Symposium Focuses On The Role Of Religion In Higher Education

By Jennifer Heine

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013

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Emily Fahey / Heights Staff

As a Catholic institution preparing students for a largely secular word, Boston College often finds itself conflicted.

In celebration of BC’s sesquicentennial, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted a symposium this weekend to celebrate and explore the intersection of religion and secularism at the heart of BC’s educational model. Titled “Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education,” the conference drew speakers from a variety of religious and educational backgrounds from a host of colleges and universities to address the unique opportunities and challenges inherent in a faith-based education.

These challenges spoke directly to BC students and faculty. In the opening keynote address, Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, broadly praised the manner in which BC has straddled that line. “They have carefully set a course of middle ground,” he said. “The key to addressing this middle course is a wonderful partnership between clerical and lay leadership.

“Catholics and non-Catholics alike are attracted to such communities,” Hatch said. “A place like Boston College can readily serve as a crossroads.”
For the presenters, liberal arts and religious tradition are inextricably linked.

“Liberal arts education is so much a part of our cultural identity,” said University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. “We at BC believe that cultural identity seeks to integrate faith and culture.”
Several presenters seconded his assessment. Just as religious education seeks to mold the individual, as Nicolas Wolterstorff noted in his panel discussion, so do the liberal arts. “Students should find themselves awestruck,” he said. “They should also be horrified at what human beings have done to one another. If my students emerge never being awed, I will not have been successful.”
Jane McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr, expressed a similar sentiment. “We continue to raise our voices for liberal arts as a tool for human flourishing,” she said.

Yet they acknowledged the problems that necessarily arise from the blending of a religious tradition with a secular one. As Wolterstorff observed, even fields seemingly unconnected with religion can reflect the faith-based traditions of the institutions in which they are practiced. “We all have a certain formation,” he said. “We all view the world in certain ways. It shapes how you go about things.”
In some cases, these scholars found that their religious traditions colored perceptions of their institutions’ scholarship. “There is a tinge of skepticism in the broader academic world that you can be a religious institution and a serious research institution,” said Notre Dame president John J. Jenkins. “In the ratings game, it does not help to be religious.”
Another problem arises in the degree of religiosity within these institutions. For universities seeking to occupy a middle course, as Hatch argued BC has done, the school must choose carefully the degree to which it will express its religious identity. “The question then becomes, for a school like Boston College, which dimensions of our identity are we going to robustly actualize, and which are we going to save for another conversation?” asked Interfaith Youth Core president Eboo Patel. “The conflict between particularity and pluralism is something we need to focus on.”
Despite these challenges, most panelists concluded that religion fills a vital role in the modern educational system. In one sense, it offers a new perspective within the liberal arts curriculum. “If race, class, gender, and sexual identity are important identities, lenses through which you can view art and literature, then why not religion?” Patel said. “It’s not faith as a barrier, but faith as a bridge.”
Others argued that religion offers a unique identity to higher education. “There are tremendous pressures, but I continue to believe that religious institutions have a unique vision and can be a source of great vitality,” Jenkins said.

Ultimately, the conference reaffirmed the values and goals of faith-based higher education. “We can say that this conference is a celebration of Boston College’s history as well as a call for all the speakers to join us, to reflect on our mission and on the years ahead,” said Boisi Associate Director Erik Owens in his welcoming address. “I invite all of you to join this process.”
Presenters emphasized that his process can begin here and now. “If this is a community called to light the world, as I believe it is, let it begin in these halls,” Hatch said in his address. “Inspire a generation of students to lead lives that matter.”

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