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2013 Spring Issue 5 (May 10, 2013)

“Secularizing the Liberal Arts”: A Dialogue on Finding Meaning in Carleton’s Curriculum

May 11, 2013
By Tenzin Youdon Lendey

On Monday, May 6, 14 students and 12 faculty and staff members convened in the Weitz Center for a day-long conference entitled “Reconceiving the Secular Liberal Arts.” The conference was sponsored by the Teagle Foundation, a foundation that strives to be an influential national voice and a catalyst for change in higher education by improving undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences.

“Reconceiving the Secular Liberal Arts” is part of a larger national conversation taking place in the academy of how to incorporate faith-driven discussion in liberal arts classrooms of today.

Two facilitators from Vassar College led a collaborative dialogue between Carleton students, staff, and faculty about the lack of a classroom and campus environment conducive to developing reflections related to faith, spirituality, and meaning. They were Sam Speers, the Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar, and Jonathan Kahn, Professor of Religion at Vassar.

Since about a hundred years ago, a secularization thesis developed, positing that as societies became more modern, they would become less religious. A corollary of this is that the more religious one is, the less modern as well. This, however, did not occur. While institutions of higher education orient themselves around this thesis and build the framework of education based on secular ideals, religion has continued to play a significant role in students’ lives on college campuses. In practice, though, of higher education insitutions has not caught up with scholarship that emphasizes the importance of faith in developing students both academically and spiritually. Carleton is no exception.

In a community that prides itself on its acceptance, tolerance, and openness, there have been multiple accounts of intolerance and discrimination towards those with religious beliefs. While Carleton’s community is overall very inclusive, it is not as inclusive as it could be.

In the most recent Campus Climate Survey, the groups on campus with the lowest scores were: Christians, political conservatives, and people of color. Christians had low scores not only because of how Christian students perceived themselves, but also because of how their peers perceived them.

“Not every staff member [at Carleton] understands that there are religious students on campus,” stated Carolyn Fure-Slocum, Carleton’s Chaplain. Indeed, a widespread belief on campus is that most Carleton students are not religious. However, there are indications that many students are religious, though not in conventional terms. For example, a vast majority of Carleton students report that their central purpose of attending college is to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Also, more than 60% of incoming freshmen at the college list themselves as practicing a faith. More evidence is found in various student groups that tackle issues of complexity, meaning, purpose, and morality. EthiC is a group on campus that strives to engage people in questions of ethics, things from whether or not it is moral to eat meat or if healthcare is a human right. Plato’s Cave was recently started by students in order to address philosophical questions and values. The group met twice to ask questions like: “What is your obligation to humanity?” and “Are you valuable for who you are or what you do?” IDEA (Intrepid Discussions for Enlightened Adventures) meets weekly to discuss topics like globalization, robots, and love stories. Student leader Rachel Levit-Ades ‘13 notes that although the topics start out very concrete and specific, discussions often end up addressing deep philosophical questions such as, “What constitutes being human?” and “Are we alone in the universe?”

The first roundtable was centered on student reflections, addressing the question of what aspects of personal identity are withheld from the classroom. A distinction was made between what parts of oneself one suppresses versus what parts of onseself one simply chooses not to share. Students shared uncomfortable experiences exposing their religious identities on campus. One student reported that someone remarked to her: “I thought you were intelligent until you mentioned God.” Another student shared how in the sciences, there is a general bias against religious convictions like God or the Bible as the word of truth. To illustrate, the student shared a remark from their friend: “I’m a scientist, so I don’t believe in God.” The conference addressed these very same clashes between academics and religion to understand ways in which faith was not being incorporated into the academic and campus curriculum in ways that it could be in the future.

Whereas students may feel expected to leave their religious beliefs upon entering a classroom, the same is not as true for other aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity, or gender. This is mainly because religious beliefs are not fixed like other characteristics of our identity. We choose to adopt religious values and beliefs. Students at the conference shared experiences in which they had to defend or struggle with their religious beliefs in classes like Evolution and Environmental Ethics. “Religion is a term that is seen as exclusive, not inclusive,” one student stated. “It may be a huge part of our intellectual identities, yet, religion is often seen as opposed to intellectualism.” Many students noted how there is not as much openness to religion on Carleton’s campus as there could be.

The second part of the conference centered around faculty reflections about what their expectations of students were inside the classroom, especially in relation to conversation about spirituality. Louis Newman, director of the Perlman Learning and Teaching Center emphasized the power of imagination in discussion about religion. “It’s about empathy, it’s about humility. In the classroom you have to be open to others’ convictions and how they can be just as valid as someone else’s convictions.”

The last part of the conference addressed what could be done to address various worries and doubts about the resources needed in order to foster conversations relating to meaning in life. Kaaren Williamson, Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton reflected on her own experiences as an undergraduate with religious beliefs. She attended Gustavus Adolphus College in MN. “There was a language that people could use when a crisis happened” she recounts from her experiences at Gustavus. “The environment was open to religion, which is not so much the case at Carleton.” Williamson noted how Carleton has a culture of privatizing religion and even though the institution is overall open to all faiths, the religious pluralism does not necessarily lead to more religious understanding.

Various individuals brought up the fact that resources to address philosophical questions about finding purpose in life are available on campus. These resources include but are not limited to: Interfaith Social Action, a student group that operates on a faith-based lens in order to tackle social justice issues in Northfield; the “What Matters to Me and Why” talks which promote reflections by faculty and staff about how they find meaning in their work and life, the Chapel which offers spiritual programming and events to respond to spiritual needs on campus. Various fellowships are available for students to do meaningful community work or to conduct independent research on ethical matters. Participants discussed how it was more important to tap into already-existing groups and networks, by empowering students to engage more with them, instead of creating more groups and initiatives.

The group ended on the note that a liberal arts education, while secular in its curriculum, has faith and spirituality in its roots. Carleton’s own mission statement is formed of spiritual values: “Carleton develops qualities of mind and character that prepare its graduates to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges.” The conference participants want to continue the conversation at Carleton, starting by widening the circle of people who engage with the topic.

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