Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students

When students feel adrift, spiritual guidance might help.
Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

I think religion should be taught in college. I’m not talking about “religious studies,” that is, the study of the phenomenon of religion. I’m talking about having imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clerics teach the practice of their faiths. In college classrooms. To college students. For credit. I think religion should be taught in college because I believe it can help save floundering undergraduates. I’m not talking about “saving” them in Christian sense. I’m talking about teaching them how to live so they do not have to suffer an endless stream of miseries.

If you had asked me when I was a professor whether universities should teach religious practice in order to help undergraduates navigate life, I would have said you were crazy. First, I would have said my students were pretty well adjusted, so they didn’t needed to be saved. Second, I would have said that even if they were in trouble, religion couldn’t help them. Third, I would have said that even if they were in trouble and religion could help them, religion wasn’t real knowledge and couldn’t, therefore, be part of a university curriculum. And fourth, I would have said that even if undergraduates needed saving, religion could save them, and religion could be part of the curriculum, the separation of church and state made teaching religion in public universities impossible.

You may have all of these reservations as well. But I don’t think you should, and I’m going to tell you why.

Undergraduates Adrift

I used to teach at a big land-grant university in Midwest. In that capacity, I did what most professors do. A third of my job was research, a third was teaching, and a third was service (committee work and such). I was a very conscientious researcher, a somewhat conscientious teacher, and avoided service whenever I could. I do not think I was unusual in this regard. Most professors at big universities love research, are lukewarm about teaching, and loathe service. This is why they are always after sabbaticals. They want to write books, not teach undergraduates or serve on curriculum committees. 

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I did not know my undergraduates very well. I taught a “two-two” load, meaning two courses a semester. One of those was a tiny graduate seminar, meaning no undergraduates. Each of my undergraduate courses met for about two hours a week, three at the outside. On average, then, I saw my undergraduates for four to six hours a week one semester and for two to four hours a week in the other. When I say “saw,” I mean exactly that. Typically, I stood at a lectern and lectured to them. I never really interacted with them. They were just faces. Of course, being a somewhat conscientious teacher, I invited them to my office hours. They almost never came, and I knew they wouldn’t. Again, I would say that my experience with undergraduates was fairly typical.

It so happened, however, that as part of my service commitment, I was selected to hold the office of the director of undergraduate studies. This was a position no one wanted because it meant spending hours advising undergraduates without any compensation. I didn’t really want the position either, but my chair told that I had to do something. He was right, and so I took the job.

I’m glad I did, because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the students that I taught. I had in-depth conversations with hundreds of them. I talked to them about their academic progress, of course, but I also talked to them about everything else: where they lived, who their friends were, how much they drank, how much they studied, whether they were depressed, what they ate, how they felt about the university, how they got on with their parents, how their parents got on with each other, where they worked, how much they worked, how much money they had, how much debt they carried, whether they went to church, whether they were involved in extra-curricular activities and, naturally, what they planned to do when they were done with their degrees.

What I discovered was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost. They were bright kids. Many of them had looked forward to going to the university all their lives. College was, in their imaginations, a sort of promised land, a place where you find your calling and get the skills necessary to pursue it. What they found, however, was not a promised land at all. To them, the college curriculum was a bewildering jumble of classes that led to nothing in particular. Take this, take that, it doesn’t really matter so long as it “counts” toward your major and graduation. They learned to pick classes not on the basis of interest or relevance, but simply because they fit nicely into their schedules. To them, campus life revolved around bread and circus. The university funded huge events—football games being the most important—in which drunkenness was the order of the day. One of my standard in-take questions came to be “Have you been arrested for public drunkenness?” To them, the prospect of graduating was terrifying. They knew that the university had not prepared them for any particular line of work. The answer to “What are you going to do next” was usually “Go to graduate school” or “Get a job.” What graduate school and what job didn’t matter; any would do.

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 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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