It is often assumed that spirituality and religion are best left out of the education of students in universities and colleges. The thought is that higher education is about reason, not faith, knowledge, not heart – and that it is better for students to leave their religion or spirituality at home.
Not so, says a recently released study out of the Higher Education Research Institute based at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers found that students who are engaged in spiritual practices or religious pursuits are more successful in achieving traditional learning outcomes and tend to be happier and more peaceful.
The study involved extensive data collected from 14,527 attending 136 colleges and universities in the US. It measured five Spiritual Qualities: Spiritual Quest, Equanimity, Ethic of Caring, Charitable Involvement, and Ecumenical Worldview. It also measured five Religious Qualities: Religious Commitment, Religious Engagement, Religious/Social Conservatism, Religious Skepticism, and Religious Struggle.
Researchers found that although religious engagement declines somewhat during college, students’ spiritual qualities grow significantly. Self-reflection and meditation were found to be among the most powerful tools for enhancing students’ spiritual development. Opportunities to connect with their ‘inner selves” facilitated growth in students’ academic and leadership skills, contributes to their intellectual self-confidence and psychological well being, as well as enhances their satisfaction with college. (http://spirituality.ucla.edu/findings/)
Another interesting finding was that students show substantial increase in spiritual development when they were encouraged by their faculty to explore life’s “big questions” of meaning and purpose. This may run counter to the assumed norm in Canadian universities that students best be discouraged from pursuing transcendent ideas, especially if the ideas apply directly to how they live their lives. It is assumed that it is OK to objectively and academically reflect on religious and spiritual expressions, but not to let these ideas inform personal spiritual practices. In contrast, the UCLA study recommends that professors become more intentional about actively encouraging students to explore questions of meaning and purpose.
The study also found that students show the greatest degree of growth in the five spiritual qualities if they actively engaged in the practices of self-reflection, contemplation and meditation.
At UVic, students have the opportunity to learn meditation through various venues, most notably through the programs offered by the office of Multifaith Services (http://web.uvic.ca/multifaith). A myriad of program offerings – Zen meditation, mantra meditation, walking meditation, the Christian practice of Centering Prayer, Mass, contemplative prayer services, and meditating using a labyrinth – are made available to students. We have observed over the years that these activities provide significant support to students as they pursue their academic and career goals. It is gratifying to know that now a wide ranging study gives strong evidence of the importance of supporting student success through encouraging spiritual development and practice.
Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on December 4, 2010.