Can Religion and Spirituality Find a Place in Higher Education?

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Can Religion and Spirituality Find a Place

in Higher Education?

By Peter Laurence
Do Institutions of higher learning have a part to play in supporting students' religion and spirituality? If so, how can campuses nourish these aspects of students’ lives without undermining such core values as diversity and religious freedom? The answer, explains the author, lies in embracing religious pluralism -- a concept that can help educators see ways to honor the full spectrum of religion and spirituality without giving preference to any one tradition.

It has been a pattern in recent history that U.S. institutions of higher education have tended to avoid issues of religion on campus by maintaining a secular atmosphere. Warren Nord, director of the program Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, describes the process this way: "If there was an overriding purpose to American colonial education it was to nurture and sustain a Christian civilization, but between the time of the American Revolution and the end of the nineteenth century an educational revolution took place: religion dropped by the wayside as America marched into the modern world. The mantle of high purpose in the schools was passed on to democracy and Americanism, the new faiths of the new nation. At the same time, education became more and more utilitarian, serving whatever purposes individuals might happen to have: in an increasingly commercial society, those purposes were largely vocational; in an increasingly modern society, they were almost invariably

secular." (p. 63).
The secularization of education has also been a response to the growing acceptance of religious diversity in the U.S. population. Yet the effect of secularization has been to deny the significance of the very foundation of religions. How can we acknowledge the importance of religion in the lives of students without establishing a particular religious point of view as normative? How can we create campus cultures that validate and support the religious elements in the lives of students from a wide variety of traditions? What is spirituality, and how does it relate to religion? Is spirituality also affected by secularization?
In 1996, the Education as Transformation Project was formed to explore the ways in which U.S. institutions of higher education were (or were not) dealing with religious diversity among their students. One initial task was to determine whether or not religious diversity was actually increasing on campuses. A survey was sent to approximately 650 chaplains and campus ministers at colleges and universities throughout the United States, and 74 percent reported an increase in religious diversity among their students. 39 percent said that the increase had prompted the formation of more student religious groups, 26 percent had noted an increase in student interest in religion, and 9 percent found that greater diversity produced greater tension among students. Convinced of the importance of the issue, project staff began to consult with colleagues about how this diversity might better be addressed by educational institutions. We found that although multiculturalism and racial diversity were concerns that had engendered well-established programs on many campuses, viable approaches to religious diversity remained largely untapped.
Another interesting development emerged when project staff began to discuss the situation with the students themselves. Though many were concerned about achieving recognition for their religious concerns, we also found a surprisingly large number who were not comfortable identifying with any particular religious tradition. Instead of considering themselves atheists or secularists, however, they indicated a strong interest in a spirituality that might somehow give greater meaning to their lives and also transcend the limitations of traditional religion.
Spirituality, then, emerged as an area of focus for the project in addition to religious diversity, and we went on to develop approaches for further investigating these intertwining concepts. As more and more colleagues from schools around the country began to join our inquiry, it became evident that we needed to bring people together for face-to-face dialogue. Consequently, a national gathering, hosted by Wellesley College, was planned for the fall of 1998. We had estimated that a turnout of at least three hundred people would validate the importance of the topic and were somewhat overwhelmed when we received hundreds more registrations. We had to cut off registrations after they reached eight hundred! We simply didn't have room for the number of people who wanted to participate. Many who came to Wellesley for the event expressed surprise at the popularity of the topic. It was amazing to note how many individuals were deeply concerned about the issues but felt that few others would be. Shannon Hodges, director of student counseling at the University of Minnesota-Morris, described it this way: "I learned that a large portion of the college landscape is interested in spirituality, spiritual and religious practice, and values and interests as an important part of higher education. That part was very affirming, especially in light of the large, diverse attendance. So I suppose that I would say that I felt 'validated,’ in the sense that many others are also interested, and this lends credibility to continuing with our own program:”
Discussion at the gathering centered on how those concerned with religious diversity and spirituality might begin to address these issues in their educational structures and programs. Even before the gathering, we had identified the concerns as systemic; they cannot be adequately dealt with at only one or two levels within educational institutions. Therefore, in order to prepare participating institutions for the gathering, the project strongly recommended that a multiconstituency team be formed on each campus, consisting of administrators, alumni and alumnae, faculty, religious life advisers, students, and trustees. The initial purpose of the multiconstituency team was to begin a dialogue about religious diversity and spirituality as these issues pertain to the particular campus. Four questions were offered to help teams focus their work. The first two dealt with religious diversity:

  • How might religious diversity be addressed on our campus?

  • What obstacles lie in the way of developing new models and strategies to support religious diversity on our campus?

Religious pluralism is a concept that helps all of us respond to these questions, for it enables us to encounter the full spectrum of religion without according preference to any one tradition. Religious diversity is a fact; religious pluralism might be thought of as an attitude toward that fact. Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, has defined religious pluralism as a strategy through which to address religious diversity. In her classic book, Encountering God: A Spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras, she explains, "pluralism is not the sheer fact of plurality alone, but is active engagement with plurality. Pluralism and plurality are sometimes used as if they were synonymous. But plurality is just diversity, plain and simple -- splendid, colorful, maybe even threatening. Diversity does not, however, have to affect me. I can observe it. I can even celebrate diversity, as the cliché goes. But I have to participate in pluralism. I can't just stand by and watch" (p.191).
When religion in all of its expressions is actively engaged, the threat of control by one religion evaporates, and religion can once more become a viable element in campus culture. Most colleges and universities, though, retain rituals from and architectural vestiges of their Protestant heritage. How do these campuses become more hospitable to students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds? Even in schools still affiliated with a particular religious institution, educators struggle with the dilemma of how to support a suitable religious life for populations in which in many cases almost half the students come from other traditions. Despite the challenges, however, the college or university campus remains America's most promising experiment in religious pluralism. Students are in the process of discovering what it means to be in community as they also develop their own worldviews. Students who develop a sense of pluralism during this critical time of their development can later play a key role in the building of a more stable and inclusive civil society.
Dealing with religion in the full spectrum of its expression while using the strategies of religious pluralism creates a bridge that connects to those for whom spirituality provides a way of transcending the limitations of particular religious traditions. Religious pluralism can provide a continuum that encompasses all levels of religious and nonreligious orientation among students, faculty, and others involved in higher education and for that matter in U.S. society. Such pluralism encompasses not only the long-standing religious institutions but also individuals outside the institutions.
In preparation for discussions about spirituality at the national gathering, two additional questions were offered to the multiconstituency teams:

  • Should our college or university articulate a spiritual component to our educational programs? What form might this take? And do the potentials of religious pluralism insist that we ask this question in new ways?

  • How does spirituality serve as a web that interconnects educational initiatives such as student values, moral and ethical development, experiential education, health and wellness, and community service?

As campus teams explored these questions, one immediate difficulty that emerged was arriving at a common definition for spirituality. Historical definitions do not seem to apply well in today's culture, nor do the many superficial usages that find their way into much of the media. Robert Forman, associate professor of religion at Hunter College and director of the Forge Institute, recently conducted a series of interviews to arrive at a better understanding of spirituality. In compiling the results, Forman noticed several patterns in the way people use the term. The first was that it had to do with inner rather than outer experiences; one might draw on meditation and other techniques for access to the inner world, for example. A second pattern was identified by the terms whole and holistic, seeing oneself and all of reality as part of a single spiritual reality. A third pattern was associated with impressions of connectedness and of being in relationship with everything in that larger universe. Finally, spirituality was identified as being nonrational and nonlinear -- emphasizing the subjective rather than the objective. As Forman summarizes his conclusions, “spirituality seems to point to the intuitive, nonrational meditative side of ourselves, the side that strives for inner and outer connection and a sense of wholeness" (pp. 32-33).

When people apply concepts of spirituality to education, academics often see a problem in the term's lack of a common definition. Some feel that spirituality is too subjective to be of value in the objective, empirical world of academia. Others are afraid that it is associated with an attempt to influence curriculum to match religious views. But if connectedness is a primary aspect of spirituality, then what spirituality threatens most is the inherent fragmentation in our educational structures. Parker Palmer, in his most recent book, The Courage to Teach, advises that "if we want to develop and deepen the capacity for connectedness at the heart of good teaching, we must understand -- and resist -- the perverse but powerful draw of the 'disconnected' life" (p.35). How, and why, does academic culture discourage us from living connected lives? How, and why, does it encourage us to distance ourselves from our students and our subjects, to teach and learn at some remove from our own hearts?
For Palmer the answer seems obvious: "we are distanced by a grading system that separates teachers from students, by departments that fragment fields of knowledge, by competition that makes students and teachers alike wary of their peers and by a bureaucracy that puts faculty and administration at odds" (pp. 35-36).
Recently, in Educational Leadership, Palmer expanded on the question of spirituality in education:
I reject the imposition of any form of religion in public education, including so-called “school prayer.” But I advocate any way we can find to explore the spiritual dimension of teaching, learning, and living. By “spiritual” I do not mean the creedal formulations of any faith tradition, as much as I respect those traditions and as helpful as their insights can be. I mean the ancient and abiding human quest for connectedness with something larger and more trustworthy than our egos – with our own souls, with one another, with the worlds of history and nature, with the invisible winds of the spirit, with the mystery of being alive.

(p. 6)
Spirituality in education, then, has to do with going beyond the acquisition of knowledge and entering the realms of meaning and purpose. Do these elements have a place in college and university classrooms? One recent experiment explored this question. In the spring of 1998, Victor Kazanjian, dean of religious and spiritual life at Wellesley College, gathered students together and asked them to share stories about instances in which they had experienced moments of inspiration, connection, wonder, and awe in their classes. One by one, they recounted tales of such experiences in classes that ranged over the full spectrum of the curriculum. Dean

Kazanjian then approached the faculty members in whose classrooms these experiences had taken place, inviting them to a discussion about such moments in the learning and teaching process. Nearly all of those faculty members subsequently attended a series of discussions and shared similar stories with one another about moments of meaning in their own learning and teaching. As Kazanjian puts it, "Some faculty members – who responded in the past with blank stares and occasionally overt expressions of anger at the presumption of speaking about spirituality and scholarship in the same breath -- seemed now to see the connection" (p. 39).
Other schools are beginning to develop similar or related programs. The University of Massachusetts-Boston initiated a series of discussions for students, faculty, and staff to explore the part that spirituality plays in academic life, including "the deeper purposes of being a student or faculty/staff member, how traditions and convictions fit into classroom experience, the relationship of religion to spirituality, the range of paths to spirituality, and the relationship between spiritual activities and university life."
Last December, Skidmore College held a three-day program that included sessions titled "Common Ground: A Walking Meditation," "Knowing and Being: Spirituality in Liberal Education," and "Finding a Common Ground: Science and Spirituality;” which focused on such questions as: What does spirituality mean to you? Is there room in the curriculum for spirituality? Should spirituality be a learning outcome? What role does spirituality play in your responsibilities as a professor? What is the proper relationship between spirituality and education? Do you leave your spirituality at the door when you enter your office or classroom? Whose responsibility is it to bring spirituality into the classroom, the teacher's or the student's? Does spirituality foster inclusivity or exclusivity in the classroom? What is the relationship between spirituality and religion? How should cocurricular life address spirituality needs on campus?
It is important to note that all these activities are centered on questions and discussion. This process is too new to have produced definitive answers, and even if it had, the process of exploration may be more important than arriving at conclusions.

One advantage of creating multiconstituency teams is that they engage people at all levels of the institution. As Diana Chapman Walsh, the president of Wellesley College told the national gathering:

Our task together is to envision a whole new place, a whole new space and role for spirituality in higher education, not as an isolated enterprise on the margins of the academy, nor as a new form of institutional social control, but as an essential element of the larger task of reorienting our institutions of higher learning to respond more adequately to the challenges the world presents us now: challenges to our teaching, to our learning, to our leading, to our lives.
As we look to the new millennium, we know we are going to need people committed to living in ways that will ensure a sustainable future, people committed to the common good, to bringing diverse communities together, to inspiring a shared sense of participation and mutual accountability, to igniting hope. We know from our own experiences and from the testimony of our graduates that education, good education, is transformative, freeing the mind and the spirit of bias and stereotype, opening up new worlds and new worldviews. Indeed, the compelling rationale for assembling a diverse student body in a residential learning environment is that these students from vastly different backgrounds will shape one another's assumptions, will spark one another's curiosity, will stimulate one another's growth.
For example, in 1993, Wellesley College introduced a promising new approach to nurturing the religious and spiritual life of the college community. Seeking to respond to the rich diversity of religious traditions and spiritual beliefs represented among community members, the college instituted a multifaith program based on the principles of religious pluralism and the belief that spirituality plays an important role in the educational experience. The program is directed by a dean of religious and spiritual life who is responsible for coordinating religious and spiritual life at the college while not representing any one religious tradition; a religious life team of chaplains and advisers from a wide variety of traditions; and a multifaith council comprising two student representatives from each religious tradition and spiritual practice present at the college.
Within this structure the dean coordinates educational programs on moral, ethical, religious, and spiritual issues and leads multifaith community worship opportunities throughout the school year. The religious life team meets weekly with the dean for discussion, prayer or meditation, study, and program planning. Through this collective work the religious life team models a new way of working toward common goals while respecting and celebrating difference and diversity. The multifaith council meets regularly to discuss religious and spiritual issues affecting Wellesley students, plan joint worship and program activities, and advise the dean on policy matters for religious life at the college. This kind of program embodies the essence of religious pluralism and spirituality and has the potential to serve as a model for similar programs on other campuses.
A multifaith celebration planned by the Wellesley multifaith council was held in conjunction with the national gathering. In his introductory remarks at the celebration Dean Kazanjian explained:
Our theme for this celebration is Beyond Tolerance, which reflects our belief that tolerance is ultimately not the basis upon which we can build a pluralistic community. Tolerance is conflict arrested. It is a great harness applied to the destructive forces of ignorance, fear, and prejudice. It provides a wall between warring parties. At best it is a glass wall where protected people can see one another going about parallel lives. But nonetheless it is still a wall dividing us from each other. As such, tolerance is not a basis for healthy human relationship, nor will it ever lead to true community, for tolerance does not allow for learning, or growth, or transformation, but rather ultimately keeps us in a state of suspended ignorance and conflict. Tolerance does not ask that we make a commitment to acknowledge our interdependence, nor that we should seek to understand each other or to forge a common life together. Therefore, it has been our experience that we must move beyond tolerance through a relational process in which we come to know each other and each other’s traditions and move slowly toward a sense of interdependence.
Those who attended the moving ceremony were particularly impressed by the fact that the students did not attempt to convey a false sense of idyllic community but rather exposed both the joys and the conflicts inherent in multireligious engagement, as the interplay between them moved from stereotype to understanding and from suspicion to affection.
Such experiences at Wellesley College are just examples of some of the things that might be done to help transform our campuses into communities, our teaching into education. Our culture is beginning to move beyond the secular, mechanistic, amoral model that has caused so much alienation and fragmentation. As Gustav Niebuhr remarked in the New York Times, "in a time of outward tension and inner searching, when many Americans worry about social decay and also show a growing interest in spirituality, students, teachers and administrators on campuses are asking whether colleges ought to try once again to build moral and spiritual character as well as

intellect" (p. 23). The Education as Transformation Project is dedicated to facilitating that process.

Eck, D. L. Encountering God: A Spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Forman, R.K.C. "Grassroots Spirituality." Unpublished report for the Fetzer Institute, 1998.

Kazanjian, V. H., Jr. "Moments of Meaning." Connection (New England Board of Higher Education), Fall 1998.

Niebuhr, G. "Colleges Setting Moral Compasses: Educators Go from Mind to Soul." New York Times: Aug. 4, 1996.

Nord, W. A. Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Palmer, P.J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Palmer, P. J. "Evoking the Spirit." Educational Leadership, Dec. 1998-Jan. 1999, pp. 6-11.

Walsh, D. C. Opening remarks to the Education as Transformation National Gathering, Wellesley College, Sept. 1998.


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