Service-Learning and Spiritual Practice: Complementary Pedagogies for the Privileged

Over Easter a number of us from HKIS went to rural China to make a short video about our girls scholarship program.  Every time I spend time with these girls, the word “virtue” comes to mind.  Their innocence and sincerity is palpable.  This raises the delicate question whether poorer students are actually morally superior to privileged students.  Since that trip, I have come across research that provides a response to this question.


In Humanities I in Action we are now studying globalization, including issues related to income disparity and social inequality.  Last week I came across a fascinating study and decided to poll my students about the question before revealing the findings.   Adapting the title of this Robert Schiffman article, I asked my students: “Who is more likely to lie, cheat, or steal – a rich person or a poor person?”  We discussed their various viewpoints, and then I called for  a vote.  Three of my 18 students raised their hands to vote for a rich person, while none said a poor person.  The vast majority opted for the third choice – that no such generalizations could be made.  At this point, I introduced research recently completed by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner at the University of California – Berkeley.

Moral Behavior of the Rich and Poor

In a series of naturalistic and lab experiments, Piff and Keltner found that:

  • Wealthier participants were more likely than poorer participants to lie about their scores in a game involving rolling dice in order to gain a $50 reward.
  • Wealthier people were more likely to lie to gain advantage and to agree that unethical behavior is necessary at work than poorer people.
  • Higher class individuals needed priming to show compassion to strangers, while lower class participants showed an overall higher level of care and were more consistent in their response.
  • Drivers of more expensive cars paid less heed to pedestrians crossing the street than drivers of less expensive cars, and were more likely to cut-off other drivers.
  • Wealthier participants were likely to consider greed as morally acceptable than poorer participants.
  • As social status increases among participants, generosity declines.

To excerpt a few statements from the Schiffman article mentioned above:

“It’s not that the rich are innately bad,” Piff said, “but as you rise in the ranks — whether as a person or a nonhuman primate — you become more self-focused.”

And also isolated, cut off from others and from the standards of the community at large, the study concluded. Unlike the poor, who have to rely on their network of friends, family and neighbors to help them get through tough economic times, wealth buys one a certain independence from others. The rich don’t have to make the same compromises and accommodations as the rest of us do. They are accustomed to getting their own way. They are also used to getting away with things. Witness the bafflement, then outrage on Wall Street when it was suggested that the big wheels there who had acted fraudulently should be held criminally accountable for their misdeeds.

Living in a bubble of extreme wealth also fosters what has been called “the compassion deficit.” As one gets richer, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with those in need. Romney’s statement that he was not worried about the poor, because they are protected by the safety net is a case in point. As the income gap widens, many are losing their ability even to imagine what life might be like on the other side of the divide.”

The disturbing conclusion for those of us who teach elite students is that they seem more likely to engage in unethical behavior.  These findings underscore the importance  of being even more intentional in bringing a moral dimension to bear upon curricula in wealthy schools.

Defining the Problem at HKIS

This research resonated with the interviews I did with HKIS students in which I asked them what hinders students from having a social conscience. The most common response was that they lived in a bubble of affluence and competition that disconnects them from the lives of others, especially those who suffer. As I wrote in my dissertation:

“Students spoke frequently about what prevented them from becoming socially conscious individuals, often referring to a sense of disconnectedness that they felt. This sense originated from a number of sources. For many students, the academically challenging nature of HKIS and its emphasis on achievement and success cut them off from being cognizant or concerned about social realities. This competitive environment, some Chinese students explained, can be attributed in part to the examination-driven atmosphere of local Hong Kong schools. Other students cast the blame further afield, attributing the competitiveness to the larger materialistic, profit-driven milieu that they are immersed in as part of the upper echelon of Hong Kong society. Some students spoke of the location of HKIS in an affluent, suburban area on Hong Kong island as a contributing factor. Positioning themselves in a larger frame of reference, other students pointed to the socio-economic disparity between the wealth of Hong Kong that they had become accustomed to, in contrast to its poorer Asian neighbors and to poor people in Hong Kong; both groups being outside their normal world. For the more philosophically-minded, this disconnectedness was a local manifestation of a modern existential phenomenon which 21st century students have no choice but to face. Students were in broad agreement that disconnectedness is a fundamental issue faced by students at HKIS.”

Students at HKIS have clearly identified the problem of disconnectedness that seems implicit in attending a privileged school.  It also seems likely that Piff and Keltner’s research is broadly applicable to students at HKIS. These indicators suggest that Madeline Levine’s conclusion in The Price of Privilege may be correct:

“Affluent kids are less altruistic than kids with fewer financial resources, and they become even less so as they get older” (p. 174).

Given this situation, what can we as educators do?

Proposing Solutions

I have come to believe that there are two broad solutions to this problem of self-focus common among privileged students:

1) Social Conscience Education

As I have written extensively in this blog, the most effective way of breaking through student self-centeredness is exposing them to the sufferings of others.  This best occurs in classes that include in-class study with out-of-class experience. In other words, some form of service-learning brings our students into contact with those who have much less than they do and suffer as a result.  Discomfort is common among our students, as their assumptions about the world are challenged.  Mezirow’s first four steps in his ten-step transformative learning theory appear frequently in service-learning classes:

  1. Students experience a disorienting dilemma
  2. These experiences cause them to experience a range of emotions (e.g., guilt, shame, compassion, helplessness, hopelessness, despair, etc.)
  3.  Critical thinking about such experiences cause them to question many life assumptions.
  4. These experiences are shared with others (e.g., fellow classmates, parents, friends, siblings)

Pedagogy for privileged students seems to require exposure to the suffering of others, both in the form of study and personal experience.  Schools that teach wealthy students should become experts in not only creating situations that cause disorientation, but more importantly, in leading students to successfully re-integrate these experiences back into their daily lives.

2) Spiritual Practice

The second area of pedagogical interest is spiritual practice. While I have toyed with this approach for many years, this is a less deeply explored area than service-learning and requires greater sensitivity.   I continue to experiment with spiritual practice and ritual in various forms. This school year students in my classes have:

  • Held a funeral for Simon, a character in the book Lord of the Flies.
  • Used a Balinese monkey chant as a model for students to create a buzzing bee ritual (girls) and a swarming fly ritual (guys) to explore the concept of entrainment.
  • Used Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” model to share their personal journeys with service this year.
  • Used Wilber’s AQAL model to chart a personal ideal, value, or belief from their innermost self to the broader world.
  • Experimented with student choice of their own personal spiritual practice.
  • Walked a labyrinth under the guidance of a trained teacher.
  • Ate silently at a Buddhist temple as a nun explained how to eat mindfully.
  • Used Centering Prayer and other methods of meditation.

Borrowing a metaphor from Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Centering Prayer, the goal of such practices is to help students to dive beneath the superficial surface of competitive and materialistic school life, and explore their own depths. My experience is that students are generally open to such spiritual explorations in my classes.  As long as the approach involves more than one tradition and forces no one to participate who is uncomfortable, students are open and some even intrigued by the prospect of coming to greater self-knowledge as well as gaining insight into the ‘invisible world’.

Jaclyn’s Story

During our final Community Gathering as a full high school, one of our seniors, Jaclyn Phi, shared a story that shows why social conscience education needs to include a spiritual practice dimension:

For the first two years of high school, I separated life into the big and small things. The big things meant much more to me than did the small things. When I learned about the Rwandan genocide, factory farms, and other pressing global issues during Humanities In Action, I was moved to help solve these big issues. I was so busy advocating against animal abuse and the unfair treatment of refugees yet I would come home every day and act ice cold with my grandfather. My grandfather used to live with me at home; he was a very skilled engineer and mathematician and that’s all I saw him as. My grandfather loved solving math problems. Everyday when I got home he’d ask me if I had any math homework and for a while I would show it to him so that he could double check my answers. I did this because academics was a big thing in my life as I thought it determined how successful I was or could become. But when he got sick, he started to do the problems slower and make more careless mistakes. I was a freshman during this time, and I was just so selfish and inconsiderate. When I started to notice this, I started to tell him that I didn’t have any math homework because I thought that this way, I would waste less of his and my time. This was so much more than just him helping me with math but I didn’t see it until it was too late. Every time I think of it I cringe in disgust and guilt. I deprived him of this small thing that made him happy and I really just missed out on creating a bond that could have been special.

That’s when I realized that the small things are really the big things in life. Letting him help me with math homework, or even just striking a conversation with him more at home just to show that I loved him would have made a huge difference. It would have showed him that I was there for him always. During that time there were also many instances when I gave my parents the cold shoulder, I said no to hangouts with friends, put my needs before my friends’ needs, and more. I really hope its not too late but, two years later I am finally starting to understand the importance of the small things in life.

I sort of think of these small things as connecting the dots. Continuous small gestures mean so much more than just one grand display of love. When you begin to commit to these small acts of love, you can start to connect the dots between all this joy and ultimately end up helping to change the world for the better. My thinking now is this. If we all start caring more about others, smiling at strangers, sacrificing our needs for others, then slowly everyone will become more considerate towards each other and we’ll hopefully be able to alleviate the major issues of injustice towards humans, animals, and the environment in our world. While I was figuring this out, I came across a scripture from Matthew 25 that said, “ Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” In this way, God showed me how these small acts of love, added up, will be the reason why things change for the better on this planet.

When I learned this, it was impossible for me to not look around at everyone and not be happy or grateful for being around such a loving community. We are all one and the same. We all find happiness in sharing it with others. As Mother Teresa said, “ We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” I hope that we can all start doing more of these small things.

Jaclyn’s comments speak to what I believe is the next step in social conscience education at HKIS.  Many of our students become impassioned about social issues, especially through the Humanities I in Action curriculum.  However, their own personal attitudes and behaviors within their own family or our school community are not addressed with the same degree of attention as the ‘big issues.’  Spiritual practices seem especially relevant in a community that can afford to travel and experience regional and global issues first-hand; the greater challenge, Jaclyn makes clear, is to integrate selflessness into our achievement-0riented culture.


In light of Piff and Kelter’s research, it appears that students from wealthy backgrounds need to be challenged to go beyond their ego boundaries.  A pedagogy for the privileged serves  both the well-being of students as well as the common good of society.  While the research that I have done at HKIS has established the efficacy of the service-learning approach, the use of spiritual practices, as noted in Cultivating the Spirit, is relatively unexplored. My strong hunch is that the most potent and healing form of education will integrate these two poles together into a coherent whole.

In the introduction to Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer pioneer Thomas Keating writes about the importance of this particular practice for the larger cause of justice:

Centering Prayer is aimed at healing the violence in ourselves and purifying the unconscious of its hidden and flawed motivation that reduces and can even cancel out the effectiveness of the external works of mercy, justice, and peace (p. viii).

Service-learning and spiritual practices such as Centering Prayer need to be presented to students as necessary yin-yang complements of an undivided life. I hope that in the future the definition of social conscience education will expand to include spiritual practices as a natural and accepted partner in the quest to break the self-absorption that seems to be inherent among affluent, achievement-oriented students.

*          *          *          *          *           *           *            *            *            *            *            *

Articles Related to Piff and Keltner’s research:

1.Greed Prevents Good (NY Times)

2.  Wealthy, Motivated by Greed, are More Likely to Cheat, Study Finds (LA Times)

3. Study: Wealthy More Likely to Behave Unethically (Slate)

4. Self-Interest Spurs Society’s ‘Elite’ to Lie, Cheat on Tasks, Study Finds (Bloomberg) (This article contains one critique of the methods used in the study.)

5. Are Rich People More Unethical? (CNN)

6. Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Ethical Behavior Piff’s research was recently published in the March 13, 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

7. Poor Rich Kids by Chrystia Freeland: Pressure on Wealthy Students Growing

8. Luxury Shopping, from the other side of the Cash Register by Carmen Maria Machad, December 3, 2013, The New Yorker Blog

9. “One Rolex Short of Contentment” by George Monbiot

10. “Why The Rich Don’t Give to Charity,” The Atlantic, April 2013.

11. “Money-Empathy Gap,” Lisa Miller, New York Magazine, July 1, 2012

12. “How to Get the Wealthy to Donate,” NY Times, May 12, 2017.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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8 Responses to Service-Learning and Spiritual Practice: Complementary Pedagogies for the Privileged

  1. sarahsjoys says:

    The service-learning experiences I had through HKIS were invaluable. Our girls may never attend a school where it is offered, but Andy and I want to do service-learning travel with the girls, as a family, when they get a little older. We want them to learn compassion for others and gain a sense that 1) We are very blessed to have the resources we do and 2) We are called to use our resources to be a blessing to others. Genesis 22:18 “And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed – all because you have obeyed me.”

  2. The week I spent in Assisi touched, touched me the most out of my 62 yrs. Fr Keating’s Daily Reader” is on my bedside , Fr Rohr’s “The Center Within”, & Cynthia’s “Centering Prayer”,
    are my 3 favorites. Blessings to everyone & pray for this newbie!

    • Hi Diana, I felt the same way. I was in Rome 12 years ago and did a two-week course on ecumenism. It was interesting and well-taught, but it just didn’t stick with me. As Cynthia said, you don’t take academic insights with you – only those that you have integrated into your life. I’m pretty sure I will take what I learned in Assisi with me, for they speak at a heart level. As a teacher, the challenge for me is to teach courses that really matter like this.

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