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Spirituality and Education in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Spirituality and education have historically been tightly intertwined concepts. Spirituality is the timeless pursuit by humanity for certainty, understanding, and an abiding connection to each other and the cosmos. Education represents humanity’s efforts at grouping practices, insights, and often contested knowledges in such a manner that they are passed across generations, groups, and communities. The combination of the two reflects humanity’s pursuit at making sense out of the environment.

Keywords: education, spirituality, dualism, schooling, educational philosophy, holistic

The spiritual is that which can raise consciousness, stimulate awareness, foster creativity and imagination, connect us with grander issues of purpose and meaning, and facilitate a connection with that which animates us

(Tolliver, 1997).

This statement by Denise Tolliver is quoted in Laura Jones’s “What Does Spirituality in Education Mean?” (2005). Where Tolliver provides a lucid reflection on the profound and overarching benefits of spirituality in a general sense, Jones draws upon Tolliver’s conceptualization of spirituality to highlight its utility when applied specifically to education. Jones (2005) elaborates, “This divine process begins with our willingness to allow subject and learners to engage our hearts each time we begin the mind- and soul-expanding trek of adventure” (p. 6). Jones and Tolliver as well as numerous other academics, educators, and social theorists (Baszile, Edwards, & Guillory, 2016; Dantley, 2011; Mitchell & Edwards, 2013; Palmer, 1999, 1998, 2003; Shahjahan, 2004; Sterk, 2015; Tisdell, 2007) have emphasized the importance of the development of a culture in education in which students are holistically engaged. Consequently, Jones’s reference to educational endeavors as adventure, posits a more robust role for education and conceptualization of the relationship between students, teachers, and subject matters than that most often forwarded by historically influential behaviorists’ (Taylor, 1911; Thorndike, 1913) informed approaches to schooling that seek to filter out the inherent ambiguity of living in a complex world for an objective space for pure learning. Holistic engagement through schooling as a “mind- and soul-expanding trek of adventure,” a central component of spirituality, supports a focus on the preparation of students to meet the diverse and ever-changing challenges of living in a highly interrelated and intricate world as opposed to a disproportionate focus on academic mastery of math, science, and language arts influenced by contemporary concerns about schooling for global competition and workforce development.

Varying contemporary definitions of spirituality, starting with inquiry into the relationship between spirituality and religion as a means to explore the linkages between spirituality and education, are discussed. The impact of spirituality on schooling with a specific focus on pervasive intellectual traditions that emphasize education as training guided by social reproduction explicitly focused on rationality, academic specialization, and schooling for vocation, is considered. The discussion of schooling for social control and rationality is juxtaposed against a spirituality-informed pursuit of education for wholeness and transcendence. The establishment and subsequent use of formal schooling after the Civil War is presented as a historic and tangible example of the power of education to set societal norms about nation, race, labor, and place. Considered are universal questions associated with creation and a connection to a higher power from the perspective of a disenfranchised 19th-century “god-centric” community, juxtaposed against a technologically advanced 21st-century “science-centric” community. Specific identity and sociological categories are drawn upon as an illustration of intersecting sites and subjectivities that collectively surface lucid examples of distinct individuals and groups appealing to notions of transcendence and wholeness juxtaposed against others turning to rationality and reason to come to terms with the epistemic and material uncertainties of the conditions under which they live. Key controversies and debates associated with spirituality and education are examined with a primary focus on the possibilities afforded by culturally diverse ways of knowing disrupting rigid dualistic knowledge systems at the intersection of educational praxis such as but not limited to binary constructions of the physical and the metaphysical, mind and soul, reason and intuition, the rational and the superstitious.

Defining Spirituality

Similar to words like diversity and social justice, understandings of spirituality have become so broad and colloquial in contemporary discourse that it is difficult to come to terms with a cogent definition. Where some definitions provide little if any distinction between spiritualty and religion, others characterize spirituality as “the manner in which individuals seek and express meaning and purpose,” (Puchalski & Ferrell, 2010, p. 16) with still others describing spirituality as “the wealth of experiences that are thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine” (Beauregard & O’Leary, 2007, p. 59). Thus, spirituality is a term that tends to be used indiscriminately, embodying varying meanings within different contexts (O’Reilley, 1993). Wane (2002) associates the complexity of defining spirituality with the belief that it “is something so personal, unique, and individualistic that it cannot be captured in any neat definition” (p. 144).

Given that both the descriptions and questions made possible by underlying suppositions associated with spirituality are so broad, for the type of inquiry proposed here, Palmer’s definition in “Teaching with Heart and Soul: Reflections on Spirituality in Teacher Education” (2003) of spirituality as, “the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than our own egos” (p. 377) provides solid grounding. Specifically, Palmer’s focus on the pursuit of a connection to external forces beyond the individual guided by the search for wholeness and significance for living is quite helpful. Drawing on Palmer’s definition of spirituality, the relationship between the often overlapping concepts spirituality and religion will be discussed.

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing describes the relationship between spirituality and religion as where spirituality incorporates elements of religion, spirituality is a broader and more comprehensive concept. According to this definition, religion functions as a public institution, through acts and rituals that facilitate access to a power greater than ourselves. Further, religion is concerned with ethics, the study of rightness and wrongness in human conduct. According to this description of spirituality and religion, a comparison of the two concepts suggests that:

Where spirituality is concerned with where one finds meaning religion is concerned with the practices or rituals that would lead one to find meaning. Where spirituality is concerned with how one seeks out a sense of connectedness, religion focuses on what is right and wrong. And where spirituality considers how one should live religion considers how one should live based on what is true or false (Earl Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing).

Simply put, religions are particular answers to the universal human questions about the creation and meaning of life. Spirituality refers to the universal personal concern for the questions (Byers, 1992, p. 6). In The Nature and Destiny of Man (1951) theologian Reinhold Niebuhr states, “The essential homelessness of the human spirit is the ground of all religion” (p. 14). The desire to address what Niebuhr refers to as homelessness through rituals, codified ethics, or universal truisms or falsities separates religion from spirituality. Spirituality on the other hand, embraces universal questions and homelessness as an inherent part of the human condition whose only true and profound remedy, according to this line of thinking, can be found through a connection to others, wholeness, and that which animates us. These universal questions associated with creation and a connection to a higher power are taken up from the perspective of a disenfranchised preindustrial 19th-century “god-centric” community, juxtaposed against a technologically advanced 21st-century “science-centric” community. Despite two centuries and arguably even a greater difference in political economy of power and social influence between these two groups, aspects of the human condition characterized by homelessness and uncertainty associated with spiritualty cause these disparate communities to arrive at similar conclusions paired with ongoing questions.

The Impact of Religion and Education on Schooling

Training, Education, and Schooling

The highly influential text School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, by philosophers of education Steve Tozer and Guy Senese (2013), provides several useful concepts for understanding the establishment and subsequent evolution of the contemporary U.S. education system. According to Tozer and Senese, to truly understand the emergence of modern schools in the United States in the late 19th century, a clear recognition of the distinction and overlap between “training,” “education,” and “schooling” is essential. Training is a set of experiences provided to some organism in an attempt to render its responses predictable according to the rules of the trainer. Where training typically prepares a person for a specific social or economic role, education seeks to prepare an individual for a wide range of roles associated with academic, professional, and personal well-being. This distinction between training—the establishment of predictable behavior, skills, and rote memorization—and the more holistic concept education—the nurturing of reason, intellect, intuition, creativity, caring, wisdom, and judgement—provides meaningful insight into the potential influence of spirituality on schooling. Moreover, this description of training and its relationship to rules and specified behaviors corresponds closely to our earlier characterization of religion. The broader more fluid preparation for life associated with education corresponds closely to our earlier depiction of spirituality. Additionally, Tozer and Senese introduced the term schooling as a concept to encompass the entirety of activities—academic, curricular, co- or extra-curricular, “explicit and hidden curriculum,” that is, architecture, organization, time management, authority structures, socialization—that take place in educational settings. Numerous scholars (Apple, 1995; Watkins, 2001; Fasching-Varner, Mitchell, Martin, & Bennett-Haron, 2014; Sleeter, 2001; Pinar, 2015; Stovall, 2016) have documented the ways that formal schooling not only undergirds but actually works to reproduce the existing social order. In these regards schools affirm, reflect, and transmit the dominant ideology of the society and are better suited for students whose identities are more closely aligned with majority ways of being (Willis, 1977; Erevelles, 2011; Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016; Tuck, 2011).

The fact that the first and lasting industry that the colonists in the United States invested in was a school, Harvard College in 1636, highlights that education was foundational to transmitting societal norms in colonial North America. Before the nation had a formal military force, over a century before the fledgling country had a constitution, colonial British powers invested in schooling. Even though these early religiously affiliated institutions did not initially have the ability to ordain ministers independent of their home governing bodies in England, their expressed purpose was to spread Christian doctrine to the so called New World (Thelin, 2004) through schools like Harvard, William and Mary, Princeton, and Yale. And in this what ultimately became cultural subordination and actual genocide of the indigenous North American population, we see an early illustration of schooling and religion being linked to established societal norms (Spring, 2007). By surfacing this historic linkage—schools, religion, and cultural subordination—we seek to emphasize the aspect of our earlier distinction between spirituality and religion. The subsequent establishment and flourishing of parochial and church affiliated schools in the United States during this era was a harbinger of the ongoing linkage of schools and religion to establish social stability and national identity.

Schooling and Social Stability

Late-19th-century America provides a candid illustration of formal schooling being implemented to ensure social stability. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, significant portions of the U.S. population moved from agrarian to urban lifestyles and population centers. Concurrently, the nation was nearly torn asunder because of the Civil War and the resulting approximately 4 million people of African descent entering public and political life due to the abolition of slavery. Against this tempestuous era in U.S. history, formal schooling was tilted toward training to manage the transitions and societal volatility (Watkins, 2001). This era saw the introduction of civics as a discipline to provide students a more formal and codified definition of what it means to be a U.S. citizen (Anderson, 1988). This shift toward schooling that emphasized training and social control and an evolving sense of patriotism had discrete impacts based on a community’s proximity to the dominant culture. The distinction between the curriculum developed for newly emancipated African Americans, referred to as the Hampton-Tuskegee model (Anderson, 1988), and the most highly regarded liberal approach to education taught at the nation’s most prestigious schools—institutions that typically denied admission to African American students—provides a stark illustration of training based on social stratification (Anderson, 1988).

The Hampton-Tuskegee model emphasized training in industrial arts and moral development with only rudimentary preparation in basic arithmetic and literacy with the expressed intent to prepare docile manual laborers (Washington, 1901). The irony of this approach to education for former slaves is that it amounts to the belief that the individuals who were responsible for laying the foundation of arguably the most powerful industrial engine that the world has ever seen were in need of a curriculum focused on additional instruction on manual labor. Further, the most charismatic ambassador of this type of training for the newly emancipated, Booker T. Washington, a former slave himself, publicly forwarded a gospel of hard work and moral living with an explicit message that the newly emancipated should stay out of political life (specifically voting and land ownership) until they had received the proper socialization for democratic life from the individuals who were responsible for their enslavement (Washington, 1901). In this hypocrisy, the newly emancipated were afforded training to maintain the existing social order when they desired education as a means to come to terms with the significant legal, psychological, and political dimensions of freedom. The type of education that they sought is the patent definition of Jones’s previously referenced “mind- and soul-expanding trek of adventure,” given that both the newly emancipated and their former captors were entering a never before experienced era of experimentation in social and political relations in the United States.

The Soul of Schooling

During this tumultuous era in U.S. history, philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois surfaced as a leading voice in support of the full inclusion in civil society, and more profoundly, dignity for newly emancipated African Americans. From his magisterial doctoral dissertation, An Examination of the Philadelphia Negro (1899), credited as the first sociological study in U.S. history, to his most highly regarded work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois ostentatiously described the significance of a holistic approach to education for black folk as opposed to the training inherent in the Hampton-Tuskegee model. When speaking broadly about education Du Bois was not specifically opposed to vocational education for the newly emancipated. He just vehemently argued against the idea that the vocation should singularly drive education and serve as the only curricular option for African Americans. Instead, according to Du Bois, “the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men” (Provenzo, 2002, p. 88). Elsewhere, Du Bois (1903a) elaborated:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization

(p. 84).

Du Bois was not a principally religious or spiritual person in public life. In fact, he has been characterized as actually shying away from such subjects as spirituality, faith, and religion because he felt linking them to African American thought played into Eurocentric stereotypes that privilege rationality and depict people of color as inherently primitive, irrational, emotional, and superstitious (West, 2014). The distinction that Du Bois highlights between schooling for a profession and schooling for a fuller life is the true influence of spirituality on education. In fact, through this line of argumentation, Du Bois’s ideas provide a critical bridge for not simply schooling for a profession but actually the role of schooling for living and ultimately developing a counter-hegemonic group identity and sense of self-determination for African Americans in a racially, politically, and economically conflicted post–Civil War United States.

The reference to soul in the title of Du Bois’s most recognized text, The Souls of Black Folk (1903a), draws attention to the profound influence on the psyche of a community struggling, as he commented, in the midst of “One ever feeling his [her] two-ness—, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (p. 351). According to Du Bois, the challenge was that during this era, newly freed blacks were not viewed as a people but as a problem that the nation had to address. Moreover, the pervasive depiction of African Americans as a problem not only informed white American ideals about blacks, but it in a more troubling manner also informed Black American self-perception. The struggle to push back against the dehumanizing impact of nearly four centuries of slavery was at the core of Du Bois’s thinking and was central to a burgeoning African American identity. The recognition that Africans in America were no longer African in the sense that their fore mothers were, nor were fully integrated into U.S. society in the same way as earlier colonial immigrants from England or France for example, presented a significant conundrum for African Americans that numerous scholars suggest still stymies U.S. race relations today (Dyson, 2016; Glaude, 2016; Marable, 1998; Rosiek & Kinslow, 2016).

History provides numerous examples of African Americans, during the late 19th century and most prominently in the mid-20th century, turning to a spiritually informed faith community paired with schooling as a powerful means to establish group identity and push back against racially oppressive structures. Accordingly, the rise of prominent civil rights figures like Mary Jane Patterson, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Ella Baker, whose early training and primary base of support was rooted in faith communities that explicitly worked to advance educational equity as a means of societal equity, lends credence to the colloquial framing of the most influential voices in black America being teachers and preachers (Walker, 1996). The efforts of these prominent faith and education focused leaders played a significant role in pushing the most powerful nation in the world to alter its racist and ethnocentric domestic policies (Samuels, 2004). Specifically, their actions led to the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s to end state-sanctioned racial segregation without a standing military force or proportionate economic or political leverage. When asked what drove their tireless efforts and, for many of these figures, courage in the face of imminent death, to a person they referred to a faith in the collective whose actions were guided by a higher power than their own—a patent illustration of spirituality transcending the humanly imposed boundaries of the material and epistemic world. This merger of spirituality and education as social action will be elaborated on as a means to discuss how it aligns with a broader purpose for schooling in an uncertain world. The progressions by Western cultures toward science and reason to address similar questions of certainty, meaning, and connection to the universe will also be discussed.

Endless Inquiry from Spirituality to Science

The search for identity and the constitution of a communal subjectivity in a hostile North America powerfully contextualized by Du Bois and acted upon by numerous champions of civil rights presents a purpose for education beyond a reductionist focus on academics, social control, and employability. The establishment of Sabbath Schools in the 18th century provides one of the earliest illustrations of the overlapping of education and spirituality by enslaved blacks in the United States prior to emancipation. Sabbath Schools were institutions started by African Americans that on the outside were places of worship, sanctioned places of spiritual sustenance for a people under duress. However, these spaces covertly doubled as schools, outlawed places for the nurturing of black educational self-determination prior to emancipation (Mitchell, 2010). Additionally, there are numerous documented cases of enslaved black people risking life and dismemberment for education (Douglas, 2008). These illustrations are intended as an example of a community graphically experiencing Niebuhr’s reference to the “essential homelessness of the human nature.” In communities that exist in this and similar circumstances across time and space, there was an equally undeniable and painful recognition that addressing that homelessness was a collective endeavor beyond the scope of their own power and possible actions. Du Bois’s reference to a “dogged strength” resisting being “torn asunder” is an appeal to a pursuit of wholeness inherent in the guiding definition of spirituality. Education like religion may be a component of this struggle, however similar to employability and economic stability, approaches to schooling that emphasize training are simply means to an end—academic mastery for a predictable outcome—not to be confused with education for survival in an uncertain and rapidly evolving environment. Further, this use of education is the pursuit of a sense of certainty and security that humanity has sought since the dawn of time, which also harkens back to our operationalized definition of spirituality.

Education for civic standing and more profoundly a self-determinate identity in a hostile environment and countless other human frailties and uncertainties has historically caused a profound pursuit of a connection to and a semblance of understanding of a greater power. This pursuit drove ancient civilizations across the globe to appeal to nature, a host of celestial deities, and more technologically advanced foreign civilizations for this certainty (Ani, 1994). Codified illustration of these pursuits can be in the form of religion in the Bible, Koran, Bhagavadgita, Torah, and numerous other holy texts, with still others passed down through oral traditions across African, Asian, South Pacific, and aboriginal cultures across the globe. The onset of the Enlightenment period in the 1600s led to science and a valuing of human reason surpassing religion in Europe as the dominant knowledge system for coming to terms with these universal human concerns (Stangroom & Garvey, 2006).

The emergence of never before seen economic, political, and technological innovations paired with the resulting military dominance of primarily Western nations over the last several centuries has caused the West’s tilt toward science and objective reason away from belief in a metaphysical cosmos to move mainstream international discourse to look to science for universal truths and certainty—a pursuit that had previously been exclusively the domain of the spiritual. The 2014 remarks of arguably the world’s most influential contemporary theoretical physicist, Steven Hawking, in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo, succinctly presents this dyadic science over faith position. When discussing the existence of a sentient being who initiated life, Hawking commented, “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Hawking elaborated on this position in his coauthored text The Grand Design (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2014), which created a significant level of controversy as some saw it as denying the existence of God based on scientific reason. Responding to the controversy and resulting scrutiny, Hawking’s coauthor, physicist Leonard Mlodinow of the California Institute of Technology provided a level of nuance and concession, commenting:

“We don’t say we’ve proved that God doesn’t exist. . . . We don’t even say we’ve proved that God hasn’t created the universe.” As for the laws of physics . . . some may choose to call those God. “If you think that God is the embodiment of quantum theory, that’s fine”

(Castelvecchi, 2010).

Theologians like Robert Barron of the University of St. Mary of the Lake are on record as characterizing Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s assertions in the book as philosophically naive and over reaching (Castelvecchi, 2010). According to the resulting line of reasoning, the only partially explored and limited understanding of the underlying scientific theories that Hawking and Mlodinow built their assertions on, such as string theory and according to Scientific American correspondent Davide Castelvecchi, an even “more mysterious—and just as untested—version of it called M-theory, as well as Hawking’s own cosmological thoughts” (2010), suggests that science is wrought with similar questions and uncertainty about creation and humanity’s role in it as spirituality. In the end, the appeal to rationality and empiricism at the core of a physical cosmology is an ongoing pursuit, according to cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser (2010) “because we don’t have instruments capable of measuring all of nature, we cannot ever be certain that we have a final theory.”

Hawking’s avowed standing as an atheist offers one of many positions along a complex continuum of noteworthy scientists and schools of scientific thought that have taken up issues in support or critical of the existence of God and creation in an ongoing search for certainty. Our point is not to suggest that scientific discovery and belief in spirituality are mutually exclusive categories. For example, from historic figures like the father of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon; to the scientist who gave us the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin; as well as the current director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins; there are numerous influential scientists with publicly espoused belief in spirituality. Noted astronomer Carl Sagan, best known for hosting the television series Cosmos, provides a noteworthy illustration of a scientist with intense recognition of the spiritual. Unlike Hawking, Sagan publicly rejected the label of “atheist” because he was open to the possibility that science would perhaps one day find compelling evidence to prove God’s existence. However, in his 1997 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan wrote that he thought the likelihood of science proving or disproving the existence of God was limited at best. Instead, Sagan talked about “spirituality” as something that happens within the realm of the material world, when humans encounter nature and are filled with awe. Sagan elaborated:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual (p. 45).

Consequently, beyond any patent critique among the scientific community about science’s relationship to spirituality, our point here is to highlight that the questions that haunted early human communities about certainty, the creation of the universe, and the existence of a higher power are not only still hotly contested in the 21st century but will likely be debated for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the fact that we have focused most prominently on a community of disenfranchised and historically oppressed African Americans who endured hundreds of years of state-sanctioned slavery juxtaposed against arguably the most ardent voices of the contemporary scientific community and they are asking similar questions is noteworthy. Although from a point of influence and even when speaking in a temporal sense, slaves and physicists have drastically different life options and outcomes, they are each asking similar questions, questions that amount to, Is there intelligent and intentional design to the universe? and What if any is our ability to conceptualize our relationship to each other, the universe, and its designer?

It should come as little surprise that the disenfranchised would look to a power beyond their own for help because the challenges of their day-to-day existence dreadfully demonstrate the limitations of their individual ability to control their lives. Consequently, for the disenfranchised there has to be more, a higher force to appeal to, a sentient being in control who is intimately concerned with their well-being. But how is it that the scientific community, the clerics of the 21st century, with disproportionate control over natural resources, their relative personal well-being, and even what constitutes the knowledge taught in formal schools that structure societal norms are still asking similar questions? Against this seemingly hermeneutically sealed sense of homelessness by both the privileged and disenfranchised, possibilities and challenges posed by culturally diverse ways of knowing as a location for a merger of spirituality and schooling at the intersection of educational praxis are considered. Consequently, the discussion shifts from if there is an external creative power out there to considerations of the unity in which the boundaries of “us,” “them,” and “knowing and being” are troubled in the sense of education for the broader purpose of living and adapting to the inherent uncertainty of life.

The Power of Diverse Ways of Knowing Informing Education

What happens when that religion is inadequate? Unable to achieve peace and security from spirituality the European seeks security in the-will-to-power, in “mastery over” rather than “harmony with.” Their effect on the world is one of discordance. Imperial ambitions and the structures they dictate are the symptomatic expression of a lack of spiritual peace

(Ani, 1994, p. 91).

This comment is taken from Marimba Ani’s 1994 Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior. Through this comment and the central line of argumentation in the text, Ani conducts a provocative theorization and subsequent critique of several key ideas. First, Ani provides an interesting perspective on the relationship between religion and spirituality. Through the text, Ani explores religion’s greater focus on ethics and ritualistic divergence among distinct sects that often undergirds nationalism, compared to spirituality’s broader focus on wholeness, inner peace, purpose, and connectivity. Next, Ani describes what she characterizes as a will-to-power among dominant European cultures, illustrative of empire building and global hegemony in response to an inherent inability to achieve certainty through religion. As discussed, even as contemporary Western societies turned to reason and science in place of religion, the-will-to-power over self (mind over body), other individuals (teacher over pupil), specific groups (colonial over indigenous), and the environment (human over nature) in pursuit of certainty has persisted. In the end, Ani attributes these actions and more directly the undergirding worldview, to a lack of spiritual peace or harmony. Borrowing from Ani’s theorizing, we will explore spirituality as understood as a “harmony with,” to consider the impact of a spiritually informed approach to education. Dualism in Western culture will be discussed with a particular focus on the ways that historically binary thinking has impacted Western epistemologies. A range of alternative cultural and social traditions across the globe will be examined that share a unifying belief that the universe is sacred in origin, is a living cosmic entity, and the fact that human beings are a part of the cosmos causes them to relate intimately with other cosmic beings.

But a Footnote to Plato

A starting point for a conceptualization of education at the intersection of schooling and spirituality through the lens of “harmony with,” is a basic understanding of binary thinking that causes the physical and the metaphysical or the epistemic and the ontological to appear as distinct, mutually exclusive, and often competing categories. Ani attributes the now taken for granted feel of this dichotomous and ultimately hierarchical worldview to be evidence of the profound influence of Plato on dominant Western thought. In Process and Reality (1979) philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously quipped that Western thought “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (p. 39). Despite the farcical nature of Whitehead’s assertion, there is significant evidence to support his point. Plato is historically credited with providing the philosophical underpinnings for the creation of the autonomous “subject” separate from the cosmos who comes to understand the cosmos through experimentation and rational thought (Whitehead, 1979).

At the end of book VI of the Republic (1937) Plato discusses what he describes as the “Divided Line.” Though this concept Plato differentiates between the visible world of perceived physical objects and the images we make of them. This division between the visible and the invisible and humanity’s ongoing pursuit of the ability to differentiate between each through reason influenced countless other noteworthy Western philosophers from Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant and served to establish boundaries between humanity and the cosmos. Plato’s separated, thinking, autonomous subject was juxtaposed against previous and disparate worldviews in which the “subject” is intimately meshed with the universe for which there is no distance or detached location for the pursuit of objective knowledge. Consequently, in the Republic, Plato lays the groundwork for the knower (subject) to separate themselves from the known (universe) and the resulting establishment of an ongoing competition for control through what Ani (1994) refers to as psycho-intellectual maneuvering in which

the “self” is perceived differently from before; then the universe to which the self relates is perceived differently, because the relationship is changed. The self is no longer a cosmic being, instead it becomes “the thinking subject.” . . . Once the “person” was artificially split into conflicting faculties or tendencies, it made sense to think in terms of one faculty “winning” or controlling other(s) (pp. 30–31).

Ani refers to this binary thinking and shift in relation to the universe as dichotomization—the spitting of phenomenon into confrontational conflicting parts (p. xxvii). Moreover, this splitting into discrete parts represents an attempt to arbitrarily disentangle and reduce the inherent complexity of being reminiscent of the Cartesian mind/body divide (Shorto, 2008) as a mechanism that accompanies objectification. From this perspective, objectification is a cognitive modality that designates everything other than the “self” as object (Ani, 1994, p. xxvii). This objectification mandates a despiritualized, isolated ego and facilitates the use of knowledge as control and power over the other, which is in direct opposition to our consideration of spirituality as being in “harmony with” others.

In contemporary terms the ongoing reverberation of this dichotomous thought paired with the confrontational nature of the opposing categories serves as an impediment to the transcendent possibilities of spirituality in an unstable world. Paraphrasing philosopher Robert Armstrong (1975), dichotomies abound and constitute our thinking about the universe in pervasive ways, such as religions premised on good and evil and analyzations of the unitive work of art into form and content. Where science is concerned, Armstrong commented this dichotomous thinking “is one of the probable versus the improbable, the workable as opposed to the unworkable, matter and anti-matter . . . all revealing more of the nature of the scientist’s mind than of the nature of the physical universe” (p. 115). Despite the multi-millennial dominance of this dyadic thinking, there are numerous and in many cases, older and equally influential worldviews that speak of the cosmos as “reasonable” but not rationalistic, that are complex, relational, and sacred in nature (Dei, 2011; Smith, 1999). Some of these spiritually informed worldviews will be drawn on as a means to explore the possibilities afforded by a merger of spirituality and schooling.

I and I: A Spiritually Informed Approach to Understanding

Historically philosophical traditions like Zen conceptions of the yin and yang (Watts, 1999) and the Yoruba principle of twin-ness (Mbiti, 1990), present illustrations of Eastern and African cosmology that radically departs from what Ani referred to as “dichotomization” and its subsequent “de-spiritualization.” A key component of these and similar worldviews is the significance of harmony, which is achieved through the balance of complementary forces and wholeness. From this perspective, it is impossible to achieve a functioning whole without harmonious interaction and the existence of balancing pairs. A holistic approach to addressing questions of creation and certainty eschews dichotomized, objective, and hierarchical ordering of existence to the point that it describes the unconnected consciousness and potentially adversarial nature of dichotomization as the “keenest tool for the destruction of the soul” (Armah, 1979). Consequently, these and similar indigenous philosophical concepts from Asia, Africa, and the Americas present cosmologies espousing an appeal to interconnectedness, wholeness, and the sacred nature of the universe alternate to that of the dichotomized, reductionists, and inherently adversarial worldview critiqued by Ani.

Farah Shoroff’s contribution to Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education (2011) provides a broad framework for understanding the significance of holistic thought-forms. She opens by highlighting the interconnected nature of people (communal belonging) and the earth. For Shoroff, these connections are profoundly holistic and present significant epistemic and curricular understandings of the world. Moreover, these holistic thought-forms are the essence of spirituality. Building on the ideas of philosopher Clifford Mayes (2003) Shoroff elaborated:

Entities and systems in the universe, including humans, are considered part of a unified whole, which cannot be understood by the isolated examination of the separate parts (Mayes, 2003). These parts are actively interrelated. Similarly matter is interlinked, interconnected and dynamic; it is constantly changing and it is the transformation that denotes time (2003). Holistic world-views thus do not focus exclusively upon atoms or organisms but in the larger world—the universe—and are often associated with spiritual or religious thought-forms (p. 55).

Shoroff’s ideas blur the distinction between humans and the cosmos and suggest that the very act of attempting to separate the parts from the whole or to disrupt the dynamic nature of being confounds understanding. From this perspective, relationships and interconnectedness are so deeply rooted to the point that the boundaries between individuals, ideas, reason and intuition, animate and inanimate matter, and ultimately the cosmos are infinitely dynamic, porous, and constantly shifting.

The Rastafarian concept of I and I provides a candid illustration of the type of interconnectedness at the heart of this worldview. The very shaping of the linguistic structure to remove the second-person identifier of “you” is intended to eliminate physical and epistemic boundaries between individuals and the cosmos. Eliminating the category of “you” or the distance between individuals totalizes the concept of oneness. Paraphrasing Rastafari philosopher E. E. Cashmore (1984) on the existence of a sentient creative force and I and I, God is within all and we are all one people. Therefore I and I is often used in place of “you” and “I” or as a manifestation or communal summoning that all people and creation are united under the love of Jah (God). Consideration will be given to “harmony with,” and a unification of spirituality and education with an eye toward collapsing dyadic boundaries.

Harmony, Spiritually, and Education

Each perspective, one most illustrative of the referenced Western thought that seeks understanding through objective inquiry and rationality or other diverse cultural thought-forms that seek understanding through a sense of interconnectedness, balance, and wholeness—presents complex value systems, creation narratives, and cosmologies. These pursuits were at the heart of philosophers in antiquity, newly emancipated 19th-century African Americans, and 21st-century award-winning physicists. Our original definition of spirituality—the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than our own egos—is reexamined to suggest that all of the referenced activity represents humanity’s ongoing desire to achieve this sense of connection, which is at the heart of spirituality. The dominance of atomistic and dyadic thought forms by the Western world to achieve certainty and understanding, essential issues of spirituality, has been highlighted. The contemporary cultural dominance of dualistic thought-forms for addressing these issues is reflected in academia and formal schooling. From the demarcation of intellectual inquiry into disciplines or fields to the hierarchical structuring of teacher-pupil interactions through what British philosopher John Locke described as students being blank slates (Russell, 1946), Plato’s Dividing Line is firmly in place.

Consequently, given the reward structure and cultural milieu of the contemporary academy, appeals to holism, the spiritual, and spiritually minded academicians have often received the implicit message to hang their spirituality outside the doors of academia and to pick it up again on the way out (Dillard, Abdur-Rashid, & Tyson, 2000; Shahjahan, 2004). Moreover, as far as the division of knowledge into disciplines, paraphrasing philosopher Cornel West (1990) “herds belong in fields not academics.” Hence, despite the overwhelming influence of dyadic objectivists’ thought dominating contemporary approaches to education, there are several meaningful illustrations of spirituality and its appeal to holism powerfully impacting education as well. Three brief illustrations are provided of scholars whose practice holds potential for the holism and transcendence of objectifying educational practices focused on schooling for achieving the referenced “human yearning to be connected with something larger than our own egos,” reminiscent of our definition of spirituality.

One such example of disrupting dehumanizing educational practices that has had significant impact on contemporary schooling can be found in the work of critical educator Paulo Freire. In his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Freire highlighted the role of power and hierarchy in social settings with the aim of proposing a pedagogy to establish more equitable relationships among students, teachers, and society (Alam, 2013). Freire’s ideas about the relationship between teachers and students vehemently challenges empiricists’ notions of tabula rasa, which assert that all knowledge is gained from experience (Russell, 1946). From this perspective a child’s brain is viewed as a blank white paper or tabula rasa, to be written upon by adults, and subsequently knowledge is transferred one-sidedly from the teacher to the learners. This approach to education objectifies both knowledge and students by turning them into comatose “receptors” and “collectors” of information that has no real connection to or meaning for their lives. Freire (1970) elaborated that:

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is a spectator, not re-creator. In this view the person is not a conscious being (corpo consciente); he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside (p. 247).

Freire’s ideas in this area are the product of his work with, and have been applied to, the relationship between the affluent and the poor as well as the disenfranchised and the politically powerful. According to Freire, a negative consequence of occupying a position of power causes a type of insolation, perceived control over others, ultimately a disconnect that necessitates the dehumanization of the oppressor. Against this potential dehumanization, Freire asserts not only that there is important insight and understanding that circulates within disenfranchised communities, but also that the primary way for the powerful to regain their full humanity is through equitable engagements with the oppressed. Freire proposes that this engagement should be a dialogical process, in which students and teachers share their experiences in a non-hierarchical manner (Palmer, 2004). Consequently, teaching starts with a framing of the less socially powerful group (i.e., children, the poor, women, people of color) as not only fully conscious actors, but also sharing with the powerful the privileged place of the pedagogue. From this perspective, regardless of the subject matter, the goal of restoring equitable relations guides the activity. What Freire seeks to establish is a viable relationship between teachers, students, and the “real world” that nurtures true consciousness, that values and respects relationships. In short, Freire was interested in bridging the dichotomy between human beings, the world, and the universe—educational practice that is the patent definition of schooling informed by spirituality.

A more recent illustration of an educator whose ideas align with a search for challenging dehumanizing educational practice can be found in the work of critical race theorist Kenny Fasching-Varner. His 2012 book, Working through Whiteness: Examining White Racial Identity and Profession with Pre-service Teachers, describes the challenges he endured working with white pre-service teachers in the United States who he characterized as being ill-prepared to work in racially diverse settings. Four decades after Freire described the significance of a dialogical approach to schooling with structured pedagogical practice that incorporates the wisdom of disenfranchised communities, Fasching-Varner actually put Freire’s ideas in action. He did this by challenging his white students, and as a white man he personally under took the difficult task of examining the roots of his own socialization concerning race, racism, and schooling. The opening section of Working through Whiteness chronicles Fasching-Varner’s personal story of growing up in a white working-class household in which race and racism impacted his family in very particular ways. Fasching-Varner’s ides powerfully illustrate that regardless of sociological grouping it is critical for educators to first recognize the role of formal schooling in privileging some communities and systematically disenfranchising others. And then perform the gut-wrenching and laborious task of looking inward to assess their level of “implicated-ness” in this dehumanization. It is worth noting that Fasching-Varner’s approach to personal examination was aimed at disrupting pervasive narratives similar to Freire’s banking model, that children of color come with little if any useful preexisting understanding from their home communities, inherently need “fixing,” and, similar to Du Bois’s concern at the turn of the 20th century, are inherently a “problem.”

To combat this pathological framing of children and communities of color, Fasching-Varner calls for introspective work on the part of white teachers in a manner that they “fix” themselves. At the core of Fasching-Varner’s fixing is a deep questioning of a person’s actual purpose for becoming a teacher. While conducting the research for the book several of Fasching-Varner’s respondents gave the fairly common response that they entered the profession because they “love children.” However they had put little if any thought into how this vague conception of love for imagined students from diverse communities of which they have had no meaningful engagement would concretely impact their pedagogical relationships. Consequently, the results of Fasching-Varner’s research suggests it may very well be the case that despite a sense of compassion or empathy, the inability to take a sober look at one’s self and arrive at a deeper purpose for teaching affords an unintentional, yet no less damming, identity as a cog in the system of institutional dehumanization for students and teachers. In the end, in a Freirean sense, Fasching-Varner returns us to the fact that an essential part of countering the dehumanizing effect of white supremacy on white people is staunchly connected to doing the heart-work of attempting to divest from the wages of whiteness (Mitchell, 2013, p. 128) and build meaningful relationships with people of color.

Even though neither Freire nor Fasching-Varner make religion a primary focus, the aspects of their theorizing with the ultimate aim of establishing more equitable relations between students, teachers, and the broader community reflect a commitment to foundational spiritual values. Against this backdrop, our final illustration draws on similar conceptions of harmony and equity with an explicit focus on the more religious aspects of spirituality and their impact on schooling. Our featured theorist in these regards is Riyad Shahjahan, a devout Muslim who has lived and worked internationally, and traveled the globe extensively. His 2005 article “Spirituality in the Academy: Reclaiming from the Margins and Evoking a Transformative Way of Knowing the World” provides critical insight into his views about religion, spirituality, and schooling. The article opens with the pronouncement Bismillah hir rahmanir rahim, which means In the name of Allah, Most Gracious and Most Merciful. Building on the work of George Dei, Shahjahan (2005) contextualized this proclamation and his rationale for opening the article in this manner, stating:

by evoking such words that every Muslim starts any action and acknowledges his/her divine nature and the divine reality of the world. Through writing such words, I wish to acknowledge Allah, and ask for Allah’s guidance and support, while I undergo the journey of writing this paper. By beginning the paper this way, I have two objectives. First, I want to challenge the “political economy of knowledge production” (Dei, 2000, p. 129) that accords legitimacy to certain knowledge systems while it invalidates others. Second, I want to “rupture the sense of comfort and complacency in conventional approaches to knowledge production” (pp. 685–686).

This description of his scholarly activity framed through his monotheistic Islamic spiritual beliefs, like Frerie and Fasching-Varner, forwards a vision for education focused on interconnectivity between self and others. However for Shahjahan, the result of this connection with others and the cosmos in general he describes as producing instances where he sees “fragrance of the divine” (p. 697). Shahjahan’s comments in this article and others where he discuss his religious beliefs’ impact on his worldview are an important part of our discussion because in them he explicitly highlights the impetus for his scholarly activity as well as publicly affirms himself as a spiritual being.

This religiously informed perspective on spirituality and schooling explicitly impacts a scholar’s approach to developing pedagogical relationships, the questions that they explore, their development of methodologies, interpretive paradigms, and application of knowledge (Dillard, 2000). Consequently for Shahjahan, issues of uncertainty are governed by a form of divine justice in which a sentient being intimately related to humanity dictates order. From this perspective, the full inclusion of spirituality in education is essentially a pursuit of healing and connecting, with a paradigmatic appeal to a praxis of knowledge that will allow humanity, other beings, and the universe to heal and connect. This epistemic stand is a direct contradiction to the dualistic position of humanity separated from the cosmos and each other, as reflected in previously mentioned illustrations of science and reason becoming the primary paradigm in the Western world. Spiritually informed thought-forms instead build on interpretive paradigms that validate a worldview in which everything is sacred, rather than theory that is completely secular and that negates the spiritual, such as the Marxist theories in the case of Freire and the modernist foundations of critical race theory in Fasching-Varner’s case. Each is directly concerned with equitable social relations, but in Shahjahan’s case the pursuit of these aims is ultimately under Allah’s control.


From the prayers and collective transcendent aspirations of the enslaved to the reasoning of intellectual communities in pursuit of knowledge figuratively reserved for gods, humanity has continually pondered questions of existence, certainty, and security. These pursuits and musing have historically been categorized as spiritual. Several illustrations have been provided of individuals turning to the cosmos, reason, collectives, and rituals for these answers. A society’s understanding and response to these timeless questions are reflected in its approaches to education. Consequently, the tide that binds spirituality and education is an inherent possibility of both being a central part of developing a meaningful philosophy of life that addresses these questions of the spiritual. Therefore, when a society emphasizes a reason-based approach to schooling such as training for a profession, nationalism, or objective knowledge, a particular orientation to the self, society, and the universe is forwarded. This is opposed to schooling for engaging the infinitely interrelated complexities of living, which as the illustrations have sought to point out for the less fortunate may include the development of a counter-hegemonic group identity focused on healing and community well-being beyond objective knowledge of academic subject matter, training for a profession, or global completion. From this perspective, the foundations of schooling and spirituality are so tightly intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two. However, as a community comes to articulate what it values, then the influence of spirituality is seen. Through these deeper aspirations for education that focus on holism and healing, a spiritually informed approach to transcending the humanly imposed boundaries of the material and epistemic serve as an ongoing response to the inevitable sense of homelessness, insecurity, and uncertainty that drives humanity to eternally question the cosmos. And in these regards the influence of spirituality on education is no more—and no less—than a deep connection between student, teacher, and subject—a connection so honest, vital, and vibrant that it cannot help but be intensely relevant. Nourishment of this spark in the classroom allows it to flourish in the world, in the arenas of politics, medicine, engineering—wherever our students go after graduation (Jones, 2005, p. 1).

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