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Truly higher education (Scripps Howard News Service) February 19, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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For more than 100 years, America’s colleges and universities have steadily pushed religion and spirituality off the campus. Recent evidence suggests, however, that U.S. college students are deeply interested in such matters and universities that emphasize faith in learning are growing by leaps and bounds.

Though one would hardly know it today, most of America’s great private universities, and even many of its state-supported institutions, began as church-related colleges. From Harvard and Yale right on across the country, colleges were founded with religious missions right alongside their academic curriculum.

Over time the spiritual mission was pushed aside in favor of greater academic freedom. The seal of Harvard University tells the story graphically, at first containing the Latin terms for “Christ and the church” right in the center. Eventually the seal was revised to move those words to the edge and to introduce “truth” in the center. Finally the spiritual terms disappeared altogether, as has that emphasis on most college campuses.

But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Research commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation and performed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA suggests that students are very much interested in spiritual development during their college years and that universities are doing a poor job overall of meeting those needs.

The UCLA study surprised many in higher education with these findings among college students surveyed:

– 77 percent of students believe “we are all spiritual beings.”

– 77 percent of students pray regularly and 78 percent discuss religion/spirituality with friends.

– 71 percent of students find religion to be personally helpful and 71 percent gain spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power.

At the same time, students expressed that their college has note provided helpful resources in their spiritual quest and that their spirituality has declined from their freshman to junior years (the period surveyed). Of students surveyed, 62 percent said their professors never encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters and 56 percent responded that faculty never provide opportunities to discuss the purpose or meaning of life.

The disconnect between students’ spiritual needs and aspirations on one hand and campus resources on the other is striking indeed. It is as though a whole generation of spirituality minded students has sneaked up on campus administrators and faculty who were raised in a more secular tradition. Or perhaps the spiritual interest has always been there but has not been discovered until these recent studies began to appear.

Addressing spiritual needs will not be an easy task for our universities. Many of them long ago closed down their departments of religious studies and removed any relics of religious symbolism. And the wall of separation that has grown between church and state seems to find its way even into private college campuses where a faculty culture finds discussion of spiritual or religious matters inappropriate. But with religious overtones to war and foreign policy, and spiritual questions abounding in people’s lives, these are matters colleges may no longer be able to ignore.

Not surprisingly, many students are voting with their feet. Unable to find spiritual resources on secular campuses, larger numbers of students are choosing colleges and universities where faith is still part of the mission. Recent figures show, for example, that the 104 colleges that are part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have experienced a 27 percent growth rate since 1997, more than three times greater than the 8 percent growth in all degree-granting institutions during that same period.

Set against so many discouraging trends, the notion that college students are interested in spiritual and religious things comes as a pleasant surprise. Let’s hope that faith-based organizations of all kinds, along with wise mentors on college campuses, will be alert to meeting such needs. Helping its future leaders think through the meaning of life and build a core of strong values can only strengthen the future of our society.

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