27 July 2010

Taking Charge of Our Own Spiritual Progress

In order for education to be successful, effective means of assessing student learning must be devised. Otherwise, it will be very diffficult to see what areas need improvement. In schools this typically means holding written examinations in which students work individually to answer multiple-choice questions, fill in blanks, and write short paragraphs in response to very direct instructions. Assessment requires that learning be made visible, that outcomes conform to agreed-upon social conventions. Assessing spiritual education, however, is a completely different matter, especially inasmuch as it is pursued with the aim of empowerment.

In large part, this is because true spirituality eludes social conformity.

For example, it's not possible for a children's class teacher to assess a student's reverence. A teacher can identify physical behavior, such as if a child closes her eyes or sits still while prayers are recited. But such factors are incidental not essential to the condition of reverence. As anyone with an active spiritual life can attest, it's very easy to be in a physical posture commonly associated with reverence, but inwardly to be completely distracted by mundane concerns. Likewise, it's possible to be in a highly spiritual state without body language indicating it in any way, such as while dancing, walking down the street, or chatting with friends. If a teacher assesses a student's progress based purely upon physical behavior during times of prayer then he assesses conformity to certain social expectations and not the actual spiritual condition of reverence.

I think this is one reason Baha'i spiritual education places such a strong emphasis on taking charge of one's own progress. Spiritual development requires seeing through one's own eyes and not through the eyes of others. We can assist each other in growing nearer to God. But in order for other people to assist someone effectively, that individual has to be an awakened active participant in the process of her own development. Otherwise, that she can slide off into dependency.

So how do we assess spiritual education?

Certainly, letter grades are out of the question. But not all hope is lost. A children's class teacher can learn a lot about the progress of a child by observing and interacting with her. It requires being attentive to the child in general, rather than just submitting them to pre-determined tests. How do they change from week to week? Do they blurt out answers before thinking about them? Do spiritual qualities discussed in class such as love, truthfulness, or generosity gradually become more apparent in their interactions with other children? Agreed-upon social conventions about how what those qualities look like would of course inform a teacher's observations. But the teacher need not be narrow or deterministic in employing the common sense of things. If he is observing a broad range of interactions, the teacher can gain an appreciation for nuance and uniqueness and gain a general sense of how the child is changing inwardly.

However, even with the most highly developed skills for assessing the progress of students, an effective teacher must instill in the student a sense of responsibility for her own spiritual development. We all walk together on a path towards God. But in order to do so, we cannot be carried. Each of us must walk with our own two feet.

1 comment:

  1. The institutions in the Faith have duties which include guiding and supporting indiviual's spiritual growth and maintainance to the end of their earthly days.
    There is a balance that needs to be struck between absolute individualism and absolute authroitarianism by institutions. Each depends on the other.