[Paleopsych] CHE: College Students Mix Doubt and Belief in Their Spiritual and Religious Views, Study Finds
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Thu Apr 14 13:52:14 UTC 2005
College Students Mix Doubt and Belief in Their Spiritual and Religious
Views, Study Finds
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.14
By THOMAS BARTLETT
Most college freshmen believe in God, but fewer than half follow
religious teachings in their daily lives. A majority of first-year
students (69 percent) say their beliefs provide guidance, but many (48
percent) describe themselves as "doubting," "seeking," or
Those are some of the results of a national study, scheduled for
release today, that is believed to be the first broad, in-depth look
at the religious and spiritual views of college students. The study,
"Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College
Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose," was conducted by the
Higher Education Research Institute at the University of
California at Los Angeles. Last fall 112,232 freshmen were asked how
often they attended religious services, whether they prayed, and if
their religious beliefs affected their actions.
Among the findings was a strong correlation between students'
religious beliefs and their views on hot-button political issues. For
instance, students who considered themselves religious were more
likely to oppose same-sex marriage. Religious students were also less
likely to believe that abortion should be legal.
On other questions, however, there was little difference between
religious and nonreligious students. For instance, a majority of both
groups believed that the federal government should do more to control
the sale of handguns and that colleges should ban racist and sexist
speech on their campuses.
The survey also found that while first-year students were not always
sure what they believed, most of them were interested in grappling
with big questions like the meaning of life. What that pattern
suggests, according to Alexander W. Astin, director of the UCLA
research center, is that colleges should be seeking ways to
incorporate spiritual and religious questions into the curriculum --
even if doing so makes some professors uncomfortable.
"There's an unwritten assumption that we just don't talk about these
issues," said Mr. Astin. "I don't think we're taking advantage of the
opportunity to help students explore those questions with each other
and in their course work."
That is because higher education is "a little more repressed" when the
conversation turns to spiritual matters, according to Claire L.
Gaudiani, a former president of Connecticut College who helped oversee
the study. "For a lot of intellectuals, religion and spirituality are
seen as a danger to intellectual inquiry," said Ms. Gaudiani.
She argued, however, that dealing with questions about meaning and
purpose "doesn't have to mean indoctrination." She compared what she
calls "educating the spirit" to teaching good nutrition or physical
fitness. "Right now students get the sense that we don't do
spirituality," she said.
If most professors do not "do spirituality," then Mark Wallace is an
exception. The associate professor of religion at Swarthmore College
teaches a first-year seminar called "Religion and the Meaning of
Life." In an interview, he agreed that many professors are reluctant
to engage in what he calls "meaning teaching" -- which is a shame, he
said, because meaning is exactly what students are looking for. "They
hunger and crave that sort of conversation in a college environment,"
Mr. Wallace said.
He also agreed with Ms. Gaudiani that it is possible to deal with
religious questions without promoting a particular ideology. What his
students seem to want is an "open, safe place" for the discussion of
universal issues where they will not be "censored or yelled at or
ignored." As proof, he cited strong interest in his course: He usually
has three times as many students trying to sign up for the seminar as
he can accept.
"They have burning questions about life issues," he said. "And they
feel those kinds of issues get ignored in the classroom."
Not in David K. Glidden's classroom. The professor of philosophy at
the University of California at Riverside teaches "The Care of the
Soul," a course that focuses on how to live a purposeful life. While
Mr. Glidden is not sure that students will complete his class knowing
how to care for their souls, he thinks such courses are a good start
and should be a part of a college's curriculum.
"My sense is that the students I've taught are a lot like what T.S.
Eliot called 'hollow men,'" he said. "They are living in a world, and
they don't know what they're here for -- they don't know how to live
And they want to know how to live their lives, said Richard F. Galvin,
a professor of philosophy at Texas Christian University. He is part of
a team-taught, freshman-level course called "The Meaning of Life." The
course has two sections of 50 students, and the seats are always
"I can tell by talking to them in office hours, looking at their faces
in class, and in reading their work that it affects them," Mr. Galvin
said. "They want to talk about these issues. What I like to tell them
is that there is plenty of time to be worried about their careers, but
this might be the last time they get to talk about big questions."
Readings for the course include Plato's dialogues and works by
Friedrich Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill.
Jeffrey Sebo took Mr. Galvin's course when he was a freshman. Now a
senior philosophy major, Mr. Sebo was intrigued by its title and
became fascinated by the discussions -- so much so that he has
returned to the class twice as a teaching assistant. "It was the big
questions that got me hooked," he said.
The results of the UCLA study were heartening to Carol Geary
Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and
Universities, which has long advocated a more holistic and less
career-centered approach to higher education.
"Students are more idealistic than we thought," she said. "But what
this data shows us is that we have a long way to go. Students have
idealism that can be tapped, but we're not doing all we can to help
them connect that idealism to important challenges in the world around
Figuring out how to do that is not simple, but colleges need to start
trying, according to Mr. Astin. "If you want to take seriously the
claims we make about liberal learning, this is what you have to do,"
he said. "There are large numbers of students who are involved in
spiritual and religious issues and who are trying to figure out what
life is all about and what matters to them. We need to be much more
creative in finding ways to encourage that exploration."
Background article from The Chronicle:
* Survey Finds Spiritual Leanings Among Most College Students
45. mailto:thomas.bartlett at chronicle.com
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
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