Although America’s prestigious private schools have by and large abandoned their religious heritage, there is a growing movement seeking to reinvigorate such institutions with spiritual values.
In Commonweal magazine (May 19), Michael McGough writes that most schools have abandoned chapel services, and have eliminated the position of chaplain. But religion is returning through the back door by way of the popular interest and acceptance of spirituality. The Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE) is a 400-member school association that encourages spiritual development, the study of religion, and community service.
The organization was originally called the Council for Religion in the Independent Schools but had to “do away with the R word,” because some people saw it as “connotating the doctrinaire, the dogmatic, the evangelical, the moralistic.”
Since the name change in 1998, the council has grown significantly. CSEE director Peter Cobb says that independent schools are discovering that the frameworks and vocabularies of politics and psychology do not address the concerns that religion traditionally has, such as the importance of charity and forgiveness. At some schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, there is an abundance of voluntary religious programs as well as new classes in religion But McGough fears that the tendency to favor “lowest-common denominator ecumenism” and generic spirituality in private schools may not have much impact on students’ spiritual growth.
He adds that this may change as the Ivy League and other elite colleges increasingly draw students from first-rate public schools rather than private schools.. This might free prep schools from having to be inclusive at all costs, allowing them to be more “religiously declarative.”
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