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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

“ The Question Is The Answer”-- 
Naropa University’s Contemplative Pedagogy1

Judith Simmer-Brown

The new millennium has seen a resurgence of interest in spirituality and religion among college students across the spectrum of American institutions of higher education.   The Lilly Foundation has found that the fastest growing undergraduate major is religious studies.  And yet this growing interest is not confined only to religion per se; it is also expressed in undergraduate interest in spirituality.  In 2005, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed over 112,000 matriculating freshmen attending 236 diverse colleges and universities across the country, reporting this: 

The study reveals that today’s college students have very high levels of spiritual interest and involvement.  Many are actively engaged in a spiritual quest and in exploring the meaning and purpose of life.  They are also very engaged and involved in religion, reporting considerable commitment to their religious beliefs and practices.  As they begin college, freshmen have high expectations for the role their institutions will play in their emotional and spiritual development.  They place great value on their college enhancing their self-understanding, helping them develop personal values, and encouraging their expression of spirituality.2

The HERI report goes on to say that three-fourths of college freshmen say that they are searching for meaning or purpose in their lives; nearly half of the students surveyed say that they consider it “essential” or “very important” to seek opportunities to help them grow spiritually.  Two-thirds reported that they derive strength, support and guidance from their spiritual or religious beliefs.3  They additionally expressed the expectation that college will help them develop emotionally and spiritually.

These expectations raise unique challenges for the religious studies department and professor.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, religious studies departments charted a course to become legitimate academic departments at public universities, freeing themselves from the often apologetics’ stance of religious universities and institutions.  This required the honing of objective distance and the clarification of specific academic methodologies in working with religious phenomena.  Now, ironically, when students are most passionate about religion and spirituality, religious studies departments may be the least equipped to meet, focus, and educate their passion.

In the last ten years, the contemplative education movement has dawned in American colleges and universities under the leadership of presidents, faculty from diverse branches, and education departments.  Academic initiatives like the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has fostered the promulgation of contemplative practice in the college classroom under the leadership of Arthur Zajonc, physicist from Amherst, the founding academic program director.  Ed Sarath, professor of jazz from the University of Michigan, directs the Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies at the University of Michigan.  Religious studies has produced a few leaders:  Hal Roth, a professor in Chinese religions, directs the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown,4 and Tom Coburn, in South Asian religion, served as president of Naropa University from 2003 to 2009.  Outside the academy, Garrison Institute and The Forge are developing initiatives to nurture contemplative pedagogy in education.  Since the mid- 1990’s, contemplative education has become an increasingly popular movement influencing college classroom, and professors across the spectrum of academic disciplines are exploring ways of integrating spirituality into their course curricula. 

In this current climate, will religious studies departments merely secure the ground developed over the last four decades in the academic study of religion--or will we meet the enthusiasm of our students on the field of spiritual inquiry?  How can we do this while maintaining our hard-won academic respectability?  How do we acknowledge pluralism and nurture scholarly integrity while embracing and supporting the spiritual curiosity of our students?  What is the proper way to acknowledge the rich lineages of the world’s religious traditions while respecting the diversity and variety of its manifestations?

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