Thursday, April 13, 2006

Spirituality in Higher Education: Some Introductory Remarks

Peace, one and all...
Here's another journal... This one looks at spirituality in HE. I find this topic particularly interesting.
Spirituality in Higher Education
As I write this fourth journal of the year, I am currently in the first week of my Christmas holiday. As my thoughts turn from work to family (and turkey), it is perhaps natural that I should pause momentarily in order to reflect upon my current situation. Moreover, in pausing, I have begun to look at a longer term interest: spirituality in education. I have, therefore, included some very initial reflections on the subject in this journal.

I have just finished my first term in my new job at Cardiff University. It has been an extremely busy and yet immensely rewarding 6 months. I have encountered a range of new educational situations, which are hopefully making me a more fully rounded teacher and I am trying to make the most of them.

Although, as I said above, I am currently on vacation – it is really something of a busman’s holiday. I am trying to design and produce a new course to be taught in January. It is scheduled to be taught over 10 weeks and is entitled ‘An Introduction to Islam’. I am very excited (not to say more than a little nervous) about teaching this course. Although there are a number of reasons for this, two main points spring to mind. Firstly, as a Muslim myself, I am keen to portray my faith as accurately and as sensitively as possible. Secondly, although there has been a small amount of curriculum input from colleagues, I am designing the course almost entirely myself.

Having to design a course from scratch has presented me with a number of interesting challenges. From an educational point of view, arguably the most pressing of these has been how to make use of alternative teaching and learning strategies. I find that it is one thing to explore such worthwhile techniques (and indeed use them where possible); it is quite another thing to make use of them in designing a course against the clock, so to speak. How can I make use of such strategies? How can I maximise my students’ learning in such an environment?

To date, I am still attempting to answer these questions. Although I feel there is a long way to go (in fact, far longer than this course will last – once again, we come to the issue of time), I believe that the key lies in maximising student participation. If I can engage my students, help them ‘switch on’ to the course and begin exploring the issues involved, then I will be satisfied.

Education as Transformation
If there is one thing that I have learnt throughout my life, it is that education is transformation. That is, through learning I have grown, developed and ultimately, I have been transformed. I am neither referring to mere technical competence nor to isolated intellectual development; I am referring to an all-round personal growth. The more I learn and the older I get, the more I grow and the more I understand. In my own case therefore, education describes life – or perhaps more accurately, my path through it.

Upon reflection, this is why I would probably define education more widely than some others. To me, education does not refer to merely earning qualifications, nor does it refer to a narrow range of subjects; everything falls within the realm of education. Thinking about it, this is probably why I am interested in religious studies and history – because they offer the opportunity to look at different options, different ways of being, thinking and understanding.

People, of course, experience growth in different ways and on different levels. Indeed, this is only to be expected. If we each learn in our own individual fashion, from our own peculiar starting points, then it follows that we all have different lessons to experience – and also, that we all have insights that we could (and should) share with each other.

Spirituality & Higher Education
On a personal level, this is why I work where I do (in a University Religious Studies Department). I am interested in learning about other people’s perspectives – their beliefs, why they hold them and the impact they have on the way they live their lives. In other words, I am interested in spirituality, which I see as a kind of interior transformative learning.

Although this journal is not the place to examine spirituality in Higher Education in any great depth, a few key points are in order. Firstly, within my own field, there is a lot of emphasis placed upon empathy – particularly the ability to sensitively engage with different religious traditions. However, although it is easy to tell people about beliefs, it is very difficult to get people to experience them. By that, I mean it is difficult for others to see inside, to experience how beliefs feel. Given this, I think that there is room in Higher Education for courses which focus upon spirituality. However, before we even begin to look at the how, we have to understand what we are talking about.

Finding a Starting Point: What is Spirituality?
In recent weeks, I was involved in some class discussions on modern Wicca (specifically, Goddess Spirituality). The question before us was ‘Do women need the Goddess?’ This initiated a long and interesting debate. Although these debates touched upon a number of interesting topics, I was particularly struck by the fact that we kept returning to the same point, variously phrased: what is spirituality? What does it mean to be spiritual?

I therefore asked these questions outright. The responses were both wide-ranging and revealing.

One defined spirituality as ‘a sense of happiness’. This seemed to be a fairly common reaction. Although I think that happiness (or perhaps contentment) is an important component of a spiritual outlook, such a reductive definition fails to capture the breadth of the subject. In a sense, it sounds very similar to philosophical Utilitarianism, which despite its apparent worthiness can easily be perverted.

‘You can be spiritual about aliens’. Although this response might sound rather off-the-wall, it highlights a serious point. Today, many people believe in the existence of aliens. Moreover, many believe that they have an advanced spiritual message for us (such as David Icke for example). Although the nature of these beliefs may or may not appeal on an individual level, they are interesting in that they place spirituality outside of the person (simultaneously hinting at the deeper point of relationship). In other words, this point seems to be about belief in an external agency. In this context, the actual terms used to describe this agency matter very little.

Such a notion raises an interesting question. Do we need to have our sense of relationship defined and indeed validated by an outside force (do we need such a relationship in the first place)? This is a complex and ongoing question (and of course, well beyond our scope here), suffice it say that as a Muslim, my initial reaction would be to say yes (just as I would call that ‘force’ Allah, or God). For the moment, it is perhaps sufficient to note the thorny nature of the issue, as it relates to defining spirituality.

A third response was, ‘If you need [my italics] to rely on a Goddess then you will find something in it’. In other words, this highlights the question of need. Spirituality seems to be about fulfilling a need of some kind, finding something that we lack – the nature of that need is, of course, extremely difficult to talk about.

On one level, each viewpoint has equal value: after all, if each person brings a slightly different perspective to bear, then each has something important to contribute. However, this just serves to highlight the difficulty in understanding human spirituality – let alone trying to incorporate it into Higher Education!

First Attempts & Last Thoughts
Maslow makes an illuminating comment, which reveals something important about spiritual growth (and hence education):

‘A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is ultimately to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be’ (1968, q. in Gross, ibid, 119).

In other words, spirituality is about becoming what we were meant to be and thus becoming more fully human. To use modern educational parlance, it is about becoming an independent, actualised learner – reaching a place where we can see ourselves and others with clarity.

This has implications for education. For me as a teacher, it presents the challenge that everyone has a vital, unique perspective to be utilised, drawn upon and respected. Also, understanding this means that I have to seriously engage (in a very real and personal sense) – there can be no mere lip service to the ideal of equality, it must be thrashed out over time (dare I say, it has to be learned)! Spiritual growth and education go hand in hand as a dialogue (at the very least). I am very interested in exploring these issues more fully. Thus, in subsequent journals, I will touch upon other aspects of spirituality within education.


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