The impact of faculty on the spiritual life of university students

Alexander W. Asten, Helen S. Asten, and Jennifer A Lindholm, UCLA, published a full report on their extensive study of the spiritual lives of university students in the book Cultivating the Spirit: How College can Enhance Students’ inner lives (2011, Josey-Bass).

Among the many interesting observations drawn from their study are comments on the impact a school’s faculty has on spirituality among students.

When faculty directly encourage students to explore questions of meaning and purpose, students become more likely to show positive growth in levels of Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ethic of Caring, and Ecumenical Worldview.  Likewise, if faculty attend to students’ spiritual development by encouraging students’ expressions of spirituality, and by acting themselves as spiritual role models, students show more positive growth in the same four spiritual qualities as well as in Charitable Involvement.

Remarkably, many of the faculty we surveyed consider themselves to be spiritual (81% indicate so to “some” or a “great” extent) and to be religious (64%).  Also, six in them faculty indicate that they engage in prayer or meditation to “some” or a “great” extent, and about seven in ten tell us that they seek opportunities to grow spiritually.  Moreover, almost half of faculty (47%) consider integrating spirituality in their lives as a “very important” or “essential” goal.  As one faculty member we interviewed explained: “It’s an important part of life. How can you live life without it? Otherwise, what are you?  You might as well be a robot.”  Another commented, “My spirituality is part of me affirming my humanity.”

Although many faculty view the spiritual dimension of their lives as important, we nevertheless observe considerable reluctance within faculty on the place of spirituality in high education.  For example, when asked whether “colleges should be concerned with students’ spiritual development,” only a minority of faculty (30%) agree, a response that seems inconsistent with the fact that the majority of faculty endorse undergraduate goals such as helping students develop self-understanding, moral character, and personal values.  As we have already said, this apparent contradiction may well stem from the discomfort many faculty have with the term “spiritual.”  One wonders if some of this discomfort would be alleviated if faculty knew how we have attempted to define and measure “spirituality” in the current study and what we have found with respect to students’ spiritual development.

In other words, it would be interesting to see how many faculty would embrace the idea of assisting students in their search for meaning and purpose (spiritual quest), in attain greater equanimity, in being more  caring for others (ethic of caring), in participating more actively in charitable activities, and in becoming more conversant with different religious traditions and enlarging their understanding of other countries and cultures (ecumenical worldview).  As one faculty member reflected:  “I’d say there’s very little opportunity (on campus) to talk specifically about spiritual matters.  On the other hand, there’s lots of opportunity to talk about some of the principles that come out of that, like compassion; a willingness to help others; finding your own voice; and knowing yourself.  The principles that come out of spiritual orientation can be, and in fact are, integrated into a lot of the academic life.  But my impression is that talking about it directly is discouraged.”  Cultivating the Spirit, p. 150-151.

As I reflect on my own university experience the faculty that made the most impact in my life shared not often but sometimes their spiritual perspectives and musings as it related to what we were studying.  I remember both negative and positive responses in myself and my classmates.  But there’s the thing — I remember.  Of all the many classes forgotten, these are what I remember.  As I think about the students and faculty at UBC I hope the value of engaging the spiritual conversation in the context of the classroom will be raised — for there much memory and influence for good can be gained.

Cultivating the Spirit.

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