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God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America

reviewed by Chris Collins - 2005

coverTitle: God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America
Author(s): Naomi Schaefer Riley
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, New York
ISBN: 0312330456, Pages: 262, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Can an institution of higher education serve both God and the academy?  Can it be both obedient to its religious obligations while open to the demands of free intellectual inquiry?  Perhaps, contrary to common perceptions, the former actually strengthens the latter rather than threatening it.  Naomi Schaefer Riley’s God on the Quad suggests as much.

Not so long ago, in The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdman’s Pub. Co, 1998), James Tunstead Burtchaell offered a damning critique of the ways once-religious colleges and universities had abandoned their religious roots to attain greater status in the secularized academy.  As a result, he explained, there was increasingly little which could distinguish religious colleges on the landscape of American higher education.  Today, Riley sounds a very different note (with certain qualifications), providing a glimpse into a thriving religiosity on many college campuses across the country.  These expressions range from Catholic to Evangelical Protestant and from Mormonism to Orthodox Judaism.  But the reality is not a monolithic one.  Even within each of these traditions, Riley provides a sense of the diversity of approaches to the authentic integration of faith and learning.  To James Burtchaell, those interviewed by Riley might emphatically proclaim, “We’re not dead yet!”

Having visited and interviewed various students, faculty and administrators on twenty different campuses between 2001 and 2002, Riley devotes whole chapters to a handful of them including Brigham Young, Bob Jones, Notre Dame (IN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), Yeshiva, and Baylor.  In the course of these interviews, certain themes emerge to which she devotes later chapters including how these campuses deal with “secular” issues such as feminism, race relations, political activism, sexuality, and religious pluralism.  While this broadening of scope of the book provides insight into how this “missionary generation” attempts to let their faith guide their approach to the challenges of the day, I wonder if this method undermines the unity of the focus on higher education in se.  Having said that, Riley does provide some concrete instances of just how it is that the faith of this new generation is creatively shaping its responses to secular challenges, uniting theory and practice.

In many instances, it is clear that typically modern means are used to deal with these challenges, that is, faith is sometimes simply separated out from these worldly concerns.  More often than not, though, students are given unique tools from within their respective religious traditions to meet head-on and attempt to transform these otherwise threatening influences.  The equal dignity of women and their intellectual competency, for instance, is largely taken for granted at these schools.  Many of them reject “the demands of both radical feminist ideology and the more traditionally conservative views of their religious communities.”  Instead, they seek a “third way” which requires neither conformity to the “androgynous culture of the secular world” nor to the patriarchal assumptions that the woman’s place is strictly in the home (p. 143).  Women graduates of religious colleges today are leading the way in formulating a “new feminism” in which they see themselves as fully equal to men in dignity and at the same time distinctive in their roles at home, in the workplace, and in the public sphere.  

Similarly, in the case of the challenge of secularist versions of multi-culturalism, religious colleges and universities are attempting to reconcile tensions not by enforcing an ideology of difference but by seeking unity amidst diversity in the context of a shared faith.  Administrations, faculty and students seek, with varying degrees of effectiveness, to first and foremost remain true to the coherence of their respective religious confessions and from within this world-view, to find ways of reconciling conflict and overcoming past prejudices.  The aim, grounded in the bible itself, is to have racial diversity understood as part of the beauty of the created order and all the more beautiful in light of the unity of faith which unites such diversity.  

Informing all these areas of concern is a robust sense of responsibility which can only adequately be addressed through the complementarity of faith and learning.  The one makes the other stronger, most believe.  They are not at odds with one another as is too often presumed in the secular academy.  In fact, this presumption of the divorce between faith and reason of many public and secularized private institutions is precisely the reason so many find themselves in these religious institutions.  Rather than face the all too common hostility toward their religious beliefs in secularized schools, students gladly come to these settings wherein they can freely pursue the development of their minds, hearts and souls in an integrated way.  

Riley frames her findings within the remarks made by Tom Wolfe, author of the fictional examination of a decadent American culture, The Bonfire of the Vanities.  At an address at Harvard in 1988, he described the times as an era of “the fifth freedom,” namely the freedom from religion, that last limit on personal liberty  (p. 1).  What Riley proceeds to describe is the rejection of this paradigm, finding, in fact, that increasing numbers of young people are discovering a greater sense of freedom and exercising that freedom from within religious perspectives, all in the context of the pursuit of intellectual excellence.  As it turns out, students are largely seen as having an advantage in their studies thanks to their religious motivations.  Having a sense of purpose within which to understand their studies seems to impel students to work harder and develop more of their potential than their secular counter-parts of similar intellectual capacity at other institutions.  Professors at these institutions repeatedly speak of the benefit of teaching students who are more motivated and engaged in the learning process than their students at other schools.  And test scores are surprisingly high at these religious institutions, in some cases rivaling the most elite universities in the country.  Impressive SAT and ACT scores nullify the accusations leveled by secularists that these students are merely attracted to cocoons which will foster religious simple-mindedness.  The evangelical Christian Wheaton College, for instance, is #11 in the country for producing Ph.D. candidates, far outdistancing colleges of comparable size and over all rank (p. 6).

While all of these institutions struggle with the degree to which they let that broader culture influence their campus life and academic programs, there is a growing consensus that what the secular academic culture has to offer is inadequate. Currently there are over 1.3 million graduates of religious colleges and universities in this country (p. 5).  While many of these institutions have become indistinguishable from their secular counter-parts, those which take seriously the challenge of remaining faithful  their religious traditions while pursuing intellectual excellence are seeing enrollments grow significantly (up 60% between 1990 and 2002).  And they are producing graduates who are changing the landscape of college-educated America.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2462-2465
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11859, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:43:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Chris Collins
    Weston Jesuit School of Theology
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER COLLINS is a graduate student in the Divinity and Licentiate of Sacred Theology program at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. He also has an MA in History from Saint Louis University (2001) and a BA in Philosophy from University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN (1993). His thesis is titled “Marriage as an Icon of Christian Salvation” and he is also interested in popular devotions and religious imagination in American Catholicism, history of Jesuit missions and hagiography.
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