Paths to the spirit world

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Satellite images may have replaced the Mappa Mundi, but most cartography of the world of the spirit remains at best tentative and exploratory. The Hockerill Lecture for 1996 by the principal of Westhill College in Birmingham is an affirmative and persuasive contribution and, it is good to see, now available in print.

Jack Priestley's confidence is bolstered by an impressive list of pathfinders - Francis Bacon, Kierkegaard, Otto, Whitehead and even Wittgenstein who, invited to speak to the Viennese Positivist Society, read the poems of Tagore for 90 minutes and left without explanation.

The lecture sets out to root the spiritual at the heart of education and to examine its nature. Few involved in teaching would criticise his analysis of the past decade in which "education" and "curriculum" have become synonymous and "child-centred" has become a term of tabloid abuse. The dual tendency towards data overload on the one hand and a values-neutral curriculum on the other makes it even more surprising that the spiritual should have enjoyed a renaissance in government documentation and inspection practice; Priestley might have suggested reasons for this but his reticence may be politeness.

The lecture concerns the way in which we can talk about the spiritual without compromising its uniqueness by resorting to today's values. He sees a common cause with the arts, but does not want to go the way of the Gulbenkian Report which is "a piece of deductive reasoning and draws upon almost entirely empirical evidence to argue its case. It was noted, forgotten and overlooked. "

He offers six aspects of the spiritual "as it most affects curriculum matters" - broader than religious, dynamic, being and becoming, other worldly, communal and holistic.

There are loose ends, not least the fundamental question of whether the modern school can weld together imagination and experience and offer something better than the vapid spiritually of the Office for Standards in Education Framework. Some may find in his approving use of Heubner followed by a hospital teacher's question about the education of dying children a hint of old-fashioned dualism, but in a peroration much can be forgiven. This is a lecture of substance, highly readable and delivered with a deft and at times delightful touch. It deserves to be widely read and argued over.

Spirituality in the Curriculum

The Hockerill Lecture 1996 by Dr Jack Priestley, Hockerill Educational Foundation, Ingrebourne, 51 Pole Barn Lane, Frinton-on-Sea, Essex CO13 9NQ. Pounds 2.50, free postage Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE in the London borough of Hounslow.

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