The spiritual lives of children and adults are considered of utmost importance in education in many cultures. Psychiatrist Robert Coles noted in his travels that children throughout the world often expressed concern about matters spiritual. Yet when it comes to public schooling in countries such as the United States, spirituality is seldom discussed in official discourse. Public schools and universities (and many private educational institutions) are expected to focus on what is directly important to the purposes of the secular aspects of life. In mass societies, the religious aspects of education are often left to the family and religious communities, rather than to the common schools, which are required to emphasize those aspects of living that are considered essential to all youth, regardless of sectarian religious preferences; in multicultural societies, emphasis on matters related to religion can be highly divisive.
Nevertheless, the spiritual lives of youth and adults have been the major focus of many educators throughout time. An example is the legacy of educator-philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who designed a school for the workers of the Waldorf Cigarette Company. Waldorf schools have spread to many parts of the world, and in addition, retreats, such as ashrams and monasteries, some founded in ancient times, continue to serve the spiritual needs of devotees of a religious tradition; the spiritual is an important part of cultural transmission in the survival of cultures. John Dewey, who has greatly influenced world thinking about formal schooling and its relationship to democracy, recognized that all human beings have a religious component to experience, but questioned the claims often made about how matters spiritual are specifically linked to the doctrinal truths claimed by particular religious sects or institutions, including the existence of the supernatural. Matters spiritual were relevant only when they were part of the pragmatic and continuing project of furthering the well-being of mankind, which was possible to sciences based on experience, he thought. His naturalistic secular humanism has met with criticism from many religious leaders.
Spiritual matters are often associated with religious creeds, which vary from one group to another; even within a particular doctrine, there may be sectarian differences. Yet spirituality common to all faiths is based in a mystical sense of a personal relationship to an entity larger than one’s self. Because this ontological sense is based in the universe of relations, it is not material and often thus difficult to prove through a science based on substance and matter. One of the best modern statements of the fundamental relational basis of spirituality comes from Martin Buber, whose book I and Thou emphasized the fundamental, existential relation that arises from the ontology of being; the awareness of being itself awakens persons to the dialogic relation to other beings that include not only persons, but also other individual organisms.
The awareness of the holistic presence of other beings also extends to the mysterious and “eternal thou,” which is defined as “God” in the religions that historically emerged from Judaism—including Islam and Christianity, and in other religious traditions that include Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the many forms of indigenous religions. Relations are difficult to describe because description tends to favor the tendency to convert relations into things, into what Buber calls the relation of I-It.
The arts, including poetry, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and architecture, seem best suited to express spiritual relations. Zen Buddhists have traditionally emphasized the limitations of words, whereas Buber himself lapsed into poetry to express the spiritual in relations. The ancient Pythagorians perceived the religious aspects in mathematical numbers, which was important to their view of education. The philosopher of education Maxine Greene has advocated the need for teachers and pupils to perceive the world through the aesthetic imagination, a view that has a connection with spirituality.
In more recent times, the idea of relations has become fundamental in the naturalistic, biological science of ecology, and the connections between living organisms that sustain the complexity of life have become a basis for the spiritual that is also found in many indigenous religions that were once considered superstitious. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess is considered the founder of “deep ecology”—a spirituality that he believes humans sense in their individual and communal relationship to the larger ecosystem. Naess, like many others in the environmental movement, was influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was widely read in the 1960s.
Biologists Lynn Margulies and James Lovelock have proposed the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the earth itself is a complex living system that is biologically constructed through coevolution. It is a system to which humans along with other forms of life have contributed, and unless humans revise their present anthropocentric relationship to Gaia (named after the goddess of earth), it will lead to a destruction of the very environment upon which we depend. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has also attempted to provide a scientific basis for “deep ecology,” showing connections between aesthetics and spirituality, while educators such as David Orr and C. A. Bowers in the United States have called for basic changes in our conception of schooling and formal education that derive from a deep sense of connection to the earth that includes a balanced coexistence with all forms of life. Underlying the views of such ecological perspectives is an implicit criticism of the dominant humanistic views, which included that of Dewey, as being anthropocentric and hegemonic in its view of other forms of life.
Although spirituality based on “deep ecology” is not dominant, it has led to new interpretations of religious and philosophical ideas found in world religions as well as indigenous and folk religions. It has also influenced the basis of some schools in the “Green Movement,” such as that of the Martin Luther schools in Berkeley, California, indicating that a secular yet spiritual basis for children’s education is possible.
- Apffel-Marglin, F., Bell, D., Bernal, M. E., & Brosius, J. P. (2001). Indigenous traditions and ecology: The interbeing of cosmology and community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions.
- Buber, M. (1970). I and thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Scribners.
- Callicott, J. B., & Ames, R. T. (Eds.). (1989). Nature in Asian traditions of thought: Essays in environmental philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Coles, R. (1990). The spiritual lives of children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Dewey, J. (1934). A common faith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Foltz, R., Denny, F. M., & Baharuddin, A. (2003). Islam and ecology: A bestowed trust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions.
- Stone, M. K., & Barlow, Z. (2005). Ecological literacy: Educating our children for a sustainable world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
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