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Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives

Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, Jennifer A. Lindholm
Published by Jossey-Bass in 2010

Cultivating the Spirit is a book “…about the spiritual growth of college students” (1). This pithy description may lead some who work in faith-based institutions or in “religious” campus roles to add it quickly to their reading lists. After all, as the argument may go, students’ spiritual formation is central to what these folks prize. Conversely, this succinct description of the book may lead others who work in public colleges and universities or those who believe that spirituality is simply not an appropriate academic consideration, much less outcome, to stop reading. After all, as the argument may go, the unbiased cultivation of the intellect and the objective pursuit of new knowledge are what higher education is properly about; spiritual formation is the domain of another institution called the church.

Both groups of educators will be disappointed by this book. The former group will be disappointed because the authors’ usage of spirituality seems boundless; the authors count all kinds of human activity as expressions of human spirituality. More specifically, a student helping a friend with a personal problem, a student searching for meaning, a student promoting racial understanding, a student who participates in community service, a student interested in understanding other countries, a student who feels a strong connection to all humanity—all of these students, according to the authors, are spiritually “questing.” The authors even suggest that a student who feels mostly at peace in the world may be “…the prototypic defining quality of a spiritual person” (142). For those who may be interested in a more discriminating view of spirituality—for example, a view that posits that expressions of spirituality are inextricably tethered to one’s fundamental convictions—Cultivating the Spirit represents an “open range” spirituality to be sure.

The latter group of educators will be disappointed—and perhaps more so, distressed—for the same reason as the former group, namely, because of the authors’ broad definition of spirituality. Imagine the reaction of a sociology professor who believes that academics and spirituality are distinct endeavors when she finds out that the service learning project that she assigned is positively contributing to students’ spiritual formation. Likewise, consider the response of a business faculty member who believes that formal learning and one’s spiritual quest are mutually exclusive when he finds out that the off-campus study component of his course is strengthening students’ spiritual understanding of life. The authors agree that “we … observe considerable reluctance within faculty on the place of spirituality in higher education” (150). But they quickly go on to suggest: “One wonders if some of this discomfort would be alleviated if faculty knew how we have attempted to define and measure ‘spirituality’” (151). I submit that the exact opposite would be the case, at least to the extent that faculty are vigilant to avoid “spiritual things” at all costs in their classrooms. This book in the hands of such faculty members may incite them to undertake complete overhauls of their courses in an effort to expunge any and all of the pedagogical components that the authors believe contribute positively to college students’ spiritual development!

Now, before two other critical observations, I must make three relevant comments about Cultivating and its authors. First, Alexander and Helen Astin and Jennifer Lindholm have been and are among the finest higher education researchers in the world; many consider Alexander Astin the most noteworthy higher education scholar of the twentieth century. The Higher Education Research Institute, founded by the Astins at UCLA, has a long and distinguished track record within the higher education community and beyond, and has provided exceptional empirical understanding on numerous critical issues for decades. That the authors include a 40-page appendix that explicates their research methodology offers ample evidence of their substantial expertise. In short, these are scholars whose work must be taken seriously, whether one agrees or disagrees with their approach, findings, or implications. I will quickly add that their gracious personal and professional styles are equally exemplary.

Second, and related, the higher education research community has, in fact, received the authors’ research on students’ spirituality with considerable interest. Sessions highlighting the authors’ spirituality research at professional meetings are typically fully subscribed (and have been for several years now) and the audience is fully engaged. Moreover, the interest in this research is spawning far more than a few additional studies, some of which are initiated and supported financially by the authors’ ongoing grant-making efforts and in the interest of exploring supplementary angles regarding the development of college students’ spirituality. At least in higher education research orbits, the authors’ research has received and continues to receive willing and interested audiences. Faith-based institutions do well to become familiar with this research particularly because it seems so relevant to their missions, and is perhaps best accomplished in league with various other related studies (for example, Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition; Tim Clydesdale’s The First Year Out; Kenda Dean’s Almost Christian; Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, and Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians).

And, third, in an effort to pique interest among readers to consider further review of Cultivating, I have highlighted a few salient aspects of the authors’ project as follows, including a few findings that may be of particular interest to CSR readership because they concern evangelical Christian institutions:

• This book concerns the results of a massive (initially well over 100,000 students), longitudinal research project exploring college students’ spiritual and religious views begun in 2003 and comprised of surveys, interviews, and focus groups;
• Five chapters of the book focus on findings related to students’ spirituality, two chapters of the book concern findings related to students’ religious life, and two chapters apply the research findings to other measures of students’ development and offer implications for institutional action respectively;
• The authors developed five measures of spiritual development and five measures of religious development from the data;
• The five measures of spiritual development are associated with one another and the five measures of religious development are associated with one another, but there appears to be little, if any, correlation between the two measures generally or specifically (that is, spirituality and religiousness seem to be different constructs);
• Compared to entering students, junior status college students seem to be more interested in spiritual questing (33% compared to 24%) (NOTE: It is important to remember the inclusive definition of “spirituality” utilized by the authors);
• Various things correlate positively with spiritual questing such as solid study habits, service-learning, off-campus study, regular interactions with faculty, taking regular time to reflect, on-campus housing, taking interdisciplinary courses, participation in students organizations, and choosing to major in health professions, while other things correlate negatively with spiritual questing such as playing video games and watching TV in excess, being too busy, and choosing to major in business;
• “One of the surest ways to enhance the spiritual development of undergraduate students is to encourage them to engage in almost any form of charitable or altruistic activity” (147);
• Students’ religious commitments remain virtually unchanged between the first year and the junior year, and some measures experience significant decline (for example, attendance at religious services; level of religious conservatism);
• “The capacity of Evangelical colleges to slow the decline of students’ level of Religious Engagement that occurs between high school and college … appears to be entirely attributable to the high level of Religious Engagement that characterizes the student bodies that enroll in these institutions” (98);
• “The college experience may create more religious struggle for students attending Evan-gelical colleges…” (104); and,
• “[Evangelical] colleges enroll the least skeptical students of all college types … [and] their students are also the only ones who show a net decline in skepticism … during the college years” (111).

I conclude my review as I began—with remarks critical of the book. I hope that these comments will not dissuade readers from examining this book. In fact, on the contrary, I hope that they will propel readers to examine it more closely. First, the authors suggest that the following questions are spiritual questions: Who am I? What are my most deeply felt values? Do I have a mission or purpose in life? Why am I in college? What kind of person do I want to become? What sort of world do I want to help create? My concern is this: Why are these identified as spiritual questions? Can they just as easily be ontological questions? Or metaphysical questions? Or nomological questions? Or even psychosocial questions? The words that we choose are important. If “spiritual” is simply code language for that which is subjective, “inner,” non-observable, non-scientific, “personal,” and the like, then I would prefer to use a word other than “spiritual.” I am quite aware that a book called Cultivating the Spirit has far more curb appeal than Cultivating the Ontological. I am also willing to own my a priori assumptions that “spiritual,” as a word, is best defined in the context of the fundamental, totalizing commitments that one has made. Thus, I am comfortable saying that one who founds and frames her life based on autonomous individualism possesses a spirituality. But I am far less comfortable saying that one who feels at peace in the world possesses a spirituality unless the peace one feels is described as a byproduct of some comprehensive, orienting framework for life. And, even then, I would argue that one’s spirituality is not the feeling of peace in the world itself, but that one’s spirituality, predicated on the comprehensive framework that sources and sustains it, is made flesh by feeling at peace in the world.

This leads nicely to a second, and final, criticism. Cultivating would be a significantly stronger study if it had utilized Peter Berger’s seminal work on religion and spirituality, The Sacred Canopy. Building on Emile Durkheim’s previous work, and to a lesser degree William James’ work at the turn of the twentieth century as well, Berger argues that humans, by virtue of being human, construct and maintain social worlds. In the context of Cultivating, Berger would suggest that students, by nature, seek responses to the list of questions that the authors included as spiritual questions. Said another way, Berger would argue that these questions are unavoidably human questions about which students, in this case, actively seek to resolve and then passionately to preserve. Further, if in the interest of ensuring that the world that one has created will persist, a person seeks justification for her world beyond that world itself in a sacred tradition (though, according to Berger, such a justification can be attained in a secular tradition as well as a sacred one), then that person is a spiritual person insofar as she exists within a constructed world that she preserves by religious rationalizations. In my view, Berger’s analysis would have greatly benefitted Cultivating. And, in the end, it may have given the authors pause in believing that spirituality was the appropriate construct for the research.

Cite this article
David S. Guthrie, “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:2 , 211-214

David S. Guthrie

Penn State University
David S. Guthrie is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Pennsylvania State University.