What should a properly educated college graduate of the early 21st century know?
A Harvard curriculum committee proposed an answer to that question this month, stating that, among other things, such a graduate should know “the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events — personal, cultural, national, or international.”
To that end, the committee recommended that every Harvard student be required, as part of his or her general education, to take one course in an area that the committee styled “Reason and Faith.”
Whether that becomes policy remains to be seen, but the significance of the recommendation should not be understated. Harvard is the drum major of American higher education: Where it leads, others follow. And if Harvard says taking a course in religion is necessary to be an educated person, it’s a good bet that many other colleges and universities will soon make the same discovery. We hope they will.
The Harvard committee rightly noted that students coming to college today struggle with an academy that is “profoundly secular.” This was not always the case, at Harvard or at many other universities. For centuries scholars, scientists and artists agreed that convictions of faith were wholly compatible with the highest levels of reasoning, inquiry and creativity. But in recent centuries this assumption had been challenged and assertions of faith marginalized in, and even banished from, academic departments and university curricula. Requiring courses in “Reason and Faith” would be a welcome step toward reintroducing faith to the academy.
What should be the content of such courses? The Harvard committee hastens to explain that its proposal is not for “religious apologetics.” Rather, the courses it envisions would offer an examination of “the interplay between religion and various aspects of national and/or international culture and society.” They would deal not so much with the relationship between reason and faith as with reasoning about faith, religion and religious institutions and their impact in the world.
Such courses are unquestionably needed. We are in an era in which misunderstanding, conflict and turbulence characterize our interaction with the Islamic world. Debates continue about the teaching of evolution. And religious beliefs play an important role in disputes over stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
At the same time, religious communities in this country are important centers for personal and communal religious growth as well as for strengthening social cohesion and civic culture and for providing a variety of community services, particularly to the needy. Today’s students must understand religious beliefs and institutions if they are to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities the future will present.
But universities can do more than just familiarize students with the world’s religions in survey-course fashion. The rise of religious fanaticism stems in part from a failure of intellectuals within various religious traditions to engage the faithful of their traditions in serious and reasoned reflection, inquiry and dialogue. The marginalization of faith within universities contributes to this failure.
A recent survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 79 percent of college freshmen believe in God, and 69 percent pray and find strength, support and guidance in their religious beliefs. Religion will remain a powerful force in the personal lives of these students long after they graduate. If faith is shunned by the institutions whose role it is to foster reason and the life of the mind, if universities do not equip students to integrate their faith with the knowledge and reasoning skills they acquire, we shouldn’t be surprised if unreasonable or fanatical forces gain influence in communities of faith.
It’s time for universities to explore the reasoning that is possible within a tradition of faith, and to help their students appreciate this possibility and the rich resources in great religious traditions. Such efforts would enhance the ability of those with faith to engage in thoughtful, reasoned and self-critical spiritual reflection.
At the University of Notre Dame and other academically rigorous religious colleges and universities, we strive to make room for such scholarly inquiry and discussion. We work to create classes that will convey the intellectual riches of a religious tradition and help students engage in reasoned reflection from within the perspective of faith.
This approach, too, has legitimacy within a core curriculum. Indeed, educating students on the reasoning inherent in particular faiths is critical if we want students to be able to understand and engage their own and other religious traditions in meaningful ways.
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. Our even greater hope is that some universities will join us in promoting a dialogue that truly explores the relationship between faith and reason.
_The Rev. John I. Jenkins is president of the University of Notre Dame. Thomas Burish is the university’s provost.