Psychedelics, spiritual experience and character education

Next week I’m going to a launch of a new Impact pamphlet that defends character education in schools. Randall Curren is the author, and he will present his case with responses from four panelists.

Wikipedia tells me that ‘Character education is an umbrella term loosely used to describe the teaching of children in a manner that will help them develop variously as moral, civic, good, mannered, behaved, non-bullying, healthy, critical, successful, traditional, compliant or socially acceptable beings.’

The Impact pamphlet is still under wraps, but in his new book Living Well Now and in the Future, Randall Curren argues that we need to teach (albeit not in a coercive way) moral norms and attitudes that are supportive of sustainability; living well together in a way that does not diminish the opportunity for future generations to live well. It appears that in the Impact pamphlet (and in Wednesday’s talk) he will set out firmly that traits like perseverance and resilience are not virtues in themselves but simply means to ends. The ends Randall supports are the ‘fundamental British values’ of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance.

I’m guessing Judith Suissa will presumably argue against character education on autonomy grounds – as she did in my session on psychedelics in education at the PESGB conference. I imagine Michael Hand may argue for character education on patriotism terms. I would have thought that Toby Young might argue for the inculcation of resilience and perseverance, but then again he believes that character is inherited so maybe he’d say we shouldn’t bother teaching it. I don’t know Patrick Roach.

I’m all for character education. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching pro-social behaviour. It’s just that – and maybe this is one thing I have in common with Toby – I’m skeptical about how effective that teaching would be. I would like society to think much more radically about how we might collectively develop greater empathy, forgiveness, gratitude and sense of unity. I appreciate the autonomy argument, but I think believe these are values we can all get behind.

The discussion paper I gave at this year’s PESGB conference was on Aldous Huxley’s philosophy of education, as presented in his final novel Island (1962). Huxley’s utopian vision incorporates the ritual use of a naturally occurring entheogen similar to mescaline or psilocybin – the ‘moksha medicine’, and a school curriculum that prepares children for their first entheogenic experience.

A research team at Johns Hopkins university have been publishing interesting findings for a good few years now on spiritual experience as a crucial factor in the therapeutic effects of psilocybin, which comprise positive changes in psychological functioning and trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviours. The personality or character changes observed in these studies are unprecedented; no other interventions are known to enact enduring changes in any of the so-called Big Five personality traits.

Their most recent paper (Griffiths et al. 2017) builds on what they already know about the importance of the spiritual or mystical-type experience, and seeing whether this can be maximised by combining the standard psilocybin therapy with a course of support in meditation and other spiritual-type practices. The results suggest that the addition of more intensive support for spiritual practices into the therapeutic protocol boosted the effects of the therapy. But both groups – the high dose, high support group and the high dose, low support group, did significantly better than the low dose group. In short, the standard psilocybin therapy was pretty effective by itself, but guided spiritual practice boosted its effectiveness further. Enduring changes in attitudes and behaviours were assessed by means of longitudinal measures of the following:

  • Interpersonal closeness
  • Gratitude
  • Life meaning/purpose
  • Forgiveness
  • Death transcendence
  • Daily spiritual experiences
  • Religious faith and coping
  • Community observer ratings (i.e how subjects’ friends and family think they’ve changed).

So… even if replacing GCSEs with a Huxleyesque entheogenic initiation rite may be off the table (for now!), there is something important we can take from this; that guided and integrated spiritual/mystical experience may be key to educating for the kinds of prosocial attitudes and behaviours (e.g. empathy, forgiveness and gratitude) that we can all agree on.

Then, of course, the challenge becomes about the nature of spiritual experience and how to facilitate it in the absence of the sacred plant medicines that are currently prohibited in this country. There are ways, but personally I think entheogenic initiation deserves its place on the table.

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