book excerpt | The Soul of Education

A book entitled The Soul of Education inevitably raises the question “Should modern public school education even have a soul?”

Geometry and history, English and science—places and times for these subjects in the contemporary classroom are secure. But the soul? Doesn’t that belong in church? Aren’t questions of the soul private spiritual matters that are best left at home?

If so, someone had better tell the children. While we adults continue to debate these questions, most students continue to bring their souls to school. Except for the very few who are so deadened by drugs, abuse, or neglect that their inner lives are numb, students of all ages come to school with their souls alive and seeking connection.

The question “Does a child’s soul have a place in the classroom?” leads beyond “yes” or “no.” If we say “no,” it leads to the untenable conclusion that modern schooling is soulless. But if we say “yes,” it immediately ignites a firestorm of further questions—four of which we must explore now:

  • What is soul, anyway? Whose definition are we using?
  • However we define it, can educators and parents come together to find ways to invite soul into education?
  • Doesn’t the US constitutional requirement of ‘separation of church and state’ mean leaving all this alone?
  • How do we as teachers nourish spiritual development in school?

The power of these questions to trigger strong, polarized reactions shows that, even in our secular, high-tech world, our spirits hunger for answers. To me, the most important challenge has always been not whether we can address spiritual development in secular schools but how.

What Does ‘Soul of Education’ Mean?

When soul is present in education, attention shifts. As the quality of attention shifts, we listen with great care not only to what people say but also to the messages between the words—tones, gestures, the flicker of feeling across the face. And then we concentrate on what has heart and meaning. The yearning, wonder, wisdom, fear, and confusion of students become central to the curriculum. Questions become as important as answers.

When soul enters the classroom, masks drop away. Students dare to share the joy and talents they have feared would provoke jealousy in even their best friends. They risk exposing the pain or shame that peers might judge as weakness. Seeing deeply into the perspective of others, accepting what has felt unworthy in themselves, students discover compassion and begin to learn about forgiveness.

The body of the child will not grow if it is not fed; the mind will not flourish unless it is stimulated and guided. And the spirit will suffer if it is not nurtured. A soulful education embraces diverse ways to satisfy the spiritual hunger of today’s youth. When guided to find constructive ways to express their spiritual longings, young people can find purpose in life, do better in school, strengthen ties to family and friends, and approach adult life with vitality and vision.

Clearly, this is not a metaphysical definition of soul or spirit. To engage those questions would take us into the realm of belief and dogma. While entirely appropriate for philosophy or religious education, basing curriculum on any particular definition of soul would inevitably divide us and violate the worldview of one group or another. For this reason, I use the word soul to call for attention in schools to the inner life; the depth dimension of human experience; to students’ longings for something more than an ordinary, material, and fragmented existence.

Can We Come Together to Address Soul in Schools?

Educators are beginning to refer to a ‘spiritual problem’ in our culture. Scholars analyzing school violence speak of ‘spiritual emptiness,’ and members of Congress struggling for solutions lament the ‘spiritual darkness’ that afflicts the young. A consensus is emerging that some kind of spiritual void exists for youth—and we must address it. As Warren Nord (1995) writes:

“We modern-day Americans have a spiritual problem. There is something fundamentally wrong with our culture. We who have succeeded so brilliantly in matters of economics, science, and technology have been less successful in matters of the heart and soul. This is evident in our manners and our morale; in our entertainment and our politics; in our preoccupation with sex and violence; in the ways we do our jobs and in the failure of our relationships; in our boredom and unhappiness in this, the richest of all societies.” (p. 380)

Naturally, our schools reflect this problem. But can we face together the question of nourishing soul in the classroom, or is it too tendentious to allow us to move forward? I believe that we are better able to meet this challenge now than at any time in our history. On the one hand, the diversity of faiths and non-faiths today in most school communities is so overwhelming that no single denomination could possibly be appropriate as an official, or even unofficial, school religion. On the other hand, with even physicists and astronomers joining in the quest for answers to the age-old questions about the meaning of life, educators can no longer pretend that banning spiritual questions from school property is feasible. And there is a growing awareness among parents and educators that a spiritual void is endangering our youth and our communities.

In the United States, we have had a series of ‘prevention wars’ on drugs, teen pregnancy, youth suicide, and violence (Shriver & Weissberg, 1996). But the spiritual void—the emptiness, meaningless, and disconnection many students feel—is a root cause long left out of the analysis and the cure. Only recently, and particularly after the tragic epidemic of schoolyard massacres of the late 1990s, are policymakers and social scientists beginning to recognize our neglect of the souls of young people (Benson, 1997; Kids Who Kill, 1999). “I think that’s a very important part of all of this, the spiritual emptiness that so many kids feel,” said Cornell professor James Garbarino when a panel of experts sought understanding on the day following the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado. “And when they feel it, when things go bad in their lives, there’s nothing to fall back on and also there’s no limits to their behavior” (Kids Who Kill, 1999).

Similarly, as a House subcommittee responded to the eruption of violence plaguing our youth, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R, 6th, CO) spoke of “a spiritual darkness that permeates the moral landscape of the nation.” A member of the House Education Committee, Tancredo continued: “Our task is to now forgo cursing its existence and begin to light the candles that will pierce it” (cited in Romano, 1999, pp. 4, 11).

Although we must address the socioeconomic sources of the persistent violent and self-destructive behavior of our teenagers, we cannot really understand or heal from these plagues if we do not begin to recognize and meet the spiritual needs of our children. Do we need periodic reminders from sawed-off shotguns to show us that these young people feel? Is it possible that these senseless acts of violence are guiding us back to what, in our hearts, we know is a core mission of education in the first place?

Perhaps we do need these reminders. Many communities decided years ago that the inner life of our children was simply not the business of public schools. Many classrooms are ‘spiritually empty,’ not by accident, but by design.

We decided to exclude the spiritual dimension from education because we adults couldn’t agree on what ‘it’ was or how to teach ‘it.’ Liberals fear that ‘fundamentalists’ will sue them as ‘New Agers’ if they introduce a spiritual dimension into the classroom. Christians fear that secularists will paralyze their efforts to provide spiritual guidance to children in schools. Other religious groups are often not even included in the conversation. Collectively, we reached a standoff, and our children have been the losers.

Many communities have decided that the inner lives of our young people in the public schools wouldn’t be anybody’s business. Seeking a respectful way to deal with our differences, we educators turned away from matters of religion and spirituality. Of course, many teachers, schools, and communities are devoted to serving the social, emotional, moral, and even spiritual needs of students (Elias et al., 1997). But when schools systematically exclude heart and soul, students in growing numbers become depressed, attempt suicide, or succumb to eating disorders and substance abuse. Students struggle to find motivation to learn, to stay in school, or to keep their attention on what is before them. And straight-A students drive BMWs on their way to shooting fellow students and attempting to incinerate their school with explosives. Welcoming soul into the classroom is not a panacea for all these ills, but it is crucial for addressing the suffering of our youth.

Until recently, educators would have met the subject of this book primarily with fear that it will bring down the wrath of people who will vilify them, sue them, and take away their jobs. But something is changing. Educators and social scientists are asking “How can we fill the spiritual void?” because they see students destroying themselves and each other. Others have personally glimpsed the riches of the inner life in the wave of spiritual search and renewal among adults in the 1990s. Both groups are asking “How can we appropriately address our students’ spiritual growth in ways that do not violate the beliefs of families or the separation of church and state?”

My own work has been informed by two impulses: a desire to prevent violence and a desire to honor the spiritual yearnings in young people. I began my work with adolescents seeking to create curriculums and methods that would address the root causes of suffering in a ‘generation at risk.’ Working with teenagers, I also discovered an exquisite opening to spirit at the heart of the adolescent experience. Adolescence is a time when longings awaken with an intensity that many have misunderstood and dismissed as ‘hormones.’ The larger questions about meaning, identity, responsibility, and purpose begin to press with an urgency and loneliness we can all remember. Ignored or suppressed, the spiritual forces inside our young turn toxic and explosive. Providing students with opportunities to channel their energy constructively and to explore their mysteries with peers and supportive elders, I saw young people find balance, integrity, meaning, and connection.

The fears of integrating a spiritual dimension into the classroom have not gone away. But a broad cross-section of US citizens now urgently wants to tend to the souls of our young people. When ASCD devoted an entire issue of Educational Leadership to “The Spirit of Education” (1998/1999), the editors received a windfall of unsolicited manuscripts of outstanding quality and won a Bronze Excel Award from the Society for National Association Publications. This journal has begun a long-overdue conversation that we can no longer postpone—a rare open moment in our field and in our culture to speak what has been unspeakable for decades.

The quest for soul in education can move forward only in communities where educators, parents, and civic leaders are willing to air their deepest differences in a spirit of dialogue and collaboration. This book provides dozens of practical examples of how educators actually welcome soul into the classroom.

Doesn’t the Separation of Church and State Mean Leaving All This Alone?

We do need to be careful. If we define spirituality in terms of beliefs that one group holds and others do not, we violate the First Amendment by imposing such beliefs through curriculums in public schools. It is true that for many adults spirituality is

inextricably linked with their particular faith and doctrines. Listening to students for many years, however, has shown me that young people have experiences that nourish their spiritual development and yet are not directly related to worldview or religious dogma. We can honor the First Amendment without abandoning our children’s spiritual development.

How Do We Nourish Spiritual Development Appropriately in Public Schools?

As we approached the millennium, the field of education began to discover the vital relationships among teaching, learning, and the education of the heart. Building on the earlier concepts of ‘intrapersonal’ and ‘interpersonal intelligence’ framed by Howard Gardner (1993), Daniel Goleman (1994) documented that ‘emotional intelligence’ is a greater predictor of academic and life success than is IQ. Goleman introduced the concept of ‘emotional literacy’—a shorthand term for the idea that children’s emotional and social skills can be cultivated, and that doing so gives them decided advantages in their cognitive abilities, in their personal adjustment, and in their resiliency through life (p. 33). This definition and the solid research in his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence (1995), gave educators a language and legitimacy for an aspect of education that has often been little understood or respected. In the same year, Robert Sylwester’s work, A Celebration of Neurons, introduced the larger educational community to the implications of recent brain theory and research for schooling. “Emotion is very important to the educative process,” wrote Sylwester (1995, p.72), “because it drives attention, which drives learning and memory.”

It is a small but crucial step from the education of the heart to The Soul of Education. Nothing could be more ‘emotion laden’ in a positive sense than the experiences that students recount as nourishing to their souls. As we face this question “How can we nourish spiritual development in school?” the fields of social and emotional learning, brain-based learning, and intelligence theory have been extremely useful. But they do not answer the question. The answer does not come from textbooks, existing research, or metaphysical treatise. Rather, it begins in the hearts of the boys and girls, the young women and young men, who sit in classrooms. For more than two decades, my colleagues and I have been listening to what young people wonder about themselves, about each other, and about the universe itself.

After listening to thousands of students, both my own and those of my colleagues from around the country, I began to hear a pattern. In their stories and questions, young people celebrate the dimensions of life that satisfied their souls:

The beauty, the majesty—it’s indescribable, the power I feel inside when I’m deep in the forest or walking along a rushing river.

I was the geek, the dork you all made fun of. I’m still not cool. I know it. But you guys have really taken me in: you’ve accepted me, you’ve respected me. I know how far you’ve come.

There is something that happens to me in pottery class—I lose myself in the feeling of wet clay rolling smoothly under my hands as the wheel spins. I have it last period, so no matter how difficult the day was, pottery makes every day a good day. It’s almost magical—to feel so good, so serene.

Over and over, students identified certain experiences as precious and meaningful to them. In my mind, a map of seven gateways to the soul of students began to emerge.

  1. Deep Connection
  2. Silence and Stillness
  3. Meaning and Purpose
  4. Joy
  5. Creativity
  6. Transcendence
  7. Initiation

From the outset, however, I want to distinguish between two kinds of experiences: 1) ‘religious education’ and ‘devotional practices’ and 2) ordinary experiences that can nourish spiritual development. Here I focus on the latter. I provide both a theoretical framework and a wide range of concrete activities for students, teachers, and parents that respect the diverse belief systems and cultures present in our classrooms.

To create this approach to spiritual development while respecting diverse points of view, I have been blessed with the guidance and support of a diverse group of colleagues—secular, holistic, and Christian educators and theorists. All have sensitized me to the different, often seemingly polarized, convictions that must be respec-ted by educators who seek a place for soul in the classroom. Along with the stories of students and teachers, the insights and warnings of these varying perspectives appear throughout the book.

Teachers of math, science, English, foreign languages, and social studies have all used the methods described here. Once teachers have a framework for supporting the spiritual dimension of their students’ growth, they are remarkably inventive in developing new ways for doing so.

The map of the seven gateways grows directly out of students’ statements and stories, their questions and yearnings:

  • A high school senior, dying of cancer, gives her classmates an opportunity to face the reality of suffering and celebrating life;
  • A high school girl immersed in hatred for herself and others discovers her capacity for love amidst the acceptance she feels in a classroom community;
  • A boy whose critiques of a class is taken seriously and respected by his teacher discovers his own capacities for leadership and then runs successfully for school president;
  • A boy who has been slighted by his father as a loser, in comparison to his successful older brother, is embraced by his dad in a ceremony that allows the barriers between them to finally come down.

The inner life of these and other young people is intimately bound up with matters of meaning, purpose, and connection, with creative expression and moments of joy and transcendence. All these qualities are central to both emotional intelligence and to constructively filling the spiritual void. Classroom environments that acknowledge and invite such experiences help students break down stereotypes, improve discipline, increase academic motivation, foster creativity, and keep more kids in school. Let us dare to consider together the possibilities and pitfalls of consciously honoring in school the inner lives of our students.


Benson, P. (1997). Spirituality and the adolescent journey. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 5(4), 206-209, 219.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds. New York: Harper Collins.

Goleman, D. (1994, Spring). A great idea in education: Emotional literacy. In Great ideas in education: A unique book review and resource catalogue, No. 2, pp. 33-34.

Goleman D. (1995) Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam

Kids Who Kill (1999, April 21). Online NewsHour.

Nord, W. (1995) Religion and American education: Rethinking a national dilemma. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Romano, M. (1999, May 19). Problem is hate, youth tells Congress. Denver Rocky Mountain News, A4.

Shriver T. P., & Weissberg, R. P. (1996, May 15). No new wars! Education Week, pp. 33,37.

Sylwester R. (1995). A celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The Spirit of Education. (1998, December-1999, January). Educational Leadership, 56(4).