Nurturing the heart, mind and soul: the spiritual context of education, Archbishop of York

July 29, 2020
Nurturing the heart, mind and soul: the spiritual context of education, Archbishop of York

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10 (NRSV)

At the heart of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ we are presented with a life-changing message of transformation. In his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ offered humankind a transforming vision for a society geared towards the wellbeing and wholeness of every human being, flowing out from the loving purposes of God. I believe this vision must be central as we consider the role of schools and the responsibility we all have to encourage wholeness, human flourishing, and abundant life – life to the full – in our young people today.

This vision of wholeness has always been integral to the Church’s vision for education. The provision of general education in this country is the legacy of the National Society, whose pioneering vision in 1811 was to establish a church school in every parish in England and Wales. Today these schools provide education for approximately a million children and young people. This is an ongoing legacy of which we can be immensely proud. But we must never grow tired of asking, how are our schools enabling their students to ‘have life, and have it abundantly’?

What do we mean by ‘education’? There are two Latin roots for the word: educare meaning to ‘bring up, to train and to teach’, and educere, meaning ‘to lead and draw out that which lies within’. Together both meanings provide a helpful picture for what education should be. But I believe we now need to place greater emphasis on the educational qualities expressed in the word educere.

The belief that we are all created in the image of God is an empowering and liberating message for education. God has already placed a life-changing potential within each child; gifts waiting to be drawn out and nurtured so that life can truly be lived to the full.

When I visit schools so many teachers tell me that it is this aspect of education – ‘educere’ – which was their reason for entering teaching. But often, amidst the growing demands for monitoring and assessment, it is hard to focus on this approach. If we want our schools to be places of human flourishing it is vital we give priority to ‘educere’.

As the Delors report produced by UNESCO in 1996 noted: ‘Education should contribute to every person’s complete development – mind and body, intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetics, appreciation and spirituality.’

When I look at the example of Jesus I see someone whose deep concern was to help each person he met to become fully alive, drawing out that which lies within. A rich man came to him enquiring about what ‘good’ he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. The young man had studied and learnt the commandments and could tick all the boxes as regards his successful adherence to each one. But Jesus went deeper. Interested primarily in the man’s heart and the wellbeing of his soul he said: ‘Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth’ (Matthew 19:21-22).

This man went away sad. Perhaps he had built his foundation on achieving financial success bu was failing to ‘bear good fruit’ in other essential areas of life. Are our economic and educational systems failing in the same way today?

In the Handbook of Social Justice in Education, Grace Lee Boggs writes: ‘At a time when we desperately need to heal the earth and build durable economics and healthy communities, our schools and universities are stuck in the processes and practices used to industrialise the earth in the 19th and 20th centuries…. An educational system which sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory... to become Nurturing the heart, mind and soul: the spiritual context of education Schools for Human Flourishing cogs in the existing decaying economic system.’

I believe our young people are desperate for a new kind of education: one that values them for who they are, and draws out their gifts and creative energies; one that helps them to ‘bear good fruit’ in every part of their lives: continually learning, being renewed, serving others and living life to the full.

So how do we ensure that this is built into a school’s ethos, part of the fabric of its structures and curricula? I know from visiting many church and community schools that there are already fine examples modelling this kind of education.

But of course, if it is to be maintained on a much larger scale the two elements of education – educare and educere – need to be in balance. As spiritual and connected human beings, schools must give space for the education of children’s hearts, souls and minds. Too much focus on the academic and on strengthening the capacities of the mind can neglect the need for children to develop invaluable life skills that will help them to flourish and positively contribute in wider society. On the other hand, a bias primarily towards character education could starve young people of knowledge and a desire to achieve. Therefore, in order to ensure schools are flourishing and pupils learning to live life to the full, education must take on a rounded and grounded approach which balances the importance of the heart, the soul and the mind.

Demos, Britain’s leading independent think tank, recognised this in their research when they reported; ‘Given how important good character is for young people’s abilities to succeed in education, work and society, schools must be supported and encouraged to develop pupils’ social, moral, spiritual and cultural strengths on an equal footing with academic attainment.’

And, as Martin Luther King said in 1947, in an article on education, ‘We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education’.

From a Christian perspective we must go further still. Not only does God call us to live life abundantly as individuals made in his image and likeness, he calls us to serve one another in community - living and flourishing together. As William Temple wrote ‘Maximum output is not a true end of human enterprise; the end is fullness of personality in community…’.

So, there is a third element to education. Not only must our schools help our young people gain in knowledge, achieve good qualifications and develop positive attributes in order to make successful individuals. They must also help our young people apply these qualities and gifts to make a positive difference to their community, their nation and even the world. For some time, an individualistic and consumerist conception of success and the good life has been common, and has fostered a utilitarian approach to education, geared towards maximum economic output. But this has not been healthy. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their book; The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone,…further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth: the issue is now community and how we relate to each other’. Growing up in Africa, I saw first-hand the blessing of the proverb, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’. I know that any further improvements in education cannot rest solely on the academic and the mind, but must take into account the impact of community upon those individuals who are part of it. Conversely, it is quite possible for the education of our children and young people to have an impact on community and even upon the nation’s soul and character. Either way, the challenge remains: how can schools help young people engage with their communities in a meaningful way?

Grace Lee Boggs suggests that instead of getting young people to; ‘…remain in the classrooms isolated from their communities…we need to develop strategies to help children transform themselves into positive change agents and begin creating a new model which empowers young people to make a difference.’

Classroom learning will never be enough if we want to educate and nurture young people’s hearts, souls and minds for the benefit of the community. How can we provide them with meaningful opportunities to engage with society and experience the positive effects of serving others? In his chapter in my book, On Rock or Sand Andrew Adonis said ‘education is the key enabler of social integration and individual moral purpose’. I believe that education can be the vehicle to bring back out of social and economic exclusion those who suffer disadvantage and have become detached.

I have seen the evidence of how this can work in my Archbishop of York Youth Trust’s Young Leaders Award. Through this work, many young people have been nurtured and educated in their hearts, souls and minds, and as a result have been empowered to become active citizens in their communities. The YLA embodies the principles of educere, and provides genuine opportunities for young people to grow in faith, leadership, character, and service. Within each award every young person takes part in a social action project for the benefit of the community. I continue to be amazed by the things I see and hear when young people are empowered to love, care and serve their communities with passion and dedication.

Take Luke, a year 7 student who opted to help his local foodbank as part of his personal challenge. Over a period of weeks and months, Luke built up five food parcels with enough food and toiletries for three days each and three meals per day. In all, Luke managed to get together 50 kilos of supplies. It’s not only amazing what Luke did for others, but in ten years’ time what will this mean to him as an individual? What will this training mean to him when he becomes a man, a husband, a father?

Another example is George who, having failed at primary school to meet any of his early learning goals, was struggling with behaviour issues and was totally disengaged. Through the award he was given the opportunity to learn about a charity and tell his class about it. George had barely spoken in class before, yet something about this project connected with his heart, mind and soul, and before he knew it he was giving a wonderful presentation on the work of Dementia UK, sharing how his grandfather was suffering from the condition and had recently been moved into a home. His peers were so moved by his story that they unanimously voted that this charity should be the one to support. Spurred on by this experience of educere, George co-ordinated fundraising events in the community, and in turn became increasingly engaged in his schooling. It was the head’s view that through engaging with the award, George’s attitude to learning had changed so much that it bore fruit not only in the way he had learned to serve his community, but also in remarkably high achieving SATs results. George’s story was a wonderful achievement, and one which models the principles of heart, soul and mind education in the context of community.

At St Barnabas School in York, surrounded by deprivation and challenging social issues, the young leaders decided to run a big breakfast club as a part of their award. Working in partnership with Sainsbury’s, they provided an opportunity for local residents to gather together each month, to build bridges and in turn raise aspirations among the children and parents within the community. The quality of relationships was improved, students grew in teamwork and became aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as they planned and co-ordinated each event. Each young person’s character and confidence was nurtured through their acts of service within the community. Again, the year 6 teacher was able to see a direct impact on the children’s learning as their confidence levels rose as a result of being valued as members of their community.

At the time of writing, this Youth Trust has worked with over 330 primary and secondary schools, empowering some 35,000 young people to make a difference in their communities. It is my hope that through this kind of learning and experience we can impact and change the nation’s soul. As GK Chesterton once said, ‘Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another’. In fact each new generation has to learn this afresh.

It is clear there is hunger among educationalists, teachers and most importantly children for a new vision for education. I believe that nurturing the heart, soul and mind of our young people, helping them to join in our common purpose to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, will enable us to inspire and commission dynamic ambassadors who can make a positive contribution and, as Mahatma Gandhi described it, ‘be the change they want to see’ in our world. Could we see a creative and thriving business community built on honesty, partnerships and respect? Or a positive and encouraging media industry built on a desire to look for the best in each other? And what about a transformed political arena built on integrity, moral purpose and a devotion to putting others first?

As Andrew Adonis puts it: ‘Getting our educational system right is crucial to our future economic and social wellbeing. Schools, colleges and universities are critical in fostering social cohesion and sound common values and in providing individuals and also communities with the means to flourish.’

I believe we have the opportunity to do this if we consider an approach which gives prominence to educere. It is possible to raise up a generation who are motivated by love and compassion, who display vision and purpose and who know the importance of living fully in community. As our young people are given opportunities to open up their hearts and minds to the needs of others, they discover not only invaluable life skills and experience, but also the God-given treasures of compassion, patience, self-control, gentleness, a desire for justice and concern for others.

As Ayers, Quinn and Stovall write: ‘Education opens doors – it is good for each of us, and it is good for all of us, for society, for democracy’.

The Church of England has long cherished its God-given vocation to work for the Nurturing the heart, mind and soul: the spiritual context of education 90 Schools for Human Flourishing common good by striving for excellence in education. In a time of change and opportunity in our schools and colleges, we must both reaffirm and renew this vision, as we seek to help young people to become all God made them to be, engaging fully in their communities and learning what it is to ‘have life, and have it abundantly.’

References Adonis, A, , 2015). Full Education in a Free Society, in On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future, Ed. Sentamu, J, SPCK Publishing, London Ayers, Quinn, & Stovall, Eds, (2009). Handbook of Social Justice in Education, Preface p. xiii. Taylor & Francis Group, London. Birdwell, J: Reform Ofsted to Assess Students’ Character on par with Grades. ( Boggs, GL, (2009). Youth and Social Justice – Handbook of Social Justice in Education, Ed. Ayers, Quinn & Stovall. Taylor & Francis Group, London. Delors, J, (1996). Learning: The Treasure Within, p.95. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century. UNESCO Publishing Luther King , M, (1947). ‘The Purpose of Education,’ Article in the February 1947 edition of The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College student newspaper. Temple, W, (1942). Social Witness and Evangelism, p.12. Epworth Press, London. Wilkinson, R, & Pickett, K, (2010): The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, p.254. Penguin Books, London.

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