The Quest for Meaning:
Teaching Spirituality in Communication, Social Work, Nursing, and Leadership

Fred E. Fitch, Julie Fitzgerald, Maureen V. Himchak, Estelle Pisani

Sociologists report that the profile of the American college student has shifted.1  Unlike their parents, undergraduates enroll in classes more to get a job than to get an education.  Learning is not so much an opportunity as it is a commodity.  A media-saturated upbringing has germinated in them short attention spans and short-term event horizons.  Transcendent commitment among them is rare.  After college they are more likely to get a job than launch a career, find a “friend with benefits” rather than commit to a permanent relationship, and move back in with mom and dad rather than put down roots of their own. 

Another profile emerges, however, that may contradict this narcissistic and materialistic facade.  According to the results of the 2005 of College Students and Beliefs and Values,2 over half of all college students are engaged in a quest for authenticity and desire to grow spiritually.  Three quarters say they are “searching for meaning/purpose in life.”  The same number says that they frequently engage in discussions about the meaning of life with their friends and self-report a high engagement in religious or spiritual activities. As educators—particularly those of us who teach in public and non-sectarian universities—we cannot avoid the issues of spirituality that paradoxically lie at the heart of this materialistic and narcissistic generation.  We must ask the question, how can we effectively address our students’ quest for meaning?  How can we mentor students not only intellectually but spiritually?

This essay represents the combined perspectives of four undergraduate instructors of a public university on the issue of addressing spirituality in the classroom.  We not only represent a variety of faith traditions but also a diversity of disciplines within the social sciences—communication studies, social work, nursing, and leadership training. In the first part of this essay, focus on what unites us:  a conceptual understanding of spirituality in an instructional context.  In the second, we reflect on how spirituality can be an integral component of our respective fields.  We arrange the second section in a chronological order based on most college curriculums.  Beginning with communication as exemplary of a freshmen-level general requirement, we then progress through social work as entry-level major requirement that could be taken during the second year, nursing as an upper-division career-based discipline, and conclude with leadership as it might be taught in a senior level course.

Spirituality and the Academy

Over the past three or more centuries there has been trepidation about teaching spirituality in higher education non-sectarian universities. Only hardcore scientific data and research has been interpreted to form the basis for knowledge and intellectual development and was to be taught in universities. Faculty has been “expected to analyze, debate, clarify, synthesize, conceptualize, argue, evaluate, hypothesize, propose, and test.”3 Academic inquiry has been focused on observable and measurable phenomena rather than the “elusive and idiosyncratic (spirit or spirituality)… Religion gets scant attention in the literature, and so, by extension, spirituality is likewise ignored.”4 Spirituality was ethereal and it could not be scientifically substantiated. Spirituality had no legitimate place in the curriculum.

There is often misunderstanding between the concepts of spirituality and religion and that terrifies many and they tend to shy away from both topics. “It is important to note that religion (an organized belief system) and spirituality (an inner longing for meaning and community) are not the same thing.”5 “Religion is based on an organized set of principles shared by a group whereas spirituality is the expression of an individual’s quest for meaning.”6 Spirituality is “the human quest for personal meaning and mutual relationships among people, nonhuman environment and for some god.”7 “Religion focuses more upon the specific group and the organization, while spirituality is more generic, and may even encompass more than one religious approach.”8

It can be speculated that too few faculty had been exposed to spirituality during their educational experiences and possibly they are not in touch with their own spirituality. Perhaps they do not feel comfortable addressing students’ spiritual issues or supporting their spiritual development due to privacy concerns.9 “There has been little thoughtful public recognition by faculty that this concern [supporting students’ development of personal and spiritual values] should be addressed as part of their roles and responsibilities.”10