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December 1998/January 1999 | Volume 56 | Number 4
The Spirit of Education
To what extent is it the public school's responsibility to foster the spiritual growth of students? Rabbi Harold Kushner reflects on which practices are appropriate at school.
In writing his first book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner attempted to come to terms with the death of his son. His efforts to accept the unfairness of life without becoming bitter resonated with thousands of readers. Since that first bestseller was published in 1981, he has written many other books that address the soul's hunger for meaning. Rabbi Kushner will be a distinguished lecturer at the ASCD Annual Conference March 8 in San Francisco. Here he talks to readers of Educational Leadership about appropriate ways to address concerns of the spirit at school.
With so much student and teacher diversity—so many different religions, cultures, and ways of experiencing spirituality—how can public schools address the spiritual dimension of life?
Clearly we cannot advocate one religious view no matter how sincerely we hold it. Most teachers would agree on that. But schools already emphasize a number of spiritual values if we would only recognize them as such. That is, we are all committed to truth. We're committed to accuracy, to students' taking responsibility for doing their own work and getting it in on time, for admitting that they may have been wrong or inadequately prepared, for coming to terms with limitations. Those are all spiritual values.
Beyond that, some values are sufficiently universal and nondenominational that they belong in the classroom. One that shouldn't have to be spelled out and yet is violated in too many classrooms is that you never embarrass a person.
That's interesting. In a recent interview (September 1998), Herb Kohl said almost exactly the same thing—"There's absolutely no room for humiliation in the classroom." But he was talking about a pedagogical strategy—a way to open students' mind to learning.
It's that too, but respect for the divine image in every single human being—no matter how obnoxious, untalented, or unattractive that person may be—that is a spiritual value. To believe that every person is fashioned in the image of God is not the dogma of any one religious faith but a universal spiritual value.
Not only must teachers never embarrass their students, but they must forbid students to embarrass, insult, or make fun of one another.
And if they do, how does a teacher intervene?
Tell the child who did the insulting that it's inappropriate, and take the insulted child aside afterwards and say, "I hope you don't take what he said seriously. He had no basis for saying that. He said that because of something going on inside himself, and it's not really an accurate statement about you. I know you better than that."
Are there other values that help make a classroom more conducive to the spiritual growth of children?
Cooperation—helping people when they need help and being helped by them when you are weak—is another. When we downplay competition and play up mutual help, we make the classroom a more spiritual place. Every single human being has something to contribute to society. Some will contribute intellectually, some with athletics, some with music. For the most part, our schools know how to celebrate the bright child or the athletically gifted child. But we don't know how to celebrate the kind child. Maybe that's something we ought to learn how to do.
Isn't competition good for the soul—especially if it spurs us on to do our best and live up to our potential?
Too often we create a school situation in which children's worth is over-identified with their grades. If they find out that they're not good at something, it demolishes them; their essence has been attacked.
The competitive drive in children is so strong that it will be there whether we encourage it or not. The whole lesson of failure is not to ask to what extent it reflects on me but to discover how I can learn how to do better from this experience.
Going back to what you said about common values, Amitai Etzioni, the founder of Communitarianism, agrees with you that we all hold common values—honesty and justice, for example. But doesn't this perspective gloss over the major differences in how we interpret common values? Even two people of the same religion could have very different interpretations of a value like justice.
Although there is a place in society for people to talk through their religious differences, it is not the public school. There are enough shared values that schools need to affirm.
No place at all in the public school to debate values or issues that are based on values?
Perhaps in the upper grades or high school, when young people are forging their individuality. But in the primary schools where the teacher's word is law and where children want to be like the people they admire, children are just too vulnerable, too impressionable, to debate values.
How about teaching about the Holocaust and the violations of human rights in history?
We can teach the Holocaust as part of the history of World War II. By the time young people get to be about 11, they are consumed with issues of fairness and unfairness in life. So teachers might talk about the subtext of the Holocaust—about people's capacity to be so cruel to one another and the tendency of people to lose all moral restraint in war—those are powerful lessons. But it's not the school's job to get into questions of why the Jews were singled out or any topic that would spotlight specific religions. You can teach about the Holocaust factually, and then get into a generic discussion of violations of human rights, which, unfortunately, are not limited to the Holocaust. You've got Cambodia and Rwanda, for example.
One of our authors in this issue says that we have too often avoided religion as a school subject in the past. Although he is not advocating the teaching of religion, he does advocate teaching about religions in school.
I'm not comfortable with that distinction. I just don't think it's the school's job to teach a unit on religions because it's going to be very hard for teachers and students to be objective in such a class. If I were a Jewish parent sending my kids to public school, not only would I not want the teacher to preach the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, I wouldn't even want the teacher to say that all religions are equal. I'm prepared to teach my child that all religions are equally deserving of respect, but not that they are all equally valid. If my child were to come home and say, "According to school, one religion is as good as another and therefore it doesn't make any difference whether I observe my religion or some other," I would feel undermined as a parent.
A growing number of educators think that our violent and materialistic times call for helping students address essential questions and for honoring students' quests for spiritual meaning.
My inclination is to say we should encourage the spirituality of students without actually making it one of our teaching goals. Of course, teachers should not get in the way of a student's beliefs. If an English teacher asks her students to write an essay about someone they admire and one of the students writes about a Catholic saint, that's not inappropriate in a public school.
But the worst thing we could do is to try to give every religion its turn. I'm manifestly uncomfortable with student-written prayers. One day you'll get a Christian prayer implying that non-Christians won't be saved. The next day, you'll get a Buddhist prayer implying that Christianity is foolish. Then you'll get a Muslim prayer saying that Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God. Kids can get competitive about this, and they are not mature enough for this practice.
Adults use prayer for political purposes quite often, of course.
Yes, but they are adults and they aren't saying such prayers in institutions that are (a) publicly funded and (b) mandatory. Those characteristics impose certain restraints on the public schools that don't exist in other organs of society.
Let me ask you a question a parent might ask. How would a parent, not necessarily a teacher, help a child experience God?
I compliment you on having phrased the question that way. Somebody once asked me how to convince a 9-year-old to believe in God. I answered that you can't convince someone to believe. The question is how can you teach a child to recognize God. A task for parents, not teachers, is to create a catalog of moments in which children can recognize that God has intervened in their lives. When they have been sick and they get healthy, when they have done something naughty and they are forgiven for it, when they have gone out of their way to do a favor for somebody else and they feel good, when they see how beautiful the world is on a sunny day or after the first snowfall of winter, those are experiences of God.
Children need two things to nourish their souls. They need a sense of ritual and they need a sense of magic. If parents don't give those basics to their children, it is the same as not giving them basic nutrition. I consider it a form of child abuse. A child's world is overwhelming and out of control. Doing things in a prescribed way gives them a sense of reliability. Whether it's church every Sunday, candle lighting on Friday night, or certain prayers, they need predictability.
And they need the magic, the sense of specialness. In my own tradition, it might be just holding a child up to kiss the Torah as it is carried through the congregation. In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, it might be the incense, the robes, the mystery, the music. The sense that there is a reality beyond the reality of everyday life and that there is something wonderful about this—that is what nourishes the soul.
Many times teachers are confronted with children who are dealing with tragedy. How do you counsel teachers to help them through a difficult time?
What children and adults going through a hard time want is consolation, not explanation. You need the reassurance that this isn't something you deserve because you are bad. Just having people care about you is the best cure. The biggest mistake we make is to shy away from people who have suffered something because we feel inadequate and don't think we can do enough for them. And when we do that, they feel rejected and neglected.
You may feel that you will hurt them more by calling attention to their pain. But if, for example, a child is out of school for several days following the death of a parent, this subject will be on everybody's mind when the child comes back. If the teacher doesn't allude to it, it will remain on everybody's mind, and nobody will be able to pay attention to the lesson. The teacher doesn't have to say anything profound, just, "We're glad to have you back. We feel very bad about what's kept you away." And that's all.
I have read that the antidote to sadness is to learn something. Do you agree with that?
Largely yes. A better answer to grief, though, is to reach out and help somebody else because you are now equipped to do so. That is the real cure for grief. Your sense of depression and helplessness begins to lift when you understand that you have the skill—one that most people don't have—to say what another grieving person needs to hear.
Adolescents, in particular, often experience deep spiritual emptiness and oppression. How do you help teenagers get out from under that, and find—what was the Hebrew word that you used in your book?—the notion of whole-heartedness?
Tamim—wholeness or integrity. Listen, adolescence is tough. It's tough on adolescents and it's tough on their parents, and all you can do is survive it. It's an awful time and it's gotten harder because of all the temptations and pitfalls today.
How do you get through it? It's really good, first, if adolescents have something they can do well, whether it's academics, sports, or music. The adolescents I worry about are those who are rejected in everything they try to do. There's always a sense of anger in adolescents and a high level of discomfort and self-consciousness. They always feel they are being judged. And they are uncomfortable with things they are doing for the first time—whether it's sexuality, earning money, or driving. There's always a sense that they're doing something new and they are not sure they are going to do it well.
The fear translates into impulsiveness, into anger, sometimes into depression, and into noncommunicativeness. It's a cliché that the 10-year-old who says "Ma, come watch what I can do" becomes the 14-year-old who says "Ma, will you get off my case."
Let me ask you about problems with violence in schools and about how schools are responding. Do zero-tolerance policies give kids the message that there is no forgiveness?
Not necessarily. I'm a big fan of forgiveness, but I also think that forgiveness can be misunderstood and can be perceived as saying to youngsters, "We don't hold you responsible for what you are doing." That's a demeaning and a dehumanizing attitude. At some level, people want to be held responsible. A reporter asked me recently why so many people call Dr. Laura on the radio when they know she is going to give them a harsh answer. And I said I think it's because it's the only time in their lives that they are taken seriously as moral agents. The alternative is to get the message that nobody cares how you behave.
If you don't call a halt to the provocative behavior of young children, they will get more and more provocative. And that's what is going on with some high school students. If we don't notice the tardiness, the disrespect, the disheveled code of dress, the T-shirts with vulgarities written on them, then they will do something more provocative until we finally notice.
You talk a lot about the importance of relationships. Given the limitations of time that teachers have and the fact they work with so many kids, how can they build spiritually healthy relationships with their students?
I wish it were easier because it's extremely valuable. Very often I will read about someone from the most unpromising circumstances—inner-city ghetto, drug family, single-parent home, abandoned by father, abandoned by both parents sometimes—and the child will have grown up to be a star athlete, a successful politician, or a doctor. The reporter will ask, "How did you get to be who you are?" And the answer will always begin with the same four words: "There was this teacher." Teachers do so much good that they don't always realize it—and not only in the classroom but also, more likely, in the attention that they give kids outside the classroom.
When they feel good about themselves and their jobs, teachers engage in caring relationships instinctively. It's only when they feel abused, short-changed, disrespected, and taken advantage of that teachers will ration their caring and not give extra of themselves.
Do you view yourself as a teacher?
Very much so. That's what the word rabbi means.
How do you renew yourself as a teacher?
I read other people's wisdom, and I am inspired by their words. And—I think every teacher will understand—it's the feedback I get when I see the light go on inside somebody's eyes. The sense that I have communicated something and that I have changed that person by teaching him or her—by sharing a truth—inspires me to go on.
Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel, 145 Hartford St., Natick, MA 01760. He is the author of several books—including When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Schocken Books, 1981) and How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness (Little, Brown, 1996). Marge Scherer is Editor of Educational Leadership (e-mail:
Copyright © 1998 by
Associa tion for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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