Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education
reviewed by Ross Keating - 2004
Title: Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education
Author(s): Elizabeth J. Tisdell
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787957232, Pages: 294, Year: 2003
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Tisdell’s work shows that spirituality, as an idea, or rather as a potentially transformative force in adult and higher education, is an idea or force whose time has come. What’s persuasive about her approach is that she keeps within the bounds of individual life stories to make her points and at times discloses her own personal experience. She never strays too far from life itself, grounded as it always is within a specific socio-cultural context. The stories are drawn from thirty-one participants (twenty-two women and nine men) who are educators working in higher and adult education and who have to deal with cultural issues in their classes. What distinguishes them from other educators is that they each see spirituality, although they each define it differently, as a foundational influence in their personal lives and work, to such an extent, that it is integral to their self-identity and authenticity.
One of the issues, which Tisdell signals early on in her work, is how to draw upon the educative and transformative potential within spirituality without the teacher becoming “impositional” (p.19) or being “seen as pushing a religious or even a spiritual agenda” (p. 250). Much of Tisdell’s work is an exploration of how this can actually be done.
The work is an easy read, not overly laden with references but enough to give it authority. It is divided into three logically arranged parts that take the reader from various definitional areas and issues surrounding spirituality through to its application in the area of “culturally relevant pedagogy”.
Tisdell is upfront about her assumptions and makes it clear that spirituality is essentially personal and experiential, and although it may be grounded in a religious framework it can happily exist outside such frameworks, even making the point that established authorities, religious or otherwise, often hinder spiritual growth. She stresses the uniqueness of each person’s way of finding connection with others and with all things in the universe and of expressing wholeness in their lives. Essentially for Tisdell spirituality is about deep meaning-making, and in this regard she foregrounds the importance of art and symbolic expression as a form of spiritual knowledge. Art is culturally specific and articulates a culture’s values or spiritual insights; this is a strong and important message underlying the book.
Tisdell promotes the notion of what she calls “The Great Spiral: Spiritual Development as a Process of Moving Forward and Spiraling Back” (pp. 93- 116). It is a theme that keeps re-occurring in her work, and she uses it to show that spiritual growth is not a linear development but more like a continual process of moving forward and spiraling back. It is in this dual movement that she stresses the importance of culture: of going back and re-knowing and reflecting upon our cultural heritage and seeing how we have adapted or accommodated ourselves to our present cultural setting, and then moving forward in constructive and culturally-relevant action. For Tisdell, this process shapes our identity and defines our spirituality. The impression she gives is of a person climbing a hill on a zigzagging path in which he or she appears to be moving forward and then backwards while all the time going upwards.
In reading the stories of the participants, the sense of inner struggle and even a degree of suffering is clear in all of them. It is nearly as if this inner conflict is a necessary trigger which gives rise to courage and a determination that, in Tisdell’s words, “brings one more in touch with one’s core self, which is grounded in one’s deepest spirit” (p. 33). And here, Tisdell argues, in this “deepest spirit,” is where authenticity lies.
Although Tisdell does not downplay the benefit of rational analysis or the importance of affective knowledge, it is the role of the imagination that she gives precedence to in spiritual transformation. For it is through the unique power of the imagination, she argues, that a nexus can be constructed between what we already know from the past and what we are confronted with in the present, and it is out of this union that a new knowledge or a transformative awareness can arise. The task of defining what constitutes a transformative or a spiritual experience is always fraught with dangers, but in adult and higher education to leave such experiences unacknowledged is probably more dangerous for it creates an unreal learning environment that leaves the soul of both student and teacher disengaged and unfulfilled. In Tisdell’s view, spiritual development is the integration of all human development, “since a human being always works as an integrated whole” (p.95). This integration, as Tisdell well illustrates in her book, is best expressed in life stories.
At times Tisdell goes a little too far reiterating and repeating her ideas and covering the same ground, which can interrupt the general flow of her thinking. And while she makes a clear distinction between religion and spirituality, she does not offer any such distinction between psychology and spirituality and at times seems to blur these together. This is particularly the case when she discusses Jung and synchronicity. However, this book is to be highly welcomed, and it will no doubt serve, to pick up on one of the author’s closing ideas, a “mentoring” function for all those working in the field of adult and higher education who wish to include spirituality in their teaching.