Spirituality in Higher Education

I stumbled on the web site for a project engaged in studying Spirituality in Higher Education, based at UCLA. It gives an interesting look at the state of religion on US college campuses, both with regard to students and faculty.

Now, I don’t know how much to trust their findings. Many of the publications and reports I’ve looked at on their web site are permeated by a combination of saccharine spirituality-speak and the equally stupid language that academics lodged in schools of “education” favor. They’re funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Their primary purpose is to “Provide a framework for colleges seeking to expand opportunities for students to explore spirituality.” And a couple of years ago I took one of their surveys of faculty. I remember the questions as rather blatantly leading toward “more spirituality” kind of responses. (On the other hand, halfway through I was so pissed at what I perceived to be their angling for affirmations of religion in the classroom that I was determined to finish the survey in as negative a way as possible.)

Still, there is some interesting, possibly even accurate material buried in their reports, even though they constantly spin their information to make it look like college faculty spend half their free time in prayer. For example, a recent news release called “Strong Majority of College and University Faculty Identify Themselves as Spiritual” also shows that much of the high religiosity is due to religiously-affiliated institutions; faculty in public institutions are significantly cooler toward religious influences on education. And both natural science and social science faculty are coolest toward religion among the professoriate. As they damn well should be.

Overall, however, as with just about anything the Templeton Foundation touches, the end result seems to be propaganda rather than knowledge. Their helpful conclusion? “These findings suggest that highly spiritual faculty, compared to their less spiritual colleagues, are not only more likely to employ teaching methods that directly engage their students, but have also been better able to integrate their personal and professional lives.” Maybe so—it’s as with a lot of the Templeton-funded “research” that shows that religion leads to increased happiness, better sex lives, and a killer tennis game. I don’t see anything intrinsically objectionable with such claims, but I’m less than fully confident in the competence of the people who are doing the studies.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University