Spirituality and Culture in Higher Education

An Interview with Elizabeth Tisdell, EdD

Dr. Elizabeth Tisdell, is a former campus minister, and currently a Professor of Adult Education at Penn State Harrisburg. She teaches a course that explores spirituality in adult and higher education. In this interview, she shares why she believes spirituality has become a recognized area of study and an acknowledged part of the classroom.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Why do you think spirituality in education has seen a surge of interest?

Elizabeth Tisdell (ET): The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA did a survey of 112,000 college students’ views on spirituality. The study brought to light the important role of spirituality in their lives, and the fact that they wanted it to be addressed more in the higher education classroom. The study facilitated much discussion and some research on the place of spirituality in higher education.

IYM: Are spirituality and religion different?

ET: I see spirituality as being more about how people construct meaning and attend to the sacred in their lives, whereas religion is an organized community of faith. Spirituality is a journey toward wholeness. People often embrace a meditation or prayer practice to facilitate their spiritual development. They often access or express their spirituality culturally through the arts. Religion also offers guidance on how to live a spiritual life for members of that community, but one doesn’t necessarily need to be a member of a religious community to practice spirituality. Many people say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” I think such a statement indicates that they don’t necessarily buy into the rules and regulations of various religious traditions. They may, however, buy into the meditation or prayer practices that are rooted, in origin, in a particular religious tradition. For example, many people practice various forms of mindfulness meditation. While such practices may be viewed as secular, mindfulness and attention to the present moment is a basic tenet and practice of Buddhism. So many practices that people embrace did originate in a religious tradition.

Another important aspect of spirituality is its connection to cultural expression, creativity and the arts. James Fowler, who is a faith-development theorist, talked about the connection of spirituality and faith to meaning-making processes through image and symbol, including through music. It is part of the human impulse to create, to make something new and to give it expression. To draw on how people make meaning through creativity and through cultural expression, sometimes accesses a sense of spirituality in people. This is how educators can draw on spirituality without necessarily imposing a religious or spiritual agenda.

IYM: How do you bring your interest in spirituality into the classroom?

ET: I am teaching in a doctoral program and, because so much of what we do is rational, it’s important to bring other ways of knowing as well. I start most classes with a symbolic centering exercise, to honor the larger range of ways of knowing. I might bring in a plant to symbolize a sense of groundedness, a candle to ignite passion, water for the fluidity and presence of emotions in learning and something to represent air or sound for a sense of spirit….

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2009 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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