Thursday, June 22, 2006

On Spirituality and (Mis)education

This piece below and responses to it--as summarized by Boggs below--are getting circulated. I concur that insufficient attention is accorded to education and spirituality. I appreciate how spirituality is front and center in a lot of American Indian Studies' examination of education.

Nel Noddings in her book, THE CHALLENGE TO CARE IN SCHOOLS also finds an appropriate place for spirituality in schools. I, too, advocate in my own work that caring authentically for youth involves both socially and politically conscious awareness and also a thoughtful and sincere disposition toward youth. These connect both to social justice and our children's right to be treated humanely and with dignity.

I've been really busy and so I've not posted much these days so forgive me if you sent me something to post that I somehow overlooked. I'm the director of a new education policy studies center at UT called the Education Policy Alliance and it's been a time-consuming, creative endeavor. The best part is the wonderful team of students and faculty who are associated with "The Alliance," as we call ourselves. We inaugurate in the Fall. More on this later.



ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The Moral & Spiritual Miseducation of America's Youth

By Grace Lee Boggs

A reader recently sent me an article with this title by Svi Shapiro who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I reprint it (slightly edited for length) in the hope that it will generate widespread discussion and struggle.

"A colleague of mine," Shapiro writes, "often asked his students two questions. What do you consider some of the most serious issues facing human beings today? To what extent are students in schools being prepared to address such concerns?

"Typical answers to the first question included violence, the materialistic culture, inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, sense of powerlessness among ordinary people, emphasis on celebrity, fame and exploitation of sexuality in every part of our society, and the environmental crisis.

"The second question brought the collective acknowledgement that schools offer little to prepare young people to make the critical decisions that face us all in this century.

"While liberals argue that schools ought to be places that provide a value-neutral space for young people, conservatives have, correctly I believe, recognized that schools are places that transmit a powerful agenda of values. These views remain deeply imprinted in our identities long after we have forgotten how to solve quadratic equations, the words of a poem or the dates of a battle.

"What schools relentlessly teach is a belief in the importance of personal success, individual achievement, the competitive race for recognition, the inequitable distribution of human worth, the belief that only things that 'can be counted count' and that education's true importance is as a vehicle to sort and select winners and losers.

"What schools do is compare and search for winners and losers. Education becomes more rote and increasingly shallow. What matters is the well-rehearsed performance on the test, not about the curiosity awakened or the joy of discovery released. A shallow and instrumental conformism is substituted for a willingness to think imaginatively and to question boldly and critically.

"The real crisis of education is the withering of our children's souls inside our classrooms. Put aside the divisive banner of religion for a moment. It is surely a spiritual crisis when education offers young people little that might direct them towards a meaningful or purposeful life. Schools increasingly fail to contribute to a moral vision of a worthwhile existence beyond grubbing for better grades and playing the grade-point average game. It's not surprising that cheating and cutting corners are so pervasive among our most 'successful' students as they learn to work the system to their best advantage.

"Do we need an alternative moral and spiritual vision for the way we educate our young? The prophetic impulse that is found in our great religious teachings might be a good place to start. We need human beings who learn to see all human beings as made in the image of the divine; human worth is intrinsic to us and not something that depends
on our success in the marketplace or in how much we can impress others.

"An authentic existence is found in our service to others and in the improvement of our world, not in consumerism and materialism. A full human life means both agency and responsibility--the capacity to think about and question needless suffering, indignity and injustice, and the commitment to make changes where needed. And beyond the debates on evolution and intelligent design we surely can agree that Creation--the earth and life in all its forms--is a source of awe and wonder. In acquiring this reverence for creation we ensure the next generation's concern with a planet that can sustain and nourish the extraordinary chain of existence.

"Our challenge is to ask ourselves what kind of vision we want schools to offer our children. Of course in our culturally divided society this no easy task. Yet in spite of all our apprehensions and suspicions there is one thing that stands out; we as a society are increasingly aware of the shallowness and shabbiness of our dominant culture. There is growing alarm at the degrading and callous egotism that shapes our kids world and whether we call it spirituality, religion, morality or wisdom--there is increasing recognition that our children need and deserve an education that awakens them to a life of greater purpose and meaning than the one schools currently offer."

Source: Michigan Citizen, June 18-24, 2006

posted 16 June 2006

Honoring our Children's Souls
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, June 25-July 1, 2006

The responses to last week's column in which I reprinted Dr. Svi
Shapiro's article on "The Spiritual and Moral Miseducation of America's
Youth " suggest that the escalating crisis of our public schools may
finally be forcing more people to honor the "souls" of our children, as
Dr. DuBois once honored "the Souls of Blacks Folks."

"The real crisis of education is the withering of our children's souls
inside our classrooms," according to Shapiro.

One reader who works with young people at the Rosa Parks Institute for
Self-Development called the article "excellent" and promised to "share
it with as many people as I can."

Another, who teaches education at the University of Michigan, found
the piece "provocative " and intends to share it with "the graduate
and undergraduate students that I will be working with this year."

At the same time the response from a Wayne State University
professor of education deserves closer examination because I suspect it is
more typical. "While I do not disagree with what you or Shapiro says, "
he wrote, "good public schools do teach values such as hard work,
responsibility, clear thinking and often ask students to reflect on what is
happening around them. The problem of directly bringing spirituality into
schools is the question of whose spirituality (religion) and do we have to
believe it or practice it to get a good grade in the class. After all, one
may privately pray in public schools and teach about religion."

This professor has no difficulty in acknowledging conventional
values like hard work and responsibility. But he seems reluctant to
encourage discussion among his students of more spiritual (and more
controversial) questions like striving for a more cooperative, less
competitive and less unequal society or whether achieving success justifies
any means to that end. This is in part because he assumes (in my
opinion, mistakenly) that only religious people believe questions like
these matter, and like other public employees, he is (justifiably)
fearful of being drawn into discussions or arguments about religion.

Yet it is impossible to educate children without recognizing that,
like all human beings, they consist not only of minds and bodies but of
souls. In other words, they are constantly faced with making choices or
decisions that stem from competing values. For example, despite the
large number of inner city youth who sell drugs, the great majority do
not - not only because they fear the consequences to themselves but
because they reject involvement in an activity that is so destructive of
human lives.

Meanwhile, sixteen freshmen were recently expelled from a
prestigious suburban school for hacking into the computerized grading
system and changing their own and other students' grades. Isn't this Enron
in the making a byproduct of too much testing, and not paying enough
attention to children's souls?

If , on the other hand, we acknowledged and honored our children's
souls, our schools would engage them in community-building activities with
the same audacity with which the civil rights movement engaged them in
desegregation activities 40 years ago: planting community gardens,
recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals,
rehabbing houses, painting public murals. By giving our children and young
people a better reason to learn than just the individualistic one of
getting a job or making more money, by encouraging them to exercise their
Soul Power, we would get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning would
come from practice which has always been the best way to learn.

Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms
organized to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic
structures, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people
drop out from inner city schools is because they are voting with their
feet against a system which sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies
them like products of a factory. They are crying out for another kind of
education that values them as human beings and gives them opportunities to
exercise their Soul Power.


  1. I think Shapiro is correct when he asserts the "materialistic" nature of social education. However, he is off base in contending that what children are crying out for is "Soul Power". Children are not born with such concepts but are injected with them like a belief in Santa.

    It is the capitalist model that creates these maladies of competiveness, winners and losers and the alienating relegation of people as "cogs in existing economic structures". Marx correctly noted that capitalism does not hold religion[s] (from which this entire notion of the "soul" comes) as being exempt from its ravages. "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned..."

    You will not change anything by infusing dogma into education except to give capitalism[ists] the advantage of using religion and dogma as way to manipulate and control social structures with religious discipline.

    Let us not infuse our children with what amounts to a specious argument for "soul power" when what they need is truth. Capitalism is what creates these inequalities and thus far our most staunch religious "soul-searching" political players are precisely the same folks who subscribe to further economic and social inequality (i.e. social conservatives). What we need is more participation in the political process with an emphasis on parity. It starts by educating our children in political science and sociology--not particular religious concepts. Graduating from high school, a child needs to be armed with more political knowledge than how often the president is elected.

  2. I think that so much of this is semantics. We can be soulful, but not dogmatic, don't you think? W.E.B. Dubois thought so. Thanks for sharing your views. I hope that others do, too. -Angela

  3. I'm posting this on behalf of Alice Vogel:

    I really picked up on the phrase "trying to bully young people to stay in the classroom". Along with that is "trying to bully teachers" into keeping them there. Without appropriate goals, curriculum, support, structure, and assessments. Also,certainly there is agreement with the professor of education about teaching common values. But there is a difference between spiritual beliefs and religious practices. Although most people attest to both as entertwined, it is possible to have spirituality without outward signs of religious practices. Honest discourse in a safe environment can promote growth and mutual respect, if not understanding.