Editorial: Appreciating religion at a secular college

Posted by the Editorial Board

In the latest edition of The Princeton Review, Skidmore is listed 19 of the top 20 schools with the "least religious students." Clarifying this description, the subtitle of the list playfully states that the attendants of schools such as Skidmore "ignore God on a regular basis."

Hyperbole aside, do we recognize this as an accurate picture of our campus in our daily lives here at Skidmore?

Though we are certainly not a college that seeks to marginalize its religious population, Skidmore does possess a noticeably quieter presence of any religious impulse than many other American liberal arts colleges.

As far as academics are concerned, Skidmore does not demand the grounding in philosophy and theology required at, say, a Jesuit school such as Boston College or Fordham University. We are a non-sectarian institution, which thereby generally allows for a more overtly secular curriculum.

Beyond academics, this aspect of Skidmore seems to place religion in a secure but quiet, - and, to some, invisible - spot within our campus culture. The Wilson Chapel, for example, is certainly there, but hosts just as many musical and community events as explicitly religious services, if not more. Our commitment to pluralism and diversity is more than institutional and seems to characterize our clubs from the bottom up; even the college gospel choir is non-denominational.

The liberal arts curriculum, of course, finds its history and origin in the religious tradition of the West, and Skidmore College itself was founded and originally run by deeply devout Christian educators. We might, then, ask the question: having grown into a school that attracts and sustains the interest of chiefly secularized young Americans, are we diluting, or drifting from, any elements of the liberal arts experience?

This is not to ask whether our College should cater toward a different demographic or embark on a divinizing mission. The issue is more pedagogical, and might be best illustrated through an example.

Last year, studying abroad in Paris, a group of Skidmore students took a course on the work of English poet John Donne. Far away from Skidmore's soil, our peers were expected to have background knowledge of the deep cultural and historical roots of Donne's devotional poetry - but our distance from such ideas was immediately apparent. The class simply did not have any strong consciousness either of the Bible or the history of Western Christianity that is required to understand not only Donne, but other giants such as Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare.

In this way one of Skidmore's premier courses of study, English, can be limited by our unfamiliarity and lack of exposure to the overwhelming influence of religion and faith on the human mind and heart. That group of students in Paris did not discover this until they had left campus - but we might find a way to address this disconnect without sending our peers abroad.

Perhaps the grounding in theology and history of tradition offered at, say, Jesuit schools has less to do with inculcating faith and much more to do with providing a common point of cultural and scholarly reference, in the form of religious texts. Our status as a secular school makes such a point of reference no less desirable, as the example above illustrates.

As a school striving to foster and account for rich diversity, we understandably shy away from "canonizing" any particular set of texts; but it was only a few years ago that the English department offered a course titled "Evolving Canon." This was not a way to exclude certain cultures and customs, either academically or socially, but a way to teach the texts and traditions that underpin central aspects or our curriculum, whether in literature, philosophy, anthropology or sociology.

Following this train of thought - whether discussing our curriculum or simply creating a more open space for religious observance - would be a way to ensure that we can be proud of our own identity as a secular and diverse school, while making sure we are not missing out on any element of the liberal arts tradition.

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