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Universal Awakening


A Postmodern Perspective on Education and Spirituality - Hearing Many Voices

Rob, a public high school English teacher, assigned his AP English students an unusual project: He gave them three weeks to ponder the meaning of life and then to present their reflections to the class utilizing a creative medium. The results were impressive: presentations included musical compositions, poetry, short stories, plays, dances, paintings, sculptures, and quilts. Students reported being extremely absorbed in the project and emotionally moved by the heartfelt expressions of their classmates. I believe that Rob is offering his students several of many possible approaches to a spiritual education, whether or not he labels it in that way.

This paper offers a postmodern inquiry into diverse perspectives on spirituality and education. Rather than attempting a proscriptive definition of spirituality and its relationship to education, I allow diverse voices  of practicing teachers and from the literature  to speak for themselves. This results in a variety of viewpoints on educating the spirit, many of which may be appropriate for public schools. While I briefly explore constructivist postmodern philosophy in terms of its theoretical support for this research methodology, I emphasis the results of the inquiry.

Spirituality and Education: The Historical Context

While spiritual has many possible definitions (which this paper will explore), all tend to refer to some expanded aspect of human possibility, whether this is seen as an actual, nonmaterial essence or as qualities of being, such as vitality, authenticity, courage, compassion, or hope. For most of human history, spirit was understood as a literal and integral aspect of all of life; until the modern era, it would have been impossible to imagine educational activities which were not also spiritual or religious. Premodern consciousness is often characterized as participatory, experienced as a unity of body, mind, and spirit with the outer world. With the shift towards modernity, consciousness became more divided, moving towards a separation of self from world, mind from body, and spirit from the realities of everyday life, including educational institutions. As objectivist rationality, based on scientific reductionism and materialism, emerged as the dominant legitimized worldview, the spiritual realm was denigrated and relegated to a separate religious category.

Historically, the attempt to exclude religious belief from American public education has been contentious, but for the most part, religious perspectives have been increasingly silenced or marginalized in this century. Both the formal separation of church and state and the exclusion of spiritual perspectives from modernist psychological theories underlying current models of schooling have intensified the attempted ban on all things spiritual from contemporary public schools. Yet, all educators hold differing beliefs and assumptions about spirit  or its absence. Many do believe in a reality which cannot be understood through materialistic science and/or the intellect alone. Acknowledged or not, these are implicitly present in schools, becoming an aspect of the hidden curriculum.
However, the current groundswelling of public interest in spiritual and religious perspectives, as well as the challenges to modernism by postmodern perspectives, are influencing educational conversations, leading to the possibility of making the hidden spiritual curriculum more explicit. One sign of the shift is the visible pressure by conservative Christian organizations exerted on many public schools to incorporate their perspectives. Another is the increasing numbers of publications on topics relating to religion, spirituality, and education. A third is the growing acceptance of conversations about spirituality in academics circles. For example, at a September 1998 national higher education conference on spirituality and education, Education as Transformation, held at Wellesley College, many educators spoke of their sense of coming out of the closet in terms of feeling legitimized to discuss the topic publicly.
Any widespread endeavor to re-spirit the curriculum is, of course, fraught with both dangers and opportunities. The role of religious education in history is not merely beneficial or benign; the distancing of modern educational institutions from their historic spiritual and religious origins is the result of both the ascendance of a mechanistic scientific worldview and democratic ideals based on the necessity for a public educational system free of a dominant religious ideology. Obviously those who attempt to include spiritual perspectives in educational conversations must keep a wary eye on the potential for repressive, silencing forces.

The issues surrounding dominant ideologies become much more complex in light of several contemporary phenomena. The 1965 immigration act allowed many people from Asia and the middle East into the United States, leading to a sharp growth in numbers of people practicing the Buddhist, Hindu, and Moslem religions; it is problematic to continue to characterize this country as Judeo-Christian. In addition to the increasing diversity of established religious traditions, a growing number of Americans seek spirituality outside of these religions, either individually or in less mainstream, emerging, non-dominant groups. Finally, at least some of these who talk about spirituality think of this concept in a more metaphoric than deistic sense; they do not believe in the actuality of a God or a spiritual realm but use the word symbolically to refer to human values, such as greater peace, justice, love, or compassion.

Postmodern Perspectives

It is clear that any inclusive discussions about educating spirit will necessarily be complicated by numerous, varied, and often conflicting strongly held beliefs about spirituality and religion. How do we navigate this unexplored postmodern territory, steering clear of both the sterility of expurgated modernist perspectives and the restrictive dogmatism of traditional religious views, allowing for all voices to be heard? While certain aspects of the academic postmodern project provide valuable openings for this diversity, others have contributed to the repression of spiritual dimensions, most notably deconstructive postmodern philosophy which deconstructs or eliminates the ingredients necessary for a worldview, such as God, self, purpose, meaning (Griffin 1989, x).
Overall, postmodern theory challenges modernism's dependence on objectivist rationality, overturning the very idea of an ultimate reality, by recognizing that reality is constructed through discourse and experience in a particular social context in which the dominant cultural power controls the definition of that which is understood to be real. The grand narratives of both science and religions are themselves discourses defined as truth. A loosening of the monopoly of these metanarratives challenges mechanistic scientific and dogmatic religious worldviews, allowing for more varying perspectives, including those that validate personal, subjective, and qualitative dimensions of experience. This creates a possibility for the emergence of a diversity of spiritual and religious views on development and education.

However, taken to an extreme, deconstructive postmodern theories have thrown out spirit along with religious dogmatism, positing no reality beyond socially and culturally constructed experience encoded in symbols, resulting in a world of multiple representations, none of which is more real that any other. Since many religious or spiritual perspectives are based on a claim for some sort of ultimate or divine reality, in this sense, postmodernism has extended modernism's bias against them.

How are we to resolve this dilemma, making room for religious or spiritual beliefs that retain some sense of ultimate reality without minimizing the socially constructed aspects of all such claims to truth? One approach is philosophical and while not the primary emphasis of this particular study, I do find support for my research in constructivist postmodern perspectives, such as David Griffin's SUNY Press series on constructive postmodernism (1989; 1993) and Doll's (1993) application of constructivist postmodernism to curriculum theory. These seek to overcome dichotomies between secular and sacred, objectification and participation, and fragmentation and connection by positing a worldview that includes scientific rationality as well as socially constructed ideologies within the larger context of a nonreductionist naturalistic theism. Griffin (1993) locates the origins of constructivist postmodernism in the ideas of several philosophers, particularly the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Constructivist postmodernism rejects two fundamental beliefs of modernism: an ontology based on a materialistic understanding of nature, and an epistemology limited to sensory perception. It places primary emphasis on experience in both ontology and epistemology. While modernist epistemologies ground all experience in sensory perception, constructivist postmodernism also allows for experience arising from nonsensory perceptions, asserting that sensory perceptions occur in the context of  a presensory, prelinguistic, preconscious apprehension of reality (Griffin 1993, 27). And rather than seeing nature as devoid of experience, constructivist postmodernism posits that all of nature has the potential for experience and for some aspect of self-organization. This view of matter is supported by scientific theories such as quantum physics, Prigogene's (1980) chaos theory, the cognitive biology of Maturana and Varela (1980) and the Lovelock's (1979) Gaian hypothesis. Thus, constructive postmodernism allows for the possibility of nonmediated spiritual or religious experience of a living world, highlighting the active relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, without denying the actuality or epistemological validity of sensory experience, rationality, and social construction.

A Postmodern Inquiry

Perhaps the dominant characteristic of all varieties of postmodernism is their insistence on a multiplicity of many-layered, experiential, subjectively based perspectives  and this is the characteristic I find most useful in framing my current inquiry into multiple perspectives on spirituality and education. I employ a methodology based on the concept of multiple experiences and use narrative methods to actively seek a diversity of views about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to education, with the goal of generating a broad, cultural narrative. These views include those that assume some idea of ultimate reality in connection with spirituality as well as those that understand spirituality more metaphorically, emphasizing its relative, socially constructed nature.
From this perspective, I am exploring the multiple ways in which spirituality is currently understood and practiced in relationship to education. My sources are a variety of voices from both the current literature and practicing school-based educators. For the last several years, I have been asking K-12 educators to write about their personal definitions and understandings of spirituality and about how these understandings impact their teaching and learning environments. As I study both the literature and approximately 80 educator responses, I am impressed by their variety. However, distinct categorizes have emerged, and thus far I have found the following eight most useful in characterizing diverse approaches to spirituality and education. Although I present these categories as separate, they can also be seen as intertwining, and while some educators embrace a single perspective, others hold most or all of them.

Eight Perspectives on Spirituality and Education

Spirituality as Religion

This category includes several very different approaches to understanding spirituality as religion, but what all have in common is their insistence that the search for spirituality is most valid inside of established historical and communal religious traditions. Thus religion would be the foundation of these definitions of spirituality. Eck (1993) discusses exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism as three responses to religious diversity. Exclusivism elevates one religion as the truth whereas inclusivism recognizes the partial truth of other religions, but sees one as the best, the culmination, or the most comprehensive. Pluralism, on the other hand, celebrates one particular tradition, but understands it as one of many valid representations of reality or truth: If we are pluralists, we recognize the limits of the world we already know and we seek to understand others in their own terms, not just ours (Eck 1993, p. 169). In terms of education, an exclusivist religious definition often culminates in segregation into private religiously based schools, bypassing the necessity for a postmodern dialog. Or it might mean insisting that particular religious views be incorporated into school curriculums along with secular ones, such as creationist evolution with Darwinian evolution. But it also could result in an immersion in one's own particular religious tradition, bringing all the fruits of this to bear on one's own teaching  silently if in a public school situation, or explicitly in the context of a private religious school. One teacher clearly expresses this: Spirituality for me is the reality that my Lord Jesus lives through me. He is ever present in everything I do, knows my weaknesses and strengths, and seeks to guide me when I invite him to. What this means for me as a teacher is that I must strive to live my daily life  my teaching life  so that the light of Christ shows in my actions. I believe that this quotation illustrates that even an inclusivist religious perspective can exist harmoniously in public spheres. More inclusive and/or pluralistic religious approaches to spirituality emphasize the history, significant influences, and inquiry methods of the various world religions as a valid curricular area. As Noddings (1993, xv) states: There is nothing in the establishment clause of the first amendment that prevents classroom instruction about religion. Further, so long as our presentations our balanced, I see no legal reason why various religious claims and critiques cannot be discussed in all their richness.

Spirituality as Meaning Making

When Noddings (1993) suggests incorporating religious claims and critiques in the curriculum, she encompasses those who define spirituality more in terms of meaning making than religion. While religions have asked the big questions about life, so have philosophers and most peoples throughout history. Seeking the meaning and purpose of life is a human tendency spanning cultures and the lifespan; perhaps it is the tendency, which most clearly distinguishes us from other species. Coles (1992) notes how young we are when we start wondering about it all, the nature of the journey and the final destination (p. 335). Gardner (1997) speaks of the capacity to ask and pose answers to profound questions about existence as a possible ninth intelligence in his multiple intelligence theory, a capacity, which he terms existential. Curricula based on this definition will include significant, enduring human questions and concerns, and examples of these can be drawn from any discipline; in fact, discipline-based knowledge can be presented as diverse approaches to meaning-making. But students can also be invited to explore in depth their questions about themselves, the world around them, and the nature of life itself. As one educator in my study put it: My spiritual search is my search for the meaning of life, in whatever form that takes. Often it involves more questions than answers. If I can encourage my children to keep asking questions, then I feel that I am furthering their spirituality.

Spirituality as Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is the ability to look deeply into ourselves, to understand our own motives and emotions, to reflect on our lives, and to set and monitor our life goals. While this perspective on spirituality clearly overlaps with our meaning-making capacity, here the focus is more inner-directed, on personal meaning and life purpose, rather than outer-directed, on existential questions about the meaning of life. Some forms of contemplative spiritual practice, both deistic and non-deistic in nature, emphasize self-reflection and insight into the nature of one's life. The purpose of this practice is not only to achieve greater personal satisfaction, but also to allow our self-understanding to inform our understanding of others. Clearly effective educators are engaged in continual self-reflection. Maria Montessori (1966), who wrote a great deal about spirituality, insisted that a teacher must prepare himself interiorly by systematically studying himself so that he can tear out his most deeply rooted defects, those which impede his relationships with children (p. 182). The educator's self-reflection continually connects her with a sense of her own life aspirations, including her reasons for choosing her educational career. Being conscious of her own life purpose can help her to assist her students in discovering and realizing their own sense of personal mission. A teacher describes it this way: Spirituality is our connection to a greater purpose beyond ourselves that is hidden in ourselves. Spiritual education, then, is helping learners to understand themselves and to find their own purpose, and to follow that bliss, chase that star, become who they were meant to be. This self-reflective quality can be developed in students as they make significant choices about their own learning, reflect on its aims and direction, and assess it critically and thoughtfully. A self-reflective capacity is supported by an intellectually challenging environment that allows for solitude, silence, and intensive but relaxed concentration.

Spirituality as Mystical Knowing

Mystical definitions of spirituality would place self-reflection in the context of a greater Self, understood as the ground of all being. Thus meditative practices allow us to access the realm of spirit through our inner selves. Spirit is seen as a real energy, not fully recognized by science but known to mystics throughout history and across religions. Mystical knowing is often described as simultaneously intuitive, emotional, and cognitive  seeming to surround ordinary rational knowing, contrasting with it but not invalidating it. Mystical knowing affirms a vast and profound unseen reality behind the seen, a state in which all things are connected, rather than separate.
A teacher's engagement in a meditative practice may make her feel more centered and energized, allowing her to be more fully present to her students, which affects every aspect of the way she teaches. Educators who have a fundamentally mystical view of spirituality often talk about the significance of being in close contact with this realm. One teacher comments:
Spirituality is a connection with, belief in, reliance on, an all encompassing power or light or being or energy. As a teacher it is important for me to stay connected with this energy and to try to recognize and honor it in my students, even if I can't directly teach about it.

When appropriate, students could be exposed to mystical theories and encouraged to engage in meditative practices from diverse traditions, although these methods would clearly be controversial in many contexts. But even an unstated belief in the spiritual nature of human beings can profoundly influence adults' perceptions of children: Imagine the effect of seeing each student as a potential Buddha or Mother Theresa! Overall, the positing of a mystical consciousness leads to a revisioning of developmental psychology as well as a rethinking of the goals and methods of education, especially in the context of the current obsession with measurement and competition.

Spirituality as Emotion

Although mystical views include emotion, they are not grounded in emotion but rather in an unseen world. Those who characterize spirituality as emotion emphasize the role emotions play in both knowledge and wisdom, in keeping with current theories about the brain which stress the emotional basis of all thinking. Parker Palmer's perspectives on spirituality and education cannot be contained in any one category, but he is often eloquent spokesperson for the significance of emotions: The failure of modern knowledge is  the failure of our knowing itself to recognize and reach for its deeper source and passion, to allow love to inform the relations that our knowledge creates  with ourselves, with each other, and with the whole animate and inanimate world (Palmer 1993, p. 9). A educator in my study also speaks in a powerful voice: Spirituality is a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, and love for our universe and all creatures in it. It infuses my teaching with an excitement for learning, for exploring, for sharing, and for encouraging these emotions in my students. Of course, the emotions also include pain and despair and anger, which deliver important messages about our relationships and ourselves. This perspective includes embracing what some call our shadow side, bringing to consciousness and learning from the more negative, difficult, sometimes suppressed emotions.
Spirituality as emotion can utilize the great literature of humanity, including mythology from various cultures and religions, which contains wise and powerful lessons about emotions. Other educational approaches include the importance of grounding learning in each student's emotionally based interests; the critical role of the teacher's emotional relationship with both subject matter and students; the necessity for recognizing students' emotions and the emotional climate of the classroom; and the imperative to educate students directly about their own emotional expression and control.

Spirituality as Morality

Morality has many complex and differing definitions, but focuses on the principles, ideas, rules, and emotions governing how human beings should relate to each other and the world. Gilligan (1982) and Noddings (1984) both contrast masculine and feminine approaches to morality, in terms of those primarily concerned with justice based on intellectual principles and rules versus those primarily concerned with caring, in the context of personal, concrete situations and emotions. These varying approaches may emphasize differing values, such as greater justice, peace, caring, or community. This category obviously overlaps with several others. While emotions and self-reflection may fuel moral beliefs and actions, they are clearly not synonymous with them. Religions include moral principles, but they go beyond them. And although a mystical sense of connection to all beings may lead to moral action, that would arise secondarily, as a result of the more primary mystical experience. Those who understand spirituality as morality often use the word spiritual metaphorically and are focused on moral living, as is apparent in the words of this teacher: Spirituality is the way I approach the world with my moral judgment and values. It is who I am and how I relate to my world. Organized religion has little to do with it. In terms of my teaching, my spirituality is apparent in my every action, how I treat myself and others, the kind of moral climate that I create in my classroom. Current media is filled with bad news about the breakdown of morality in society and prophetic voices, which demand social change and educational intervention. One of these, David Purpel (1989) proposes an Educational Credo which calls for (among other ideals) the cultivation, nourishment and development of  a cultural mythos that builds on a faith in the human capacity to participate in the creation of a world of justice, compassion, caring, love, and joy  the ideals of community, compassion, and interdependence within the traditions of democratic principles (p. 117). There are many possible educational approaches to moral education. They include an emphasis on underlying ethical issues and dilemmas while teaching all disciplines; curriculum highlighting heroic moral figures and movements in history and contemporary society; a direct focus and explicit teachings on morals and values; frequent student discussion of the moral dilemmas of life; an emphasis on respect for differences, including the understanding and valuing of cultural difference; the development of democratic communities that encourage student participation in the relevant moral dilemmas of their everyday lives; and student involvement in service projects which impact local and global moral concerns. In addition, educators themselves can become powerful role models for their students.

Spirituality as Ecology

An increasing number of scientific voices call for an understanding of the holistic interconnectedness of living systems, sometimes referred to as a systems theory  and one approach to spirituality emerges from this view. These ecological perspectives honor both the physical, embodied nature of spirit and the connected, interdependent, relational nature of the earth/universe. This understanding of spirituality may be in sympathy with mystical views of interconnectedness, but it is grounded in scientific theory. The moral repercussions of this perspective are immediately obvious as we examine the effects of the combination of mechanistic science and capitalistic economic systems on the earth. In fact, Orr (1992) suggests that ecology could be reduced to yet another technocratic bureaucracy if it does not fully commit itself to answering the moral questions it continually raises. An educator eloquently expresses the spirit of this category:
Spirituality is my awareness that I am a part of a bigger universe, that we are all connected to every part of the universe, including all life forms, all humans, all cultures throughout time. As a teacher, I can inspire kids to do things for the good of others, for the good of the earth. I can model being a respectful person who understands limits and limitations.
Educational approaches rooted in this view of spirituality naturally emphasize ecological, environmental education, what Orr (1992) terms ecological literacy, as critical to the health and survival of the planet. However, to be faithful to ecological theory, this education cannot be offered as a separate subject area, but rather must be integrated into the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Seeing the world as an interconnected system leads to whole systems thinking and to facilitating students' understanding of the educational environment itself as an aspect of a greater whole, including ways in which educational institutions are complicit in earth-destroying practice. In a culture in which many children spend little time out of doors, ecological education would ideally include experiences in the natural world. Because an ecological approach honors the physical body as the basis of all experience, it encourages hands-on, experiential, sensory-based approaches, as well as physical and holistic health education.

Spirituality as Creativity

Some contemporary philosophers and theologians, in harmony with the beliefs of many mystics, stress that the nature of the deity and the nature of the universe are one and the same, best symbolized by the idea of creativity. Griffin (1989, 39) notes that: For Whitehead, creativity is the ultimate reality of which all things are instances. This means that the basic things or entities are events, spatio-temporal processes of becoming. This notion is in harmony with the scientific views of the inherent self-organizational properties of matter noted earlier and with the views of many whose spiritual metaphors are grounded in ecology.
From this perspective, not only is the universe inherently creative, but creativity is seen as the ultimate human capacity. As Armstrong (1993) says:
Human beings are the only animals who have the capacity to envisage something that is not yet present or something that that does not yet exist but is merely possible. The imagination has thus been the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. (p. 232)
As human beings are created and creating themselves in the image of the deity, it is our creativity that allows us to fully co-operate with the divine in co-creating the world  and ultimately, in contributing to the evolution of the deity itself.
This perspective also links easily to moral. We not only have the ability to create, but we also have the capacity to make a conscious choice to use these creative gifts selfishly or for the good of the world. O'Conner (1971) expresses this:
Every person has the task of releasing angels by shaping and transfiguring the raw materials that lie about him. How we do this  how we build the earth' to use Teilhard de Chardin's phrase  is determined by the discovery and use of our gifts. [W]hen we deny our gifts we deny the Holy Spirit whose action is to call forth gifts. (p. 13) In an historical period in which children's imaginative capacity is increasingly stunted and co-opted by the mass media in the name of profit, it becomes critical to strengthen the imagination for the common good. Educators can recognize and encourage each student's unique creative gifts, as this teacher states: To me spirituality is the creativity of the universe or God or whatever you want to call it. As a person I am most spiritual when I tap into this creativity and as a teacher, I try to set up my classroom as a creative place and to find the ways each student is most creative. While teachers may choose to emphasize artistic forms such as dance, drama, visual arts, and music, there is also the possibility of demonstrating the creative process that underlies discovery in all disciplines and fields. This includes the art of educating as an act of creative spirit.


If there is a central metaphor common to all of the categories, it is connections. Each way of thinking about spirituality and education emphasizes differing kinds of connections  with inner self, with others, with the world, with nature, with knowledge, with the divine, with religions, with emotions, with the body, with imagination, and with creative process. I have also discussed some of the connections between the perspectives, but clearly, many more are possible. In fact, the nature of my own belief system is best represented by a theory that situates all of the categories in relationship to each other. But this is not the point of this particular work. Many educators  as well as parents and community members  passionately affirm several approaches and reject others. This postmodern inquiry suggests that many voices offer valuable contributions to an inclusive cultural narrative. It is not my intention to minimize the potential disagreements and complexities inherent in implementing these as belief systems come into conflict with each other, but this is a story that unfolds one day at a time, in particular contexts. To exclude spiritual perspectives because they are controversial is neither a democratic nor a postmodern solution. Sometimes educators say to me: I wish I could contribute to my students' spiritual education, but I can't because I teach in a public school. I believe that my framework illustrates that all educators who are helping their students to find significant connections in their lives are educators of spirit, each in their own way.


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This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice and is posted with the permission of the publisher.