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Carol Ziegler, SND, Ph.D.
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The Relevance of a Values-based College Education: Spiritual Transformation

By Carol Ziegler, SND, Ph.D.

Young adults come to college campuses today grounded in a reality quite different from any previous generation. The instant news streaming in the aftermath of a hurricane or a mass shooting creates a sense that the world is not a safe place. The daily lives of these college students, many of whom have grappled with family difficulties, financial challenges or the needs of a severely disabled sibling or chronically ill parent, have called for a resilience and courage far beyond their late teen years. Institutions, previously assumed to be stable, like churches, banks or car manufacturers, are no longer certain. The 21st century calls not for a new set of skills but, perhaps, a return to a deeper and more lasting set.

Small faith-based colleges stand on a strong tradition that claims the faith and values embodied in the liberal arts as hallmarks of their identity and mission. Despite disparate forces that suggest confusion and meaninglessness are the norm in a world beset by fragility in light of our international monetary instability and ecological fracturing, faith-based institutions witness in their daily business that there is orderliness to the world and that the life of each individual has meaning

In the true liberal arts tradition, faith-based colleges do not focus on evangelization. The substance of the liberal arts curriculum, both explicit and implicit, invites students to encounter and grapple with some of the basic human dilemmas—personal freedom, competing options that affect different groups of people, meaningless suffering sometimes inflicted by others and even random acts of nature.

Grappling with these larger human issues, either through a literature course focused on the modern novel or through the discussion of a moral dilemma, requires effort. Students do not easily leave the comfort of their tribal or family experience. Whether a student comes from a major urban area suffering from the flight of industry or from the rich rural areas that grace northeastern Ohio, their life experience is shaped primarily by family and their neighborhood experiences. Especially in the first year, professors are challenged to help students examine their assumptions and biases and enter into thoughtful conversations with their peers who may hold very different points of view.

Guiding students to and through meaningful conversation is much more difficult than one might imagine. Technology, underdeveloped social skills and the lack of experience in considering and holding ambiguity contribute to students’ inexperience with meaningful conversations. The instant access to news or information coupled with the clipped communiqués in email, Twitter or Facebook often leave students bereft of vocabulary and the ability to express themselves. Additionally, if students only resort to the news sources that support their beliefs and biases, they lack the ability to entertain multiple perspectives on a topic. Our world needs the energy and insight of young people who will move beyond polarized shouting matches to engaged conversation where attention to the meaning beyond the words enriches the exchange.

The small, faith-based, liberal arts college continues almost as a research and development arm of social exchange. In addition to the carefully designed case studies considered in business, education or nursing, this culture provides additional informal but typically required exchanges. Mentoring programs bring alumni and local professional leaders into one-to-one relationships with the students. Service programs invite students to work in a food bank, help children with physical challenges learn to ride a two-wheeler or travel to Nicaragua or Honduras to share the experience of children and families in developing countries. These programs are more than the experience. Students engage in individual and collective reflection on what they have seen, experienced, resisted, valued and questioned. The reflection is not a small part of the service experience.

As humans, we possess metacognitive abilities that we can use, ignore or suppress. That cognitive ability to reflect on our experience is related to the soul. Our ability to think about our thinking, desires and regrets moves us to examine what is good for ourselves and what is good for others and to consider obstacles and supports for our choices as we move forward.

Small faith-based colleges stand in a unique place where they can call students’ attention to self, each other, to the rhythms of the seasons or to the deeper order of quantum physics or the science behind a laser. These colleges, given the nature of their mission and values, mindfully design opportunities for their students to confront and embrace the dark beauty of the real world so that these emerging adults may become part of this world’s transformation.

 

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