A search for the spirit in a secular world

The Spirit of the Child
April 2, 1999

This book emerges from the Children's Spirituality Project at the University of Warwick, of which David Hay was director and Rebecca Nye the research assistant. Their interviews with 300 six and ten-year-old children from three primary schools form the basis on which they build a theoretical structure about the spirit of the child.

It is a timely publication coming at a moment when the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is concerning itself with the lack of social coherence in many communities and therefore with the role of morality and self-awareness in the national curriculum.

The language used and the variety of learned sources quoted makes for anything but an easy read, and its valuable purport will not be easily accessible to overworked primary and secondary school teachers.

But particular issues come very much alive - most interestingly, the difference between spirituality and religion and the fact that religious practice and language do not necessarily promote spirituality, and that knowledge about religion acquired through formal religious education can be a hindrance to that form of inner knowledge that is only to be gained through personal experience. This book should thus be of interest to those of us who became disillusioned with religion at school and university and have since lost their faith in Christian doctrine but not their belief in the value to communities of shared spiritual aspirations.

Hay sets out to prove that spirituality is natural to children, essentially part of human evolution, not an imposed element implanted through culture and education. But he goes on to point out that it can all too easily be snuffed out in our highly secularised and consumerist society. Because of peer pressure towards conformity, children, as they grow up, are usually embarrassed to admit to spiritual experience. Even the national curriculum, with its concentration on measurable achievement in separate subjects, mitigates against the adoption of an holistic curriculum in which spirituality could play a key role.

How to rectify this situation and provide the language and tools required to keep a child's innate spirituality alive and give it space to grow is the major objective of this book. But what a problem in our multicultural and commercialised society! Where does one begin? What tools or experience exist to cope? Practically none.

Hay clearly believes the answer must lie in redevising the national curriculum in such a way that it becomes much more interrelated and that space is allowed within each subject to enable children to become aware of its potential spiritual dimension. He admits, however, that in most state educational systems spiritual education as a cross-curricula subject is still a distant dream.

After reading this book, and respecting the authors' intentions, I remain unconvinced that spirituality belongs to any communally devised curriculum. My experience in running a college suggests that it is in the personality and training of the teacher that the answer lies. It is not what , but how one teaches that really matters.

Peter Cox was founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

The Spirit of the Child

Author - David Hay with Rebecca Nye
ISBN - 0 00 6855 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £12.99
Pages - 216

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