through its ups and downs. Of course, if this factor is embedded in our own approach to life, communicating it won’t be difficult – in fact, we won’t be able to help communicating it. That said, it would certainly do no harm for teachers to be alert to their responsibilities as spiritual educators, even if they rarely say much about this part of their work in class.
There remain some elements of a spiritually informed approach to life need something different. Space. Stillness. The opportunity to be aware of inhabiting our own bodies. To reflect. To sense our connection with people around us. Our society hasn’t been very good at this, and religious institutions haven’t really helped: shared stillness doesn’t have much of a place in our liturgies. Yet the sense it fosters of being a person whose life with our human brothers and sisters is worth living is a great deal more important to us as people than the simple pursuit of facts and skills, exams and jobs, status and wealth. Most of us come to know this as we look back on our lives, and we may well regret that there seemed to be little opportunity or encouragement for us to develop a sense of it earlier. Education has improved hugely over the last century; it’s time we began to improve it further by being conscious of, and occasionally explicit about, its role in spiritual development.

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