Spirituality and Education – education as a gateway to God (Part 2)

Is there a place for God in the English National Curriculum? Could that be the answer to the incoherence and search for direction that is occupying those in charge of designing our education system?

There is barely any time to prepare our students for their exams, let alone think about the spiritual and moral side-issues that OFSTED has claimed we should also be teaching. No doubt, something more internally focused would be welcome. Rates of depression have increased by 70% among teenagers in the last 25 years, and 90% of teachers who responded to a Parent Zone survey described a worsening situation for teenagers with mental health issues in their classrooms. The child protection group NSPCC reported a 200% increase in young people seeking help and counselling over exam related stress.  Despite this, when the PISA rankings were published and the UK was predictably low in the league table, commentators looked upon the British education system, modelling the behaviour of a bad parent by shaking their head at the country like a parent disappointed with their child and saying, ‘why can’t you be more like Singapore?’.

There is a general incoherence to the education system, each subject teacher in secondary school is fighting to get through their curriculum, alongside all the other expectations placed on teachers and students. There is no real emphasis or focus on what kind of student we are trying to produce through all of this mess.

It wasn’t always like this. Jack Priestly describes the clarity of the ‘renaissance man’ and the education system that was required to produce him, or the ‘Christian gentleman’ of the 19th Century, as examples of ideals that existed against which the curriculum could be judged. He asks: Was there ever such an image discussed at the heart of the contemporary National Curriculum?

The very first normative statement in Department for Education’s framework for the National Curriculum in England is,

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum [which] promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”

The irony of a secular education system, using at its primary foundational concept a fundamentally religious one is not lost on everyone.  Stephen Bigger comments on the contradiction among OFSTED inspectors who lack clear definition of spirituality while maintaining its centrality to their inspections – and predictably rarely finding it. Yet, in our quest to clarify the spiritual aims of British education, OFSTED’s definitions are not without value. According to the 1994 OFSTED comments, spiritual development is,

“Experiencing feelings of transcendence – feelings which may give rise to belief in the existence of a divine being or the belief that one’s inner resources provide the ability to rise above everyday experiences;

Search for meaning and purpose – asking ‘why me?’ at times of hardship and suffering; reflecting on the origins and purpose of life”

In a report by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), spirituality is defined as: “a response to God, the ‘other’ or the ‘ultimate’” and “an inclination to believe in ideals and possibilities that transcend our experiences of the world”. Here spirituality is defined in its rightful context: in relation to the transcendent, to God.

How God could play a bigger role in our curriculum?

Pope John Paul II, outlining an ideal pedagogical approach, emphasizes the importance of being “deeply concerned with truth”. In our current world of deconstructing and cynicism that statement is a controversial one. “Whose truth?” some may ask, “everyone has their own truth”. At the most fundamental level, the notion that each person has their own truth is part of the problem and close to the root of the whole issue of a hollow education system. Children want to learn things that are “out there” in the words of Fox Mulder, not reflect on their own feelings and opinions.

In traditional scholarship there is actually a consensus on this issue, that there are some human activities that are lower than others. In relation to knowledge, study that quenches the spiritual thirst is higher than that which satisfies the ego. A purposeful school would naturally promote the study of the higher spheres, not maintain the reflective self-analysis which can if misdirected, work towards a stronger ego.

To learn is to grow, to move beyond your ‘self’ at any given time. The Muslim scholar Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi Al-Haddad (d. 1720), describes this as being “when a man rises above the dense veils of ego and body of effort and self-discipline, he knows more and more”. In Catholicism too, the spirit, that which God has in-spired by breathing in his Holy Spirit, cannot be known apart from through faith, “it escapes our experience”. In Buddhism our essence is that which escapes us as we attach ourselves to the worldly, and a search for that essence is only possible through detachment, not further questioning of the worldly.

Although, speaking the language of religious tradition is jarring in the modern context, spirituality, which as a concept contains the divine and sacred, should be considered a right. A school which is serious about its purpose must work towards the spiritual development of the student. In the words of Ibn Sina, or Avicenna,

“Education […] should be undertaken for the spiritual development of man, and with the aim of deepening his understanding of the world around him…and to use this understanding as a gateway to spiritual love and apprehension of God”

God is the unity of the world, that which binds everything to everything. Traditional knowledge linked everything to faith, love and/or God. In contemporary society that unity is broken up into a “world of compartmentalization”  and of fragments. Everyone has their own path. Education must be an antidote to all the divisive and broken bits and pieces that make up the life of a child, the mission of the school should be a holistic one, to promote wholeness and holiness, in an era of fragmentation.

Spirituality and Education – the incoherence of RE and the incoherence of education (part 1)

Before I became a school teacher, I used to flick through the Education pages of newspapers and read teachers’ complaints and criticisms of the changes to the curriculum or lack of direction in education. As a university student, I was often on marches against cuts in education – it seemed like a no-brainer – where I met teachers, often very angry ones.

Now, after three or four years of teaching, I am also frustrated. For me it isn’t so much the cuts or the overpaid academy bosses but the lack of direction and aim. What is the purpose of education in the first place? What kind of student are we trying to create? You know, the questions that make teacher’s eyes roll because it reminds them of their naive undergraduate days, before they started work in our league-tabled-led, broke and aimless schools (obviously with little miracles here and there otherwise we wouldn’t do it).

A recent study on the relevance and future of Religious Education was done by the University of Exeter, with an interesting albeit unsurprising finding: “the content of the RE curriculum generally lacks coherence and continuity”.

The finding is unsurprising. How can we expect a National Curriculum which does not know its own purpose, to be able to teach philosophies which deal exclusively in purpose? It is however an interesting point because I think it gets to the core of the issue with our education.

I made a similar observation with my own students, and discussed with them my own findings: their education at school does not really have any real purpose. By that, I explained, I meant in terms of answering questions which are relevant to our lives, learning content which enlighten. Of course, there are a lot of lessons learned, about being on time, sitting still, obedience, patience and so on and so forth. After some discussion, I gave each student a piece of paper and asked them to write one question they would like an answer to, on any topic. The majority of students asked questions, which according to OFSTED (The Office for Standards of Education) class as ‘spiritual’: “Why do humans exist?”, “Why is life unfair?”, “Is there a God?”, “Why do people believe different things?”

I think these are all linked; the lack of coherence in our RE curriculum, the decline of our education system, the high numbers of teachers leaving the profession– in our daily job teachers know what they are doing, but as a whole we have no idea. In short, there is a lack of purpose and a lack of understanding of what purpose really means. OFSTED wants schools to promote spiritual development, but do not know what that means.