It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus. Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today. Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure. It makes way for reflection and reinvention.
As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society. I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives. I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come. At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?
This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it. Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here. That is a position I have always embraced. But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.
When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.” In its moment, that word was progressive. It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.
But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance. There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence. This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.
So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough. Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs. We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude. But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.
At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions. There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them. We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them. Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion. The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.
So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education. At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work. These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more. Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.
Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.
It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly. But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation. We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true. We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions. Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring. And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.
Peace to you all.