Spirituality, Education, and the Moral Life

Kieran Egan


We might sensibly begin by asking what are the three things that form the title of this symposium. And perhaps particularly we need to ask what "Spirituality" means. Obviously it has a lot of meanings, or is used variously by different people. Some mention the word with the curled lip of contempt; to them it represents commitments beyond the tangible and knowable world--a kind of hangover from a "primitive" past. Spirituality is an infantile condition in which weak-minded people reject the reality of the world accessible to rational inquiry, preferring instead a miasma of imagination-generated fantasies or myths. Others mention it with a kind of romantic yearning; for some it refers to a condition of being that offers a comfort and satisfaction unavailable in their everyday lives, or a completeness of being not satisfied by everyday living. And between these, there is a network of related meanings. The task here is to locate what Spirituality can mean in the context of education and the moral life.

In general, Spirituality has involved the belief that the everyday world accessible to our senses is not all there is, or that it is a front for deeper meanings. It may be a front made of illusions or disguises which hide another different reality below or behind it. Or it may be a front that is not so much a disguise or illusion as a starting point into deeper recesses not immediately apparent on the surface.

The sense of the immediately accessible world as an illusion or disguise of a different and "more real" reality behind it has a long heritage. Everyday rality may be represented as like a cave wall, or a sleep. Chuang Tse long ago, in what is perhaps his best known playful reflection, suggested that we are like a man who is asleep. In sleep that person may dream, and may even dream that he is dreaming. But when he wakes, he realizes that it was a dream. And so for us, perhaps some day there will be a great awakening when we will realize this everyday world was just a strange dream. A little later some way from Chuang Tse, another mystic, jokester, dreamer, and philosopher, Plato, suggested a similar image. Our life is like that of prisoners looking at the shadows on a wall, imagining that those shadows are all of reality. But, by releasing the prisoner within us, we can come to see that reality is more abundant and rich, and as different from the shadows of everyday experience as a dream is to reality.

Dreams, of course, are part of the trouble for us. They represent a kind of experience that is quite different from our everyday waking world, and suggest that what can seem so real at one time is just an illusion or just a small part of a greater reality that we only occasionally experience. "Spirituality" has come to represent a wide variety of responses to the sense that there is "something more." That something more can be conceived of as another world, believed to exist "elsewhere" in another condition of reality not accessible except through faith. Alternatively, Spirituality can be conceived of as properly a part of this everyday world, but a condition of mind that affords us a deeper grasp of the richness and abundance of this reality, commonly hidden from most people under the trivial, conventional, anaesthetizing forms of everyday life.

What I want to focus on is the sense of Spirituality that involves the belief that there is a form of intense and meaningful existence whose relationship with our everyday experience is problematic. I will begin with one writer who has discussed using education as a preparation and training for experiencing the world with this heightened intensity. People who see Spirituality in this sense of heightening the intensity of everyday experience are not claiming something that is incompatible with those who believe in another, spiritual world--commonly associated with a religious belief. But I want to show how a sense of Spirituality not necessarily associated with any religious belief can be a sensible part of an educational program because, simply, it enriches our experience of being human.

Many have tried to describe ways in which that intensity can be a feature of our experience more often, or show how the degree of intensity for any individual can be enhanced, if only a little. And that will be the aim of this paper too. I will explore how we can educate in a way that will enhance and enrich the individual's experience in a particular way, where that particularity has to do with the quality we call Spirituality.



I think Plato presents a good beginning point for such an exploration, because, of course, it was precisely a form of understanding of the world that exposed its true but hidden nature that he was most interested in generating through education. But perhaps one shouldn't talk about beginnings so casually. Plato's own interests are clearly tied up with the ancient myths of his culture, and more immediately with the ideas of his predecessor Pythagoras.

Pythagoras, as far as we can tell, believed that the world accessible to our senses, and the body that contained those senses, were spiritually tied to wider cosmos. By study and understanding of the orderly cosmos, we reproduce its order in ourselves. The order and harmony of the cosmos, for Pythagoras, was caught in number. Well, my purpose isn't to explore the mysterious ideas of "the golden-thighed Pythagoras" but rather to indicate that Plato's educational ideas had a long history before being shaped into his own scheme, that influences us still.

Another inheritance of Plato's that might be worth pausing for, is the belief that the world was originally and essentially made of a single, fundamental essence. The origins of this idea lie at the heart of Greek mythology, and the path from Greek myths of origin to the complexities of Plato's vision has been tracked many times, perhaps rarely with such sympathy as by F.M. Cornford (especially in his 1912 book From Religion to Philosophy.) At the beginnings of rational inquiry in Greece we find people claiming that all things are made of water, or of fire. Why should anyone belief that the multifarious world is made up, essentially, of one fundamental substance? Well, who knows?--but that belief is a product of a mythology that asserted that the cosmos was made of some ultimate substance. For the Greeks, then, from the beginnings of their culture it was a familiar presupposition that the world as we see it and interact with it on an everyday basis, does not disclose its essence, its fundamental nature, its physis to us. To discover that, we need to inquire using our reason and imagination. And our inquiry called physics is a continuation of this ancient study of the nature of things.

Such a general view of the world is common in many cultures around the world. What was a little peculiar about the Greeks is the direction their inquiry into the world beyond our senses took. In Plato's hands it became an aggressive educational program designed to turn the mind of the student from the conventional and confused view of the world that presented itself to us when we are unreflective to what he represented as the truth about reality.

He imagined this process taking most of a person's life. It begins in youth, when the child's mind is defenseless against illusions. Like most great educational thinkers, Plato was less concerned about how to get students to learn but rather how to get them to unlearn the errors they accumulate in their early years. This old assumption seems recently to have become common again--and is now taken as a great insight produced by modern empirical research that shows how students' fallacious folk-knowledge of physics and other sciences is rarely adequately displaced by a their school science classes. It's always naughtily amusing to see modern researchers, ignorant of the history of their area of study, rediscovering ancient ideas and trumpeting them as their own most modern findings.

Initially, Plato says, our minds are dominated by the appearances of things. We assume the world is the way it first appears to us as; how it seems is how it is. The stories we are first told about the world are those we mostly die believing. If children are told the world is flat and rides on the back of a turtle, they will interpret their experience in these terms; if they are told they are on a vast orb spinning in space, they will believe that. For Plato, the first task of education was to begin disturbing the conventional beliefs children pick up in their earliest years.

Later, when students approach adulthood, they need to engage in the kinds of careful inquiry that can help to shuck away all false assumptions, and discover the nature of things. This will require many years of study along with a kind of sanctity. Plato's educated person is more like our modern notions of a combination of the monk or nun with the scholar.

So it seems as though we meet, near the beginning of the Western tradition of educational theorizing, our combination of Spirituality, education, and the moral life. It was that set of human experiences that Plato was intent on generating, and showing us how they might be achieved together.

What is a little odd to us today is his insistence that the moral life can be achieved through an austere study of mathematics and the sciences, while he expresses considerable suspicion of the arts' ability to aid us in such a development. Today something like the opposite is assumed. That is, the arts are assumed to provide the stimulus to the kinds of sensitivities and sensibilities that help to carry us in the direction s of the moral life and constitute in part our modern sense of Spirituality. The study of the finest literature is supposed to bring to life, within students, ways of seeing deeper meaning in the world and their experience. (Mind you, if this is the case you would expect professors of English to be the finest exemplars of these particular virtues. A look at any typical English department in a university will show the absurdity of such a proposition. Also, it is salutary to bear in mind Anthony Burgess's fable A Clockwork Orange, in which the central character's love of the finest music stimulates him to sadistic atrocities.)

Plato's concern, however, is never with simply mastering the facts of a subject, as though accumulating knowledge by itself would somehow produce an educated person. (A.N. Whitehead says that such a program would more likely produce the greatest bores on God's earth.) Plato is constantly trying to show that intellectual disciplines provide just one, though a necessary, constituent of education. Disciplined knowledge is required so that we can break down the illusions of our early understanding. That is, one primary requirement in Plato's Spirituality is a precise and careful knowledge of the way things are. The scholarly virtues of precision, care, and meticulous honesty are rare enough at the best of times, and under current pressures for publication and the minor celebrity of academia, rarer still.

But Plato's requirement fits with the conception of a mystic in both eastern and western traditions. The mystic is not someone who lives in some invented world of stories and peculiar beliefs--as seems popularly to be supposed. The distinguishing characteristic of mystics is their having seen reality with a unique purity--perhaps only once in strange circumstances, but it is enough to change a life, or to cause a fall from a horse. The mystic sees past the illusions and confusions that are the lot of most of us most of the time. What Plato tries to lay out for us is the path that can take us in the direction of this condition. He acknowledges that it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but he thinks it is the best human life has to offer, and following the path through rough ground is consequently worth a bit of trouble.

Along with the intellectual disciplines come physical and moral disciplines. The student cannot gain the benefits of a moral life and spiritual understanding if they are cowards. Physical courage is required, and he outlines a program that will encourage this. Central to moral development is the recognition that there are things worth suffering for and worth dying for. These disciplines will ensure that "we will not defile our souls" and that all will be well with us when we cross the river of Lethe. "Then we shall be at peace with Heaven and with ourselves . . . and we shall fare well." This is his promise as one of the fruits of successfully fulfilling his educational program, and those are the words with which he concludes his Republic, and its search for how justice can be made supreme in human affairs.

The constant aim of Plato's educational program is to carry the students' minds beyond the shifting surface of the world, and to make contact with that which is firm and unchanging and eternally reliable. As people are less sure such foundations and such reliability exist, so Plato's program comes into disrepute. For Plato, virtue and knowledge were tied together, and so the pursuit of truth was centrally a moral enterprise. This is something Plato is supposed to have been plainly wrong about; he made a category mistake which later philosophers have pointed out. But the obverse part of Plato's belief at least seems true. Egotism and selfishness in their various forms, and other moral inadequacies, breed illusions and confusions whose result is the impossibility of attaining the kind of understanding of which Plato presents us with an idealized picture. While the love of truth is perhaps, as A. E. Housman put it, the faintest of all human passions, one might have greater sympathy with Plato's point by seeing it the terms Iris Murdoch uses: "'Truth' is not just a collection of facts. Truthfulness, the search for truth, for a closer connection between thought and reality, demands and affects an exercise of virtues and a purification of desires . . . . Thought, goodness and reality are thus seen to be connected." (1992, p. 8). Plato built this observation into a complex educational program, and we might give more attention to his ideas in light of our own considerable lack of success in generating in modern students much sign of Spirituality, love of truth, and the disciplines that understanding the world requires.


Spirituality and education in a postmodern age


All that may be fine for ancient Greeks, you might think, but what relevance can it have to a world of Wal-Marts, Macdonalds, and postmodern irony? Irony, after all, is supposed to dissolve away that mystical nonsense once and for all. The world accessible to our senses is to be recognized as the only world we have, and we should get on with making the best of it, rather than hankering after some impossible Spirituality hanging over from less ironic ages.

But today we are no less concerned that students understand the world and their experience in more than the conventional terms they will pick up from everyday life in society. Indeed, educational institutions seem often to be at war with a crude materialism and cruder cultural forms encouraged by the "entertainment industry." If by Spirituality we mean recognition that human experience offers richness and intensity beyond the surface of easy gratification currently so readily available, how are we to make its appeal as great as that easy gratification? Perhaps, after all, that richer intensity isn't everyone's cup of tea, and those who gravitate towards it are the only ones who are likely to enjoy it, so why bother trying to proselytize the mass of students who are satisfied with the surface sensations of experience. And, anyway, isn't this an appallingly élitist and unpermissible way of talking in a democratic age?

The great ally in the battle to encourage students to discover and explore the richer intensities of experience, than those available in the typical Hollywood product, or from MTV, is assumed to be the arts. If we get them reading poetry rather than hearing the lyrics of the latest pop songs or country music, or listening with joy to Schubert rather than the ubiquitous pop music, then, it seems to be believed, we will be leading them in the direction of a richer Spirituality. And if we get them writing and composing their own poetry and music, then it seems commonly assumed, we are educating them well in the direction of more intense and rich human experience. Before going further with these assumptions, it may be worth pausing to reconsider Plato's objection to them.

His first objection was that these arts are themselves illusions, diverting us from the deeper, more serious tasks of understanding and experiencing the reality of our world and experience. We might also add the reductio ad absurdum mentioned above about English Professors. If this view of the arts were true, then the artists and writers of our time would be the exemplary exponents of this form of Spirituality. Perhaps one sees the marks of a deeper understanding of the nature of things in artists as a whole than one does in, say, bank officials as a whole. But I'm not convinced that is really the case. The expectation that it is true that artists are closer to more intense human experience than bank managers seems to me rather a hangover from one of the cheaper images promoted by Romanticism. Of course the very best poets, say, might exemplify some of the virtues we are looking for, but so might some of the best bank managers.

So who does display the qualities of Spirituality we are looking for? Priests? I'm sure we have all known holy philistines. Physicists? Nurses? Gardeners? Professors of Education? Well, clearly we are not going to identify some group that has all the virtues we expect of the educated person, when we understand education as entailing this notion of deeper intensity of human experience. We might find it almost anywhere, among almost any group.

But how are we to bring it about today? Some of its constituents seem clear enough to go to work on devising such an educational program. It must begin by encouraging children to question the conventional beliefs they form about the world and experience. It will need also to introduce them into the variety of ways people have struggled to make vivid a range of intense human experience. It will need to introduce them into the delights of scholarly virtues, like precision, caution, very careful and intense observation, and delight in discovery. It will need to open to them the pleasure of self-sacrifice for the good of others, with no expectation of return. It will need to engage them in the strange pleasures of discovering the past and how it shaped the present.

Yes, that's right. I am really only saying things we all already know. I suppose I want to argue only that we need to take them more seriously. Nothing much is going to be done in schools to counter the massive waves of popular a-culture that sweep over students if we ourselves lack the virtues whose value we hope to seduce students into seeing.



So what are education and the moral life? Education is the maximizing of the students' acquisition of the cultural artifacts generated by other human beings, so that they become what may be, inadequately, called cognitive tools. The more of these we have available for making sense of the world and experience, the better chance we have of appreciating those visions of human experience we collectively call Spirituality.

And what is the moral life? Beats me. What is wrong with Pythagoras's notion that it is achieved by recreating in oneself the best order and harmony we can find in the world?

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