I recently returned from an almost weeklong college visiting tour with my seventeen-year-old daughter, who is currently a high school junior. Our tour took us from our home in Maine to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York.
If this blog were about liberal arts colleges in the northeast and the journey of touring and attending information sessions, I would have to break up my observations into several blog entries. We had an exhausting, but utterly fascinating, trip.
But, this blog is about religion and faith and the attempt to discover some “hope in the wilderness,” where Christianity seems to be slipping away. It seems to have slipped away on many liberal arts campuses in the northeast. Where college chapels exist in some kind of building form on campus, these chapels seem mostly like vestigial organs, casually pointed to during the admissions tour like some kind of artifact to be viewed but not touched, and sometimes not mentioned at all. Although most of them still offer some form of religious services (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.), they appear to be more useful in non-religious ways, probably to justify keeping them heated through long winters.
Initially, this didn’t cause concern for me during our touring. In my own experience, many years ago, I found that attending to my spiritual life on campus was not meaningful to me. Fortunately, I found a group of students that attended a local church, where I found a caring community, with a much, much wider range of ages, etc.
So, it’s not worrisome on the surface, that college campuses don’t seem to have much in the way of religious life going on. And, truth be told, I suspect it is not what my daughter will be looking for anyway. She attends church, mostly without complaint, about two to three Sundays each month, but I know that the church experience does not speak to her like it spoke to me—at least not at this point in her life.
But, I am increasingly concerned with religious familiarity and literacy among younger people. My husband, who teaches at the college level, often comments that most of his students have no knowledge of even the very basics of major religions. When so few young people have any attachment to the practice of religion, even tangentially through friends and parents, waves of ignorance follow. Since religion is not only a powerful experience for so many of the world’s people and has been a major influence in the very structure of government and society in the United States, religious illiteracy is a real problem.
In his column in last Sunday’s New York Times, Nick Kristof noted—as he has in the past—that religious illiteracy runs deep in the U.S.—even among those who claim to practice a religion, especially Christianity.
College chapels, then, should be one of those places that actively strives to engage young people in learning not only about religions in an intellectual way—although that would be a good start, as in encouraging a world religions course in distribution requirements—but also to help young people understand and appreciate religious practice. This is not about proselytizing, but about sharing important aspects of how many of the world’s peoples live, where religion is lived out and practiced. Without such knowledge, an appreciation of culture and society—including the culture and society of many communities right here in the United States—is stunted.
Religious practice is not just for the unenlightened. For many people, religious practice is what offers meaning and purpose; it provides a foundation for how one understands the world and one’s place—and the place of others—in it. To be ignorant of this—or worse, to actively consider it not worthy of study or learning—is—and I don’t think this is hyperbole—dangerous.
Many of the small, “highly selective,” liberal arts colleges in the northeast—at least all of those we visited—proudly declare that they are training the very best leaders of the future. Yet, those leaders are lacking important knowledge of how many people in this world live, and what motivates them—in good and bad ways. What kind of “global” leader can one be without knowing some of the basics of why many of the world’s peoples do what they do and why?