Spirituality Comes to College

Contributing Editor: Patrick Love

A funny thing happened on the way to a critically deconstructed and postmodern world, spirituality came to college. Actually, it might be more correct to say that spirituality came back to college. The purpose of this essay is to put the emergence of a focus on spirituality into a broader societal and historical context and to establish the mission and purpose of this section of the Character Clearinghouse. As Strange (2000) points out in the lead article of this web journal, spirituality was a core element of higher education in the United States from its inception. Strange also describes some of the reasons why spirituality was purged from higher education, but the issue that this essay addresses is how spirituality has come to be resurrected in higher education. I try to provide part of an answer to the question – Why now? The “modern” era, a product of the late Middle Ages and the Scientific Revolution, has long held sway in Western society. In fact, the emergence of higher education coincides with the rise of modernism, though its influence in American higher education gained ascendency when the German university model was imported into the U.S. and became a pervasive form of higher education. Modernism is a world view centered on the search for and the assumption of the existence of objective, rational, universal, and context-free truth and knowledge. Modernism rejects the role of beliefs, values, and emotions in the quest for knowledge and truth. Instead, the focus of exploration and learning is based on positivism and the related philosophy of empiricism. Positivism is a doctrine contending that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought, and it was intended to supersede theology, metaphysics, and notions of spirituality. Empiricism (also called the scientific method) is the belief and practice that experiences of the senses are the only source of knowledge, that what we know must be capable of verification through observation and measurement. Modernity, and these philosophies on which it was based, rose as an opposing and countervailing force to the values, beliefs, and world view of the Christian church that grew to dominance during the first millennium of the Christian era. The philosophy of the Church also espoused universal, context-free truths, but was based on a belief system asserted by the Church hierarchy. The conflict between these two views of knowledge and truth (i.e., modernity’s view and the Church’s view) is perhaps best exemplified by Galileo’s trial during which he was forced to disavow his empirical truth in favor of the truth asserted by the church, that the earth was indeed the center of the universe. The continuing power of this position is evidenced somewhat by the fact that only within the last decade the Church recanted their condemnation of Galileo and positivism by apologizing for its actions in the case. This conflict vividly portrays the centuries old separation between the Western paradigm of empirical, positivistic, objective, “value-free” knowledge so cherished in traditional academia and the spiritual issues of faith, hope, and love (Palmer, 1993), considered the antithesis of scientific thinking. While perhaps not as in open conflict as the past, this dichotomization of world views (science versus spirituality) continues to pervade American society and culture. The separation of church and state, and of public and private higher education are based in part on this dichotomy. And, it is a dichotomy that has served us well. The focus on verifiable truth spurred the Industrial Revolution and has contributed much to the quality of life throughout the world. The ability to produce large quantities of food and the many other conveniences, products, and services that we take for granted (e.g., electricity, computing, transportation, medicine) owe their existence to the principles of science underlying modernity. However, not surprisingly, modernity was not without its flaws or critics. The pursuit of knowledge outside of the boundaries and influence of values, ethics, and morality also led to questionable uses of inventions and discoveries (e.g., nuclear weapons) and to outright abuses and atrocities (e.g., the Tuskegee Syphilis Study) perpetrated in the name of science. Throughout this century, and especially accelerating after World War II, the modern era has come under attack as its flaws and limitations have become evident, and it has been accepted that during the last several decades society entered a postmodern era. This breakdown was fueled by many sources, not the least of which were the limits of knowing discovered by physicists (perhaps the hardest of the hard sciences), and the atrocities of World War II. Postmodernism, therefore, is a reaction against the rationalism, scientism, and objectivity of modernism. Its purpose is to induce skepticism of universal truths. Postmodernism rejects the assumption that through reason we will be able to achieve agreement about the nature of truth. With the emergence of postmodernism the hegemony of modernism and its counterparts positivism, empiricism, and universal, generalizable truth has been ruptured. Postmodernism rather than trying to replace one set of truths with another instead encourages multiple voices and multiple perspectives. It is clear that academe is moving increasingly toward this postmodern perspective–a perspective in which values, assumptions, and beliefs play a central role in the social sciences (Tierney & Rhoads, 1993). There are those who complain that postmodernism falls into nihilism, that if there is no single truth, there must be no truth at all. Others complain that postmodernism eliminates epistemological and ethical foundations that there are no common understandings upon which communities can be built. To me, these criticisms miss the point. Postmodernism does not hold that decisions on epistemological and ethical issues are not valuable or that they are useless. Instead, it challenges the notion that these foundations can be externally imposed. In a way, it removes the necessity of universal truths and the necessity of choosing one position over another, allowing us the freedom to construct multiple, inclusive positions as individuals and as communities. Perhaps the problem is that this freedom is a bit much to bear, rather than tolerate ambiguity, we must learn to embrace it. So, as the commercial states “The rules have changed.” The barricades have been breeched between the positivistic, empirical truth of higher education and the nonrational, intuitive, and multiperspective meaning making systems “out there.” It is into this seeming chaos and disarray of postmodernism that new ways of thinking about and doing higher education have appeared and gained credibility. Qualitative research, naturalistic inquiry, and constructivist methodology have gained equal footing with quantitative methodology in higher education. The role and influence of emotions and interpersonal interactions on the learning process are now accepted (Love & Love, 1995). And, the point of this essay, spirituality has re-emerged as an issue of importance and acceptance on college campuses, in college classrooms, and on academic research agendas. Faculty and staff of higher education institutions now have more freedom to explore the role of such values as faith, hope, and love in the structure and persistence of communities, in the construction of knowledge, in the understanding of truth, and in developmental processes and meaning-making of students. This is an exciting time to be involved in higher education. Issues and questions – spirituality chief among them – just recently thought to be taboo are now growing in interest and importance in higher education. It is our hope that this section of the CollegeValues.org website will be an avenue through which discussion on this topic can be undertaken. In the spirit of skeptical postmodernism, the following beliefs also guide this section: We recognize that spirituality is a way of making meaning in and of the world, but hesitate to too quickly put a definition on the term. However, we also assert that spirituality is not the same thing as religion, though the two can be related. The intention of this section is that it is to be more than a listserv where thoughts are instantly transmitted, but not quite a refereed journal. We are interested in creating a scholarly dialogue that falls somewhere between these extremes and invite brief, scholarly thought pieces on the topic of spirituality in higher education.


Love, P. G., & Love, A. G. (1995). Enhancing student learning: Intellectual, social, and emotional integration. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report #4. Washington, DC: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Palmer, P. J. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as spiritual journey. San Francisco: Harper. Strange, C. (2000). Spirituality at State: Private journeys and public visions. Available on-line at: www.collegevalues.org/articles.cfm. Tierney, W. G., & Rhoads, R. A. (1993). Postmodernism and critical theory in higher education: Implications for research and practice. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 308-343). New York: Agathon.