The Universal Schoolhouse


  • Spiritual Awakening Through Education
  • by James Moffett.
  • San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1994

A review


  • Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto
  • Toronto, Ontario

Educators avoid the word “spiritual.” It makes them uncomfortable. This discomfort and avoidance betray the sad state of education today. We focus on outcomes rather than have students explore the fundamental questions of life. These questions include such issues as: What is the purpose of human life? What is our role in the universe? What is the nature of reality? How can we deal with human suffering? To be educated should mean that one has addressed these issues in the course of one’s life. Of course, these questions cannot be answered through logical or direct means. We must explore and experience them through art, literature, science, and the various spiritual traditions and practices. Unfortunately, we do little of this in our schools or universities; instead, we cover material and solve problems. We fiddle, while Rome burns.

It is admirable, then, that James Moffett has tackled the issue of spirituality in his book The Universal Schoolhouse: Spiritual Awakening Through Education. In this review we would like to focus on Moffett’s approach to “spiritual awakening” and how he would like to see this occur within education.

At the beginning of the book Moffett makes a strong case for spirituality and for its central place in education. He suggests that a spiritual approach to life is the most inclusive. Spirituality for Moffett denotes unity and seeing “life whole”. This means seeing everything including “the state of your finances or the hidden motives of someone you are dealing with” as well as the divine. For him it is not enough just to know in this more holistic way, but to act and serve others with that knowledge. Moffett also suggests that to live spiritually is to be free from compulsions and attachments. We awaken from our attachments to see life differently: “All spiritual leaders regard ordinary life as a kind of sleep. This is why their goal is awakening. We are automatons living out the posthypnotic suggestions of our conditioning, which we take for free will and choice, just as we take the theater sets we have constructed around us as the real world” .

Moffett argues that spirituality means that the fundamental questions referred to at the beginning of this review “should undergird education just as they underlie our routine activities. Whether avoided or confronted, these are not only issues but the issues”.

Moffett has given us, then, a comprehensive definition of spirituality; however, we feel that two elements are missing in his exposition. One of these elements is a sense of awe and wonder. John Bradshaw, for example, has included this in his own view which we quote here: “Spirituality is a state of fullness, an amplitude. With spirituality we see with a larger vision. The whole comes into view. We grasp what the philosophers call the ‘coincidence of opposites.’ We see things holistically, not as objectified parts. We have reverence for all things, and reverence pervades our life. Reverence means ‘to see a world in a grain of sand,’ as Blake wrote. Every aspect of the creation is wonderful and sacred”.

Moffett does refer to this sense of awe later in the book but not within what he calls “the metaphysical framework” which provides the basis of his educational vision.

Finally, we believe that spirituality involves imperfection. Sometimes spirituality can focus too much on divinity and perfection, and can ignore the paradoxes and conflicts that are part of being a human being. Spirituality does not mean that we can become like gods; instead, it should acknowledge the woundedness that is inherent in our humanity. Our compassion for other humans and for our lives often comes out of our own suffering: “Our very brokenness allows us to become whole. ‘No one is as whole as he who has a broken heart,’ said Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov. ‘Wholeness,’ then, does not mean that the heart is not ‘broken,’ that the pain does not sear. To experience sadness, despair, tears, and howls of pain demonstrates not some violation or deficit of spirituality but rather the ultimate spirituality of acceptance” (Kurtz and Ketcham 1992, 61). A spirituality that includes this sense of imperfection is a more holistic spirituality, and we believe that Moffett’s framework would benefit from its inclusion.

Moffett’s plea for spiritual education is part of the growing movement in holistic education. Moffett himself makes this connection when he states, “The very definition of spirituality as all-inclusive is the one that most applies to education. Advocates of holistic education, for example, insist on the total development of all levels of a human being”.

The case that Moffett makes is not dissimilar to that made by others in recent years including Miller (1992), Oliver and Gershan (1989), Purpel (1989), and ourselves (Miller 1988; Miller, Cassie, and Drake 1990; Drake et al. 1992). For example, David Purpel (1989, 113–118), in his book The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education, makes the case for the following goals:

1. the examination and contemplation of the awe, wonder, and mystery of the universe;
2. the cultivation and nourishment of the processes of meaning-making;
3. the cultivation and nourishment of the concept of oneness of nature and humanity, with the concurrent responsibility to strive for harmony,peace, and justice;
4. the cultivation, nourishment, and development of a cultural mythos that builds on a faith in the human capacity to participate in the creation of a world of justice, compassion, caring, love, and joy;
5. the cultivation, nourishment, and development of the ideals of community, compassion, and interdependence within the traditions of democratic principles; and
6. the cultivation, nourishment, and development of attitudes of outrage and responsibility in the face of injustice and oppression.

The vision is similar to Moffett’s except for Purpel’s stronger emphasis on the need for social justice and the struggle against various forms of oppression. It is important to see that the vision articulated by Moffett, Purpel, and others is not limited to education. The principles articulated by Moffett can also be found in fields such as health (Ornish 1990; Kabat- Zinn 1990), business (Senge 1990; Covey 1990), sports (Murphy 1992), and politics (Mandela 1994). Underlying these visions is an awakening to the interconnectedness of life.

This awakening is in opposition to the way we have tended to see individuals not only as separate from each other, but in constant competition with each other. We have tended to see the world as “us” and “them,” as fragmented thinking has dominated. We break things down into small units; yet, rarely is there an attempt to synthesize or see things as part of a larger whole. Education has a long history of fragmentation, from the twenty thousand objectives developed by Franklin Bobbit, to Skinner’s behaviorism, and the outcomes that dominate today’s curriculum documents.

It is also important to see that the awakening described by Moffett is not “New Age.” Spiritual education and holistic education have their roots in Plato and the whole Platonic tradition (e.g., Plotinus, Dante, Swedenborg, Emerson, and Penrose) in the West. This tradition has also been called “the perennial philosophy” (Huxley 1970), which underlies the mystical traditions of the various faiths around the world. The perennial philosophy suggests that the universe is an integrated whole and that we are intimately connected to that whole. Pythagoras argued that we are microcosms of the universe itself. There exists within each person what the saints and sages have referred to as the Self, the heart, the soul, or what Thomas Merton called the “divine spark.” Education, then, can be seen as a means to activate this spark. Activation of the divine spark is what Moffett calls spiritual awakening. The rest of this review essay will discuss Moffett’s strategies for facilitating this awakening.


To know how to truly change education, Moffett suggests that we have to understand the forces that determine public education practices. For him, the problems with schools are organizational and political rather than problems inherent in the learning process. As a master teacher in languages, he gives numerous examples of how educators have learned to teach reading and writing, but are stopped from following their own best wisdom by the political agendas governing schools.

For Moffett, institutions are concerned with control rather than learning. The “particle approach” by which our schools are run evolved during the industrial revolution. The assembly-line model is lodged deeply in the North American psyche and is still being favored by administrators because it simplifies administration, not because it facilitates learning. Practices grounded in this philosophy ensure control through fragmentation. Some examples of these practices are the textbook industry’s domination of curriculum choices, the call for higher standards and standardization, and behavioral objectives or outcomes masked as accountability. Teaching through the disciplines rather than in an integrated fashion also ensures fragmentation. These practices fly in the face of holistic or organic learning that Moffett recommends as the only approach to the skills being taught, such as writing well, solving problems, or thinking critically.

Moffett’s concerns about organization and politics as the fundamental reasons for today’s educational crisis are shared by others (Madaus 1994). Yet, we do not believe he explores this far enough to illuminate the dilemmas confronting educators today. In North America, two polarities have developed: one calling for a “back to basics approach” and the other calling for a holistic-integrated one. In working with school systems we have experienced a constant dialectic between these two extremes. Given this tension, many systems are caught between political agendas demanding accountability at the same time as they are developing curriculum models that have the potential to be more integrated and holistic. The paradox confronting educators is that accountability is being defined as a return to the very practices that negate the holistic, integrated approach to learning. How does a teacher reconcile a movement where the rhetoric hails “success for all” with the more sinister suggestion that following this path will actually lead to more centralized bureaucratic control and less effective learning for students (Symth 1992)?

Moffett deplores the current move toward the market system for developing alternative schools. For him, we need alternative choices within schools rather than choosing between good or bad schools. He calls for the spiritual perspective as the only one that is inclusive enough to build a new educational model. We agree that the spiritual dimension is an important element to any approach to an authentic model of education.


Moffett’s vision is the universal school—the school without walls that gives everyone access to everything at public expense. It offers constant and limitless choice and involves learners of all ages. The accountability of the system lies in the basic premise that everything that is done is done for the benefit and at the request of the learner who is helped by a variety of advisors. It is bounded by the metaphysical and the cosmological. The schoolhouse, in fact, is the cosmos.

Moffett offers an idealistic vision for education. Everyone is a learner and we all are learning from each other. The schoolhouse becomes the community and the “master social service.” Indeed, in his vision education can prevent crime and eliminate welfare. Health management and parental education are also included. It seems as if education has the answers for all people at all times. This thought could be viewed as ironic given that most teachers today feel that their parameters have expanded and that they have to be all things to all people.

Moffett’s vision of the universal schoolhouse is so far from traditional models that he begins by connecting the reader with the known. He explores ways that are already known to work, such as: witnessing, imitating, collaborating, experimenting, interacting, tutoring, coaching, apprenticing, visiting, playing games, home schooling, self-learning, and community service. Integrated curriculum, project learning, and teaching through the arts are some of the aspects of the universal schoolhouse.

Although rarely acknowledged by Moffett, the paths that he explores are recent additions in mainstream education. For example, integrating curriculum is being advocated as a route to educational reform (Beane 1995; Cardellichio 1995; Drake 1993). His recommendation of project learning echoes Ted Sizer’s notion of exhibitions and the “Essential Coalition for Schools,” where students complete a project that can be publicly displayed and assessed. Moffett encourages a strong presence for the arts as ways to learn, not as simply content to be taught. This view is gaining a large following (Sautter 1994), especially in light of the current popularity of the multiple intelligences (Gardner 1983), as a guide for curriculum designers (Armstrong 1994). How would these approaches to education differ in delivery if the spiritual dimension were added? This is Moffett’s essential question, but it has been left unanswered.

Moffett’s vision sounds wonderful; but, from our perspective, he has not grounded it thoroughly enough in reality. He assumes that people following spiritual principles will act in socially responsible ways; for example, the rich will learn to voluntarily share their wealth once they experience the new educational system that has transformed social services. In reading the book one could only wish for such an idealized world; but Moffett offers little advice on how to get there. He only briefly mentions spiritual disciplines as a path and uses Waldorf schools as an example of what can be done in a system grounded in a spiritual tradition.

Thus, it is what Moffett has left out that is dissatisfying. He has ignored the day-by-day complexities involved with implementing a new vision. How will all the organizations (government, church, business) become positively interdependent? How can school systems deal with accountability at the same time as they effect education policies that follow good learning principles? Why does he not consider the dangers of the technological imperative (Postman 1993) when he enthuses about technological advances in his spiritual vision? Why does he not suggest how the teacher can inspire awe and mystery for the universe as a path to spiritual awakening? Why does he not tell us how all of us (for we will all be students in the universal schoolhouse) can find the spiritual path in our everyday lives? Why has he not provided practical ways in which the spiritual perspective could ground implementation?

He claims that most desired reform could be achieved by throwing out the old, unjustified teaching practices that dominate because of political will. He offers, by way of replacement, an abundance of excellent practices that educators have shown can work and already exist in some pockets. He gives us personal examples of excellence from language arts, but he has neglected to tell us how this wholesale reversal will take place. Indeed, the Eight-Year Study conducted in the late 1930s was grounded on many of the same learning principles, such as learning through experience and integrated studies, that Moffett advocates today (Aikin 1942). The Eight-Year Study involved twenty-eight high schools and was a heavily researched project led by Ralph Tyler and included researchers such as Hilda Taba and Bruno Bettleheim. Yet, the success of this project and its affirmation of learning principles such as Moffett advocates has largely been obscured. In keeping with Moffett’s own theory, political agendas and the culture of educational policymakers have been put forth as the reason why this study has been ignored (Kahne 1995).

In the final analysis, Moffett never really wrestles with the bureaucratic beast that he denounced in the first part of the book. If the problem lies in the organizational structure, why does he not give us a way to change that structure? We might suggest that there is a current movement toward organizational restructuring following spiritual principles that might fit Moffett’s vision well (Wheatley 1992; Senge 1990).

In a world in need of a new vision, Moffett’s definitely has a place. At a time when most school districts are shying away from including values in the curriculum, Moffett has pointed out the very necessity of not only including values, but of being guided by a spiritual perspective. We only hope that his next book will offer more insights on how to do this.


  • Aikin, W. 1942. The story of the eight-year study. New York: Harper and Brothers.
  • Armstrong, T. 1994. Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria,VA: Association

of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

  • Beane, J. 1995. Curriculum integration and the disciplines of knowledge. Phi Delta

Kappan 76(8): 616–622.

  • Cardellichio, T. 1995. Curriculum and the structure of school. Phi Delta Kappan

76(8): 629–632.

  • Covey, S. R. 1990. Principle-centered leadership. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Drake, S. M. 1993. Planning integrated curriculum: The call to adventure. Alexandria,

VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

  • Drake, S. M., J. Bebbington, S. Laksman, P. Mackie, N. Maynes, and L. Wayne. 1992.

Developing an integrated curriculum using the Story Model. Toronto: OISE Press.

  • Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.
  • Huxley, A. 1970. The perennial philosophy. New York: Harper Colophon.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. 1990. Full catastrophe living. Using the wisdom of your body and mind to

face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delacorte Press.

  • Kahne, J. 1995. Revisiting the eight-year study and rethinking the focus of educational

policy analysis. Educational Policy 19(1): 4–23.

  • Kurtz, E., and K. Ketcham. 1992. The spirituality of imperfection: Storytelling and the

journey to wholeness. New York: Bantam.

  • Madaus, G. 1994. A technological and historical consideration of equity issues

associated with proposals to change the nation’s testing policy. Harvard Educational Review 64(1): 76–95.

  • Mandela, N. 1994. Long walk to freedom. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Miller, J. P. 1988. The holistic curriculum. Toronto: OISE Press.
  • Miller, J. P., B. Cassie, and S. M. Drake. 1990. Holistic learning: A teacher’s guide to

integrated studies. Toronto: OISE Press.

  • Miller, R. 1992. What are schools for? Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.
  • Murphy, Michael. 1992. The future of the body: Explorations into the further evolution of

human nature. New York: Jeremy Tarcher.

  • Oliver, D. W., and K. W. Gershan. 1989. Education, modernity and fractured meaning.

Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Ornish, Dean. 1990. Dr. Dean Ornish’s program for recovering from heart disease. New

York: Random House.

  • Postman, N. 1993. Technolopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage.
  • Purpel, D. E. 1989. The moral and spiritual crisis in education: A curriculum for justice

and compassion in education. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

  • Sautter, R. C. 1994. An arts education school reform strategy. Phi Delta Kappan

75(6): 432–437.

  • Senge, P. 1990. The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday.
  • Symth, J. 1992. Teacher’s work and the politics of reflection. American Educational

Research Journal 29(2): 267–302.

  • Wheatley, M. 1992. Leadership and the new science. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-