See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

4. Terms of Devotion

Photo: Shepard Sherbell

Religion in the College Curriculum

In October 2006, a panel of scholars at Harvard University charged with rethinking the undergraduate curriculum suggested adding a mandatory course in the area of “Reason and Faith.” The news provoked a passionate debate. A Catholic newspaper trumpeted the headline, “Academy Rediscovers Religion,” and suggested, “Where Harvard goes, lesser institutions will follow.” University of Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins and provost Thomas Burish applauded the recommendation in a Washington Post op-ed, saying, “We hope that the report of Harvard’s curriculum committee signals a more welcome atmosphere within the academic community for serious consideration of and engagement with issues of faith, religion and religious institutions.”

Others were less in favor. An editorial by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in the student paper The Crimson opined, “Universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.”

At a time when religion lies at the center of many contemporary debates, from international conflicts to stem-cell research, it is not surprising that the debates extend to the college curriculum.

The question of whether religion ought to be taught in college classrooms comes at a time when renewed attention is being paid to the “holistic” development of college students.

For Professor Larry Braskamp at Loyola University, this means attending to the religious and spiritual development of students as well as their intellectual development. “Some scholars view the time in college as one where students primarily focus on moving toward self-authorship,” Braskamp says. “I like to think of student development in terms of investment – students investing their time, talents and energy into activities that they find meaningful to them.”

One way in which this holism can be addressed is by creating environments conducive to asking “Big Questions” – that is, where students feel comfortable in the classroom asking questions on a variety of issues, from questions of racial, gender and sexual identity to moral and value-centered ones.

Some scholars think Big Questions deserve even more space in the academy. The Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life, a call to action compiled by a group of 25 scholars from various universities and disciplines across the country, calls for colleges and universities to rethink the role of religion on campus and in the curriculum and provide students with “religious literacy” in their education – and not only in religious studies. “Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines – sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences – and the professions,” the declaration states.

In a recent editorial in the New York Times, religion and humanities professor Mark C. Taylor describes the dangers professors can encounter when their lesson plans clash with students’ religious beliefs. He advises, “Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life.

“The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices – though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line – but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.”

Part of the issue is that there is a considerable difference between faculty and student perspectives as to what ought to be accomplished during class time. A national survey conducted by Barbara Walvoord at both secular and religious colleges reveals “a great divide” between professors’ and students’ ideals. While 92% of faculty surveyed at secular colleges said that the goal to “develop critical thinking” was “essential” or “important,” only 59% of students surveyed at the same colleges agreed. And though a mere 8% of faculty said that it was important or essential to “develop students’ own religious beliefs,” 51% of students at secular schools held that goal to be important.

Another issue is that some faculty may be uncomfortable, ill equipped, or simply unwilling to broach religious topics in a classroom setting. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, W. Robert Connor hypothesizes that some instructors worry they are not “experts” in the field. Another problem is that engaging with Big Questions is not on the agenda of many professors.

“Senior colleagues don’t encourage it; professional journals don’t publish it; deans don’t reward it and a half dozen disgruntled students might sink your tenure case with their teaching evaluations,” Connor points out. “You learn early on in an academic career not to touch the third rail. If this is right, do we need to rewire the whole system of academia?”

At Harvard, there seems to have been some attempt at a little rewiring. The university’s final report on the undergraduate curriculum replaced the initial recommendation for the “Reason and Faith” category with a new subject area, “Culture and Belief,” a decision that appeared to mollify some and anger others.  

“Harvard is a secular institution,” the report states, “but religion is an important part of our students’ lives. When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy. It is also important for students to have the opportunity to learn something about the impact that religious belief and practice has on the world, as well as on themselves.”

Further Reading:

Braskamp, L. A. Forthcoming. “The Religious and Spiritual Journey of College Students.” In The American University in a Postsecular Age: Religion and Higher Education, edited by D. Jacobsen and R. H. Jacobsen. New York: Oxford University Press.

Braskamp, L. A. and L. Trautvetter, et al. 2006. Putting Students First: How to Develop Students Purposefully. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Chickering, A. W. and J. C. Dalton, et al. 2005. Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Jablonski, M., ed. 2001. Implications of Student Spirituality for Student Affairs Practice: New Directions for Student Services, No. 95. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jacobsen, D. and R. H. Jacobsen, eds. Forthcoming. The American University in a Postsecular Age: Religion and Higher Education. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kuh, G. D. and R. M. Gonyea. 2006. “Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement.” Liberal Education 92(1): 40-47.

Marsden, G. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nash, R. J. 2001. Religious Pluralism in the Academy: Opening the Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.

Sommerville, C. J. 2006. The Decline of the Secular University: Why the Academy Needs Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sterk, A., ed. 2002. “Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Prospects." Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.


Taylor, M. C. 2006. “The Devoted Student.” The New York Times 21 December 2006, late ed., sec. A: 39.