Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives

Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer Lindholm
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.
224 Pages

Astin, Astin, and Lindholm make the case that most colleges and universities claim in their mission statements that they exist to educate the “whole person,” while in actuality most of these schools are completely neglecting the spiritual aspects of students’ lives.  The authors provide statistical evidence that supports their conclusion that addressing this gap in higher education can have wide-ranging positive effects on students.  These positive effects are greater academic success, better leadership skills, higher self-esteem, better psychological well-being, and greater satisfaction with the college experience.  In addition, students who are engaged spiritually will be more caring, more globally aware, more committed to social justice, and employ greater equanimity. 

The authors’ claim is based upon the results of a “seven-year study of how students change during the college years and the role that college plays in facilitating the development of their spiritual qualities” (1).  The authors begin to share the findings of this study by identifying ten measures of spirituality and religiousness: spiritual quest, equanimity, ethic of caring, charitable involvement, ecumenical worldview, religious commitment, religious engagement, religious/social conservatism, religious skepticism, and religious struggle.  After introducing these measures, they are explored in greater depth in five chapters: “Spiritual Quest: The Search for Meaning and Purpose,” “Equanimity,” “Spirituality in Practice: Caring for and About Others,” “The Religious Life of College Students,” and “Religious Struggle and Skepticism.”  The authors then explain how growth in some of these areas can contribute to the education and personal development of college students, helping them to become more successful, caring, confident, and emotionally stable.  The final chapter provides suggestions for how colleges and universities can engage the spiritual lives of students in order to provide a more holistic education that benefits the students, the school, and society as a whole.  

Psychologists Alexander W. Astin and Helen S. Astin are professors emeriti of Higher Education at UCLA.  They are both highly respected and decorated in the field of Higher Education.  Jennifer A. Lindholm is the director of the Spirituality in Higher Education project at UCLA.  

The authors state that the United States is currently “in the midst of an era characterized by spiritual poverty” that is marked by “a growing spiritual hunger for… ‘nonreligious, nondenominational ways’ of fostering spirituality” (139).  They make the case that the best time to address this spiritual poverty and hunger is during the college years, and that the most effective way to fill these perceived yearnings is through spiritual development.  It must be noted that the authors do not equate spirituality with religion.  This book presupposes that religion is only valuable inasmuch as it facilitates spirituality, which according to the authors’ definition, does not require God (137).  Their interest is not in producing religious persons or Christians of any kind, but rather cultivating college students and graduates who are successful, psychologically healthy, and altruistic.  It is of no consequence to the authors if those students are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, areligious, or atheistic.

As academic researchers, the authors present themselves as neutral and objective in regard to any theological convictions.  The survey on which this book is based was designed to ask questions about spirituality and religiousness in ways that were “phrased so that they make sense to Christians, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists alike” (12).  Not only is no one religion favored over any other by the authors, but religion itself is not favored over a lack of religion.  The authors are only interested in religiousness in as much as it facilitates spiritual development in students, which itself is only valued for the byproducts it often produces—specifically “psychological wellbeing, leadership abilities and skills, and satisfaction with college” (131).  God does not explicitly enter into the authors’ definition of spirituality, which is summarized as “the values that we hold most dear, our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here… the meaning and purpose that we see in our work and our life—and our sense of connectedness to one another and the world around us” (4).  

This book is by academics for academics.  The authors aim to convince administrators and faculty at colleges and universities to become intentional about addressing the spiritual needs of students by incorporating several practices into curricula, pedagogy, and student life.  Many institutions of higher learning have already taken certain steps that can influence the spiritual development of students such as facilitating service learning, study abroad, leadership training, interracial interaction, and opportunities to support charities.  As positive as this progress may be, however, the authors make the case that colleges and universities can and should do more to develop the spiritual lives of students.  Their specific suggestions include incorporating contemplative and self-reflection practices into class time and assignments, encouraging faculty to be open with students about spirituality, and facilitating “big question” discussions.  The authors provide statistical evidence of the value of these practices in order to persuade administrators and faculty to implement these suggestions.

As mentioned above, this is a book by academics for academics, which is the source of both strengths and weaknesses in regard to its usefulness among collegiate ministers.  The most obvious weakness of the book is that many of the pages read like a statistical report, which can make the book fairly tedious to read for those who are not interested in lists of percentages.  This weakness, however, is made up for by the fact that the intersection between spirituality and higher learning (a subject of great interest to collegiate ministers) is explored not through the opinions of the authors but through the results of a survey of over 100,000 college students at more than 200 schools.  It is also of great value that in the concluding chapter the authors offer concrete suggestions of helpful practices to facilitate spiritual development in college students.

The main weakness of this book, when viewed from the perspective of collegiate ministers, is that it is about spirituality in general, not Christian faith and discipleship in particular.  Because of this, there is no mention of what role the church (or any faith community for that matter) might play in facilitating spiritual growth in college students.  Yet, while the focus of this book is completely on the academy, the church can “listen in” on this conversation and learn a great deal from it, including some practices that might be of help in ministry with college students.  

A great strength of this book is that it is helpful in encouraging collegiate ministers to recognize the difference between spirituality and religiousness, understanding that the college years are often a time during which religious engagement declines (especially worship attendance) while spiritual hunger increases.  This is, perhaps, especially true for students within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since the authors found Presbyterian (along with Episcopalians, Methodists, and UCC) students to be among those who are least likely to remain religiously engaged during college.  

In light of these findings, this book may help collegiate ministers to consider offering opportunities for college students to grow spiritually in ways that, while appropriate within a Christian theological framework, are not completely dependent upon traditional forms of religious participation.  While students from Presbyterian and other “mainline” churches may be the least religiously inclined among Christian college students, this is not a portent of doom for Presbyterian college ministries.  These ministries must, however, be willing to take advantage of the fact that most mainline churches and ministries are open to the kinds of practices encouraged by the authors—contemplation, exploring difficult questions, community service, and justice work—and may already be employing them.  Success in ministry to college students, especially Presbyterian students, will likely have to be gauged by factors other than their participation in religious activities.

[Review by Everett Miller]