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Should Colleges & Universities Care About Spiritual Beliefs of Students? Critical Conversation #6

August 8, 2016 Michael D. Waggoner

Why should colleges and universities care about the deeply personal religious and spiritual beliefs of their students? Isn’t college about intellectual learning?

Interest and research on spirituality among college students have increased over the past 20 years. Many educators now believe that religion and spirituality are neglected aspects of the whole student and that more attention needs to be given to these dimensions of student development in college. To complicate this issue, spirituality is now often distinguished from religion and regarded as a separate domain of students’ inner lives. Moreover, some who argue for a more secular approach increasingly advocate for atheism and humanism as legitimate forms of spirituality. Thus, the spiritual dimension of college students’ lives is a complex and multifaceted issue for colleges and universities today and an important topic in understanding contemporary college students and how they learn and grow in college.

Mike Waggoner is the JCC Focus Author for August 2016. He authored the featured invited article "Spirituality and Contemporary Higher Education" in the upcoming Journal of College & Character August 2016 issue.

Here is Mike response:
The need to distinguish between religion and spirituality opens the way to even more distinctions that are currently playing themselves out across US higher education. As I discussed at the outset of the foregoing article, there are many students, faculty, and staff who embrace the importance of values and morality that flow from attention to the inner life, yet they are not comfortable with associating with religion; for them, spirituality seems the best way to acknowledge the importance and the processes of cultivation of the human spirit. There are still others, however, who seek value based living with a moral dimension that adheres to neither a religious nor a spiritual context for such a set of commitments. This gave rise to a movement of secular groups organizing on campus and seeking recognition of their positions as legitimate alongside religious and spiritual groups. As a result we have seen an increasing number of chaplains on campuses that are secular or humanist in their orientation. They are there to address the development of the “whole person” as much as any traditional religious leader.

I believe that the student affairs professional is uniquely situated and even obligated to address the development of the student’s moral development, whether from a religious, spiritual, or secular basis. Faculty and staff within the academic affairs mission clearly are charged to see to the intellectual development of the student. Many among them argue, however, that the whole person is not within their purview, though some do see it as appropriate. Student affairs, however, is charged with the development of the whole student. It is part of the founding documents of the profession. I believe they should assume greater campus leadership in addressing this aspect of diversity as they have done for others areas in the past. We welcome your reactions to these points.

We welcome your reactions to these comments.