Reflections on Education in Evolvement and All-Encompassing Spirituality

Sandy Milne


To consider “education in evolvement and all-encompassing spirituality” presumes a degree of common understanding of the terms used.  To that end, this reflection suggests some definitions, offers some insights, and reports on some lived experience.

As a child of the 1950’s growing up in Canada, the idea of education was fairly obvious.  There existed a body of knowledge, a set of facts, a way of behaving that was given, that pre-existed, that belonged to the experts in my life, be they family, teachers or religious leaders.  My task, as a child, was to absorb and accept, to learn what was.  Questions were permitted for clarification only and the usual answer to “Why?” was “Because I said so.”

It was a time of certainty, about almost everything.  Or at least it seemed so from a child’s point of view.  Looking back, I wonder if that certainty was a facade, meant to nurture and protect.  From the vantage point of half a century later, such certainty seems suspect.  The possibility of evolvement seemed remote.  And yet …

I feel like I’ve always been teaching.  Maybe it was helping other students with their reading while the teacher was busy with another grade in my two-room school house.  Maybe it was asking the question that prompted the professor to explain the concept that I was aware was baffling my peers at university.  Maybe it was helping my children figure out why their classmates were so mean on the playground.  Maybe it was sympathizing with newcomers struggling with the irregularities of English spelling and pronunciation.  Maybe it was encouraging fellow-worshippers to raise the voices God had given them in songs of praise.  But was I really teaching? If so, what was it? Or should it be who?

In all these situations, and many more, there has been a tension.  Am I teaching people?  Or am I teaching facts, concepts, and techniques?  Is it, indeed, actually possible to teach anyone?  I can present ideas. I can encourage and explain.  I can provide an environment that is supportive and affirming. I can cite examples from my own experience.  But in the final analysis, I cannot compel learning.  It is up to the learner to do the learning. To update the old adage about horses and water, you can offer people information but you can’t make them think!

I was first exposed to this distinction as a young professional presenting courses designed to help our customers deal with intricacies of the computer idiosyncrasies of the day.  The courses were structured physically much like my high school classrooms had been.  The “students” were seated at desks all facing towards a screen.  I stood next to the screen, equipped with an over-head projector and slides with information I planned to teach.  Periodically, the students broke into small groups to complete some assigned task meant to demonstrate that they had learned what I has just taught.

To my intense frustration, many of my customers, with whom I had previously worked collaboratively and successfully to implement solutions to their business problems, exhibited behavior I can only describe as juvenile.  Whether it was snide asides, returning late from break or goofing off during group work, the respectful and reciprocal working relationship that I thought I had with them seemed to disappear.  It was as if being in a classroom situation had made them revert to adolescence.  What was going on?

Soon afterwards, our company hired a person skilled in adult learning.  With his guidance, we came to the realization that we needed to revamp the whole idea of customer education.  We needed to focus instead on facilitating customer learning.  The problems to be solved needed to be their problems, not ours.  The questions to be answered needed to be their questions, not ours.  We could show them techniques and remind them of constraints, but it was up to them to learn to choose which techniques to use to circumvent the constraints to get the job done.

So, what has all of this to do with “education in evolvement and all-encompassing spirituality”? Just this: you and I and every human person needs to do the hard work of spirituality personally, for oneself.  I would contend that such hard work belongs to children as well as to adolescents and adults.  It begins with the first breath of life and continues until the last heartbeat.  The best that “teachers” or “educators” can do is facilitate learning. 

Furthermore, there is a huge diversity among learners.  It derives not only from their various ages and stages, but also, from the relative strengths of their intelligences, for example, visual–spatial vs. verbal–linguistic;[Wikipedia 2016) their personality types, for example INTJ or ESFP;(16 Personalities 2016 )not to mention their differing live experiences, among many other things.  Given such diversity, it is only reasonable that there is no one right way that will facilitate learning for everyone.  To that end, I offer a survey of some of the insights that have helped me to learn and that have helped me to help others to learn.

One insight is to pay attention to the words I use.  I sometimes find it helpful to examine the etymology of common words.  Their origins and the changes in their meanings over time and space can point to underlying biases in how they are used today.[3] Take, for example, “education”, which shares the same root as “induce” and “deduction”.  It is the Latin word “ducere” which means “to lead”.  However, where “induce” has the sense of “lead someone or something into” and “deduction” has the sense of “taking something away from”, the prefix “e” has the sense of “out of”, which is somewhat different.  Thus, when we educate, the sense is to “lead or take or draw out”.  For me the sense is that education “draws out” from learners not only what they already know but also what they don’t yet know and want to. 

This brings me to an insight about a pattern that learning often takes. (Etymonline 2016) I have the honour and the privilege to watch this pattern in action as our 18-month old granddaughter encounters the world.  When her parents first brought her to visit at the age of one month, she existed in a state of unconscious incompetence.  Beyond the basics of respiration and digestion, neither of which she controlled in any way, she was competent at nothing.  She couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, was not interested in the world around her, could not, in fact, distinguish any separation of that world from herself.  And that was just fine with her and with us all.  That state of unconscious incompetence was absolutely appropriate for her then.

But that didn’t last long! It began with her noticing something, wanting it, being frustrated that it was out of reach, stretching and stretching until eventually, to her surprise and our delight, she rolled over, first from tummy to back and then, with much more hard work from back to tummy.  It was a time of conscious incompetence, being aware of not being able to move and working to do something about it.  From rolling to crawling to creeping to pulling up to cruising to walking – it was an ongoing struggle for self-locomotion, consciously to overcome her incompetence.

The day she took her first independent steps was almost exactly a year later.  With great daring, she let go, with one hand, with the other hand, set out with a look of triumph to get to her mother across the room.  The steps were halting, the pauses long and the look of concentration was intense.  She knew she could do it! She placed her feet carefully and slowly, conscious of her competence to walk. 

Now, some 6 months later, that walking is taken for granted as she hurries to bring a book to be read, scurries to the front door, shoes in hand, wanting to go to the park, makes a bee-line to the dining room table when snack time is announced.  She no longer pays any attention to how to get there.  She just does it.  She has reached the stage of unconscious competence, with respect to walking. 

I’ve taken some time to outline the stages of this pattern for two reasons.  First, it is helpful for me to be aware of my own learning stage with respect to any given task or issue or concept.  This is especially true when I consider my own spiritual path.  Others seem so much more advanced.  The more I learn, the more it seems there is to learn.  My best intentions are often waylaid by other, more urgent, concerns.   I need to be gentle with myself, to give myself time to get from one stage to the next, to realize that unconscious competence in one matter does not negate the likelihood of unconscious incompetence in another.

Perhaps more importantly, it is helpful to be aware of which stage of learning others are at.  There is absolutely no point in encouraging someone to learn something until that person has moved beyond the unconscious incompetence stage.  If they are not even aware that there is something to learn, they cannot possibly do the hard work of learning it.

Further insights follow from a question which arises in observing our granddaughter as she learns one new thing after another.  (As an aside, I’m sure her father, our son, learned in much the same way, but we were far too busy being parents to pay attention!)  What we observe is that she continues to pursue unconscious competence in many things.  Nobody taught her to walk.  She just did it!  So it is with climbing and speaking and preferring green beans to green peas.  The question is two-fold: what drives her to continue to learn and why these particular skills?

Our granddaughter and I would suggest, all of us learn what we do because that is what is accessible to us.  If we grow up in France, we learn French.  If we are surrounded by people who read books, we learn to read.  If, on the other hand, we live inland, it is unlikely that we will learn to sail.  Turning to why we learn, the same general pattern holds.  We want to connect with the world around us.  We want to get along with the people we live with.  We want to make sense of “life, the universe and everything”, to borrow from the title of a book by Douglas Adams.( Wikipedia  2016)

When it comes to spiritual matters, the same answers hold true.  We have a common human drive to find out, to fit in, to interact.  We respond to that drive within the systems, the beliefs, the codes, the creeds, the examples that are available to us.  Consequently, achieving education in evolvement and all-encompassing spirituality for ourselves, or facilitating the learning in evolvement and all-encompassing spirituality in others, depends  both on what realities are available to us, or them, the freedom to choose from and according to our, or their  ability to respond to the human need to make meaning.  What the educator can do is provide evidence of the wide variety of possibilities and support for the process of making meaning.

Here several maxims come to mind.  Perhaps some of them will resonate with you as they do for me.  “Faith is better caught than taught.” Thus, how I behave is more important than what I say. “One learns best by teaching.” Thus, others learn best when I learn from them. “If you can get the questions right, the answers are obvious.” Thus every question is worth considering.  “It is in encountering the other that one learns to know oneself.” Thus difference is key to identity. “Catechesis differs from instruction insofar as it awakens echoes of faith already within.” Thus the source of spirituality lies within the human spirit.  Like all maxims, none of them stands alone but each points to something I know to be true.

This brings me to my last insight, mine to share but originally formulated by Canadian Catholic Jesuit mathematician and theologian Bernard Lonergan.  He spent hundreds of pages and much of his life describing how it is that the human person comes to know.  For Lonergan, knowing is much more than either “taking a good look for yourself” or “believing the experts.”  Knowing requires one to engage in a dynamic pattern of operations consisting of experiencing, understanding, judging and deciding.   Here is one of Lonergan’s more poetic descriptions:

From slumber, we awake to attend.  Observing lets intelligence be puzzled, and we inquire.  Inquiry leads to the delight of insight, but insights are a dime a dozen, so critical reasonableness doubts, checks, makes sure.  Alternative courses of action present themselves and we wonder whether the more attractive is truly good… by a specialized differentiation of consciousness…we …devote ourselves to a moral pursuit of goodness, a philosophic pursuit of truth, a scientific pursuit of understanding, an artistic pursuit of beauty…ever going beyond what happens to be given or known, every striving for a fuller and richer apprehension of the yet unknown or incompletely known totality, whole universe.(Lonergan 2007,13)

Lonergan calls this pattern “Transcendental Method”.  It is a method insofar as “it is a normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results.”  It is transcendental insofar as it transcends any “particular field or subject” but “is concerned with meeting the exigencies and exploiting the opportunities of the human mind itself.  It is a concern that is both foundational and universally significant and relevant.”(Lonergan 2007, 14)

Lonergan’s Transcendental Method provides an important tool in the quest for “education in evolvement and all-encompassing spirituality”.  In our striving to draw out what we know and what we wish to know, constrained by the possibilities that surround us, moving again and again from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, it is our response to the call to be attentive, to be intelligent, to be reasonable, to be responsible that situates our striving within the best that the human spirit can undertake.

 References:, accessed June 11, 2016.  I suggest Wikipedia as a reference not so much for its content as for its links to original sources., accessed June 11, 2016 provides background for these derivations, accessed June 11, 2016,_the_Universe_and_Everything, accessed June 11, 2016

 Bernard Lonergan.2007. Method in Theology, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.