On Secularity

In a four-college project, professors and chaplains consider how secular frameworks enable -- and limit -- student exploration of "the big questions."
April 23, 2008

When colleges call themselves secular, what, exactly, do they mean?

"One of the things that we’re particularly trying to engage is how it is that the emergence of our secular identity has had unintended consequences," says the Rev. Sam Speers, director of Vassar College's Religious and Spiritual Life Office. Reverend Speers has spearheaded a two-year Teagle Foundation-funded project, “On Secularity and Liberal Education,” involving faculty and chaplains at four liberal arts institutions : Bucknell University, Macalester, Vassar and Williams Colleges.

“For very good reasons, our institutions have distanced themselves either from their founding Protestantism or the central role that Protestantism played in their self-definition. We support that distance. We think that’s an important part of the diversity of voices our institutions are called to understand and engage. But one of the questions we find ourselves bumping up against is, 'Has that distancing privatized religion? Has it separated the religious and spiritual questions that students are asking from the intellectual life of our campuses?' ” asks Reverend Speers.

“The project was really designed to get, broadly speaking, at the question of how do secular assumptions frame the big questions [of meaning, of purpose] that students engage during their college experience? Can we get a handle on that? It’s a hard question to get at.”

The participating institutions are nearing the end of their work, funded by a one-time Teagle grant of just under $100,000 shared across the four campuses, and preparing for a two-day conference at Vassar in November. Each participating college designated three people -- a chaplain and two faculty members -- to participate in the cross-campus working group, which met twice yearly, Reverend Speers says. Campus-specific faculty study groups formed to discuss the issue, and professors conducted qualitative research at each campus. Researchers are now in the process of formally writing up the findings from focus group discussions.

“In terms of the overall impact of secularity on exploration of the big questions, there was a feeling that, in general, secularity was conducive to that, in particular that it was supportive of the liberal arts mission of the institution. There was a feeling that because of our secularity we were more open to a more diverse student population and that we provided greater opportunities for diverse students to explore big questions,” says Joe Murray, an associate professor of education at Bucknell.

At the same time, “to varying degrees, I think on all of the campuses there was some compartmentalization of religion. Students tend to differentiate between realms of campus life in which they could more freely explore their spirituality than others. It did tend to be the more public the realm, [i.e. a classroom as opposed to a conversation with peers] the more hesitancy they tended to feel," Murray says.

“Even though some students would like it to be easier to encounter the big questions in the curriculum and would like there to be less ambivalence and ambiguity about talking about these big things … by and large students were comfortable with secularity as it’s played out at Vassar,” adds Randolph Cornelius, a professor of psychology there.

“The kinds of classrooms where students were encountering discussions of the big questions are the usual suspects, religion and philosophy, but also what I call the mind sciences, cognitive science and psychology,” continues Cornelius (cautioning that, because of non-random and small sample sizes, he can’t say scientifically whether the qualitative research findings are representative of Vassar’s student body, but that his intuition as a long-time faculty member tells him that they are).

“There’s a curriculum in the classroom and there’s a curriculum that happens outside of the classroom and that’s much more informal and unstructured and in some ways up to the students to seek out. The resources are there if students want to go after these big questions,” Cornelius says.

“But the resources are scattered and access is uneven.”

Of the four participating institutions, only Macalester continues to have a church tie -- although it describes itself as nonsectarian in instruction and attitudes, it maintains a connection to the Presbyterian Church. However, Macalester’s chaplain and associate dean for religious and spiritual life, the Rev. Lucy Forster-Smith, says officials there found something in their research that may seem counter-intuitive. “There tends to be almost a hyper-vigilance among students making sure that we are very open toward secularity at Macalester,” she says. “Almost because we still have this religious tie.”

The project has, unsurprisingly, been the focus of some pushback. “Oftentimes our work is perceived by religionists as promoting secularism and by secularists as promoting religion. We get it from both sides. And all we’re really asking for is, let’s look at this ill-defined territory that does affect student engagement and classroom dynamics and let’s see what we really think about it,” says the Rev. Ian Oliver, the chaplain at Bucknell.

Focusing on the classroom dynamics, Bucknell, for instance, offered a faculty workshop last fall addressing questions and real-world scenarios. Are there cases, for instance, in which it's appropriate to discuss a religious viewpoint in the classroom, in your discipline or any other? Or, if a student raised to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible shows up at office hours trying to reconcile evolution with his or her religious beliefs, and is asking you what your views are, what do you, the professor, say?

When religious content comes up, “Every classroom has very different rules and those rules aren’t written down anywhere,” Reverend Oliver says. “What I describe it as is approaching a boundary or a limit and as you get closer you begin to feel like you're treading into more and more difficult territory because people don’t know what kinds of responses they’re going to get."

“Those are moments,” he says, “when people pay attention.”


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