"We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves," writes George Eliot in Middlemarch. There can be little doubt that schools have a critical part to play in this nourishing of the moral and spiritual aspects of their charges. The question is: how much is our responsibility, and how do we know if we are doing it well, or even in the right way?
It is plain that schools should be concerned for students' moral and spiritual well-being, even if only out of an institutional sense of enlightened self-interest. Among other things, it is clear that students who have more advanced interpersonal, empathetic and cooperative skills - which we might reasonably assume are part of moral sensitivity - perform better academically, too. Also, this weighty responsibility is formally recognised in the Ofsted inspection criteria; it constitutes part of the assessment of the "overall effectiveness" of a school.
An even more urgent imperative is to improve how we help young people to develop their moral and spiritual aspects in terms of positive regard for self. Astonishingly, the average anxiety level of a Western teenager today is at a level that would have denoted a clinical anxiety disorder in the 1950s, as J M Twenge observed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Whatever moral and spiritual well-being might mean, this epidemic of teenage anxiety surely indicates that we are not achieving it.
Leading by example
So what is moral and spiritual well-being? Any attempt at a working definition will no doubt be contentious, but for the purposes of this article, I mean people who are reliably kind to others, tolerant of difference, comfortable in their own skin, compassionate, understanding of their responsibilities to people other than themselves and "reflective about beliefs, values and more profound aspects of human experience", to steal an Ofsted phrase.
Recent literature has clues as to the kinds of interventions that might bring about such attributes in students. Nel Noddings, emeritus professor in the graduate school of education at Stanford University in the US, has argued for schools to prioritise an approach of "care" which explicitly highlights our moral interdependence. We are all, in educational reformer John Dewey's memorable phrase, "environing forces", capable of influencing one another positively or negatively.
In curricular terms, Noddings argues that schools should treat far more seriously the particular interests and backgrounds of their students, rather than imposing pre-established frameworks on them regardless of their cultural or intellectual profiles. For her, an important part of enabling students to grow in their moral relationships to one another is for educators to lead by example, showing an empathy and willingness to respond to the particular concerns of their charges.
In a similar vein, Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Dominican Order, speaks about his understanding (borrowed from Thomas Aquinas) of teaching as an "act of friendship"; this is in the sense of a critical friend, who genuinely cares for the whole person in their care, including their moral and spiritual growth - and quite apart from the exam grade that they might attain. The idea that positive teacherstudent relationships contribute to academic success is well evidenced, and we should expect such relations to contribute to overall moral growth, too.
More recent research has taken a more practical turn. Findings due to be published later this summer suggest that, among other things, mindfulness training makes a measurable positive difference to the "normal" development of such qualities. In one study, a nine-week compassion cultivation training programme, heavily based in meditative techniques, showed significant gains in compassionate attitudes compared with the control group. Another study indicates that intensive meditation training leads to significantly improved "socio-emotional" functioning. Yet another suggests that cognitively-based compassion training (which again uses techniques we would recognise as meditation) offers brighter prospects to at-risk adolescents.
There are tantalising suggestions that language learning, too, has a positive impact on the development of genuine cross-cultural empathy. In an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development publication, Bruno della Chiesa and Christina Hinton show how bilingualism, or indeed any acquisition of a second language, is correlated to improvements in globally aware ethical viewpoints. The unavoidable discovery of other cultural lenses during language learning leads to a new perspective on one's own moral outlook. Della Chiesa and Hinton argue that it leads to a "cosmopolitanism" that prepares individuals to care for people from different cultures and beliefs, and to embrace their responsibility as members of a shared global community.
But how can these impacts be measured? A group of researchers led by Hinton, who is a Harvard graduate education school lecturer, have focused recently on answering that question. Inspired in part by Kurt Fischer's developmental model for measuring increasing hierarchical complexity, and partly by ancient Buddhist wisdom literature, the Harvard researchers are seeking to develop a schema for moral development in a way that updates Lawrence Kohlberg's earlier model to account for modern findings in developmental psychology.
Kohlberg's theory famously attempted to trace "normal" moral development as it went through three stages, starting with "pre-conventional" moral attitudes based on obedience and self-interest, through to the "conventional" stage, which sees morality as part of conformity and social duty, and ending up with "post-conventional" morality in which people's moral understanding flows from their sense of universal principles, rather than cultural habits.
Kohlberg has been criticised for being overly Western in his understanding of universal values and assuming too strong a link between moral reasoning and moral action, while undervaluing moral feelings such as compassion. Hinton's researchers start from a more positive view of early human nature
They suggest a developmental scale that grows in complexity from a foundation of natural empathy through seven further demonstrable stages: valuing others; appreciating kindness; repaying kindness; expanding the circles of concern; compassion; taking action and responsibility; and finally "universal compassion".
Morality by numbers
But until such time as we can scan young people's brains and assess the development of their neurological "compassion" function (a suggestion that is only partly tongue in cheek), any attempt to judge empirically the moral development of young people looks likely to be fraught with difficulty, given the interior nature of moral attitudes and the gap between what people say about their moral attitudes and what they do.
However, it is striking that in England there is a well-established educational framework for tracing a young person's moral and spiritual development, as expressed in their own voices: it is embedded in the non-statutory national framework for RE. This sets out the guidelines not only for what young people at different ages should know about religion, spirituality and other belief systems, but also the kinds of moral attitudes that should be learned from them. There are nationally agreed assessment criteria for different key stages and they make rather a lot of sense.
Dishearteningly for those interested in promoting and measuring moral and spiritual development, this guidance is due to be jettisoned from September 2014, which is part of a wider decline of RE's status in the UK more generally. Not only have bursaries for trainee RE teachers been cancelled but a study conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education shows that well over a quarter of schools admit to not fulfilling their statutory obligations. The number of specialist staff is in dramatic decline, as is curriculum time and training. Unsurprisingly, fewer schools are running the subject year on year.
On the upside, the prospect of wider mindfulness training in schools is being discussed at parliamentary level as a result of the good work of the Mindfulness in Schools project, and language learning enjoys the Scottish government's strong support (although probably not primarily for reasons of moral development).
So although influencing and tracking moral and spiritual development remains difficult, we do seem to be getting closer to an answer to the question of how we build better citizens for the future. It is a tricky road to navigate, but surely it is in all our interests to take it.
Alistair McConville is director of teaching and learning at Bedales School in Hampshire
Noddings, N (2003) "Caring: a feminine approach to ethics and moral education", 2nd edition. University of California Press.
Radcliffe, T (2014) "Teaching as an act of friendship", keynote lecture at the Oxford Conference in Education, January 2014.
Hinton, C (2010) "Cosmopolitan education: building on a biological inclination for care in a globalised world", pp 409-426, in Della Chiesa, B, Scott, J and Hinton, C, eds, Languages in a Global World: learning for better cultural understanding (OECD Publishing).
Twenge, J M (2000), "Age of Anxiety? Birth cohort changes in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79: 1007-21.