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Negotiating Spirituality in the Classroom


Spirituality and Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 18-19, 2005
Huston-Tillotson University
Austin, Texas


Patricia Carey, University Chancellor and Associate Dean, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University
Philip Dunston, Executive Director, Accelerated Interdisciplinary Degree Program, Clark Atlanta University
Virginia Kaiser, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Social Work Program, Marymount College of Fordham University
Katherine Oldmixon, Director of the Writing Program, Huston-Tillotson University

Philip Dunston

Religious institutions were the womb and matrix of higher education in America. Religious oriented schools and colleges were established as a means of reinforcing moral and religious beliefs and doctrine. The overriding purpose to American colonial education was to nurture and sustain a Christian civilization.[1] In this regard, institutions like Harvard and Yale were no different from Clark College or Atlanta University, the parent institutions that merged to form Clark Atlanta University. These institutions were founded for the purpose of training ministers and teachers to serve their communities as character builders.

The study of religion/spirituality was the centerpiece of the curriculum. Instructors were expected to integrate all knowledge in such a way as to reconcile religion and science. During the genesis of American education, science was prevented from undermining religion. Morals, character building and spirituality were emphasized during required chapel services, presidents’ addresses, convocations, and within the classroom.

The ties between religion/spirituality and higher education began to decline during the late nineteenth century. With the emergence of modern research and the scientific method of inquiry, a new intellectual climate emerged. It has taken the dawn of a new millennium to reintroduce religion/spirituality to mainstream higher education in America. This momentum reverberates with the intensity of the mid-1700’s period of the great awakening when the revitalization of religious piety swept through the American colonies. It would seem as though higher education is blazing a new frontier, when in actuality it is returning to its historical roots.

As a faculty presenter at the national symposium on spirituality and higher education, sponsored by the Faculty Resource Network, I begin the presentation with a silent meditation. My intent was to make theory come alive in the moment. The moment of silence ushered in a presence, an energy that set the atmosphere for the presentation. All of the theoretical and philosophical dialogue that had occurred throughout the symposium regarding the co-existence of spirituality and education were brought together in praxis. The ability of the spirit (spirituality) allowed me to connect with the audience.

If spirituality and higher education are to reemerge as pedagogical allies, it will be successful only to the degree that the teacher is fully alive and present with the spirit. In 1983 Parker Palmer published a book entitled To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. Palmer began a journey around the world conversing with teachers in diverse settings. Since then, he has authored several books, numerous articles, lectures and workshops on why spirituality and education can and must co-exist.

In his groundbreaking book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, Palmer states, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”[2]

The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogue, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, and creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods, but in their hearts, meaning the place where intellect, emotion, spirit and will converge in the human self.”[3] In other words, effective pedagogy requires something other than human will and intellect. It is the spirit within the teacher and the student that is the conduit for this connection.

The movement of energy from one soul to the other is what breathes life into the pedagogical relationship. The spirit supports the creation of an environment that makes the sharing of ideas, thoughts and perspectives conducive for learning. The inner life of the teacher must serve as a conduit for that transmission. Effective teaching is created in the integration of spirit, mind and body.

The effective teacher is not hesitant about critical introspection. Knowledge of self, including spiritual self, is a critical building block for effective teaching. If students are going to learn anything from us it must come through us. In a holistic view of life we are creatures with a mind, a body, and a spirit-all interconnected and arranged in a pattern that means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Higher education in America has come full circle and is now returning to its future. When the founders of the nation of America declared its independence, its educational system was designed with the purpose of nurturing a Christian/spiritual civilization. Between the American Revolution and the end of the nineteenth century religion/spirituality was dropped by the wayside as America marched into modernism. The new millennium has brought a reversal of that perspective and now religion/spirituality is again at the forefront of conversation regarding education. In the spirit of SANKOFA, we must look back in order to move forward.

Virginia Kaiser

Social Work is a profession which traces its roots to spiritually motivated individuals called “friendly visitors,” who provided the poor with concrete needs such as food, housing and clothing. However, their main focus was that of addressing what they saw as the lack of morals and spiritual direction of the poor.

This interest in serving the needy became a profession, with an academic core of educational requirements incorporated within the university’s interdisciplinary liberal arts framework. Social work became closely affiliated with the discipline of psychology and accepted the theories of early psychologists such as Freud who believed that spirituality and religion were dangerous delusions/mental illness. Although social workers were educated to see the individual in a holistic perspective, addressing the interrelationship of developmental and societal variables, the client’s belief system was neglected and excluded from the assessment and treatment process.

Spencer (1961) called attention to the crucial need for religion to be incorporated into social work education. Joseph (1988) generated data on spirituality from a developmental framework, which provided a strong base for further theoretical exploration and empirical research, and clearly indicated that the study of religious and spiritual concerns were within the parameters of social work practice.

In the early seventies, the American Psychological Association (APA) did a turnabout and formally recognized “Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues” as a division of the APA. Within the field of psychiatry, religious concerns began to be considered an important and neglected area of analysis. New research in the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology disputed the negative concepts of the relationship between mental illness and religion.

Presently, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires accredited social work programs to incorporate the spiritual and religious aspect of the whole person at both an undergraduate and graduate level. Students are educated to understand that the social worker can best serve the client by knowing how the holding or denying of beliefs affect human feelings, attitudes or life adjustment, and how the events of life can affect a client’s concept of God.

Regardless of her/his belief or lack of belief, it is the social worker’s responsibility, to be acutely sensitive to the role of spirituality in the client’s life experience, and have a clear understanding of which problems require the help of a skilled spiritual advisor, in the same manner that she/he is skilled in assisting a client to seek the help of a psychiatrist or other medical specialist. The social worker must be prepared to deal not only with the problematic and negative situations of life in regard to the clients spiritual life, but is equally responsible for helping the client to use their faith experience affirmatively in the routine and sometimes less dramatic situations of every day life.

This paper will discuss how this is accomplished in an undergraduate social work program by sharing personal experience, student response and syllabus content.

Bergin, A. E., (1983) Religiosity and Mental Health: A Critical Reevaluation and Meta-Analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 14 (2) 170-184.

Council on Social Work Education. (1994). Handbook on Accreditation Standards and Procedures (4th ed.) Alexandria, VA: Author.

Freud, S., (1957) The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters, Drafts and Notes to Wilhelm Fleiss, 1887-1902. New York: Doubleday.

Joseph, V, M., (1988) Religion and Social Work Practice. Social Casework: The Journal of Contemporary Social Work. 443-452.

Spencer, S. W. Religious and Spiritual Values in Social Casework Practice. Social Casework. No.10 Vol. XXXVIII. New York.

Katherine Oldmixon

Let me begin with my working definition of spirituality as an aspect of humanness that inheres in our being, in our consciousness and conscience. Spirituality is an inner life that is integrated with our thoughts and emotions and with our physical bodies. Spirituality is an essential, rather than superfluous, part of each person’s being, yet in the university we often treat spirituality as something not integral but secondary, which can be set aside or should be covered when we enter classrooms, the domain of the intellectual. The truth is that in education, we by necessity engage our spirituality as teachers and as learners even as we cultivate critical and analytical thinking, creativity, aesthetic perception, intuition, and ethical reasoning.

Recognizing that we, by necessity, bring our spirituality into the classroom is an act of unmasking that demystifies our wholeness, the human integrity we bring to our academic experience. At the same time, the process of unmasking—if it is a genuine unmasking and not just a projection of our religion–is often destabilizing, discomfiting us students and teachers. We realize our whole beings present in a network of contradictions and tensions, and we feel vulnerable. And when we face our personal integrity, our wholeness, as an aspect we have hardly before considered consciously, let alone in relation to diverse integral others, the simplest ethical issue seems complicated. What I want to say is that this unmasking is necessary to the cultivation and internalization—to the learning—of genuine academic integrity.

And I want to say that this recognition of our spirituality, which is an unmasking of our integrity, has to take place in an atmosphere of academic freedom. By academic freedom, here I mean the liberal exchange and exposure to a universe of ideas, perspectives and truths. The necessity of academic freedom coincides with the idea of the university. But the converse of learning through academic freedom is instinctive, the instinct to protect the internal self with a system of familiar, unchallenged beliefs.

This is what I have seen time and again in literature classes, for instance, when a young student holding tightly to the beliefs with which she has been raised seems to react in fear when faced with literature that presents beliefs, customs, or ideas that are new and unfamiliar, even before she has examined them in relation to her own. The belief systems that protect us may well be true and good and life-sustaining, but we are constantly threatened when they are not completely integrated into our being. And they can’t be completely integrated into our being if we have not interrogated them and embraced them consciously. This often painful educational act, which exposes us quite literally to ourselves and to others, helps us to resolve contradictions or recognize our own paradoxes. It also cultivates in us an active ethical sense that compels us towards social justice and our unity and our diversity and our wholeness. This is the aim of education in the humanities.

I believe that recognizing and cultivating diverse spiritual ways of knowing as we approach our fields of study, especially in the humanities, leads us away from hate and bigotry. What I am advocating to negotiate spirituality in the classroom is the pedagogy of empathy. Concretely, we need strategies that allow us to engage diverse persons and diverse spiritualities in our classrooms, strategies that foster empathy.

I am going to suggest a few classroom practices, nothing original, that work for me and others in literature, art, and rhetoric classes and in many other courses of study. One is meta-discourse. Instead of hiding the fact that there are spiritual beings in the house (and they are us), we own what it is we are bringing to the space, and we discuss what that means, and how we will negotiate our differences respectfully in the space we share. That doesn’t mean that spirituality is always the subject on the table, but that it isn’t always not on the table. The students have to be involved in writing the rules of discourse.

Secondly, I have to provide truly diverse texts, art, and other forms of cultural expression, and I have to be ready to consider and hear out truly diverse perspectives on what I think I already understand and know. Thirdly, I bring in images and invite the students to bring in images that are relevant to our course of study and that connect with human experience. This is important because we live in a visual culture, and envisioning reaches students through the medium with which they are most familiar. But the images that I am speaking of are not only those sighted people understand. I am speaking of vision, which all people share, visions of experience.

Vision humanizes unfamiliar humanity. As we read visual and literary texts in the classroom, we learn to ponder, to describe what we see before we infer, associate and interpret. We frame and reframe, reflect and refract. Envisioning, we apply to written texts and texts we are writing. We talk about the way we come to know ourselves and to understand others. We talk about what our faces look like in our imaginations, in our literal mirrors, and in the eyes of various others who reflect us to ourselves. The aim of pedagogy of empathy is empathy, not simply tolerance, and empathy seems to me to be the aim of negotiating spirituality in the classroom. We aim for an understanding of others that begins by unmasking ourselves.

1 Laurence, Peter. Can religion and spirituality find a place in higher education?
2 Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Josey-Bass, San Francisco, 1988.
3 Ibid. page 11