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May-June 2011

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Books Worth Reading

Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives, by Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011. 240 pages, $40.00 hardcover.

Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making, by Robert J. Nash and Michele C. Murray. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 352 pages, $38.00 hardcover. Also available as E-book.

Integrative learning has emerged as a strong theme in the past few years of higher education reform. No matter where you look—at the connections drawn between the disciplines, theory and practice, critical thinking and judgment, cognitive and affective development, or academic and personal life—the standard-issue undergraduate education comes up short. In keeping with the dominant culture of the academy, most initiatives to address such gaps are framed in secular terms. Yet it is not hard to see how regard for the “whole student,” an idea rooted deeply in the history of liberal education and often invoked by advocates of integrative learning, can shade into more openly spiritual and/or religious concerns.

As the two books reviewed here testify, the integration of students' spiritual and religious development into their college education has begun to be promoted not just within the confines of faith-based institutions or by counseling professionals and offices of religious life. Critical of the secular academy for failing to adequately address students' search for meaning in life, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives and Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making both argue that all colleges and universities (not just faith-based ones) could—and should—be doing more to foster the kinds of connections that enhance students' spiritual and/or religious growth.

While acknowledging that many educators have deep reservations about the propriety and practicality of taking on these responsibilities, the authors of Cultivating the Spirit and Helping College Students Find Purpose argue that it's the right thing to do. Many traditional-aged undergraduates struggle with issues of meaning and purpose during their college years, they point out, and would benefit from a more holistic college experience. Indeed, both suggest that this is happening already, since new practices that promote deeper academic engagement can enhance spiritual development as well. Still, the writers exhort us to pay more systematic attention to students' search for meaning and purpose and help them connect academic, personal, and community life.

Mary Taylor Huber (huber@carnegiefoundation.org) is a senior scholar emerita and consulting scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She has written extensively about changing faculty cultures in US higher education, focusing especially on the scholarship of teaching and learning. She is co-author, most recently, of The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons (2005) and The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered: Institutional Integration and Impact (forthcoming 2011).

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