essays

Spiritual versus secular education

What are the differences between spiritual and secular education?

At face value, the obvious one is that secular education is non-spiritual, but in fact this system has its roots in religion. This can be seen in secular education’s presumption of “original sin” in the student, and its mantling of mechanisms like grading, homework, and punishments to purge this sin. Through schooling, the “bad” student who enters the system becomes “good,” a model citizen capable of controlling their base behaviors.

With the advent of capitalism—itself intertwined with religion—secular education was also tasked with producing laborers, which traditionally was done through tracking. That is, grading was used to differentiate students who would make effective white versus blue collar laborers, a system which was eventually deemed racist, classist, etc and replaced with equal opportunity mantras. Even so, grading, sports, activities, and more remain in order to rank and thus differentiate students for the labor force. 

In spiritual education, there is no ultimate product and thus no reason to differentiate students in these ways. Instead, most authentic spiritualities emphasize the equality of all human beings before a higher power, something which privileges humility and therefore freedom. Without the possibility of proving oneself better than others, students of spirituality can focus on self-inquiry and arrive at shared principles of humanity.

Another difference in spiritual education is that spiritual students seek out their own teachers and devise their own curricula. For instance, a fledgling spiritual seeker will encounter spirituality through a therapist, friend, or support group, then choose to leave this situation because it no longer feels aligned with their interests or being. In authentic spirituality, there are no requirements and no unified pathways, and students are free to follow their whims to learn what they need, when they need, and in the manner they need it. That is, the only arbiter is the student’s own self. 

It is interesting to me that some of these distinctions find parallels in contemporary movements in secular education, notably inclusive education and mastery-based learning. Through inclusive education, we realize that no two students are the same, which therefore means that grading and curricula are useful fictions. For these two reasons, there is a questioning of the need to produce laborers and the presumption that students need to learn how to become “good,” and school itself can become a site for students to examine their own natures. Similarly, mastery-based learning emphasizes core competencies across disciplines rather than grades within courses, an expansion of focus that liberates students to design their own pathways across curricula. As in spiritual education, students enrolled in mastery-based learning programs ultimately move at their own pace and in a direction that is right for them.

I believe that emerging changes in our world will make a synthesis of spiritual and secular education only more imperative, as there is little likelihood that future citizens will work as much or in the ways we do, and the future’s unstable nature will demand adaptation, humility, and clear-sightedness rather than streamlined paths toward upward mobility. For these reasons, I believe that the schools of the future will even more greatly resemble spiritual education than the aforementioned mastery-based learning and inclusive education movements, branding students essentially as investigators of their own natures and teachers as guides along this process. Rather than being assigned one teacher per subject for the span of a year, students will choose the teacher with whom they most identify for each particular project along their journey; rather than classifying students for certain positions or pathways upon graduation, school will serve as a site of endless learning to which students can always return, no matter how old they may be or where their lives have taken them. In a word, successful navigation of our future will reveal school as the site of pure learning and play it was always meant to be. 

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