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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 1
Winter 2006

Diversity and Spirituality in Secular Higher Education: The Teaching Paradox

Elizabeth J. Tisdell

Spirituality, religion, and faith are complicated subjects. They defy clear definition, and mean different things to different people. Yet human beings clearly create a greater sense of meaning, and make major life decisions based on experiences that are spiritual or religious in nature. Thus, such experiences are an important vehicle of learning, not only in how people make meaning, but also in how they construct knowledge. Given that higher education is an arena that focuses on the construction and dissemination of knowledge, it seems clear that spirituality has a role to play in higher education. Yet largely because of separation of Church and State issues, in the 20th century, most secular higher education institutions discouraged discussions of religion and spirituality, particularly in the higher education classroom.

Since the dawn of the new millennium however, there has been much discussion of the role of spirituality and religion in higher education in general. Some have focused on particular university’s efforts to be more attentive to religion and spirituality. For example, Jacobsen and Jacobsen and their colleagues, discuss the role of spirituality and religion in faculty members’ own scholarship and in their work with students in an explicitly Christian college.1 Kazanjian and Lawrence and their colleagues discuss a religious pluralism project aimed at helping the entire campus community understand and respect religious differences among the many participants at a secular private college.2 In more general discussions of spirituality and/or religion in higher education, many authors have highlighted the role of spirituality in meaning-making and on how it relates to student values and involvement in real world concerns, and focus more on how student affairs professionals, campus ministers, and faculty can address such issues largely in co-curricular activities, or in service learning projects.3 But, there is actually a somewhat limited consideration of what drawing on spirituality specifically in classrooms might look like in practice, particularly in secular settings. Furthermore, as many authors note, even though many secular higher education institutions were originally founded by specific religious traditions, throughout the course of its history, U.S. higher education has had an ambivalent relationship to religion (and spirituality), even as a field of study.4 Thus, there are certainly those who question whether considering the spiritual would even be appropriate in secular settings, which may account for why there is little consideration of what drawing on it looks like in classroom practice.

In his recent discussion of learner centered teaching, Robertson notes the many paradoxes of teaching in a way that really facilitates student learning and engagement, such as the tension the teacher might experience between: control of course content and going with the flow; the facilitator and evaluator roles; the subject content and the learners’ needs.5 He states, "these enduring, deep seated contradictions in the learner-centered teaching role have the potential to be transformed into generative paradoxes, or contradictions in which both sides of the opposition are true and both sides feed rather than fight each other."6 While Robertson does not discuss the tension between the secular and the spiritual at all or even touch on spirituality, I will argue that the secular-spiritual dialectic also has the potential to be a generative paradox of learner centered teaching, where it is possible for both sides to feed each other. If one teaches in a way that really takes into account learners’ needs and the multiple ways they construct meaning, even in secular settings, one cannot help but touch on the spiritual. Furthermore, if one is teaching for diversity in a way that is culturally responsive to all learners, one needs to consider the different ways different cultural groups value knowledge, and the fact that some groups place more value on the spiritual than others. Ironically then, there may be more freedom to do this in secular universities where there is no direct tie-in to a particular religious tradition; thus both sides can feed each other.

In spite of the fact that much of the discussion on the role of spirituality in higher education has not specifically been about every day learner centered teaching in academia, a few scholars who teach in primarily secular settings, have discussed how they have dealt with it in the secular classroom.7 Drawing on her own sense of spirit, Laura Rendón called upon academics to reconnect "the scientific mind with the spirit’s artistry,"8 and in her more recent work she discusses the need for higher educators to come up with a set of new agreements that draw on spirituality that can guide their transformative teaching efforts.9 Denton discusses taking a trans-traditional approach, which suggests teaching more broadly across religious and spiritual differences, through dialogue and deep listening in teaching for spiritual depth.10 However, thus far with some exception11 there has been only limited discussion of how spirituality can inform teaching specifically about cultural diversity, and differences across race, gender, and culture.  Thus the purpose of this article is to examine the secular-spiritual teaching paradox in how spirituality, religion, culture and personal identity relate to teaching about cultural diversity in secular higher education classrooms. I will first explain how my own spirituality and personal and cultural identity has related to my scholarship and teaching practice in my particular context—that of a secular, Research I institution. Then, following a consideration of the overlaps among spirituality, religion, and culture I’ll briefly summarize the findings of a qualitative study discussed in detail elsewhere12 of how spirituality informs the work of educators teaching classes that deal with race, culture, gender. Finally, I will consider what the findings suggest for culturally responsive teaching about diversity in a pluralistic society.

Spirituality and Cultural Identity in My Own Scholarship and Teaching

How did I come to be interested in the relationship between spirituality and culturally responsive teaching? How does it relate to my own faith journey? Answers to these questions are rooted in my own background and spiritual journey, as one who was raised Roman Catholic. But I’ll begin more with my more recent story, and then spiral back to my earlier background.

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