Liberal Education

Cultivating “Sparks of the Divinity”

Soul-Making as a Purpose of Higher Education

At the Council of Independent Colleges’ 2014 Presidents Institute, New York Times columnist David Brooks opened his keynote address by recounting the final meeting of a senior seminar that he taught at Yale. On that day, he asked every student to cite what was the most transformative book each had encountered over four years in college. Unexpectedly, several students responded that they had kept so busy networking and participating in activities, including community service, to burnish their resumes that they barely had time to do assigned readings for class, much less read a book through and reflect on it. One student said he was saving favorite texts to read after graduation.

Brooks went on to lament that discourse among his students is dominated by economic concerns, where what graduates might do to gain employment takes precedence over what kind of people they aspire to be, where the emphasis on outcomes has led them to value what they can measure rather than trying to measure what they should value. Privileged is a utilitarian culture of external validation. Too often lost is the sense that college has some stake in developing the internal landscape of students’ lives.

By contrast, for Brooks and for many of us, college was a time for immersing ourselves in texts that formed our sense of ourselves and how we might relate to the world. There was no more important activity than reading, musing, and cultivating alternative narratives of the soul.

What I propose as needful in higher education today is a renewed urgency and commitment to assist our students in forming their souls. And if, as I suggest, soul-making is integral to education at our institutions—whether secular or religious—then it ought to make itself felt in all areas of academic life.


What do I mean by soul-making? In an 1819 letter, the poet John Keats posed the question in this way: “There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions, but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. . . . How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence?”1 For Keats, the soul is not a “thing.” It is tantamount to the individual identity a person forges in the course of living. It is the self as formed by the narrative circumstances of one’s life.

Keats proceeds in the letter to describe the development of the soul as the interaction of three materials: “the Intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul.”2 The world is the staging area, what Keats calls “the vale of Soul-making.”3 The intelligence refers to the mind, the capacity for apprehension and analysis with which humans are born. But it is the heart that Keats describes as the mediator between the mind and the world, and thus the conduit to soul-making. We begin as undifferentiated minds, intelligences without individual identities. But we are capable of learning, and in our ability to apprehend and create knowledge, our eyes are opened, and we can become as gods. We are schooled in the world, a world of circumstance and contingency that the mind struggles to apprehend. It is not the learnings of the mind that make the individual, however. The wisdom of the soul is knowledge of the world filtered through the medium of the heart. And it is a particular aspect of the world to which the heart must respond: the circumstances of a “World of Pains and troubles,” a “Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”4

At this juncture, I want to elaborate on two aspects of Keats’s conception of soul-making in order to offer some thoughts on our educational enterprise. First, for Keats, the cultivation of the mind alone is insufficient to create an individual identity or soul. I suggest that current tendencies to regard education as the accumulation of knowledge and skills for the workplace would have been greeted by him with dismay. Making a living is necessary for subsistence, but in what way does this differentiate humanity from ants in a colony or bees in a hive? Where is aspiration, where is creativity, where is beauty, where is love, where is personal meaning and purpose? Where are the “sparks of the divinity”? Keats might ask, “How can schooling contribute to the process of individualization so that each student is afforded opportunity to develop a sense of self and its relation to the world?”

Let me offer a concrete instance of how schooling might facilitate soul-making. At Ursinus College, all first-year students are required to take a two-semester, common-syllabus course—the Common Intellectual Experience, or CIE—consisting of readings and experiences organized around three perennial questions: What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is the universe, and how do we fit into it? The questions are perennial because there is no universal agreement as to the answers. Sages and mystics, legislators and poets, philosophers and scientists have posed answers that have served to root individual lives and buttress entire civilizations. The answers over the ages comprise the deepest wells of human meaning from which our students are urged to drink.

The course is integrally experiential. It’s not simply a survey of ideas but a challenge to each student: how would you answer the three questions, and what texts most embody your responses? Because the responses must be the individual student’s, the act of discerning becomes an exercise in defining personal identity, an episode in narrating one’s personhood. Beyond the course, the questions become the organizing frame within which an Ursinus education occurs. The choices of major, courses, activities, residential communities become opportunities to work out one’s answers to the three perennial questions. And our hope is that those questions become touchstones for how our graduates determine to live self-conscious and intentional lives. For many will find their answers changing in the course of encountering circumstances that prove the heart.

Many institutions have courses and experiences that cultivate not only the mind but also the heart. In Hong Kong, a term used interchangeably with liberal learning is “whole person education.” It is this kind of orientation, this aspect of educational mission, that I think Keats’s conception of soul-making would privilege.

Second, I note that what Keats calls “the provings of the heart” are intimately tied to feeling and suffering the pains and troubles of the world. By contrast, for many of our students, pains and troubles, setbacks and failures, accidents and disease, discipline and sanctions are unexpected and even unwarranted deviations from the callow presumption that their lives should be a smooth progression from success to success. Suffering is regarded a consequence of injustice or pathology. If troubles come, then the world should be reformed or the individual medicated. Let me be clear: we should be grateful for the philosophical, political, and social progress that has engendered a more capacious sense of common humanity and universal rights, and we have benefited in body and mind from advances in science and medicine. But there is a difference between a therapeutic outlook, one that regards pains and troubles as encumbrances to be resolved, and a more tragic view of the world that sees as part of being human the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.”

Our identities are expressed in our life narratives, and those narratives necessarily encompass the pains and troubles of our own lives and those of the world. It is through a heart pierced by pain and trouble that we open ourselves to mercy for our own frailties and to compassion for those of others. In pathos we cultivate pity. As educators, we need to guide our students in accommodating themselves to the pains and troubles of the world so as to school their hearts and engender their souls without daunting their courage and hope.

Cultivating humanity

I don’t want to ground an appeal for soul-making only in the vision of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet, as generative as I think his musings are. Let me suggest an equivalence between Keats’s conception of soul-making and the defense of contemporary liberal education as enunciated by Martha Nussbaum in her book Cultivating Humanity.5 Nussbaum weaves a complicated skein that combines insights from the classical tradition and multicultural studies. Central to her vision, however, is that she too specifies what we should aspire to engender in our students.

Nussbaum describes three values that should characterize liberal education. First, our graduates should develop the capacity to critically examine themselves and the society that has formed them. Our students come to us with inherited ideas and values inculcated by family, school, religious and civil authorities, and the general culture. The Greeks referred to this as doxa, common or received opinion. Tenets of received opinion are not necessarily wrong, but they have not been intentionally examined and adopted by students as their own beliefs rather than the inherited legacy of their forebears. This critical examination of self and society is the essence of Socratic reflection, where the mind is honed for discernment. It is the heart of the examined life.

Second, Nussbaum believes that education should be about exposing students to the unfamiliar, to the variety of the world. We generalize from experience, and too often we assume that our own experience is normative. Education is about confounding previous experience. This ranges from gaining a more nuanced understanding of the natural world to learning to live with human difference. In particular, Nussbaum advocates for encounters with minority voices and non-Western cultures as a way of developing a more capacious sense of the variety of ways in which peoples can express universal needs and aspirations. In our pursuit for what binds us as a common humanity, we can’t forget that we cannot be human in general: we express our humanity in particular culturally mediated ways. Language is a quintessential human capacity, but no one speaks “language,” one speaks English, or Chinese, or Swahili. We must both affirm the claims of universal humanity and uphold a commitment to cultural diversity. We must affirm equal opportunity and valuing individuals according to their achievement, but we must also strive to give place and voice to different cultures and practices, acknowledging that the very definitions of “success” and “happiness” are culturally mediated. For Nussbaum, engendering a cosmopolitan mindset means balancing how universal human capacities are expressed in culturally specific ways. It does not obviate the need for judgment, but it does call for sensitive, generous, and patient discernment of what constitutes truth and falsehood, right and wrong. We need to encourage our students to appreciate the occasions when they are uncomfortable with the strangeness of the world. Those very moments can be occasions for initiation into the variety of the world, where the intelligence is cultivated and circumstances enable the maturation of the heart.

Third, students need to develop empathy, the capacity to place themselves in the situation of others. For Nussbaum, this can occur in study abroad, in a residential college, in any activity that rouses a sense of human connection. Above all, it can be rooted in the narrative imagination where works of literature enlarge our sense of life’s contingencies. James Baldwin famously said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”6 Whether through a text, an experience, or the model of a life we encounter, we learn to test alternative pathways to how we ourselves might live. Indeed, as teachers, our lives are texts our students read. Our students seek ways in which others’ stories can constitute strands in their own narratives.

For Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity, flourishing is characterized by critical examination, experience in the variety of the world, and empathy for others. But to echo Keats, what is critical examination but the schooling of the mind, and what is experience but encountering the circumstances of the world, and what is empathy but the maturation of the heart?

David Brooks called for renewed attention in college to cultivating the internal landscapes of our students’ lives; Martha Nussbaum vigorously defended a liberal education that would produce a cosmopolitan mindset for citizens of the world; Keats described a process of soul-making that I submit binds the three of them, and us, in a common project. The consequence of my argument is that if soul-making constitutes a legitimate purpose of education, then it should be present in the language, mission, professional development, curriculum, and cocurriculum of an institution. In discussing each of these areas, I will in some instances divide my remarks into commentary directed to religiously based institutions and observations that pertain to secular, more heterodox places. The challenges can be different in each sphere.


At the secular college, we are accustomed to a rhetoric of means. We seek to school our students in knowledge and proficiencies that will stand them well as they pursue their career and life goals. But too often we are leery of the language of character and values. We go so far as to raise up academic virtues such as self-discipline, honesty, and tolerance, but sparse is the language of goodness, transcendence, and soul-making. We fear that such invocations either clang of archaism or will be taken as attempts to impose a theistic worldview on the suspicious and unwilling. Nonetheless, if soul-making is a proper purpose of higher education today, we must find the courage and ingenuity to develop a rhetoric of ends, of the purposes of human life.

In my disquisition on Keats and Nussbaum, I have sought to enunciate the language of soul-making in terms that can be claimed by theists but do not necessitate a theistic commitment as a prerequisite for developing an individual human identity. Of late, philosophers like Nussbaum have laid claim to both the Greco-Roman Stoic and the Judeo-Christian traditions in formulating a framework of virtue ethics that may be shared across cultural, religious, and political boundaries. Such values include the solidarity of humankind, the efficacy of reason, and the need for self-sacrifice; personal virtues such as integrity, diligence, and self-control; and social virtues such as justice, tolerance, and benevolence. Such virtues and their resulting behaviors are not grounded in a particular dogma, but they are markers of goodness to which people of various faiths, or no faith, can subscribe.

At religious institutions, the challenge with regard to language is different. There the rhetoric of ultimate ends is foundational, sometimes to the point that its use is so customary as to lose potency. And of what good is salt that has lost its savor? The challenge here is to renew the language of faith for a generation for whom it is a legacy but not one personally examined and claimed as one’s own. It is here that perhaps language projects at secular universities and religious colleges might share a common purpose: to find ways of speaking of soul-making that can affirm the adherents of particular traditions while urging those outside a particular faith to consider the purposes of human flourishing.


From language we proceed to the matter of institutional mission. At religious institutions, the mission statement is an explicit declaration of education as the working out of a faith vision. But such statements are expressions of what in Christianity is considered special grace: the particular benefits conferred on the company of the committed. It is most encompassing at institutions where all members of the community have subscribed to a common creed. Religious colleges today, however, often serve students from a variety of faith backgrounds. Moreover, one object of religious higher education is to prepare graduates to work and serve in the world, a world of believers and non-believers, a world imbued with common grace where it rains alike on the just and the unjust. In mission, there must be a balance between an education rooted in common grace, knowledge and perspectives accessible to all learners, and the encouragement of experiences of special grace, those rooted in faith.

By contrast, at the secular college, statements of mission tend to be couched in utilitarian terms; students are to be equipped with knowledge and skills to earn livings and to be responsible citizens. However, what are the purposes of productive living and responsible citizenship? How we live should give rise to probings as to why we live. Mission statements are periodically reviewed in religious and secular institutions alike, and any review of institutional mission should lead to questions of student purpose and to consideration of the activities, curricular and cocurricular, whereby opportunities are created for exploration of purpose.

Professional development

From language and mission, let me turn to the topic of professional development. New faculty come to our institutions educated in their subjects and sometimes in how to teach them, but few have had a formal opportunity to reflect on what it means to join a campus community and to contribute to its mission. They have to learn how to take possession of the curriculum, both to teach within the structures that greet them and to contemplate how those structures can be modified to better advantage the purposes of education at their institution. Most religious colleges have required courses that ask students to learn about their faith tradition and to do spiritual reflection. New faculty need to be oriented and mentored to find their footing in such courses. That opportunity is no different at the secular college. Above, I mentioned Ursinus College’s CIE program, which is staffed by faculty from across the disciplines and is a mandated teaching assignment for all new faculty. Each first-time instructor is partnered with two veteran instructors to form a triad for support, and the CIE faculty meets weekly to examine the text being studied.

But faculty development should not be limited to matters of the curriculum. A residential campus community offers multiple opportunities for encounters with students beyond the classroom. What does it mean for faculty and staff to engage with students when questions of individual identity invariably arise?

Butler University is a secular institution, but it has a Center for Faith and Vocation that has sponsored an annual faculty-staff seminar on vocation, where enrollees meet to discuss how issues of identity and spirituality make themselves felt on campus, for themselves and the students, in the classroom and out. Over the years, a number of enrollees have been agnostics who nonetheless understand that like race or gender, religious roots are significant shapers of student perspectives, and one can’t teach or guide students without an awareness and sensitivity to these dimensions. There is opportunity, even at the secular university, to engage in faculty and staff development if there is an institutional commitment to soul-making.

The curriculum and the cocurriculum

At the heart of teaching and learning is the curriculum, the autobiography of the faculty declaring what, at this particular time, it believes students ought to know and do in order to be certified as educated people. What is valued in the academic enterprise finds a place in the curriculum, and what is considered essential becomes a requirement, in some cases for all students. Are occasions for soul-making found in the curriculum? This has to do with not only what is taught but also how subjects are handled.

I taught a general education literature class at Hope College that included Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The discussion one day had to do with the nature of love, and the topic of Celie’s lesbian relationship with Shug came up. One of my students quietly but firmly described her sense of the matter, that while she believed homosexuality was contrary to God’s order, she understood how Celie, a victim of rape and abuse, might find love and acceptance in a same-sex relationship. My student wasn’t opining on God, sin, or sexuality, although the novel is accessible to these approaches for analysis. She was testifying to an occasion for empathy, an instance of entering into a life, however fictional, of another, and finding a common bond of humanity with someone whose destiny was very unlike hers.

A commitment to soul-making should engender a climate where students are able to find themselves in the subjects they study. And that climate extends far beyond the classroom. The process of soul-making takes place in advising sessions, dormitory talks, interactions at meals, artistic productions and athletic competitions, special interest clubs, off-campus internships, and service projects. There is tremendous opportunity across the cocurriculum.

One aspect of cocurricular life that has grown in prominence in recent years is community service. A mark of the citizen is altruism, and opportunities to serve others fulfill Nussbaum’s dictum that education should expose students to people different from themselves and circumstances different from their own. At its best, community service cultivates empathy, encourages solidarity between students and those they serve, and creates common ground among students of otherwise different persuasions. The lasting benefit of community service to our students lies in the opportunity to reflect on why they do it, both for themselves and in the company of others. Here again we recur to various themes treated above: the call of David Brooks to cultivate the inner landscape of student lives; Martha Nussbaum’s conception of education as preparation of a cosmopolitan citizen equipped to contribute to a world alongside people very different from oneself; and the sense of John Keats that individual identity is forged through experience with the pains and troubles of life.

In a column on ministering to those who suffer, David Brooks wrote, “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness—to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence—to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.”7 In trying with all best intentions to do for others, we can end up imposing our sense of rightness on them, in essence violating their personhood, their souls, or we end up frustrated by the intractability of suffering. Our best gift sometimes, to others and to ourselves, is simply to be present, to do what we can without “solving” the problem, at least on that day. Enduring the suffering of others, no less one’s own, calls for a maturity and depth of self that is the essence of soul-making.


I have sought here to clarify why soul-making is needful in higher education. Please take what I’ve said not as more burdens to be shouldered but opportunities to educate your communities in love. Our colleges are being inveigled to better prepare our students for the world of work. But in cultivating mind and heart, in enlarging discernment, tolerance, and empathy, what are we about if not teaching students to love wisely? Martha Nussbaum wrote, “It is possible to love one’s neighbor without knowing anything about them, without enriching one’s reason by factual knowledge and one‘s imagination through narrative. But it is not very likely that ignorant people will direct their love in adequate practical ways. . . . All universities can and should contribute to the development of citizens who are capable of love of the neighbor . . . believing that love at its best is intelligent and that higher education can enhance its discrimination.”8 May it be so.


1. John Keats, Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Grant F. Scott, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 290.

2. Ibid., 291.

3. Ibid., 290.

4. Ibid., 291.

5. Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

6. “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket,” directed by Karen Thorsen, American Masters (Public Broadcasting Service, 1989),

7. David Brooks, “The Art of Presence,” New York Times, January 21, 2014, 2014/01/21/opinion/brooks-the-art-of-presence.html.

8. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, 292.

Bobby Fong was, until his death in September 2014, president of Ursinus College. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the Council of Independent Colleges’ Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education Chaplaincy Conference, which was held in Chicago, Illinois, on March 29, 2014.

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