Higher education's missing soul

Harvard ducks a mandated religion course. But like other schools, it sees spiritually thirsty students.

As a premier university, Harvard wants to lead, not follow. Last year, its curriculum committee saw a rising spiritual hunger among students and proposed a mandated study on religion. But many professors revolted. This month, Harvard announced a new core curriculum, one that will teach, among other topics, simply about "culture and belief."

Harvard's change of heart reveals much about the difficulty for colleges in trying to meet a growing interest among students to find meaningful answers for daily problems and public issues.

A 2004 survey of 112,000 college freshmen found that nearly half of them say they are seeking opportunities to grow spiritually. But once at school, nearly half of all students are dissatisfied with the opportunities for "spirituality reflection." Nearly two-thirds say their teachers never encourage discussion on spiritual or religious topics, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The rising interest in spirituality has led many more students to enroll in religion courses or to major in religion, reports The New York Times. Many students choose to live in dorms that allow a focus on matters of faith. Often, these students were raised by baby-boomer parents who did not impose a religion on them, but when faced with difficulties on campus, the students search for answers to tough questions of life. Others have been pushed toward spirituality by the rise of the religious right, the 9/11 attacks and the challenge of radical Islam, or the Iraq war.

Criticizing the lack of faith-based studies at colleges is not new. William Buckley's 1951 book "God and Man at Yale" looked at how his school abandoned its religious roots. And this fall, Yale's former law school dean, Anthony Kron­man, is coming out with a book titled: "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life."

He finds colleges have expelled the most important question a person can ask – what should one care about and why – from their classrooms. They do so under the influence of the ideal of research, he finds. Teachers of humanities, especially, are blinded by the "fog of political correctness" and have lost sight and confidence in helping students explore the question of what living is for.

The UCLA institute has been tracking those colleges trying to create "safe" spaces for a dialogue on spirituality – without promoting a particular religion. It finds that several schools are now training faculty about how to help students explore a deeper thinking on basic questions.

Florida State University, for instance, has held events for teachers to talk about how they can be academics while also attending to students' interests in spiritual topics. Carnegie Mellon University has begun a program to encourage students who live in residential houses to explore "big questions" about the meaning of life and success with faculty. Second-year students at Miami University of Ohio are being invited to participate in "living learning communities" that focus on the search for purpose.

These models should help other schools in finding the right "teaching moments" for millions of spiritually thirsty students.

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