November 14, 2007

Spirituality in Higher Education: Part 1

According to recent studies, college students are seeking more substance -- and sustenance -- in the classroom than their professors are willing to offer. Findings of an ambitious and long-range study of spirituality in higher education offer an interesting window into the unspoken assumptions and expectations about what the quest for knowledge means at North American colleges and universities.

The initial results revealed that undergraduates are eager to explore spiritual interests and to talk about the deeper meaning and purpose of life: "more than sixty percent of first-year students entering over 230 U.S. institutions of higher learning said they hoped to have an opportunity to develop their personal values, self-understanding, and maturity while at college".

"The spiritual awakening that is slowly taking place counterculturally will become more of a daily norm as we all willingly break mainstream cultural taboos that silence or erase our passion for spiritual practice"
-– bell hooks (2000)


Samuel Gray said...

Using the comment that "more than sixty percent of first-year students...hoped to have an opportunity to develop their personal values, self-understanding, and maturity while at college" to put forth an argument that undergraduates are eagerly seeking spiritual enlightenment is misleading. A quest for maturity and self-fulfillment does not equate to a desire to learn spirituality in the classroom.

Carol Ann Raphael said...

The initial results of the survey mentioned revealed that undergraduates are eager to explore spiritual interests and to talk about the deeper meaning and purpose of life.

As heartening and promising a comment as this may be on the aspirations of America’s collegiate youth, administrators of the study at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), based at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that for the most part professors have something else in mind.

Nearly eighty percent of the more than forty thousand faculty members surveyed from over 420 schools acknowledged that spirituality or religion was important in their lives. But far fewer of them were willing to discuss this aspect of their lives in class.

While sixty percent of the professors acknowledged that moral development is a worthy goal for an undergraduate, a mere thirty percent of them responded affirmatively when asked whether they thought it was the school’s responsibility to address the moral and spiritual development of students. And of those thirty percent, the majority were, not surprisingly, faculty who teach at religious institutions.

So where does that leave the yearnings of students for answers to their deeper questions? Not in the classroom, or at least not at many of the nation’s leading educational institutions, which may explain another noteworthy trend reported recently in the New York Times. Enrollments are on the rise at Protestant seminaries across the country, and not because more people want to become pastors. On the contrary, students claim that seeking an education that prepares them more fully for life is their reason for attending the seminary. They want to deal with those questions that matter the most.

The objective, judgment-free model that dominates higher education in the West today has not always been the primary method for acquiring knowledge. Both in the United States and in Europe, most universities grew out of or were founded by religious institutions, whose perspectives dominated pedagogy. It was only in the eighteenth century that science began to supplant religion as the way to know truth, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the growth of secular academic institutions took off.
What college students seem to be asking for is a more complete education, one that is as much about how to live as it is about how the world works. But up to now their professors haven’t addressed those concerns in the classroom, at least not to the satisfaction of their students. Given the political and cultural diversity of today’s collegiate population and the extensive measures institutions take to include everyone and their views, this isn’t so surprising. But the fact that large percentages of both students and professors acknowledge an interest in spirituality and self-reflection is significant.

The data thus far suggest we need to reassess our assumptions about what it means to prepare young adults for the complexities of the life they face. The challenge will be to create a new model of academic inquiry—one that is equipped to deal with the differing perspectives that any genuine engagement with questions of morality and purpose is sure to elicit. And one that doesn’t lapse into the easy yet dispassionate position that all points of view are equally valid, which is what has led to the ethical impoverishment that students are responding to in the first place. Admittedly, this will require a large amount of creativity and willingness, if not risk, on the part of academicians and administrators. But our difficult times require nothing less.

A recently announced second phase of the HERI project could go a long way toward making such an eventuality more than a lofty aspiration. In spring 2007 those students who participated in the original 2004 study as freshmen were surveyed again at the end of their junior year. A selection of them are from the same institutions as some of the faculty who were surveyed. The findings from the overlap group will help determine the impact, for better or worse, that the beliefs and practices of professors have on the values of their students. Once all the data is collected, correlated, and analyzed, a National Institute on Integrating Spirituality into the Campus Curriculum and Co-curriculum will be established, with the mandate to create and implement programs and materials that will bring spiritual perspectives into academic life. If successful, these initiatives could help bridge the gap between the aspirations of students and the inhibitions of their professors and significantly enhance the promise of a college education. Then “higher education” would truly live up to its name.

... said...

Very good point Sam.

That statement in isolation does not directly speak to the desire for spirituality in the classroom.

The study itself goes into much more detail of what researchers discovered about students interests, and I encourage you to investigate further with the link we provided in the original post.

Moreover, this post was intended to begin talking about the role - if any - of spirituality in the classroom. We do not want to suggest that students are "eagerly seeking spiritual enlightenment", but rather that research suggests students want to engage the "big questions" - of the ultimate nature of reality, etc., - in relation to their more formal studies.

Also, there are many forms and conceptions of "spirituality", and we do not necessarily endorse one specific conception or form. "Enlightenment" spirituality is simple one of those many conceptions.

I suggest you watch the Oct 2, 2007 video we posted (below) called "The Spirituality of Tomorrow?" to get a sense of where we might be coming from.

And the only thing IRG would endorse explicitly in this regard is that research indicates that humans have a deep and significant interest in the Big Questions of life, and an integral approach to human development acknowledges and includes this fundamental fact when working towards evolving more healthy ways of learning & living.


Ryan Hurd said...

Speaking personally, the quest for a more holistic education began for me as an undergrad, when i realized how fractured our knowledge base really is. i found little support for my "meta" questions, even in an anthropology program that values relativity. but meta-studies have to be embodied too, not just a fusion of integral talking heads jabbering in unison. i hope the trend continues to grow, where body, mind and heart/spirit/soul/mystery can grow simultaneously.

calvin isbister said...


ours is a fractured knowledge base, and a fractured culture, which produces fractured psyches.

people NEED and want a full life, which includes spirituality and even ritual.

in the absence of a richer "advanced" spirituality, people will naturally turn to traditional religion and value systems.

so either education institutions facilitate, or even just allow for, access of existential-spiritual experiences and LEARNING, or the culture wars between modernist (scientific) and traditional (religious) will continue to contribute to this FRACTURING...

do you agree?

Anonymous said...

Samuel, are you against spirituality?

... said...

Truly important points Ryan, thank you. Holding anthro degrees myself, I think any particular discipline, in isolation, isn’t up to the task of addressing meta-questions. Nor should they in my opinion. Disciplinary boundaries provide a context for researching particular sets of questions, issues or phenomena.

Defined disciplinary approaches allows for ‘depth’ of analysis, whereas meta-studies allow for ‘span’ of interpretation. Both approaches have value and both are should be embraced.

However, in our ‘fractured’ world, the surplus and blitz of information and technospecialized knowledge creates a situation where synthesis, finding commonalities (integrative thinking) and ‘span of interpretation’ are desperately needed. But of course with rigorous, appropriate and pragmatic procedures.

Embodiment is key: PRAXIS. All of us at the IRG think that integral realization - in nature, self and society – may become embodied in forms of life and discourse unlike anything currently offered by the “integral” culture. Exploration, variation and adaptation is essential…

What new worldspaces are possible? I guess we’ll find out.

Thanks so much for you thoughts Ryan, and stay in touch!


Ryan said...

Calvin, I definitely agree that the future of education is that experiential component, and also full debate. for instance - intelligent design: i stand with the discovery institute on this issue that we should be teaching the debate (the real debate, not the straw man debates currently ongoing in the media). but i don't think this should be a defensive move to prevent backsliding into traditional religious thought... these traditions are the connection to our ancestry so they also have a role to play in the postmodern age.

and thanks Michael for your warm reply; i'm excited to hear more about the IRG's dedication to embodiment and discourse.

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