Spirituality and Education – the spiritual classroom (Part 3)

What would a spiritual classroom look like? The first and most obvious difference between a truly spiritual classroom and the secular one is the role of the teacher, at least in theory.

The spiritual classroom follows one of the central tenets of traditional knowledge: the notion that a true teacher is a reminder or a guide. For Christians, humans are created in God’s image and are endowed with the gift of freedom, and the power to know God and to love Him, in Islam the message of Prophet Mohammad, the Quran, was a reminder of what we already knew but had forgotten. Kierkegaard writes on this when he describes Socratic theory of learning. Here Kierkegaard, like the Islamic notion of Truth as a reminder, assumes that the student already knows the truth and is reminded of it or pushed towards locating it. Here we are finally fulfilling the dreams of those who advocate a child-centered approach to teaching, where the teacher is the facilitator.

In fact, in the spiritual classroom the teacher isn’t much of a teacher at all but another student, or in Kierkegaard’s metaphor a midwife “who helps the student give birth for (and to) herself”. This notion of midwife does not underestimate the knowledge or wisdom of the teacher, on the contrary, when the teacher is a student of knowledge rather than a giver of truth, learning is bound to be more dynamic.

It is however a way to reinforce, just as it was to Socrates, that a midwife is the highest form of relationship a human being can have with another – a concept which in the spiritual paradigm is not difficult to grasp. Interestingly, when the Truth is admitted as extra-personal, as it is in a spiritual classroom, true reflection can take place and truth becomes something that transforms rather than something that confirms.

The teacher as a reminder fundamentally changes the relationship between student and the classroom. Usually, it is the student who is the variable in the equation; it is they who have to change to try and fit into the rigid school system, not the other way around. In a spiritual classroom, the student is central, the purpose, and the goal of everything. As a teacher, I myself have found myself complaining about students being ‘off task’, some even inform parents of this characteristic in their child.

However, we could also ask: what is the task that we are expecting children to do? Is it really a task worth staying on? Could it be that the task is not worthwhile?  Or is that precisely it: Are we demanding that the child learns to do things they do not want to do and things they know will not be useful? The spiritual classroom will break out of the paradox of an educational system that is fundamentally relativist and secular, but which, ironically, demands that students see classrooms as places of worship, and to see us, the teachers, as prophets.

Many teachers expect that students sit and listen, and that the only valuable education is one which maintains the teacher’s authority. Others criticize this teaching method, and advocate an interactive approach. Nevertheless, the teacher, whether called a facilitator or not, is in practice still a teacher, and once the carefully planned interactive lesson is over the students must listen for bells, follow time-tables they had no role in deciding, forced to be segregated according to age-groups and ask before they may use the toilet – all of which returns to the relationship between teacher and pupil that we set out to counteract.

Contemporary mainstream schooling is not primarily designed for children. The school day is prolonged to aid working parents, the very organisation of it reflects the factory model. In the words of John Taylor Gatto,

“school has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but a spectacular job of turning our children into children.”

It is as the latter proclaims rightfully, the great tragedy of modern education that school isn’t for or about children, but built around the interest of others. Jackson’s notion of the hidden curriculum revealed the same. Schools primarily were aimed at teaching children to cope with delays, deny their desires, deal with social distraction, develop contradictory allegiances between teacher and peers and come to terms with unequal power relations.

In the end, the relationship between teacher and student is a microcosm of what relationships we imagine between people in the public sphere – and that is fundamentally based on what role we imagine for ourselves on this planet.