Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cultivating the Spirit

I just finished perhaps the most important recent book for those concerned about the spiritual life of college students, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Student’s Inner Lives, by Alexander A. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm, published by Jossey-Bass this fall.

Despite the liberal arts’ penchant for educating the “whole person” and students’ desire that their campus encourage personal expression of spirituality, provide for their emotional development, and enhance their self-understanding; many institutions try to distance themselves from overtly spiritual or religious descriptions or activities. This book may help in stimulating discussions about college’s role in cultivating the inner life of students.

The book reports the findings of  “the first national longitudinal study of undergraduates’ spiritual growth,” a ten year study funded by the Templeton Foundation and conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
A survey  was administered to about  3,700college freshmen in 2003, and those results were used to develop measures of spiritual and religious qualities.  Over 112,000 first year students from 236 institutions were surveyed in 2004. Three years later they did a follow up survey of 14,527 students from 136 institutions. They conducted interviews and focus groups and interviewed faculty at selected institutions. Since one of the study’s goals was to investigate what college experiences were most likely to promote students’ spiritual development, additional faculty input was desired.  In 2005, 65,000 faculty from over 400 institutions were surveyed.

As a result of the initial survey, they developed measures to be able to separate and assess spirituality as well as religiousness. “Whereas religion is characterized by group activity that involves specific behavioral, social, doctrinal, and denominational characteristics, spirituality is commonly conceived as personal, transcendent, and characterized by qualities of relatedness.” (p. 5)  Making this distinction allowed for more fruitful engagement with academe. Colleges are engaged in students’ hopes, dreams, character and values development, even when they shy away from “religion.”

Here’s how the Study organized their analysis:

The Five measures of Spiritual Life:
“... an active quest for answers to life’s “big questions” (Spiritual Quest), a global worldview that transcends ethnocentrism and egocentrism (Ecumenical Worldview), a sense of caring and compassion for others (Ethic of Caring) coupled with a lifestyle that includes service to others (Charitable Involvement), and a capacity to maintain one’s sense of calm and centeredness, especially in times of stress (Equanimity).” (Key Findings, p. 2)

The Five measures of Religious life:
the extent to which beliefs play a central role in their life (Religious Commitment); religious behaviors such as praying and attending religious services ( Religious Engagement); questioning the notion of life after death, or that the universe arose by chance  (Religious Skepticism); feeling unsettled about religious matters, questions beliefs , or disagreeing with family about religious matters (Religious Struggle); and their position on such issues as abortion, casual sex, atheism, and proselytizing (Religious/Social Conservatism) .

A few of the findings:

Student’s level of Religious Commitment changes very little during college. Religious Engagement, particularly in attendance at religious services, shows a sharp decline.  Most spiritual qualities appear to be enhanced by the college experience. (p99)
Students who score high on Religious Skepticism tend to be nonreligious, while those engaged in Religious Struggle are often highly religious. (p. 113)

“One of the surest ways to enhance the spiritual development of undergraduate students is to encourage them to engage in almost any form of charitable or altruistic activity.” (p.147)

Students who professors encourage them to explore questions of meaning and purpose show larger than average increases in Spiritual Questing, although most students (62%) report that their professors “never” encourage discussions of religious / spiritual matters. (p. 37)

Faculty who encourage and involve students in conversations about matters of meaning and purpose in life, and who engage them in discussions of religion and spirituality play a critical role in student’s growth in the Ethic of Caring and Ecumenical Worldview measures. (p. 75)

And So:

On one hand, there are few surprises here for those of us engaged in the religious and spiritual questing of our students. There is substantial quantitative support for increasing the education of faculty and student affairs administrators on the positive impact increased spiritual and religious life has on both the academic enterprise as well as the campus community.

The importance of faculty in student’s spiritual development is greater than the faculty’s perception.

How can college “enhance student’s inner lives”, that is “cultivating the spirit”?
First, by continuing those activities and experiences which have such a positive effect on student’s academic life, leadership development, and satisfaction with college: study abroad, interdisciplinary courses, service with a reflective component, and having professors who encourage students to explore questions of meaning and purpose.
Second, by finding ways to help students spend time in contemplation, meditation, and self-reflection.

Read more about it at the book’s website, and the very helpful and informative Key Findings brochure.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Implications for Higher Education From the Presbyterian Heritage

Since I was asked, here's an attempt to lay out some implications in one page. Comments? Feedback?
There are common values shared by higher education institutions which reflect the Judeo-Christian foundation of our culture. Some of these common values are honesty, respect, and fairness.  Our college has an additional core of values because of its relation with the Presbyterian Church. Church - relatedness means that the college and the church share some of the same values.

The Presbyterian tradition is one of the Christian denominations arising out of the Reformed section of the Protestant division of the catholic (the word means “universal”) Christian church. The American Presbyterian family theology tree starts with ancient Israel through Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, to John Calvin in Geneva, John Knox in Scotland, to the Puritans and Scotch-Irish in the colonies.

The Reformed section includes The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (With which the college is officially related), four small off-shoot denominations,( The Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) The Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and over 160 different denominations worldwide, most notably The Church of Scotland, the Huguenot Church, the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and the Presbyterian Church of the Congo.

Presbyterians have always valued education, and have emphasized that human beings are called to “love God with all our minds (Matt 22:37)” Higher Education in the U.S. has been significantly influenced by the Presbyterian  / Reformed emphasis, both in the number of institutions founded or led by Presbyterians, and in the North American liberal arts tradition.

In 1994, the PC(USA)’s General Assembly said that “to be [church] related or connected means…that the college attempts in its corporate life to be faithful to the Reformed heritage, its values, and its guiding beliefs. Among those values and beliefs are the sovereignty of God over all of life, the goodness of the created word, the value and limitations of reason, a commitment to the moral life, and a call to service.” On Being Faithful: The Continuing Mission of the Presbyterian Church in Higher Education, p.32)

Some principles of education from the Presbyterian Heritage

The purpose of the college is beyond itself.
The purpose of education is for the transformation of individuals within a life-giving community. It is personal, but not private. We have responsibilities to one another.
Learning and teaching are not just occupations, but sacred callings.
The universe is orderly and rational. Outcomes can be anticipated.
We have been given minds to discover how the universe has been created and sustained.
All responsible study, no matter what the subject or implication, glorifies God.
Faith is not threatened by any advancement in human knowledge.
Diversity is expected and welcomed.
Learning is always accompanied by humility. No human has complete knowledge, so others may be able to provide additional information.  This requires an openness and hospitality to diversity.
The thoughtful conscience of the individual trumps church doctrine or dogma.
There is a unity of knowledge (and faith), such that wisdom is integrated knowledge.  There may be concentrations in a major, but they are disciplines within the wholeness of a broad and integrative whole.

Most of these principles would be affirmed by secular American educators, who would not know their source.

The Presbyterian understanding of education is not proselytizing, nor is it afraid of any legitimate investigation. Its understanding is that the Christian faith can confidently participate and contribute to the academic enterprise without any dilution of intellectual rigor.
Mental activity is, at its heart, holy and worshipful.  Since God is God of all, there is no field of inquiry which is inappropriate for intellectual investigation.  The concept of academic freedom arose out of this conviction.   Anyone who is responsibly engaged in the discovery of truth is worshiping God, whether or not she or he even realizes it or even believes in God.