Is there a place for Spirituality in Public Education?

Any system of education which claims to be wholistic should include the spiritual dimension alongside other aspects of human life and experience. Religion and spirituality has been very influential in almost every aspect of history, and these things play a part in the daily lives of a majority of human beings even today. To pretend that they do not exist, or that they are irrelevant and that we can somehow understand our world with no knowledge of these things is almost laughable.

I attended a very interesting lecture this evening by Professor Terry Lovat from the University of Newcastle. He argued that the tradition of secular education in colonial Australia, which has continued in the various state jurisdictions since Federation, explicitly recognised that it was incumbent upon educators to foster a knowledge of the religious traditions of their own community, and of their own spiritual development.

It is not sufficient to simply study religion with a social science approach. Students should be enabled to understand and articulate their own spiritual and moral values, and to be equipped to develop them further. This is radical stuff, in an age when the prevailing opinion of education bureaucrats, teacher unions and many politicians is that religion and spirituality should be barely tolerated in schools with a religious foundation, and totally absent from state administered educational institutions.

Lovat quoted various moves towards inclusion of education about religion and spirituality in Australia, mostly from his own state of New South Wales, and recounted how several attempts had been derailed by an ‘unholy alliance’ of the Catholic church and the teachers unions.

But there is hope. It is not a hot topic of conversation amongst teachers, but the Melbourne Declaration, published by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) in 2008 contains these words:

Schools play a vital role in promoting
the intellectual, physical, social,
emotional, moral, spiritual and
aesthetic development and
wellbeing of young Australians … (p. 4)

The curriculum will enable students
to develop knowledge in the
disciplines of English, mathematics,
science, languages, humanities and
the arts; to understand the spiritual,
and aesthetic dimensions
of life; and open up new ways of
thinking. (p. 13)

This is the document which is suppsed to set the agenda for public schooling in Australia in the period 2008 – 2012, and to be the guiding statement of the Australian Curriculum. Its language is not out of place in multicultural Australia in the tewnty-first century, but I wonder how much these statements really are guiding what happens in public schools around our nation. Not a lot, from my observation.

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