One way to look at our students’ spiritual development

Last week Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, spoke to many of us at either convocation or in a series of other meetings about the importance of embracing an inclusive tradition of faith – no matter the faith tradition we each might choose to follow.  His comments and questions spurred some intriguing conversation that got me wondering about the degree to which our students develop a more nuanced notion of their own spirituality during their time at Augustana so that they might be aware enough to make such a choice within their own faith tradition.

Before examining our data to see what we might have that begins to address this question, we have to accept a nagging ambiguity (and this time, it’s not all that delicious).  The term “spirituality” isn’t so easily defined.  Instead, it’s a term that tends to mean different things to different people.  For some, it’s inexorably tied to religious faith, maybe even dogma.  For others, it simply applies to an acceptance of things beyond our current understanding.  For most, it’s somewhere in between.

This makes the life of a number cruncher a little messy.  On the one hand, it turns out that we have two interesting data points on this question of spirituality.  The NSSE survey asks students:

1)     During the current school year, about how often have you participated in activities to enhance your spirituality (worship, meditation, prayer, etc.)?  The response options are 1=never, 2=sometimes, 3=often, 4=very often

 

Freshmen – 2.01; Seniors – 2.01

(both responses are significantly lower than comparable liberal arts colleges)

 

2)     To what extent has your experience at this institution helped you develop a deepened sense of spirituality?

The response options are 1=very little, 2=some, 3=quite a bit, 4=very much

 

Freshmen – 2.27; Seniors – 1.99

(both responses are significantly lower than comparable liberal arts colleges)

 

On the other hand, both questions focus on the word “spirituality,” suggesting that student responses could differ based upon their conceptualization of this term.  Nonetheless, while we might not have a precise finding from the perspective of a social scientist, we definitely have something that – from the perspective of creating optimal learning conditions and assessing student growth – begs for further inquiry.

The responses to these two questions are quite interesting to me.  In my mind they triangulate with the larger narrative we hold that sees our students as strivers.  They tend to be focused on getting a job or getting into graduate school and involving themselves in every possible activity that will help them achieve their goal.  Yet, this breakneck pace can all too often occur at the expense of our responsibility as educators to develop the whole person.

If we want our students to embrace an inclusive perspective on their own faith tradition – be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or Humanist – while also embracing a commitment to social justice rather (than an apathetic descent into rationalized relativism), then I suggest that we would do well to dig deeper into the following three questions.

  • Why are our students relatively less engaged in their own spiritual development than students at comparable liberal arts colleges (however students choose to define spirituality)?
  • Why do our students think that their experience at Augustana has contributed relatively less to the development of their own sense of spirituality than students at comparable liberal arts colleges?
  • Are the answers to these first two questions related?

 

Make it a good day.

Mark

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