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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

“Spirituality in Higher Education?”
Caveat Emptor

Eugene V. Gallagher

The contemporary movement to encourage expressions and investigations of “spirituality” in higher education has worthy goals, including having faculty, staff, and students pay more attention to values and beliefs, moral development, and self-understanding.1 The movement also has expansive ambitions to transform American higher education, expressed in sweeping statements like this one: “we in higher education need to appreciate the value and virtue of the spiritual dimension and the potential for value-added aspects of life for our students”2 or this one: “if we academics are really serious when we claim that our institutions are devoted to advancing the arts and sciences, shouldn’t we do everything we can to nurture and cultivate that mysterious, nonconscious part of the human psyche from which all of our inspiration and creativity emerges.”3  

Unfortunately, I will argue, the concept of “spirituality” cannot serve effectively as a vehicle for the invigoration of American higher education because first, the concept itself is so ill-defined as to be virtually useless; second, whether intentionally or not, the notion of “spirituality” expresses a fundamentally Protestant bias, especially when it is opposed to “religion;” third, it is, therefore, an exclusionary concept that is inimical to the formation of social groups in which individuals’ diverse self-understandings are taken seriously; fourth, the unfounded assertion that virtually everyone has a “spirituality” provides a questionable basis for the formation of any kind of community; in fact it represents the “dream of community without society,”4 where the rough edges of personal idiosyncrasies are sandpapered away until all that remains is an illusory similarity; fifth, in some expressions, at least, it offers a view of the practice of teaching that threatens to transform, and limit, it to the personal “quest for God,” pursued by students and instructors alike.   

Although the spirituality in higher education movement has produced a substantial literature--too large to be summarized here--it has attracted little attention within the academic study of religion.  That is unfortunate for several reasons.  First, the movement is a conscious attempt to shape, if not decisively alter, the contexts in which teachers, students, and administrators do their work.  Second, it aims to introduce specific content into both courses and extra-curricular discussions on campus—content that often relies on very particular, and highly debatable, characterizations of “religion” as a foil for the understanding of “spirituality.”  Third, it echoes the broader fascination with “spirituality” in contemporary American culture.  And, finally, it is at least a quasi-religious movement that has been incubated within and on the fringes of higher education, and thus deserves study alongside other contemporary religious movements. 

One of the prominent features of this new pedagogical and religious movement is its mythology, which prominently features a story of a fall from an original ideal, and it often uses the biblical language of the story from Genesis to characterize both the origins and the contemporary situation of American higher education.  Although its most of its partisans would likely deny it, I contend that the movement’s choice of mythological and religious language is also a clue to one of the broader goals of the spirituality in higher education movement, or at least one of its potential consequences.  It is pursuing nothing less than the re-Protestantization of American higher education—this time under the vague and infinitely extendable banner of “spirituality.” 

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