A revised curriculum at Harvard may include a required course in religion, as Jim Downey has brought to my attention. There isn’t enough information in the article to decide how to regard this decision, though; I don’t object automatically to requiring college kids to learn to think critically about religion, and I would hope that a course at Harvard wouldn’t be anything like a tutorial in Jebus-praising at Pensacola Christian College, but who knows? The summary is impossibly vague.
“I think 30 years ago,” when the school’s curriculum was last overhauled, “people would have said that religion is not something that everyone needs to know,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard professor and co-chairman of the committee that drafted the report. “But today, few would disagree that religion is supremely important to modern life.”
In the same way that knowledge of cholera and dysentery would be supremely important to a 19th century city dweller? It sounds like any of a number of courses would fit the requirement of discussing “the interplay between reason and faith“, so it doesn’t sound like much of a change to me…except, of course, that it would be treated as a PR coup by the religious.
t wld crtnly b ncnstttnl fr pblc nstttn, whch Hrvrd s nt, t prmt rlgn…t wld ls b ncnstttnl t dngrt t wtht pprtnty fr rbttl.
S t rlly dpnds n f ny pblc fndng s nvlvd.
thr thn tht, m sr tht Hrvrd n nt cncrnd wth wht PZ thnks.
In the same way that knowledge of cholera and dysentery would be supremely important to a 19th century city dweller?
Or perhaps the knowledge of the impact of atheism on political systems would be supremely important to early twentieth-century citizens of Germany and Russia?
Uhg. Atheism had no impact on those societies. Fascism did. Nice try.
I think it’s a great idea – as long as the course textbooks are Daniel Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’ and Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’.
Mixed feelings for me, too–one of the best classes I ever had was Bible as Lit (which is pretty much how I viewed the Bible from age nine on). Certainly biblical literacy is important to understanding many symbolic references in western literature and music (particularly Bach, Beethoven, Schubert), and it really gets my chimp when people insist that the Little Drummer Boy is in the Gospels, for example. (Why do so many Christians come to me for answers about the Bible? Shouldn’t they know this stuff? I was known as “the brain” in Bible class–and I was the atheist in Bible class!)
However, I’m not sure about classes like “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t [listed in Washington Post article, which is longer and more detailed than the one in WSJ].” First of all, that’s a gross generalization, obviously; second, it sounds like it could be a group back-slap against them Yorupeans.
Alon Levy says
It’s far less pernicious than you think it is. In the 1950s and 60s, universities should have required students to learn about communism and see the entire range of views from Hayek to Keynes to Marx. It’s the same here: every educated person should know what Islamism is and how it works, what Dominionism is and how it works, how Buddhism has shaped various political movements in Asia, and so on.
Alon Levy says
Kristine, this course doesn’t look like Europe-bashing. The course description says, “This course examines the divergences in religiosity between the United States and Europe. The course is intended for students interested in the sociology of religion. It presumes some knowledge of regressions and other simple forms of data analysis.”
To see it in greater detail I need to be logged in, which is a problem since I’m not a Harvard student or faculty member. But if anyone here is, could you please click the above link, then scroll down to Social Studies 98ic and click that link, and copy-and-paste any other course information, like a longer description or a reading list?
Copied from http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=514669:
The so-called “Reason and Faith” requirement emerged early in the discussions that led to the new report, said Bass Professor of English Literature Louis Menand, one of the chairs of the six-professor committee that drafted the proposals this summer.
“Religion turns out to be an enormously important phenomenon in the world, which 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t think we had to deal with,” Menand said.
While the Reason and Faith category is unlike anything that Harvard mandates today–marking a clear break from the more philosophical focus of most present-day Moral Reasoning offerings–the report notes that the course catalogue already includes many options that would fulfill the new requirement.
For example, Social Studies 98ic, “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t,” and Human Evolutionary Biology 1355, “Darwin Seminar: Evolution and Religion,” would both satisfy the Reason and Faith requirement, according to the report.
But the proposed Reason and Faith requirement, which appears likely to emerge as a defining characteristic of today’s report, might never make it into the Student Handbook.
It’s “the most vulnerable” component of the proposal, said Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons, the other co-chair of the group that produced the report.
Let them have their cake.
The Ridger says
I wish people who believed that the Third Reich was atheistic would study some history (or is that out of bounds?). There are firmer grounds for calling the USSR atheistic, though religion was never completely banned and especially during WWII it was exploited nicely – but then Communism filled the religion gap nicely. It’s not that hard to see how “My stroim komunizm! – We are building communism!” and its attendent sacrifice of the present for the nebulous, fantastic, and perfect future (read heaven) and kult lichnosti (the cult of the personality, ie Stalin (read Jesus)) played on the exact same longings of the people. Soviets may or may not have been Christians, but they weren’t atheists – not really.
John Remy says
Speaking as a former believer, taking classes on religion from a critical, scholarly approach was a watershed experience in my life. Many of my fellow students didn’t abandon their faith the way that I did, but instead tempered and nuanced their beliefs and grew in tolerance of others.
I suppose it’s possible that some grew more entrenched in response, but as long as the course is prepared with some degree of academic integrity, it would probably provide a valuable, eye-opening experience for many students.
Rosie Redfield says
Let’s be thankful that they’re also going to require two science courses.
A complete waste of a thousand dollars, honestly!
I thought it was only the state colleges that forced curriculums down people’s throats? Now I know why I got my degree at Upstairs Medical College.
But truthfully, it’s my money. I should be able to take whatever classes I want to. Of course there’s the required classes, to say that after spending several years there earning a 4.0 that I cant get my degree till I take a few nonmajor related classes is bullshit.
It’s crap like that which makes me want to go out and get a fake diploma. As far as I’m concerned if I know the material and take all the classes, pass them in spades, then who cares really?
Alon, there is no more information on the course website (following the link you mentioned). Rosie, Harvard already requires (at least) 2 science courses and one course in “Quantitative Reasoning” of all of its undergraduates.
MYOB, you can always go to a for-profit college, and I’m sure they’ll let you take whatever classes you like once you’ve paid tuition. One basic principle of a liberal arts education is that it should result it a broad, not just deep, education.
The course description says, “This course examines the divergences in religiosity between the United States and Europe.
The bottom line difference is that European countries have experience with state religion.
When I was in the Czech Republic last year folks told me (as they puzzled at the fundamentalism of the current US administration) that they had experience with being the home base for two religions over the centuries as well as the communists and their conclusion was that “they’re both the same; they just want to control your life”.
Alon Levy says
QrazyQat, if what you said were true, the most religious country in Europe would be France, which has been officially secular almost as long as the US has been. But in fact, France is among the least religious countries in Europe – in particular, it’s less religious than any non-Scandinavian, non-ex-communist country in Europe.
Then perhaps the difference is that European countries have had greater experience with authoritarianism than the US.
I attended a Lutheran-afflitiated college and took 2 “religion” courses (to fulfill humanities requirements). I’m glad I did; Sunday school never explained the Bible as did the one course (authorship, cultural and historical contexts, etc.) The courses did provide perspective on what some people think and why; that’s usually a good thing to learn. Neither course could have been considered proselytizing.
I think they shouldn’t have many choices if this will be a requirement – the only choice should be comparative religions. Everybody has to learn about all of them. Well, the major ones, at least. That would prevent someone from offering what basically amounts to a catechism class for that credit. Forcing students to see their faith as one alongside many others with just as deep traditions and cultures is exactly the kind of thing higher education should be about – broadening their knowledge.
This will just encourage the religious nuts. They will say:
“See, Harvard makes study of religion a core component of the curriculum, therefore my (silly) notions are worthy of being taken seriously.”
A course on the Bible as fantasy literature. Okay.
The Harvard proposal is just that, a proposal. The course has yet to be shaped and, in any event, needs to voted on by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences before it’s adopted.
Since the end of WWII Harvard has mandated that every undergraduate take courses outside their field of study. From 1945 to about 1975, it was called “general education.” In 1975 they introduced the core curriculum with a different set of requiremens and options. And now their considering a change from that. All, however, are an attempt at addressing the goal of educating the whole person, and premised on the expectation that a student is not educated until they’ve taken and passed some range of courses outside their major. The requirement is known before one applies to Harvard or chooses to matriculate. And given the obvious lack of education in so many of our “educated” population, the practice should be adopted by a few more institutions, especially the public ones. A college is about educating the whole person, not training them for a vocation. And looking at our dear president–who is neither educated nor trained–its clear that even Yale failed miserably in at least one instance. Sadly, he’s all too typical of many, many college graduates, even from the Ivy League.
Alon Levy says
Again, that would be wrong. The most secular European countries, not counting ex-communist ones, are Britain, France, and Sweden, which rank among the countries with the least experience of domestic authoritarianism in the world (and two out of three were also never occupied by Nazi Germany).
Feh. The Bible is bad fantasy. Even Eragon is better than that dreck. As poorly written as Eragon is, it at least has a good moral (i.e, don’t kill people).
First, my impression is that fundamentalism is slowly gaining ground in the UK.
Secondly, neither Britain nor France are historically unacquainted with authoritarianism.
I have no concern about this. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, the literature and philosophy courses included parts of the Bible, and a variety of religious authors such as Aquinas, Anselm, and Kierkegaard. It was all done from an academic perspective. There was no proselytization.
Religion is an important part of western history, philosophy, and culture. There simply is no way to study these without also studying religion. My expectation is that Harvard will handle the subject in no less academic fashion than my alma mater.
Joachim, there is nothing unconstitutional in teaching about religion. That is not at all the same as teaching religion, nor does it tend to encourage its practice. If anything, just the opposite.
Alon Levy says
Slowly, and mostly because of spillover from the United States. Britain is probably exposed to American culture more than any other nation but the US itself and Canada (and Canada has its share of fundamentalism, though the nation as a whole is liberal enough for Dominionism to be thoroughly marginal).
Neither is the US. Britain has about as much experience with authoritarianism as the US – it’s had an unbroken democratic tradition for almost a century longer, but it’s had a greater share of domestic authoritarian movements. France has more experience with authoritarianism than the US, and I think that so does Sweden, but Portugal, Spain, and Italy have even more experience, and their levels of religiosity are far higher than northwestern Europe’s. Similarly, Austria and Germany have about equal levels of experience with authoritarianism, but Germany is substantially more secular.
Actually, the difference between Germany and Austria is the key to explaining levels of religiosity in the entire Western world, but I don’t want to get into it now, largely because I’m in the middle of writing a post about number theory I’ll never finish if I segue into this.
Keith Douglas says
There is a lot of good work in the sociology of religion (though some bogus stuff, too). This might be a good source of material too. And if done right, the “bible as lit” courses can do well, too, especially if the instructor decides to be a little mean and includes the naughty and nasty parts in addition to the parts everyone wants to read. I dare say actually reading all of the bible would put off a lot of people.
“Reverend Lovejoy: Marge, just about everything’s a sin. [holds up a Bible] Y’ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we’re not supposed to go to the bathroom.”
(He’s right, too. I seem to remember a bit about having to go outside the camp to do you know what. Are there any fundies who interpret that to mean one should leave the city to …?)
I hope that you do eventually get into it – I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.
As someone who occasionally teaches classes which students would rather not take, I have to say I find this attitude disconcerting. I find it to be a little too close to the misguided notion that college is a business, where students go to buy degrees or get vocational training.
Universities are judged, in part, by the quality of the students they send out into the world. It is in their interests to set such standards, as a broad education tends to improve the quality of outgoing students. Students who see higher education as nothing more than job training are free to seek out the colleges which cater to that view.
Universities ARE businesses. They sell the opportunity to get a better job – without the rubber stamp of a degree, many positions are hard or even impossible to obtain. They sell the opportunity to learn needed information.
Part of the prices for those benefits is having to waste time taking classes that superficially cover information you have no interest in. We forget most of our schooling because we don’t use it and because we only cared about it in the first place to receive needed grades and course credits. Suggesting that a person is more valuable because they were able to regurgitate redundant information is absurd.
Melissa Barton says
I’ll preface by saying I’m agnostic.
I think it depends greatly on the course itself. I went through three years of religion courses in Catholic high school, and found them very useful. The Bible, certainly, is referenced widely in European-American history and literature, and so the courses provided a useful underpinning for other studies in that respect, but more importantly, we approached the Bible from a scholarly, historical/exegetical standpoint.
Scholarly Christian religion classes are a great antidote to Biblical literalism, because they’re both faith-friendly and not anti-science or anti-reason. At the same time, they provide a richness to historical and literary study, which form core parts of the liberal arts curriculum. And students would presumably have the option to study Buddhism or Islam or Judaism or whatever other classes were offered, which wouldn’t provide quite the same benefits, but which would still be potentially mind-expanding.
My guess is that religion classes at a university like Harvard–like at both small liberal arts classes I attended–wouldn’t be proselytizing, but scholarly, and thus no different from required philosophy, political science, or history courses, all of which carry similar risks to religion classes.
Non-religious liberal arts schools don’t generally hire professors who offer “catechism classes.” And while requiring comparative religion sounds nice, you can’t do anything worthwhile with “all” (=the major world religions) in a semester, or even two. That would be like trying to survey world literature in a semester, or “general science.” I shudder at the thought.
Part of the prices for those benefits is having to waste time taking classes that superficially cover information you have no interest in.
Not exactly. One of the nice things about universities being businesses is that there’s diversity in the market. Don’t like mandatory courses? Go to Brown; they have no requirements beyond what’s required for your major. Want a solid core curriculum? Go to Chicago. Want only a core curriculum? Go to St. John’s College. A whole spectrum of choices is available.
We forget most of our schooling because . . . we only cared about it in the first place to receive needed grades and course credits.
Speak for yourself on that count. I loved the distribution requirements at my undergrad school precisely because they made me think about things other than physics all day. (In fact, they were instrumental in my going to grad school in another field entirely because they helped me realize that I didn’t want to be a physicist, no matter how much I loved physics.)
Suggesting that a person is more valuable because they were able to regurgitate redundant information is absurd.
Well, you and I (and I’d imagine you and most people) have very different views about the whole point of education (especially at the post-secondary level) in general. To each his own, I suppose.
Paul Adams says
Unsure how to feel about this for a few reasons. First off let me say that I think it’s a good thing to study religion from a non-indoctrination angle. I feel quite comfortable arguing against most people about religion thanks chiefly to studying it in high school and while doing Philosophy at university. It’s a bad idea to go into an argument without the facts to back you up, which is why I never get into heated discussions on the specifics of Judaism and certain other religions such as Hinduism – I simply don’t have the specific background on which to base my attack/defence.
On the other hand a lot of people are right in thinking this will be used as a PR coup by the religious. Never mind the fact that it seems to be teaching people to think about religion rather than teching religion per se. Just means it’ll be yet another bogus argument used against us godless heathens.
One thing I don’t get though is why a university has a core course at all. Is this standard across American universities? As far as I’m concerned anything you do at uni should be elective, at least within the confines of your chosen course. The idea of a core subject across all courses seems a little bizarre and should really be the kind of thing that’s covered before that stage of education – high school is supposed to give you all the grounding you need for university. I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of higher education in the US so if I’m just misunderstanding please let me know.
And given the obvious lack of education in so many of our “educated” population, the practice should be adopted by a few more institutions, especially the public ones.
Most of them do. New York requires ten general education areas to be covered, and in addition to that colleges have to prove that they are also instilling critical thinking and basic writing skills. Many of us in higher ed quibble with the specifics because they are so basic that they should have been covered in high school (see thread above about the state of education), but they are there.
I’m firmly in the camp that higher ed should be broad, and students should have to take classes across the range of disciplines. How else do you know that you’re doing what you really want to do if you don’t try them all out? How can you converse with someone outside your discipline if you don’t know what they do?
If you want to really rile people up, we could talk about the schools that have instituted a community service requirement to graduate – SUNY Environmental Service and Forestry school has it for their biology program, some others have it campuswide.
Alon Levy says
Caledonian, I have the explanation up.
Louis XIV is the reason France (except for Islamist fundies) is mostly a-religious. His Most Christian Majesty accomplished what Henry VIII of England failed to do: establish a ntional church acceptable to Rome. He did so by playing the Jesuits and Recollets against each other, and always expressing his deference to decisions coming over the Alps.
vive le roi
Prup aka Jim Benton says
I took a course on the New Testament at Columbia in the early 60s, taught by the Chaplain of the University. I had already become an atheist, but I was then as I am now, fascinated by religion as a human activity.
In fact, by using Morton Scott Enslin as a textbook, by openly discussing the changes and history of the Bible, by exposing me to writers such as Charles Guignebert, and by teaching an honest course, the teacher — I wish i remembered the name — probably gave me more weapons to fight the ‘faithful’ who don’t know the first thing about their faith except what their preachers tell them. (Had I continued at Columbia instead of running out of scholarship, money and loans simultaneously, I was planning on taking a similar course on the Talmud next.)
Again, I repeat the teacher was also the chaplain. Courses in and about religion do not have to be indictrinations — though sadly, if the Religious Right gets near the controls, they will be.
We have plenty of experience of both religious extremism and authoritarianism – we just have a longer historical perspective than you mayflies in the US. The experiences of the Reformation and the British Civil Wars have not been forgotten. We had our Puritan theocracy in the 16th Century, and the experience was so unpleasant that it has been stamped into our culture ever since.
My mistake – that should be 17th, not 16th. 1600s…
Why do I keep making that mistake?
Will E. says
I was a religion major at NC State and not once did I ever feel “indoctrinated” and certainly suspected most of my profs of being atheists or otherwise uncomiited. And I think Americans almost should be *forced* to study religion, esp. Xianity. They know fucking shit. If I was studying in a coffeeshop, I always had some ass who would want to engage me in some theological debate. They didn’t know a fucking thing. Paul knew Jesus. Jesus started Xianity. Jesus has a birth certificate. Xianity has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s the oldest religion. As Gob from “Arrested Development” would say, “Come on!”
The Christian Right would claim a religion requirement at Harvard as a public relations coup only if they remained ignorant of the syllabus.
PZ Myers says
And this is a problem how?
Now, that’s a rather crappy way to look at it. (Bah-dum-bum — Ha-yohhhh!)
The full report is available at:
Newly developed courses might include:
Religion and Science. Since the late nineteenth-century, science and religion in the West have been viewed as unlikely bedfellows and incommensurable epistemologies. At the same time, much natural knowledge has been developed in the service of religious beliefs or institutions, and many scientists profess a belief in God in one form or another. Using contemporary and historical examples (“intelligent design” vs. evolution by natural selection, the origins of life on earth, the Scopes Monkey trial, Einstein’s critique of quantum physics, Galileo’s condemnation, etc.), this course will examine the intellectual and philosophical conflicts between science and religion as a form of a shifting culture war between the spiritual and the secular.
Correction: Even though Harvard as a public relations coup only if general public remains ignorant of the syllabus.
Note the difference: by glossing over a few of the details, the religious Right can tell the gullible that their ideas are so important and meritous that Harvard requires people study them. As long as people don’t think to closely, it does sound like Harvard is requiring chatechism classes, doesn’t it?
I’m definitely in the “broad education” camp (universities are supposed to be more than white-collar vocational schools), but I can see how this story can be spinned.
This is good, and in stead of breaking the news to your 6 year-old child, just tell them to research and report on Santa and the Easter Bunny.
David Harmon says
” Shouldn’t they know this stuff? I was known as “the brain” in Bible class–and I was the atheist in Bible class!”
Well, that’s kinda the point. You were actually learning about the material, instead of just “believing”.
As a Harvard grad (B.A. CompSci, 1991), I have fond memories of the Core Curriculum. As a liberal arts college, Harvard is quite determined not to churn out “highly trained idiots”. (Not that it doesn’t occasionally happen anyway, but they do what they can.)
Based on my experience with various Core courses including the Moral Reasoning requirements, I am quite sure that any such course will not be preaching any given religion. Further, the discussions about the material, both in and out of class, will be much more likely to disturb fundies than to affirm them.
Aron Levy, I think you’ve presented a strong explanation for how the US came to be as religious as it is, but I’m not convinced that it suffices as an explantion for why Europe is not very religious at all.
Oh, I don’t know. A comparison of the Jesus Story against the model of the Heroic Myth, with point-by-point comparisons to Gilgamesh and the Buddha; a detailed study of the Upanishads or Diamond Sutras, the concept of God as One equated to the concept of God as Myriad; a little something about the evidence that religious feeling is produced in a certain region of the brain and can be brought on by epilepsy; a quick run-down of how the early Christian church purged itself of mystic lay teachers and adopted an authoritarian hierachies; the changing concepts of right and wrong as owning slaves and marriage for Catholic priests goes in and out of fashion; an accounting of the damage done, economically and in lives, by religious wars… it could be rather enlightening. Sometimes all it takes is one little comparative religions course to start a person thinking.