It is worthwhile to pause and ask why so many educators are committed to the suspension of religious identity in the classroom. After all, educators ordinarily encourage their students to bring to their studies a deep engagement with the material—that is, to bring their perspectives, experiences, commitments, and passions to the topics and issues at hand. But what about students’ religious commitments and perspectives? Why are these seen as a special case? Why ask students to bracket off religious beliefs from the stock of all their other beliefs, especially given the epistemological and psychological implausibility of achieving such bracketing? To some extent, students can express their religious perspectives by other means, including covert ones. Yet from an educational point of view, do we want our students to suppress the actual reasons (in this case, the religious reasons) that tacitly support their perspectives in the classroom? Can we justify placing this particular burden on students with religious perspectives?
Secularity and the liberal arts
Just as it is helpful for universities to think through constitutional aspects of federalism within the context of university governance, it can also be instructive for universities to follow a constitutional approach to secularism within a multifaith university environment. Contrary to popular opinion, the First Amendment does not mandate a “wall of separation” between religion and the state but, rather, prohibits the state from establishing or endorsing one religious tradition over another. According to First Amendment jurisprudence, it is possible for the state to engage with religion in a non-preferential, non-proselytizing capacity and still be considered “secular” in a constitutional context.
For once, practice actually lags behind theory. In their very interesting post on “Reconceiving the secular and the practice of the liberal arts,” Kahn, MacDonald, Oliver, and Speers find that the concerted academic revaluation of secularization and secularism has not trickled down to relatively elite private liberal arts colleges. In their account, these institutions remain committed, both explicitly and implicitly, to some version of a distinction between the secular and the religious: religious belief is fine, but it has no place in the classroom. This distinction, of course, is designed to protect the kinds of things that academic institutions hold dear: critical thought, intellectual freedom, tolerance, diversity. But, the authors wonder, might “uncritical assumptions about the secular” actually make these things harder, by “stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identities—in particular, their religious identities”?
The problem as I see it is not that students in the liberal arts are somehow forbidden to argue their religious views but that, whether they are religious or secular, they do not get sufficient exposure to religious texts. These texts contain many strange and interesting things—often surprising to religious and unreligious students alike. They uncover possibilities of being human. But in order for these possibilities to emerge, they need to be approached in a secular spirit. That is, their specifically theological language needs to be translated into a conceptual language through which people can imagine a given possibility without a prior or subsequent adherence to it as the absolute truth.
Three cheers for Kahn et al., on the occasion of their bold ride into the heart of liberal arts territory, where they will wrest the definition of secular away from religion-banishing secularists and invite all voices, including theological ones, to a free-wheeling conversation about the nature of liberal arts education. Pointing to the collapse of the secularization thesis and the agreement of diverse philosophers that a secular space “scrubbed free of religion” is impossible, Kahn et al. believe not only that they will accomplish their purposes, but that the time is ripe for a truly inclusive conversation about the liberal arts. I applaud their optimism and respect their daring, but I caution Kahn to keep his riders together and enter only those colleges that invite them. Not all colleges ripen for difficult conversations at the same pace, and in many the inhabitants carry out their business oblivious to postmodern philosophical convergences or to the crumbling of secularization theory.
By insisting that this is all there is, the secularist position forecloses the emergence of anything other than this. Since people are violent, we must manage violence with violence as responsibly as possible—any other option is just foolish. What troubles me is that by sticking to what is probable and practical, secularism misses that which from our perspective seems impossible—say, peace, justice, compassion for all sentient beings, swords into plowshares…. These sorts of promises, it seems to me, are only held by something like transcendence—even if only the possibility of transcendence—the possibility that things might genuinely be otherwise.
Between 2006-2009, with the support of the Teagle Foundation, four self-identifying secular liberal arts campuses—Bucknell University and Macalester, Vassar, and Williams Colleges—engaged in a project, “Secularity and the Liberal Arts,” that tried to get at the purpose and nature of liberal arts education by asking what it means for a liberal arts campus to unabashedly call its practices “secular.” Is there a way, we wondered, that by spending some time thinking critically and honestly about this crucial term—one that ostensibly governs our practices—we might get a better handle on the nature of liberal arts education?