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By Frank Peabody, III

War, environmental degradation, racism—it appears that polarization has a death grip on every aspect of our world, including our democracy.

I believe the sustainability of humanity depends on the interpretation of the word “spirituality.” There may be no other word in the English language about which there is as much confusion and misunderstanding. I have spent the past 35 years living with this word and reflecting on how it can transform both people and institutions. If, in fact, a general lack of spiritual grounding is the root cause of the polarization in this world, and at the same time there is confusion as to what spirituality means, we indeed have a challenge.

The major confusion over spirituality exists over its relationship with religion and the misunderstanding that it means only religion. People are born with an innate capacity for spiritual development quite apart from religion. Further, spirituality can be nurtured both within and apart from religion. Many of us, for example, have had powerful spiritual experiences inspiring awe, wonder, and intimations of a sacred presence in relation to nature beyond the framework of any religious institution.

People can be spiritual without being religious or religious without being spiritual. Spirituality is primarily about a way of being, not a way of believing or doing. It is a way of being compassionately interconnected with all life. Until we appreciate the fact that spirituality does not mean only religion, progressing from polarization toward unity in this world is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

I would like to focus a minute on what I consider to be a fundamental solution to this lack of spiritual grounding: expanding what PreK-12 whole child education means. In recent years whole child education has come to mean the addition of certain nonacademic curricula such as social and emotional behavior and character development to traditional academic curricula like math, reading, and writing. These whole child curricula are wonderful but fall short of what is needed by excluding their essential foundation, spirituality.

This exclusion is due, in large part, to the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the word “spirituality.” Because our school systems have mistakenly interpreted spirituality to mean only religion, we are denying our children the most important aspect of their education and, indeed, their lives.

The good news is that there is a viable movement underway to both clarify the meaning of spirituality and to assist PreK-12 school cultures in nurturing and strengthening this inborn capacity. The case for this movement is strengthened by the following:

Science: Spirituality is a universal, heritable human trait. Science has found that we are all born with a genetic capacity for this way of being that is 30% developed at the time of birth[1]. For full development, this inborn capacity requires nurturing at home and in PreK-12 schooling. If this nurturing does not occur, the 30% capacity goes dormant, and we are faced with the much harder task of trying to reawaken it in adults, a task for which there is no guaranteed practice or result.

Health: Childhood well-being depends on a strong spiritual grounding. Perhaps the most devastating and tragic result of not tending to the nurturing of our kids’ inborn spirituality in PreK-12 schooling is the impact such neglect can have on their health. One scientifically proven statistic should be enough to garner attention and action: Adolescents who are spiritually grounded are 60% to 80% less likely to become depressed or addicted[2] or suicidal[3].

These health issues migrate into early adulthood and can be found in places like the military. Facing increasing rates of suicide, the US Army is working with Dr. Lisa Miller of Columbia University’s Teachers College to bring spiritual training into the culture of Army bases around the world. Her decades of scientific research and her recent bestseller, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, have been foundational to this new understanding.

Leadership: Superior leadership requires a relational spirituality. Leadership—of self, family, and institutions—requires the ability to genuinely connect with others, a relational spirituality. This ability to connect, in this writer’s opinion, cannot be taught using only conventional methods. It comes from a deep spiritual grounding—a grounding that happens most naturally and easily between birth and the age of 25. Consider this: In 20-35 years, today’s PreK-12 students from around the world will be leading most of our institutions. What this further means to me is that business should be the strongest supporter of bringing spiritual nurturing into the culture of PreK-12 education, because it will be the biggest beneficiary of such support. I predict that this will happen within the next decade as a clearer view of what spirituality really means evolves in this country.

We will always need laws and regulations as guardrails for our actions in areas from social justice to environmental sustainability, but such laws and regulations alone will not sustain humanity in the long term. The imperative of our times is to move from a consciousness of separateness to a consciousness of connection. Bringing the spiritual development of our children into schools is essential for this process, and this writer is convinced our very survival depends upon it.

Frank Peabody III spent most of his life as an executive in the professional services industry in Louisville, Kentucky, and later in New York. Now retired, he co-chairs the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education and is a dedicated watercolorist.

[1] Kendler, K. S., Gardner, C. O., & Prescott, C. A. (1997). Religion, psychopathology, and substance use and abuse: A multimeasure, genetic-epidemiologic study. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(3), 322-329. doi: 10.1176/ajp.154.3.322
[2] Luthar, S. S., Barkin, S. H., & Crossman, E. J. (2013). “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes. Development and Psychopathology, 25(4.2), 1529-1549. doi: 10.1017/S0954579413000758.
[3] Wu, A., Wang, J. Y., & Jia, C. X. (2015). Religion and completed suicide: A meta-analysis. PloS one10(6), e0131715.


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The Collaborative for Spirituality in Education transforms school cultures by nurturing the innate spiritual capacity of educators (independent of any doctrine, ideology, or religion) through enriching activities, engaging discourse, scientific research, and contemplative practices.