Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Spirituality and politics in college

This Inside Higher Ed story describes the results of a survey (the report will eventually be available on this page) investigating college student "spirituality" (emphatically not the same as religiosity) from the freshman to the junior year. Although apparently not the result of what goes on in the classroom, student "spirituality" increases over the course of their collegiate careers. Unsurprisingly, they seem less involved in organized religion (although I wonder if students think of small group bible study as attending a "religious service").

The way spirituality is defined--"the researchers define religion ’primarily as belonging in a community of faith and following the dogma and the principles of a particular faith,’ while they define spirituality more broadly ’as a search for meaning and purpose in one’s life’ and the posing of existential questions--seems also to include some of the goals of cosmopolitan liberalism. Consider, for example, these findings:

*In 2004, 54.6% of freshman "endorse[d] the life goal of ’reducing pain and suffering in the world,’" while in 2007 66.6% of juniors did so.

*In 2004, 27.3% of freshmen "endorse[d] the life goal of ’helping to promote racial understanding,’" while in 2007 37.5% of juniors did so.

*In 2004, 42% of freshman "want[ed] to improve their understanding of other countries and cultures," in 2007 55.4% of juniors said so.

*In 2004, 83.3% of freshman "believe[d] that ’non-religious people can lead lives that are just as moral’ as religious believers,’" in 2007 90.5% of juniors believed this.

It strikes me that most of these "spiritual" beliefs line up rather nicely with the typical agendas of campus student affairs offices, and are also not the kinds of things that most professors are going to discourage. To be sure, the percentage of students actually engaging in community service declines from freshman to junior years, but I suspect that that’s connected with a change in the locus of service from family, high school, and church to service-learning class, student affairs office, and Greek organization.

To state it another way, the college experience seems to encourage the development of "right-thinking" sentiments (which includes, by the way, a modest move to the political left on a number of fronts) without necessarily encouraging involvement in the principal institutions in "civil society" that regularly encourage and provide the opportunity for action in the service of others. Believing that others need help comes to the fore, while actually helping them recedes into the background. That strikes me as laying the foundation for statism--creating bureaucracies to help others--rather than for a vital and vibrant civil society where people actually love their neighbors.

I realize that these are risky generalizations based upon a single news story, and before I go any further, I need to see the study itself. I would be interested, for example, to see whether there are significant differences between student responses at different sorts of institutions (e.g., public, as opposed to church-related; liberal arts college, as opposed to research university). I would also be interested in seeing whether the male/female ratio of the 2007 respondents is the same as that in 2004, in part because I suspect that men are more likely than women to drop out of college. Indeed, I’d love to know how much of the change in sentiments from 2004 to 2007 could be explained by a change in the population (drop-outs and transfers) and how much by the actual effect of the collegiate experience.

Discussions - 2 Comments

this cannot be all that surprising, as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems to have become our majority creed.

Richard Rorty, following Judith Shklar, said liberalism was an aversion to cruelty to others (at least in public). While these writers may no longer be on the vanguard, they were the mainsteam back in the late 1980s. It goes without saying that their progeny in the faculty (but in the adminstration to be definite) have merely routinized this end as the sum and substance of a college education.

It is what defines a good person these days, and apparently we all know what a good person is.

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