Peer Review

Finding Purpose and Meaning in and out of the Classroom

For the last forty-five years—since before Education and Identity, with its seven vectors of student development, hit the streets in 1969—I have been banging my head and heart against a common mindset in higher education: the total focus on knowing and doing to the neglect of being. Back in the 1960s, the dominant purpose of college was “cultivating the intellect.” AAC&U’s LEAP initiative and its focus on a broad set of essential learning outcomes (ELOs) indicate how far we have come since then. There have been similarly strong strides in our teaching practices, with the inclusion of service learning, internships, and collaborative and problem-based learning. With all this good progress, the “affective domain” (as we used to call it), remains conspicuous by its absence.

For today’s students, dealing with questions of purpose and meaning has become more daunting than it was fifty years ago. Today’s young adults run into a range of lifestyle, belief, and value-system choices far greater than the male-dominated, Christian, and community-based norms that defined our culture in the ’50 and ’60s. No other social institution is as well positioned to help address these issues as our colleges and universities. We, and our students, will only be able to apply AAC&U’s ELOs with the time, energy, and emotion they deserve if these affective challenges are also addressed.

I use “we” and “our students” for two reasons. First, Astin, Astin, and Lindholm’s Cultivating the Spirit documents the high proportion of faculty members still finding themselves addressing questions of purpose and meaning, still pursuing their spiritual quests. So, as educator Parker Palmer writes so eloquently, we all strive for ways to let our lives speak.

Second, these questions remain—usually in the background but sometimes in the foreground—in our adult learners as well as ourselves. This insight struck me powerfully in the 1970s, when I worked with Empire State College students on their individualized degree programs as the institution’s founding academic vice president. As you would expect, their initial responses to “Why are you coming here?” were “I want to get a better job” and “I need a degree to get a promotion or a raise.”

But when we put those immediate concerns in a larger context—“What kind of life do you want to be leading five or ten years from now?”—all those issues of purpose, meaning, identity, integrity, autonomy, and relationships came bubbling up. By assessing their prior learning from work and life experiences—not only managing family affairs, but through complex volunteer activities—these students realized how much they knew and could do. By pursuing purposes they articulated for themselves, they came out prepared to create their own lives.

Of course, I should not have been surprised that these issues concerning purpose and meaning, identity and integrity, interdependence, and interpersonal relationships were as important for our adults as they were for the typical college-age students I had studied. I was experiencing them powerfully myself, as I struggled with the challenges of academic leadership and a six-year weekend marriage, away from my kids. And in different ways, those issues are still here at age 85.

So I continue to urge all my colleagues against neglecting the “affective domain,” even as they focus on prioritizing other essential learning outcomes for the diverse population pursuing higher education for a better life.


Astin, Alexander W., Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm. 2010. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Art Chickering is the special assistant to the president at Goddard College.

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