Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement

By Kuh, George D.; Gonyea, Robert M. | Liberal Education, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement


Kuh, George D., Gonyea, Robert M., Liberal Education


ONE OF THE MORE INTRIGUING TRENDS at the turn of the twenty-first century is the ascendant influence of religion in various aspects of American life. The renewed interest in religion and spirituality is not just a function of aging baby boomers acknowledging their mortality. The University of Pennsylvania reported that 86 percent of those between the ages of eleven and eighteen believe religion is an important part of life (Hulett 2004).

Religion has always had a place in American higher education. Most colonial colleges were founded to transmit and preserve the values, beliefs, traditions, and cultural heritage of their sponsoring denominational groups. Today, the small segment of higher education devoted to this mission includes denominational and faith-based institutions, particularly the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and some visible national universities such as Baylor, Brigham Young, and Notre Dame. At the same time, increasing numbers of students are openly practicing their religious beliefs or exploring spiritual dimensions of their personal development, whether at a small private church-related college or a large public university. Their presence will, if it hasn't already, present challenges to faculty members, administrators, and governing boards who have not determined how to strike the appropriate balance between spiritual or religious practices and student learning, or whether these human development goals can or even should be addressed within the curriculum.

Although the relevant issues are too complex to summarize here, a few tension points immediately surface. For example, some faculty members worry that students who arrive at college holding fast to religious beliefs are conditioned to resist the "liberal learning" curriculum and may graduate without seriously reexamining their beliefs and values. At institutions as different as Knox College (Hulett 2004) and the Air Force Academy (Gorski 2004), many students exhibit little tolerance for peers who practice religious beliefs different from their own. These behaviors, too, are antithetical to the goals of liberal learning.

At first blush, the search for meaning-including reflecting on one's spiritual or religious beliefs-is consistent with exposure to liberal arts educational practices (Blaich et al. 2004) that encourage students to become more open to alternative, diverse views about various matters, including religion and spirituality (Astin et al. 2005). On balance, college does have a liberalizing effect as students tend to become less rigid in their orientation toward religion by the time they are seniors. Students attending a church-related college are less likely to experience changes in their religious affiliation and degree of religiosity (Astin 1993; Feldman and Newcomb 1969; Kuh 1999; Pascarella and Terenzini 2005). Faculty members, peers, and campus cultures are key factors as an institution's environmental press can encourage or discourage religious and spiritual practices and participation in other activities that are linked with character development (Kuh 2000; Kuh and Umbach 2004).

Does spirituality enhance or detract from liberal learning?

Given the dramatic demographic and attitudinal changes marking recent college-going cohorts, it would be instructive to know how participating in spirituality-enhancing activities relates to other aspects of the college experience (Astin et al. 2005). To learn more about the relationships between spirituality, liberal learning, and college experiences, we turned to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) database. Using students' responses to NSSE questions, we can estimate whether students who frequently worship or engage in other spirituality-enhancing practices are more or less likely to

* engage in deep learning activities;

* interact with students from different religious and political backgrounds;

* participate in community service and service-learning programs;

* perceive the campus environment to be supportive;

* be satisfied with college;

* make gains in writing clearly, speaking effectively, self-understanding, understanding others, and so forth. …

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