Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Look at Religious Colleges

Author Naomi Schaefer Riley recently published a book titled God on the Quad which surveys religiously affiliated universities in the United States. She was interviewed by National Public Radio.
Q: What do you think is driving the growth of this missionary generation?

I think there are a couple of factors. First, I don’t think you can discount the fact that strongly religious students are often not treated very well at secular universities. From the Orthodox Jews who sued Yale a few years ago because they didn’t want to have to live with half-naked members of the opposite sex running around the dorm, to Christian groups that are censured for not allowing homosexuals to lead their organizations, secular campus life is often not conducive to leading a religious life. And then there are the professors who regularly mock religious views in the classroom.

But I think there are some positive factors at work here as well. First, a lot of evangelical colleges have become much more intellectually rigorous in recent years.

Second, I think a lot of students are really longing for a greater discussion of religious and spiritual issues in college. A recent UCLA survey on spirituality in higher education found 75 percent of undergraduates were “searching for meaning or purpose in life,” while 78 percent discuss religion and spirituality with their friends. But only 8 percent of the students in the same survey reported that their professors frequently encourage classroom discussion of religious or spiritual matters or provide opportunities to discuss the purpose or meaning of life.

Third, of course, the greatest religious growth in this country has been from the faiths that demand the most of their members, and religious colleges are catering to that group.

Q: How different are these schools from the secular ones?

I think the whole understanding of the purpose of higher education is different at religious colleges. Our culture enforces the idea that college is a time for rebellion, and that students are supposed to spend their time protesting or experimenting in behaviors their parents wouldn’t approve of. At religious colleges, students by and large seem to think their parents brought them up pretty well, and they’re in college because God wants them to develop their intellect.

I also wondered about the intellectual rigor of these schools. If religion comes into the classroom, doesn’t it water down the curriculum? I actually found that between the added motivation that religion provided these kids (God wants me to do my chemistry homework) and the richness that talk of faith and the meaning of life added to discussions of, say, literature, I thought these students were getting the kind of holistic education that most schools (religious and secular) say they’re aiming for.
Those who want Marquette to become even more secular (and it’s become very secular already) need to be reminded that schools with a genuine religious mission not only succeed intellectually, they also succeed in the competition for students. As Schaefer observes:
I noticed was that the students at these schools were very bright and they were turning down good, well-known — sometimes Ivy League — schools to attend these instead. . . . Evangelical college enrollment grew 60 percent between 1990 and 2002, while enrollment at other private and public schools remained stagnant.
Unfortunately, quite a large contingent of faculty and administrators doesn’t in fact want the University to be religious.


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