For a variety of reasons, student engagement in general education continues to be a challenge. Perhaps one way to increase engagement is to connect general education with a deep student need: finding meaning and purpose in their lives or exploring what some have called “big questions.” Recent scholarship has defined these clusters of meaning and purpose needs as “spirituality.” General education can address these larger questions not only through “culture and belief” types of courses but also by having students study the world through multiple disciplines and perspectives. Academic advisers, who regularly talk with students about their values and goals and advise them on the entire curriculum, are in a prime position to help students make personal connections between their search for meaning and purpose and general education.
Engaging students in general education continues to be a challenge. The “out in four years and get a job” incantation has replaced “explore and follow your passion.” Students often choose courses out of expediency rather than by interest as they try to fit their courses, part-time jobs, and cocurricular activities into a four-year plan. In some cases, when a field of study expands its requirements, general education suffers. Students are directed to specific courses that fulfill both general education and major or premajor requirements. Departments may even waive certain general education requirements for their students. Budget cutbacks can swell the class size of general education courses and provide an impetus to find less expensive but perhaps dubious ways to deliver them: using graduate assistants, massive open online courses, and in extreme cases, courses outsourced to for-profit organizations. A positive trend is that more colleges are using elements of an integrative model of general education, one that deliberately makes connections among courses and fields (Hanstedt, 2012), but their general education programs are based still on the silo-like distribution model. In addition to these global problems, the message about the value and intent of general education may not be reaching students. Students are still asking, “Why do I have to take this course?”
The introduction of general education to students usually occurs at new student orientation. When incoming first-year students come to orientation, however, they want practical information that meets an immediate need, such as how to register and what courses to take. Therefore, general education's value and intent, being conceptual in nature, is often not emphasized, understood, or retained. After orientation, students may find it difficult to locate information on general education. While there is usually an online presence, general education is not housed in a single department with faculty where students can go to ask questions. Faculty may also be unfamiliar with the hallmarks and courses that constitute general education, other than those that their department offers. Students themselves may not seek more information on general education, because, unlike deciding on their major or minor, the choice has been made for them and further research and reflection does not seem to be necessary. It is no surprise that when general education as a program is evaluated, students are vague on its intent. When students are told what general education is supposed to do, they often feel that what they have learned in these courses does not align with program goals (Harmes & Miller, 2007). In 2009, the American Association of Colleges and Universities sponsored a survey of its members on trends in general education and assessment. One of the report's conclusions, which also factored in a previous 2004 American Association of Colleges and Universities student focus group study, was that many of the member institutions could be more effective in communicating not only the link between general education and areas of concentration but also “the benefits of general education” (Hart Research Associates, 2009, p. 11).
Innovative methods have been developed to overcome these general education teaching and engagement obstacles, but even these may be coming up short. In Utah State University's general education video series for students, the speaker tells a story of asking student athletes why they assiduously lift weights in training when they do not lift weights on the playing field (Sanders, 2014). When the student athletes explain the obvious, a segue metaphor is introduced: general education prepares students for life's playing field. But this metaphor also reveals a special pedagogical challenge for general education. The athlete may see an immediate payoff from strength training and practice in improved playing at the next game. But for general education, the promised payoff, that satisfying feedback on earnest efforts, is not evident until several years or even a decade later. For some farsighted and mature students, some future payoff can be as tangible as this Saturday's game. But for most students, in the middle of their taking a year or two of general education courses, the purpose of general education is too often forgotten.
So how might we make general education and its benefits more immediate and tangible, especially in today's production-oriented, assessment-heavy higher education environment? One way is to tap into a deep and immediate need of students: to find meaning and purpose in their lives or, what some have called, answers to life's big questions. Underlying this search for meaning is a desire for personal transformation and to make new and significant connections with others. Recent scholarship has called these clusters of student needs and behaviors “spirituality.” Astin, Astin, and Lindholm (2010) present strong empirical evidence from a multiyear, multicampus study that most students are seeking this type of spirituality. They (2010) report that more than eight out of ten new first-year students rated “to find my purpose in life” (p. 3) as at least somewhat important as a reason for attending college. They also find that student spiritual growth correlated with positive student outcomes, such as higher grades and satisfaction with college. Chickering, Dalton, and Stamm (2006) have said that almost any course can lead to an increase in spirituality if taught using reflective assignments and exercises that tie content to the student's inner world. Universities have been incorporating elements of spirituality into their curricula and services, which is well documented by Jacobsen and Jacobsen (2008, 2012). Harvard has revised its general education to include a “Culture and Belief” category, although initially proposed as “Reason and Faith.” Penn State has built a spiritual center for students, faculty, and staff that has been used in times of campus crisis. Other universities are hiring staff to address the spiritual needs of students who identify with a particular religion as well as those who do not.
While scholars use a variety of definitions for spirituality, Astin, Astin, and Lindholm (2010) offer one that focuses on affective experiences and connectedness to others:
Spirituality points to our inner, subjective life, as contrasted with the objective domain of observable behavior and material objects that we can point to and measure directly. Spirituality also involves our affective experiences at least as much as it does our reasoning or logic. More specifically, spirituality has to do with 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 to the world around us. (p. 4)
Another important element to consider is that even with this open-ended definition of spirituality, not all students should be painted with the same broad brush. Researchers in higher education, with their varying definitions of spirituality, do agree that students are concerned with finding meaning and purpose. Yet those students might not agree that those pursuits are necessarily spiritual ones. Sociologist Christian Smith has been engaged in a long-term study of the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents and emerging adults (those in the eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old range) since 2005. Based on qualitative and quantitative data, Smith (2009) observes, “So yes, some emerging adults, including students in college, are interested in spirituality. But for a good number of them, that simply means doing traditional religion. And for another chunk of them, that means they simply do not want to say that they are positively not interested in spirituality. … Only for quite a small minority of emerging adults are spiritual seeking and practicing lives that are spiritual-but-not-religious on the priority list—certainly more than among teenagers, but not all that much more” (p. 297).
Smith's survey relies on the participants' own definitions of religion and spirituality, in contrast to Astin, Astin, and Lindholm's (2010) identification of five measures of spirituality. While perhaps only a few emerging adults might identify as being on spiritual quests, the work of Astin et al. (2010) seems to show that students are concerned with finding meaning and purpose. Perhaps the lesson here for those who work closely with students is to consider terms and assumptions carefully.
If we see spirituality as students' search for meaning and purpose, then general education's curricular intent, at least in many cases, overlaps with elements of spirituality. Courses in the “culture and belief” categories of general education provide students with material that can initiate reflection on personal experiences and beliefs and lead to a better understanding of themselves. The exposure to different perspectives through distribution requirements introduces students to varying facets of life and worldviews, which could lead to greater empathy. So it is a great loss in higher education that students who have an unmet need for more meaning and purpose in their lives feel that general education is something to “get over,” when general education, if engaged fully and reflected upon, would assist students in satisfying this need.
How, then, might we help students on this journey toward meaning and purpose, if not a clear destination, and at the same time see the value of general education? And who can do this? Academic advisers regularly talk with students about their goals and aspirations, which often are revealed when students are trying to decide on an academic program or are facing academic or personal challenges. Academic advisers also teach students about the entire curriculum—general education and majors, not to mention a variety of cocurricular components—during their journey from matriculation to graduation. Eric White (2013) makes the case for how the National Academic Advising Association's core values for advising align with those of general education: “Most noteworthy is the imperative to engage students beyond their own worldviews. Such a line [in the National Academic Advising Association core values] suggests that academic advising goes beyond the selection of courses, asking students to put their education in a context that transcends their own immediate need for a major that leads directly to a job and nothing more. Thus the academic advising community synchronizes itself with the ideals of a general education curriculum that asks students to challenge their own perspectives or at least to acknowledge other viewpoints as viable” (p. 141). Academic advisers can ask students the big questions in the context of their general education courses—what have they learned, are there cross-course connections, what contributed to their knowledge of themselves and their goals, and what future courses might be taken to deepen self-understanding. First-year students who express a strong desire to “help people around the world” could be encouraged to consider how general education courses might provide them with knowledge of different cultures and beliefs, enabling them to better understand and effectively assist others. The adviser might then initiate discussions of study abroad and/or service learning opportunities. For students entering a regimented professional program with few electives, academic advisers could guide students in carefully choosing general education courses that provide knowledge and awareness that would enhance their core beliefs and prepare them to face ethical and societal issues of their future profession. By the same token, preprofessional students (premed, prelaw, etc.) often focus mainly on the prerequisite courses for their respective programs; advisers could encourage those students to consider courses in medical ethics or the social sciences, with an emphasis on social inequalities, for general education requirements. Ultimately, as is the case with advising in general, effective conversations begin with the student at the center: What are the student's values and interests? How, if at all, do those align with her or his major and educational plan? Once those guideposts have been established, the student and adviser can move forward, seeking out courses that both satisfy requirements and engage the student on multiple levels.
Encouraging the growth of student spirituality—finding meaning and purpose—can enrich the student college experience. When students are shown that their path toward meaning and purpose begins with their general education courses, engagement in those courses will rise. Astin, Astin, and Lindholm (2010), in their chapter “Why Spirituality Matters,” list academic advising first, in a nonalphabetical list of higher education activities, as evidence that activities such as advising are already involved in the personal lives of students and “touch on students' purposes, hopes, dreams, aspirations, values, beliefs, and other ‘spiritual’ matters” (p. 6). Academic advisers, who have established trusting relationships with students and broad knowledge of general education, are in a key position to help students make this connection between their search for meaning and purpose and being engaged in general education.