Academic Exchange Quarterly   Spring  2003    Volume 7, Issue 1



Spiritual Growth in the Secular Schools


Marsha Newman, St. Mary’s College, Moraga, CA



Biography:  Marsha Newman is Coordinator of the Liberal & Civic Studies Program at St. Mary’s College.  She is an interdisciplinary scholar with specialization in visionary literature and the scholarship of teaching and learning.



Abstract:  The development of compassion for others through awareness and service is a basic ingredient in most recipes for spiritual growth.   In many religious traditions, this is measured by the movement from solipsistic individuality to a shared concern for and participation in the larger community.  Increasingly, educators believe that the public schools can also function as communities in support of the development of understanding and compassion.  To do so requires the provision of a context that is incontrovertibly shared, such as the framework of democracy, in which individual and community are both highly valued.  A most effective pedagogy is the structuring of a democratic classroom, and the implementation of service-learning, through which intrinsic motivation to grow in concern for others is successfully fostered.  In this way, “spiritual” growth can be a concern of the secular schools.














Spiritual Growth in the Secular Schools



The development of compassion for others through awareness and service is a basic ingredient in most recipes for spiritual growth.  However, the development of genuine concern for others is not only evidence of spiritual evolution, but of psychological and emotional maturation.  Moreover, it is a vital stage in human growth that deserves support through the public school curriculum.  While the classroom is a secular space, the individuals who come together there are products of many diverse spiritual traditions.  In acknowledging some of the common insights and values offered by these traditions, and their relevance to a democratic, secular society, schools can incorporate discussions of  values in the classroom without violating principles of religious freedom, or straining the legal limits of such state-funded institutions.


The degree to which individuals learn to care about others is not only a psychological and social concern, but is seen by many religious traditions as a measure of spiritual growth.  Within Christianity, St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, adds insight to Jesus’ command to love others, by warning against the mistake of solipsistic self-absorption:


          When I see people very diligently trying to discover what kind of prayer they are experiencing and so completely wrapt up in their prayers that they seem afraid to stir, or to indulge in a moment’s thought, lest they should lose the slightest degree of the tenderness and devotion which they have been feeling, I realize how little they understand of the road to the attainment of union.  They think that the whole thing consists in this.  But no, sisters, no; what the Lord desires is works.  If you see a sick woman to whom you can give some help, never be affected by the fear that your devotion will suffer, but take pity on her: if she is in pain, you should feel pain too; if necessary, fast so that she may have your food…if you find you are lacking in this virtue, you have not yet attained union.  So ask Our Lord to grant you this perfect love for your neighbor….


                                              (The Interior Castle, 116-117)


Here St. Teresa suggests that it is compassion that releases us from the circumscription of egoic identity with the small, individual self, and moves us towards selflessness, an open state, receptive to union through love. The complexity of the command to love is that this transcendent act is accomplished not solely by an intellectual choice, nor by a movement of the will in accordance with faith, but by acts of sacrifice.


Within the Jewish tradition, Martin Buber speaks eloquently of “sacrifice” as an essential stage in the act of relating to another.  He distinguishes, however, between a sacrifice of “things” or offerings, which he calls “magic,” and a sacrifice of the small self, which is a step towards relationship with others and with God.  In a passage from his well-known book I and Thou, he explains:


          What distinguishes sacrifice and prayer from all magic?--Magic desires to obtain its effects without entering into relation, and practices its tricks in the void. But sacrifice and prayer are set “before the Face.” In the consummation of the holy primary word that means mutual action: they speak the Thou, and then they hear (83).


The psychology of union within the Hindu tradition bears some primary similarities to both Christian and Jewish thought, but with the difference that the “sacrifice” and the union are seen as a progressive movement from lower (selfish) to higher (generous) centers of consciousness represented by chakras, or centers of energy and consciousness within the human body.  Through acts of purification, meditation and charity, energy, or “shakti,” progresses upwards through these centers until it reaches the crown chakra at the top of head, where small self and large Self merge in one.  At this point, self-consciousness ceases, as “I” and “Thou” are united.  In Hindu teachings, the attainment of enlightenment, then, depends upon a kind of sacrifice: the renunciation of the restrictive concept of the small self (jivan), and the identification with the higher Self (Atman) (Madhusudandasji, 8-10). 


That growth in love and compassion is a sign of spiritual progress is also emphasized by Annemarie Schimmel in her book, Mystical Dimensions of Islam.  There she explains that within the Sufi tradition, “the last stations on the mystical path are love and gnosis….Sometimes they were considered complementary to one another, sometimes love was regarded as superior, and at other times gnosis was considered higher” (130).  Schimmel further notes a resonance between Sufi concepts of love, and the dictum of St. Augustan, “one can know something only insofar as one loves it” (131).  She further shows the central place of love in Sufi practice by citing the words of the  Sufi Prophet: “O God, give me love of Thee, and love of those who love Thee, and love of what makes me approach Thy love, and make Thy love dearer to me than cool water” (131). 


Similarly, Buddhism recognizes the essential role of relationship to others in spiritual formation.  The Dalai Lama lists “generosity” as the starting point for spiritual development: “The first five transcendent practices are generosity, moral discipline, patience, enthusiasm and meditative absorption” (112).  While non-violence is a basic Buddhist principle, psychological and spiritual maturation demand an active and generous spirit towards others.  Guenther and Kawamura describe in some detail the Buddhist call to compassion.  “ ‘Wholesome by being involved with benefiting,’ for instance, is an activity through which sentient beings reach maturity by four essentials:  1. Charity, 2. Speaking kindly, 3. Acting in such a way that others benefit, 4. Sharing ” (60).  The practice of Buddhism today rests upon three foundations: the Buddah, the dharma (body of knowledge), and the sangha  (community of practitioners).  The sangha is a body of support that allows the individual to transcend mere individuality by joining in unitive purpose and practice with a broader community.


Churches, synagogues, ashrams, temples, and sanghas recognize that community has the ability to draw the individual past the difficult stages of spiritual growth from mere individuality towards recognition of their shared humanity and worth.  Community is the crucible of sacrifice, where love for others carries the individual beyond a narrow love for self, and shared goals and values support the spiritual and psychological maturation of members.



Citizen Formation


While this is the essence of the spiritual path, increasingly educators believe that the public schools can also function as communities in support of the development of understanding and compassion. Public schools can and do share some of the major goals of world religious traditions: to help individuals grow beyond the isolation of selfishness; to promote not just an intellectual/moral obligation to others, but a bond of compassionate caring; and to support a sense of purpose beyond superficial sense gratification.  While private, religious schools can directly focus upon the development of spirituality through teachings, rituals, and prayer, public schools struggle with a perceived need to promote psychological well-being and emotional growth in the absence of religious traditions.  Many agree that public education also needs to address ethical and moral issues, particularly as they manifest at societal and institutional levels, but can public education ever really promote spiritual development in an environment that is not only non-denominational, but which draws firm lines between the teaching of secular and sacred knowledge? 


Perhaps through the widespread effort to promote tolerance of differences, and celebrate ethnic awareness and diversity, at least two of the goals of most spiritual traditions can easily be accommodated by the secular classroom.  By exploring the role of the individual in society—through the lens of history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, economics, science—and in attempting to shift cultural lenses, students can be positioned to examine their own diverse identities and values.  They can be asked to look at social structures and issues—homelessness, poverty, racism—as a challenge to individual values as well as to shared democratic ideals.


To define within the public school the meaning of “spiritual” growth in terms that do not distort the larger meaning of the word requires the provision of a context that is incontrovertibly shared.  A common ground for United States’ schools might easily and most effectively be the framework of democracy where, in theory, the worth of the individual as well as the relationship of the individual to the larger community are foundational values.  The dynamic tension created by such valuations in this society, explored in a “democratic” classroom, has the potential to promote the kind of spiritual development that most religious traditions seek: the movement from self to other.


The democratic classroom is one in which students and teachers collaborate on setting goals and determining the means to achieve these goals. It is a place where students share projects rather than working individually.  It is a class that is not limited by a “room,” but which relies on connections to parents, and the larger community outside of the classroom.  It is furthermore a flexible structure and pedagogy that promotes connections between intellectual and experiential learning. One long-enduring philosophy that supports this approach to learning is the supposition that learning is not simply for the good of the individual in forming career skills, but is for the good of the greater society, in forming a strong and responsible citizenry.  This concept is thoroughly explored by Carl Glickman in his book, Revolutionizing America’s Schools:


          If education is for freedom in a democracy—for ensuring one’s own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and protecting the same for other citizens—and not mainly career preparation, then the curriculum needs to be broad-based, and students should not be made to select particular, tracked career options.  Work experience in business and the public sector should support and reinforce students’ general academic competence, communication skills, critical thinking, and associative learning.  Curriculum, courses, concentrations, and projects should not prepare students for particular jobs or careers; rather, they should be experiences that teach students how to continue to learn and how to expand choices about the good life (81).


It is clear that Glickman’s reference to the “good life” is neither a reference to material goods, nor to particular moral or religious virtues, but to those shared values that define American democracy, “equality, liberty, and fraternity; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (164).  He further suggests that the exploration of these values is well within the perameters of acceptable study for the public schools, measuring the achievements of such schools by their effectiveness in educating students to be better citizens:


          When professionalism in education is seen as completing democracy, as establishing standards of practice and altering curricula , instructional programs, and teaching and learning methods to further the purpose of democracy, the accumulative results for students are stunning.  Schools in inner cities, rural towns and suburbs—wealthy and poor—show substantial evidence of student achievement…when a pedagogy of democracy is implemented (176).



The Path of Service


One vital and popular aspect of such a pedagogy is service-learning.  It is more than an internship within the community for the purpose of community-building, or even for strengthening democracy.  Its real power lies in the opportunity it offers students for enlarging their sense of “self” beyond the personal, for creating inner change akin to spiritual development as defined by the religious traditions: the movement from self to other. 


Service to others, of necessity, involves some degree of “sacrifice.”  It is inconvenient to give up time to participate in service activities.  The larger and more difficult sacrifice, however, is the relinquishing of comfortable and fixed ideas about the indigent, the poor, the homeless.  Frequently students new to service may approach those they serve with genuine good will, but also with some degree of judgment that holds the poor responsible for their own condition.  Students who maintain an active service role within the same project or organization for at least thirty hours a semester have the potential to gain understanding of circumstances that cause or induce poverty.  They also have the availability of time to enter into relationship with those they serve.  They learn that these are people much like themselves, with loves and fears, with families, with dreams and hopes, with hearts that break, with sufferings and with joys.  This recognition dissipates to some degree the barrier between self and other, and is the starting point for the growth of compassion.


A further development that can occur through consistent and ongoing service-learning is an entering into community with the poor.  Students who serve in unfamiliar communities, especially in inner-city environments with which they have little connection, may first encounter fear—if not from an imagined threat of physical danger, then, more commonly, from an inarticulate sense of being the “other” themselves, the outsider, the stranger.  While such role reversal may at first deepen a sense of distance from those they have come to serve, as students learn through exposure to care about individuals, by extension, they become concerned about their communities and environments.  They thus become “members” of a larger community than they had previously known, and as such, frequently need to reassess their own identity, when its original bounds have moved.


To more fully accept and integrate such change into a shifting context and value system, students need to articulate to themselves and others the kinds and degrees of experiences they are having.  Therefore, regular lab sessions attached to required service-learning projects help students to develop a better understanding of their own growth, of the communities they serve, and of the larger structures and conflicting value systems that impact such communities.  The labs are also a safety zone for those who are engaged in the sometimes painful and challenging act of surrendering self-love and self-righteousness to a higher understanding of their essential connectedness to others.  It is through shared reflection that new ideas of personal and relational identity are concretized. 


Scholars engaged in the study of  service-learning often measure its effects by the degree to which students become self-motivated to continue in service to others.  Carol Werner and Natasha McVaugh agree that intrinsic motivation to serve is most desirable, and that it is best attained by connecting a task to pleasure or benefit.  Furthermore, they emphasize that concern for others is teachable, and that reflection within a course structure is an appropriate pedagogy:


                        Reflection is the process of thinking about one’s service

activities and their relationship to course content.  It also provides an

opportunity to discuss deeper personal values about one’s role in the

community, the satisfactions of service, and so on.  To strengthen

commitment to the idea of service outside of course requirements, we

talk in general about the importance and satisfaction of service (123).


When students recognize the depth of satisfaction they feel in sharing the burden of suffering with others by working to end that suffering, they are increasingly motivated to grow in caring and in love.


Some therefore believe that political activism is a sign of spiritual maturation.  Albert Nolan in his article, “The Service of the Poor: A Spiritual Growth,” identifies stages of spiritual  development through service in the following ways:


The first stage of our commitment to the poor is characterized by compassion….The second stage begins with the gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem….The third stage of our spiritual development begins with yet another discovery.  It begins with the discovery the poor must save themselves and that they will do so and don’t need you or me to do it for them.  Spiritually it is the stage when we come to grips with humility in our service to the poor….The fourth and last stage of development begins with the crisis of disillusionment and disappointment with the poor….The poor are human beings like any of us.  They are sometimes selfish, sometimes lacking in commitment and dedication and sometimes waste money.”  


While this may sound rather insensitive at first, he further explains that our “noblesse oblige” is itself a distancing quality that stands between the union of the self and the other:


          Real solidarity begins when it is no longer a matter of “we” and “they.”…Even when we romanticize the poor and put them on a pedestal we are alienating ourselves from them.  Real solidarity begins when we recognize together the advantages and disadvantages of our different social backgrounds and present realities and the quite different roles that we shall therefore have to play while we commit ourselves together to the struggle against oppression.


In many religious traditions, the path to enlightenment, or union with the Divine, is through love of others.  For a secular society, the way to peace and well-being is through love of others.  To love others, we must know them, and enter into relationship with them.  This is the way of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who urged her sisters in service to the poor to see God in each other and in those whom they serve: “Love begins at home.  Everything depends on how we love each other” (59).  Perhaps also in our schools, at the heart of our efforts to educate the next generation, and to maintain a safe and civilized society, everything depends upon how well we encourage this love for others.


Works Cited



Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.


Glickman, Carl D.. Revolutionizing America’s Schools. San Francisco:

Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.


Guenther, Herbert V. and Leslie Kawamura. Mind in Buddhist Psychology.

Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1975.


Gyatso, Tenzin (The Dalai Lama of Tibet). Transcendent Wisdom. Ithaca:

Snow Lion Publications, 1994.


Madhusudandasji, Dhyanyogi Shri. Shakti: Hidden Treasure of Power.

Pasadena: Dhyanyoga Centers, Inc., 1979.


McBirnie, William Steuart. ed., Holy Bible. Glendale, California:

Community Churches of America, 1975.


Mother Teresa. Jesus, the Word to Be Spoken. Edited by Brother Angelo

Devananda. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1986.


Nolan, Albert. “The Service of the Poor: A Spiritual Growth.”  The New

Electronic Library. Blackfriars Publications. 1984



Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press, 1975.


Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle, translated and edited by Allison Peers.

New York: Doubleday, 1944.


Werner, Carol M. and Natasha McVaugh. “Service-Learning ‘Rules’ that

Encourage or Discourage Long-Term Service: Implications for

Practice and Research.” Michigan Journal of Community Service-

Learning 24 (Fall, 2000): 117-125.