Confronting Reality: Religion and Higher Education

You may know that Harvard University was founded to train men for the clergy. And you surely know that Harvard has long since abandoned its religious roots. But if a faculty panel has its way, religion will once again play a role in the education of Harvard students.

The faculty panel has issued a report calling for a "faith and reason" requirement at Harvard, concluding that some knowledge about religion is a necessary part of being educated. The panel noted that while "Harvard is no longer an institution with a religious mission… religion is a fact that Harvard's graduates will [have to] confront in their lives."

And confront it they will. We live in a world today in which religious forces are creating a titanic clash of civilizations, one which threatens the very existence of the free structures of the West. People cannot understand why it is that Islam wants to destroy us if we do not understand the teachings of Muhammad or the history of the 1,000-year-old conflict between Islam and the West.

Closer to home, how could we possibly understand the economic development of America without understanding the work ethic of the Protestant Reformation? How could we understand the abolition of the slave trade without knowing the story of William Wilberforce, the great Christian reformer – the film of whose life, titled Amazing Grace, will be released in February? How could anyone understand the roots of Western civilization without understanding the formative influence of Christianity, brilliantly documented in Rodney Stark's book The Victory of Reason?

Predictably, there were those who objected to Harvard's "faith and reason" requirement. A Harvard Crimson editorial said that the requirement gives "religious ideas" a "preeminence incommensurate with their proper place in understanding the modern world." In other words, while religion is important, it's just not that important, so says the postmodernist.

Besides, the Crimson argued, students can learn enough about religion from the general education requirements. Oh sure! Just as they learned what they needed to know about history from such requirements. That's why 65% of seniors at elite colleges like Harvard flunked a high school-level history test, and 23% of them thought it was John F. Kennedy who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Also writing in the Crimson were two Harvard students who got it. They articulated what the editorialists could not or would not understand: "Studying religion," they said, "involves coping with unanswerable questions, confronting humanity's limitations, and thinking beyond oneself. No literature or science course can teach these skills." Nor can ethics be taught without a religious base. Remember Mr. Skilling of Enron, who is heading off to prison, was a Harvard graduate.

Happily, Harvard is waking up to the reality that you can't provide a decent education or even understand the modern world without understanding religion. Culture, after all, springs from "cult," that is, a belief system.

And while many Christians might worry just what a university like Harvard might teach about faith and reason, we ought to welcome the opportunity for an open, free debate. Then we Christians can present the evidence of our faith's positive effect on building the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

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