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Professors without Answers

Surveying the higher dimensions of higher education.
by Carol Ann Raphael

According to recent surveys, college students are seeking more substance—and sustenance—in the classroom than their professors are willing to offer. Findings of another phase of an ambitious and long-range study of spirituality in higher education, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, have recently been released. They offer an interesting window into the unspoken assumptions and expectations about what the quest for knowledge means at American colleges and universities.

The initial results of the survey, as reported in these pages several years ago, revealed that undergraduates are eager to explore spiritual interests and to talk about the deeper meaning and purpose of life. More than sixty percent of first-year students entering over 230 U.S. institutions of higher learning said they hoped to have an opportunity to develop their personal values, self-understanding, and maturity while at college.

As heartening and promising a comment as this may be on the aspirations of America’s collegiate youth, administrators of the study at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), based at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that for the most part professors have something else in mind.

Professors without answers

Nearly eighty percent of the more than forty thousand faculty members surveyed from over 420 schools acknowledged that spirituality or religion was important in their lives. But far fewer of them were willing to discuss this aspect of their lives in class. While sixty percent of the professors acknowledged that moral development is a worthy goal for an undergraduate, a mere thirty percent of them responded affirmatively when asked whether they thought it was the school’s responsibility to address the moral and spiritual development of students. And of those thirty percent, the majority were, not surprisingly, faculty who teach at religious institutions.

So where does that leave the yearnings of students for answers to their deeper questions? Not in the classroom, or at least not at many of the nation’s leading educational institutions, which may explain another noteworthy trend reported recently in the New York Times. Enrollments are on the rise at Protestant seminaries across the country, and not because more people want to become pastors. On the contrary, students claim that seeking an education that prepares them more fully for life is their reason for attending the seminary. They want to deal with those questions that matter the most.

The objective, judgment-free model that dominates higher education in the West today has not always been the primary method for acquiring knowledge. Both in the United States and in Europe, most universities grew out of or were founded by religious institutions, whose perspectives dominated pedagogy. It was only in the eighteenth century that science began to supplant religion as the way to know truth, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the growth of secular academic institutions took off.

What college students seem to be asking for is a more complete education, one that is as much about how to live as it is about how the world works. But up to now their professors haven’t addressed those concerns in the classroom, at least not to the satisfaction of their students. Given the political and cultural diversity of today’s collegiate population and the extensive measures institutions take to include everyone and their views, this isn’t so surprising. But the fact that large percentages of both students and professors acknowledge an interest in spirituality and self-reflection is significant.

The data thus far suggest we need to reassess our assumptions about what it means to prepare young adults for the complexities of the life they face. The challenge will be to create a new model of academic inquiry—one that is equipped to deal with the differing perspectives that any genuine engagement with questions of morality and purpose is sure to elicit. And one that doesn’t lapse into the easy yet dispassionate position that all points of view are equally valid, which is what has led to the ethical impoverishment that students are responding to in the first place. Admittedly, this will require a large amount of creativity and willingness, if not risk, on the part of academicians and administrators. But our difficult times require nothing less.

A recently announced second phase of the HERI project could go a long way toward making such an eventuality more than a lofty aspiration. In spring 2007 those students who participated in the original 2004 study as freshmen will be surveyed again at the end of their junior year. A selection of them will be from the same institutions as some of the faculty who were surveyed. The findings from the overlap group will help determine the impact, for better or worse, that the beliefs and practices of professors have on the values of their students. Once all the data is collected, correlated, and analyzed, a National Institute on Integrating Spirituality into the Campus Curriculum and Co-curriculum will be established, with the mandate to create and implement programs and materials that will bring spiritual perspectives into academic life. If successful, these initiatives could help bridge the gap between the aspirations of students and the inhibitions of their professors and significantly enhance the promise of a college education. Then “higher education” would truly live up to its name.


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This article is from
Our Mystery of Evolution Issue


January–March 2007


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