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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

Does Spirituality Have a Place in Higher Education? :
A Response 

Helen S. Astin & Alexander W. Astin

We appreciate the opportunity to reflect on and respond to the commentaries on our HERI-UCLA study of Spirituality in Higher Education.
We are pleased that our research and writing inspired efforts to implement new pedagogical approaches for training prospective faculty to assist undergraduate students’ in dealing with the “big questions,” that is, questions relating to the meaning and purpose of one’s life.  The Graduate Theological Union (GTU) embarked on such an effort and their goals, process, and reflections are reported in the first five articles.  These articles are followed by three other articles that are primarily devoted to critical commentary on our study, and the final two articles focus on pedagogy inspired and supported by our work.
First, just a few comments about our study that continues to be on-going.  We began this work in 2003 with a pilot study aimed primarily at developing a survey questionnaire that could be administered to undergraduate students in order to assess their religious and spiritual qualities.  Details of how we went about devising questions that could capture students’ religiousness and spirituality can be found on our website (

The main goals of the study were to explore four key questions:

Thus far we have reported on three key findings:

Reading the articles presented by colleagues at GTU, we were inspired by their ingenuity in developing a program to train future faculty who could engage students in conversation and exploration of the “big questions.”  It is a thoughtfully designed program that considers carefully aspects of course design, pedagogy, and assessment.

We believe that many of the elements that are clearly described in the article by Maloney can be adopted by graduate education programs in other institutional settings as a means of preparing future faculty to engage their students in exploring the “big questions.” These include several key elements that were successfully incorporated into GTU’s programs: observing mentors (senior teacher/scholars); preparing narratives of one’s philosophy of teaching; designing new courses or adapting previous courses with the aim of engaging the big questions; offering the courses; and giving feedback. We see these all as essential elements of such a program.  While the assessment was central to the whole program design, we felt that it could have succeeded better in providing the feedback needed for program redesign if it had included success stories as well as some failed attempts.  Ultimately, a successful assessment should include a longitudinal effort to assess the impact of such an effort on students who participate in courses designed to examine the ‘big questions’.

The two articles that follow Maloney’s article, one by Drescher and a second by Stortz, raise important questions about some of the problematics when we engage in systematic efforts to make the academy more responsive to students’ needs in dealing with aspects of their spiritual quest and with “big questions” such as: Who am I? What is the meaning of life and death?  Why is there suffering, wars, death? Drescher indicates that engaging in this kind of work – a form of “reengineering the teaching machine,” “challenges the normative culture of the academy” and the “narrowly instrumental character of postsecondary education,” and it raises some important questions on issues of power and authority.  Who is the knower in the teaching encounter? It challenges all of us as faculty members to clarify our professional identities, “who am I who teaches?” and it calls us to embark on a journey of personal transformation. 
We could not agree more with those statements.  But how to engage the current faculty in this personal transformation constitutes a challenge for all of us.  However, if we really care about attending to the holistic development of college students, it is important to recognize that designing appropriate professional development programs for future cadres of faculty is not only feasible, but necessary.

Stortz’s article raises some interesting questions of how we “go spiritual” while continuing to maintain objectivity and criticality in our work.  We do not see the two goals as incompatible, given that it is hardly an exercise in “objectivity” to deny the reality of those aspects of the self that yearn to uncover and confront the mysteries of life. Stortz underscores the importance of an education that involves personal learning and understanding and the importance of personal meaning in dealing with the “big questions.”  She also indicates the necessity of maintaining a historical perspective and a critical/analytical approach.
It was especially enlightening to us to hear the voices of the two graduate students, James and Bauman, who were fellows in this project, as presented in their article, “Big Questions of Vocation, Professional Identity, and Classroom Practice.”  James believes that the three most important things she learned from the project were developing the ability to listen to her students through the practice of an “engaged pedagogy,” honoring the “scholarship of application” by being attentive and responsive to the needs of the world, and attending to her own personal development by engaging in her own exploration of the “big questions.”
Bauman underscored the importance of enabling students to nurture their wonderment.  In our own study we found that students’ experiences of wonderment, such as listening to beautiful music, being in nature, or seeing a remarkable piece of architecture were all experiences that nurtured their spirituality.  Again we could not agree more that both James and Bauman touched upon some critical practices that nurture student’s spirituality and capacity to make meaning of the world.

The next three chapters are devoted mainly to critical commentary on our project. The three authors—Bauman, Gallagher, and Lopez—appear to find little of value in the study. All three think the concept of “spirituality” is of questionable value. Bauman and Gallagher, in particular, essentially reject altogether the concept as being hopelessly ambiguous. Gallagher and Lopez seem to think that we have somehow set it in opposition to “religiousness,” when in fact the reverse is the case.  As we have said throughout the project and as our data clearly show, the two concepts are positively and substantially related: many students, believers and non-believers alike, appear to associate the two concepts, i.e., they believe that “religious people tend to be spiritual” and that “spiritual people tend to be religious.” Further, most of our measures of spirituality are positively correlated with our measures of religiousness, and at least one—Spiritual Identification (formerly called “Spirituality”)—shows very high positive correlations with religiousness measures in the neighborhood of .70-.80.
Citing the frequent use of first person pronouns in our survey items, Lopez concludes that we are encouraging individualism and self-centeredness in our student respondents and ignoring “otherness.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Dozens of survey items inquire into students’ attitudes, beliefs, and behavior with respect to “the other,” and exactly half of our six measures of spirituality—Ethic of Caring, Ecumenical Worldview, and Charitable Involvement—are entirely about encountering “the other.” Even our own prose definition of “spirituality” emphasizes “connectedness with others.”

It’s too bad the authors looked only at our earliest descriptive work and not at our latest longitudinal work, which we briefly referred to at the Chicago conference. In particular, we have made one small but significant change in the labeling of our measures: the one we initially called “Spirituality” has been renamed “Spiritual Identification.”  The initial name was chosen because 12 of the 13 items making up this scale included some version of the word “spiritual.” However, we subsequently changed the name for at least two reasons: (1) rather than indicating how “spiritual” someone is, the items really reflect the student’s inclination to use the word “spiritual” in relation to oneself and others; and (2) given that we had devised five other measures of “spiritually related” qualities (including one—Equanimity—which we believe may be the defining quality of people who are generally regarded as “spiritual”), it would be misleading to name any one quality “Spirituality.” Bauman seems to think that the 13 items are too heterogeneous to create a meaningful whole, but the fact remains that they form a highly reliable scale (Alpha = .89). We do, however, pretty much agree with Bauman’s observation that the scale “tells us nothing about spiritual people except…that they identify with the word “spiritual.” As we have already said, this is one of the reasons we changed the name.
Bauman also believes that the survey approach taken by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life is to be preferred over what we are doing.  But if he had checked out the content of our surveys he would have seen that we have included virtually every item used in the Pew survey. We have also published summaries showing how these items are related to our measures of spirituality and religiousness.

In questioning our approach to studying spirituality, neither Gallagher, Bauman, nor Lopez acknowledges our basic underlying assumption: that spirituality is a multidimensional quality that cannot be captured in a single measure. Most people who have attempted to define the construct would agree with us, as evidenced by their use of multiple descriptors. Our study identified six separate indicators of spirituality, all of which reflect conceptions of spirituality that have been proposed by various scholars, educators, and theorists. We make no claim that we have covered all possible definitions, but we believe that we have represented some of the most commonly proposed ones. That they can all be counted as indicators of spirituality is supported by the fact that the measures are all positively correlated with each other (all 15 of the possible correlations among the 6 measures are positive and significant). If one wishes to know how “spiritual” someone is, we believe that it is necessary to look at the entire profile of six measures.

Recently we have attempted to develop a definition of “spirituality” based on these six measures. If a person were to obtain high scores on all six, here is how that person might be described: “A highly spiritual person is at peace with herself. She views herself and others as spiritual beings, and feels a strong sense of connection to all humanity. Her awareness of the many injustices in the world and strong sense of compassion and caring is manifest in a life of serving others. While maintaining her positive outlook on life, she is actively seeking to attain deeper levels of wisdom and compassion.”

Another thing to keep in mind about our measures is that they do not simply reflect some a priori notion of what we think spirituality is. On the contrary, the items that make up these measures were constructed only after several years of reading, debate, and brainstorming concerning what spirituality is and what “spiritual” people are like. We followed the same procedure with the construct of “religiousness.” Altogether we devised some 170 different items that were intended to reflect some aspect of either spirituality, religiousness, or both. The factor analyses that we performed using these items were designed to determine if certain items clustered together in meaningful ways so that subgroups of items could be combined to create “scales.” Some of our analyses were “confirmatory” (i.e., we expected to find clusters that reflected traits that we already had in mind, e.g., Religious Engagement, Spiritual Quest), but most of the analyses were “exploratory” (i.e., there were clusters revealed by the factor analyses that were not anticipated prior to the analyses, e.g., Spiritual Identification, Equanimity). In these latter cases we were presented with the task of having to name the scale.

As is the case with all complex concepts, our particular approach to defining and measuring spirituality will almost certainly not fit everyone else’s definition of the construct. To those who take issue with our approach, we can only say this: “We have identified a set of six related traits that we have labeled Spiritual Identification, Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ecumenical Worldview, Ethic of Caring, and Charitable Involvement. We have been able to develop statistically reliable measures of each of these traits.  Our research so far indicates that attending college tends to facilitate the growth of such traits, and that the particular college experiences that are most likely to contribute to their growth include such things as interdisciplinary courses, study abroad, service learning, interracial interaction, personal reflection, and faculty encouragement. Call them what you like, we believe that these traits represent potentially important human qualities that can and should be nurtured in our educational system.”

The final two articles—one by Fran Grace and the second by Judith Simmer-Brown—describe efforts to introduce contemplation as a pedagogical device to assist students in their inner work and spiritual journeys. We find in our own research that meditation and contemplation are approaches that can not only facilitate students’ spiritual development, but also be viewed as pedagogical tools that enhance learning and academic performance.

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