Fence Sitting: Religious or Spiritual Education?

For every debate, it seems there’s always someone stuck in the middle, someone who just can’t separate the issues into one black and one white side. When it comes to taking sides between Svi Shapiro and James Moffett, that person is yours truly – to a certain degree, anyway. Shapiro, in his essay A Parent’s Dilemma: Public vs. Jewish Education, argues for a religious-based education in a society where he believes the free market has destroyed the public’s values and sense of community, while Moffett, in Censorship and Spiritual Education, discusses a multicultural curriculum for the diverse world in which we live, and the necessity of such understanding in order to feel like part of a community. I have to admit that I agree with them both, although with neither author entirely.

While Shapiro discusses the benefits of a religious education, Moffett suggests a “spiritual” one, while defining spirituality as something wholly different from religion. Moffett asserts that spirituality “is the perception of oneness behind the plurality of things, peoples, and other forms… The supreme identification, of oneself with the One, brings about that reunion toward which religions work at the same time that it makes morality apply beyond the in-group to the world at large.” One must understand this distinction in order to evaluate each author’s argument and to see each argument’s relevance to one’s life.

Moffett advocates teaching children to have a sense of the rest of the world and to feel a part of that “whole,” and his method of preference lies within a multicultural education, rather than a particularly religious education. “However divinely inspired, any religion partakes of a certain civilization, functions through human institutions, and is therefore, culturally biased.” That bias is precisely what makes it so difficult for a religious education to be useful to its recipient in as diverse a society as we have here in America.

Children should be taught about all different cultures, and the inherent values of each in order to make them more understanding of the world in which they live. Moffett argues that stronger morality and community will result from this kind of understanding, “because the more that people identify with others, the better they act toward them.” Isn’t that what parents want for their children anyway, for them to be well acclimated to and accepting of the diversity all around them? Things might not be that simple, according to Moffett, who observed, in his dealings with fundamentalist protesters in West Virginia, that many parents are actually afraid that if their children learn of ways other than those of their families, they will abandon what they were taught at home. Well, granted it is a frightening idea that one’s children could possibly reject the cultural influence of the parent, although it is not as likely as one might like to think. Parents should learn to be more confident in the fact that they have passed on part of themselves, since their culture will be “transmitted” more through everyday life than through the school systems anyway, and realize what benefits lie in teaching their children about the rest of the world’s, or even the rest of the country’s, ways.

In this I agree with Moffett, that one needs to be educated in the ways of the other peoples around them in order to properly and peacefully function within society. However, children have very little basis for this kind of deeper cultural understanding without previous religious or spiritual influence, which is where my partial agreement with Shapiro comes into play. When children are younger, they do need to learn the kind of cultural identity that he advocates, especially in a culture which “continues to foster self-interest and a lack of concern for the common good…where the market place alone is the arbiter of economic investment and social values.”

Because of the impersonality of modern society, Shapiro argues for a religious education for his daughter, wanting to provide her with a certain richness in her everyday activities, which is something all people seem to struggle for today. He points out that denying her the public education and the multicultural curriculum that goes with it could breed a more narrow mind-set, but he feels that the risk of such, when countered by the intensity of a religious education outweighs the “thin” overview of the world which is provided in the public schools.

Public schools do teach too little about too much, it seems, rather than focusing on fewer subjects with more intensity, but the hope is to spark a child’s interest in all fields of study, and all aspects of themselves, while still leaving something left for discovery. Shapiro doesn’t seem to see this widespread education as something his daughter can utilize and decides to continue to send her to a Jewish school where her faith will be nurtured more than her sense of her place within the world, which will become a more crucial issue as she matures.

Children should be given a solid spiritual foundation upon which to stand, but when such focused and potentially biased schooling is continued for too long, the likely result is definitely an ignorance of the rest of the world and possibly a prejudiced outlook toward others. I agree with Shapiro’s wish for the well being of his daughter’s cultural identity, but what Shapiro doesn’t realize is that later in her life, that identity will only have meaning when placed into a more global context. Therefore, Shapiro’s educational views only apply to the education of younger children, who are more in need of a cultural foundation, which can certainly be found via religion, but once that is established, children must be educated on a much broader scope. At that point, the child should be transitioned from learning about himself or herself and his or her background to learning about the many different peoples of the world.

In this way children can begin to locate their place within the whole of society and the world. They can identify with other cultures via some common teachings and/or practices, and establish within their own minds the inherent values of other cultures, as well as begin to define which group they personally fit into. Children may not always decide that they fit into the same niche as their parents, but, as was mentioned before, parents should be secure enough to realize that children will always retain at least one, if not many of the principles they were raised with. Allow them to explore, for the children will be that much more at peace with themselves and the world for the experience.

The methods suggested by Moffett better suit the education of older children than younger children. I would argue for this type of broader education, but not before children obtain some sort of foundation of their own through a more focused, and possibly religious educational program. Without a religious or spiritual upbringing, I don’t feel that children can fully appreciate learning about other cultures. They would have no basis against which to measure what they learn about these other peoples. It is not that children should be enabled to judge the worth of other cultures, but without a standard already in place, they will not be able to see the true value in the practices cherished by other people. In this aspect I agree with Shapiro in the need for a religious education, although only for younger children.

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