Magazine article Liberal Education

Why Spirituality Deserves a Central Place in Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

Why Spirituality Deserves a Central Place in Liberal Education

Article excerpt

BEFORE EXPLAINING the assertion put forward in the title of this essay, let me first try to clarify what I mean by "spirituality." Since the term covers a lot of territory and means different things to different people, there's little point in trying to develop a precise definition. Instead, let me simply lay out the general territory and range of things that the word suggests to me.

To begin with, spirituality points to our interiors, by which 1 mean our subjective life, as contrasted to the objective domain of observable behavior and material objects that you can point to and measure directly. In other words, the spiritual domain has to do with human consciousness-what we experience privately in our subjective awareness. second, spirituality involves our qualitative or affective experiences at least as much as it does our reasoning or logic. More specifically, spirituality has to do with the values that we hold most dear, our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here-the meaning and purpose that we see in our work and our life-and our sense of connectedness to each other and to the world around us. Spirituality can also have to do with aspects of our experience that are not easy to define or talk about, such things as intuition, inspiration, the mysterious, and the mystical. Within this very broad umbrella, virtually everyone qualifies as a spiritual being, and it's my hope that everyone-regardless of their belief systems-can find some personal value and educational relevance in the concept.

Education and human consciousness

One of the most remarkable things about the human consciousness is that each of us has the capacity to observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise in our consciousness. Why shouldn't cultivating this ability to observe one's own mind in action-becoming more self-aware or simply more "conscious"-be one of the central purposes of education?

It's difficult to see how most of our contemporary domestic and world problems can ever be resolved without a substantial increase in our individual and collective self-awareness. Self-awareness and self-understanding, of course, are necessary prerequisites to our ability to understand others and to resolve conflicts. This basic truth lies at the heart of our difficulty in dealing effectively with problems of violence, poverty, crime, divorce, substance abuse, and religious and ethnic conflict that continue to plague our country and our world.

Even a cursory look at our educational system makes it clear that the relative amount of attention that higher education devotes to the exterior and interior aspects of our lives has gotten way out of balance. Thus, while we are justifiably proud of our "outer" development in fields such as science, medicine, technology, and commerce, we have increasingly come to neglect our "inner" development-the sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, moral development, spirituality, and self-understanding.

What is most ironic about all of this is that while many of the great literary and philosophical traditions that constitute the core of a liberal education are grounded in the maxim, "know thyself," the development of self-awareness receives very little attention in our schools and colleges, and almost no attention in public discourse in general or in the media in particular. If we lack self-understanding-the capacity to see ourselves clearly and honestly and to understand why we feel and act as we do-then how can we ever expect to understand others?

Students, curriculum, and instruction

In exploring the connection between spirituality and higher education, a good way to start is to take a look at the interior lives of our students. If we look at how our students' values have been changing during recent decades (Astin 1998), the good news is they have become strong supporters of both gender and racial equity and of students' rights in general, and most recently they have become much stronger supporters of gay rights. …

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