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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 2
Spring 2006

How Colleges Differ in their Efforts to Promote 
Moral and Ethical Development in College  

Pu-Shih Daniel Chen, Jon C. Dalton, and Pamela C. Crosby  

Moral and Ethical Learning in American Higher Education

In the first American colleges, moral and religious values were a centerpiece of institutional mission. Most of these early colleges were established for the training of clergy and emphasized the teaching and practice of moral and religious values as an intrinsic aspect of their educational mission. Stamm points out that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was assumed that studentsí spiritual lives and faith development were integral aspects of learning and development in college.1 Concern for the moral and religious life of students continued in American colleges throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.2 Faith oriented and non-sectarian liberal arts colleges routinely offered courses in ethics and values as an essential part of the core curriculum. Many presidents of eighteenth century American colleges and universities taught a capstone course in moral philosophy that was required of all seniors. One goal of the capstone course was to integrate studentsí learning in college within a moral context and to send them into society as morally and ethically responsible citizens.3 While this legacy of concern for the moral and religious development of students continued to be given lip service in the mission statements of colleges and universities well into the twentieth century, in practice, higher education became increasingly secularized and disaffiliated with religion, particularly with the rise of public higher education. By the 1960s, most colleges and universities in the United States, including many historically faith oriented institutions, had adopted a secular orientation that relegated matters of faith and religion to the private realm of studentsí lives and increasingly to the periphery of academic life. Horowitz notes that "the old collegiate culture never died, but it shrank precipitously and as it did, it lost its hold."4

Over the past twenty years, concern has grown that American higher education is failing its legacy and responsibility for encouraging moral and civic capacities so critical in a democratic society. The publicís growing awareness of the decline in interest and involvement among college students in voting and civic life has generated some of this concern. The increasing materialism reflected in concern about status, making money, and self interested values documented by decades of research on college freshmen trends by Alexander Astin and colleagues at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has many worried about the growing privatism and self-interested values of college students.5

More recently, however, another important trend in student values and interests has been underway that may suggest some important changes in the values and priorities of todayís college students. This new trend can be described as a "spirituality" movement, and it reflects college studentsí surprising rediscovery of interest in religious and spiritual values, practices, and lifestyles. This movement has been influenced by what Kuh et al. describes as "the prominent influence of religion in various aspects of American life" at the turn of the 21st century.6 While it is difficult to trace the roots of this movement, the events of September 11, 2001, are widely thought to have played a role by promoting heightened concern about family, future, purpose, and meaning among much of the U.S. population and especially among young people. Colleges and universities now find themselves in the unexpected situation of having to respond to studentsí expectations that institutions should take a more active role in making religion and spirituality a more integral aspect of the college experience.

College officials are now reporting greater student interest and participation in campus organizations and activities that have a spiritual focus. In a recent national survey, student affairs leaders were asked to report on trends in student interest in spiritual activities on their campuses.7 More than 75% of these student affairs leaders reported that they had observed an increase in student interest and involvement in spirituality activities over the past five years. Analysis of the responses revealed that increases in student spiritual interest and involvement were reported in all types of colleges and universities.

Stamm argued that spirituality has returned to campus and that it is sparking a vigorous dialogue about values, meaning, purpose, and religion and spirituality.8 The recent research findings on college student spirituality reported by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA in The Spiritual Life of College Students also documented very high levels of student interest in spirituality and studentsí active engagement in a variety of spiritual quest activities.9

In an effort to learn more about what colleges and universities are doing today to encourage moral and ethical development in their students, the authors conducted a recent national survey of senior student affairs leaders. We were especially interested in the specific moral and ethical values promoted by colleges and universities and the administrative priorities they employed to intentionally promote character development outcomes. We chose to focus the survey on faith-based and non-sectarian private colleges and universities because the historical missions of these types of colleges and universities have usually included a focus on moral and ethical development as important outcomes of the undergraduate experience.

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