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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

Spirituality and Religion: Through the Eyes of the "Hidden Educators"

Christy D. Moran

"The teachable moment is always just around the corner, because conflict and difference are the inevitable by- product of any candid, and mutually respectful, discussion about religion and spirituality."1

Spirituality and Religion

Spirituality and religion are often mistakenly understood as synonymous terms.
2 For that reason, many scholars have recently attempted to differentiate between the two concepts. Royce-Davis and Stewart describe spirituality as "an internal phenomenon addressing issues such as the search for a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life, establishment of an intrinsically held value system that determines behavior, and participation in a community of shared values."3 Spirituality also includes a desire for and the perception of connection to something greater than self such as a higher power.4 Conversely, religion refers to "an organized set of doctrines around faith beliefs within an organization."5 These beliefs serve as moral guides and are usually concerned with issues surrounding the origins of life, right and wrong behavior, and assumptions about an afterlife. Nash, while recognizing a distinction between spirituality and religion, believes that the concepts are "interchangeable parts of the same experience," and thus, prefers the use of the term "religio-spirituality."6

In spite of the lack of congruence among scholars about the precise definition of these terms, many are realizing that spirituality and religion both play an important role in higher education. Dalton believes that spirituality is especially important in the learning and experience of college students due to the fact that most traditional-aged college students are grappling with issues related to their personal identity, relationships, ideology, and decisions about the future.7 Additionally, the transcendent qualities of spirituality can ideally reflect the complexity and diversity within a campus community, cultivating an atmosphere conducive to students transcending boundaries and differences within their communities.8

Additionally, the influence of religion on the overall moral and social development of college students is positive. Students who identify with a particular religious affiliation display higher standards of academic integrity;9 they adjust to college better;10 they have healthier patterns of social drinking;11 and they are generally in better health.12 Additionally, religion often provides a cognitive framework for better comprehending and accepting stressful life events, thereby softening their harmful emotional and physical impact.13

Purpose of the Study

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a surge in the quest for meaning, or for spiritual or religious fulfillment, both within society and among traditional-aged college students.
14 Students are exploring new forms of religious commitment, especially non-traditional forms of spirituality that incorporate meditation and contemplation.15 Parker Palmer believes students may have commitments to religion or spirituality that have never been publicly explored or exposed.16 The out-of-class curriculum (i.e., learning experiences that occur in out-of-class settings such as in student organizations and in residence halls) would likely be the context in which students’ spiritual and religious identities would be most visible on a college or university campus. Empirical studies about spirituality and religion in the out-of-class curriculum are rare in the higher education literature. Moreover, missing from the research base are the voices of student affairs administrators who work on the "front lines" with students in regards to their personal development. Nash refers to these administrators as the "hidden educators" in that "they represent a powerful, albeit hidden, educational force in the academy." Unlike faculty, these educators "frequently hear what touches students at the core of their lives."17 It is for these reasons that I chose to investigate expressions of spirituality and religion in the context of the out-of-class curriculum. In effect, I was interested in hearing stories in which spirituality or religion, in various manifestations, came to the forefront between students and student affairs administrators at public and private higher education institutions. The research questions that guided this study, which is part of a larger investigation, are as follows: How are spirituality and religion expressed in the out-of-class curriculum in higher education? How should college and university professionals support the spiritual and religious journeys of their students?

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