with Paul MacDonald, Ian Oliver, and Sam Speers

There’s nothing like a Great Recession to set off a storm of conversation about the nature of liberal arts education. Sites such as The Chronicle of Higher Education’s and The New York Times’ have conducted vigorous and multifaceted debates about whether students can afford to “indulge” in a “non-vocational” undergraduate education: an education where students prioritize what interests them in the here-and-now, regardless of whether these interests can obviously be “monetized” (as the phrase goes) immediately upon graduation. Varied defenders, such as David Brooks, Martha Nussbaum, and Michael Roth, emphasize the palpable and practical value of a liberal arts education, urging us to think more critically about how a broad and searching education can indeed yield immediate and obvious effects—economic, social, and political—even if these do not come with direct-deposit six figure bonuses.

To these defenses of liberal arts education, we would like to add our own voices. Between 2006-2009, with the support of the Teagle Foundation, four self-identifying secular liberal arts campuses—Bucknell University and Macalester, Vassar, and Williams Colleges—engaged in a project, “Secularity and the Liberal Arts,” that tried to get at the purpose and nature of liberal arts education by asking what it means for a liberal arts campus to unabashedly call its practices “secular.” Is there a way, we wondered, that by spending some time thinking critically and honestly about this crucial term—one that ostensibly governs our practices—we might get a better handle on the nature of liberal arts education?

From the start, this project was motivated by the tremendous reevaluation that the notion of the “secular” has undergone over the last two decades. It is now well acknowledged that the American academy, at least from the standpoint of theory, has been in a full-blown period of recovery from the dominance of the secularization thesis. One of the remarkable things about this conversation has been the tremendous variety of theorists—of different political and religious convictions—who have come to agree on one thing: that it is both philosophically incoherent and phenomenologically inaccurate to posit a secular scrubbed free of religion and committed to a neutral and rational public discourse. On this, Stanley Hauerwas, Jeff Stout, William Connolly, Wendy Brown, John Milbank, Saba Mahmood, and Charles Taylor (to name just a few) all unite.

Our “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” group wondered whether, or how, these theoretical moves had made their way onto our campuses.  Did the practices and ways of liberal arts life reflect the theoretical work that has been done of late on the secular? We suspected that life on liberal arts campuses, both in and out of class, did not reflect this profound eclipse of the secularization thesis. Our institutions have long valued a notion of the secular that limits and restricts religious expression in order, ostensibly, to promote tolerance and critical thought, to sustain democratic institutions, and to foster civic engagement. We suspected that our campuses’ underlying commitments to critical thought, tolerance, and political engagement were actually creating a public discourse that carefully polices the types of rhetoric and reasons allowed into play. Time and again, our reading group conversations as well as the qualitative research we conducted confirmed that students and faculty feel compelled to drop their religious commitments in many public spaces on campus: certainly at the classroom door, but also in places ostensibly more “private,” such as dorm life, and even in casual conversation. Indeed, at the start we encountered stiff resistance to the very idea that these discursive boundaries might be policed less rigorously; many faculty members and students have grown comfortable with hard-line—if under-articulated—secularist assumptions, which restrict the free airing of religious commitments. After all, our colleagues reminded us, such assumptions are historically responsible for more good than bad—say, a great deal of intellectual freedom and iconoclasm—and remain, if flawed, the best available model. Did we not recognize our campuses’ secular self-identification as a hard-won accomplishment? What had changed, some of our colleagues wanted to know, that this accomplishment now needs to be challenged?

At the same time, religious groups also resisted our work because they felt that any conversation about the secular represented the promotion of a staunch secularism. For them, the very word was horribly tainted (think, for example, of Pope Benedict’s use of the term), and these religionists could not see any way that talking about the secular might prove helpful to them. Did we not see, then, following George Marsden et al., that the academy has successfully established secularism as its norm, and that it is not likely to give up this ground?

If, at first, asking questions about both the strengths and limits of our secular assumptions elicited anxious responses from secularists and religionists alike, over time we built trust by focusing on student learning. We wanted to consider whether these types of uncritical assumptions about the secular were stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identities—in particular, their religious identities. We were moved to ask, what would campus life—both in and out of class—look like if these secularist assumptions were dropped? (For an account of the project in toto, see the group’s White Paper as well as “Varieties of Secular Experience,” a November 2008 conference headlined by Princeton Professor Jeffrey Stout’s keynote address, “Secular not Secularist,” and Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp’s lecture, “Secularity, Meaning and the Liberal Arts.”)

For liberal arts colleges, the stakes of this question are important. The mission of liberal arts education is not simply the conveyance of certain bodies of information or technical skills that are useful in a market economy. Liberal arts colleges understand themselves as places that promote education as a way for students to consider larger questions of meaning and value. Liberal arts colleges are places where students are not thought naïve to ask so-called big questions: “What is the meaning of my life?” “How do I understand death?” “Does evil exist?” “What are my obligations to my neighbor, my country, my world?” And finally, “How might my education—in whatever field I study—help me assimilate these questions?” We were struck by the way that considerations of the secular had the profound effect of renewing discussions of what might be called the deeper purposes of liberal arts education. Talk about the secular in general quickly turned into much more specific talk about what liberal arts colleges are for and how they are to serve their purposes.

Is a liberal arts education no longer secular when it allows this sort of deep commitment into public view and discussion? That depends on what is meant by the secular. What our project calls for is a revalued concept of the secular and secularity. The notion of secularity that emerges from “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” rejects the Enlightenment conception of universal reason and the idea that religion is a discourse that should be subject to special rules restricting its expression. Rather, it encourages the expression of views guided or governed by religious commitments. To be sure, liberal arts colleges are not going to pick up the mantle of any particular set of religious commitments. Nevertheless, under this version of the secular, it is reasonable to be religious. In short, the notion of secularity that emerges from our project is at odds with secularism conventionally or commonly understood.

Our notion of the secular has been heavily influenced by Stout’s understanding of secularization as the emergence of a discursive condition in which “the tendency of the people participating [is not] to relinquish their religious beliefs or to refrain from employing them as reasons,” but in which, rather, “participants [. . .] are not in a position to take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are.” On these terms, secular institutions such as liberal arts campuses would excel at anticipating and navigating differences among their citizens. What Stout means by “secular, not secularist,” we suggest, is just this. A secularist seeks to rid democratically and pedagogically orientated spaces (e.g., campuses and classrooms) of religious commitments in the pursuit of arrogating authoritative  forms of knowledge. Someone who possesses a revauled understanding of the secular as a discursive condition and practice seeks knowledge that helps us, as Stanley Hauerwas describes, “to act wisely in a context of conflict, ambiguity, and change.” When the authority of knowledge is less important than the things that can be done with knowledge (i.e., explicate its logic, argue with it, follow its implications, explore motivations for holding it, and reflect on how it shapes moral formation), the secular becomes a discussion between religious and non-religious citizens who are acutely aware that the demands of secularized democratic life require an extraordinary balance between cherishing one’s own convictions and holding to the awareness that these same cherished convictions are contestable, and that they may at times act as a bludgeon against other democratic citizens. A further type of knowledge emerges in this secular: a self-critical consideration of how one’s own commitments might be heard by citizens with differing ones, a knowledge required for acting compassionately, civilly, and democratically.

The result of our work led us to the following claims: When a liberal arts education is framed in terms of questions about life’s purposes, students express an unmistakable pent-up desire to introduce deep commitments, including religious ones, into public arenas, including the classroom. In turn, liberal arts colleges work best and allow students to become who they are when students are afforded the room to search and interrogate their commitments—especially their religious commitments—in public ways. The fear and, as the social scientific work of the group found, the reality is that liberal arts colleges are failing this mission insofar as students and faculty feel that when they step onto liberal arts campuses they have to bracket or repress just the sort of deep commitments, religious or otherwise, that might be crucial to addressing these sorts of questions.

What we also found, however, is that students and faculty are deeply unsure of how to express deep commitments more freely and fully. Confusion, uncertainty, and even hostility here remain the norm. What appeared glaringly conspicuous to us is the lack, across academic fields, of adequate models and examples of constructive exchange between conflicting deep commitments. Beyond flatly making room for the airing of these views (in the name of a notion of tolerance), faculty and students alike were perplexed by how to substantively engage with and learn from deep commitments different from their own.

One critical effect of this revalued notion of the secular is that it disrupts the dominant metaphor of “space” that is commonly used to talk about the secular. During the November 2008 conference, Bob Connor (whose essay, “The Right Time for Asking Big Questions” breathed life into many of our working groups) observed that spaces are conventionally referred to as secular (or not), and that when a space (such as a classroom) is normatively termed secular, it shuts down conversation that dwells upon deeper commitments. It seems clear to us that the space metaphor is tied to secularist tendencies; spaces are secular to the degree that they conform to a set of norms restricting free expression. But when the epistemological rules are relaxed, the metaphor changes. The secular becomes a type of conversation or discussion occurring in a wide range of venues. In other words, revaluing the secular turns the focus away from where certain discussions are allowed to happen (a secularist tendency) and, more substantively, toward the difficulties of the discussion itself.

Indeed, here is where work remains. With this revalued understanding of the secular—now properly understood as a set of discursive practices operating among differing a/theological perspectives—lots of questions remain. Our understanding of how to conduct these discursive practices is rudimentary at best; most of us lack the experience. Some of us worry that a more open-ended, free-wheeling notion of the secular creates a mess that we do not know how to clean up. Are our liberal arts institutions equipped to meet the demands of this notion of the secular? Have our institutions adequately reflected on questions about what a liberal arts education is for and how they are to best serve those purposes? More, are there limitations to this model of secular education? One of the stock criticisms of secularism is that it doesn’t understand the ways in which it wields power. We thus also need to think critically about the ways in which our suggested secular traffics in power. The tendency is to think that, because our understanding of the secular is more democratic than secularism (in that it invites more views into play), it is somehow innocent of “sins” or problems. This seems unlikely. In the end, all of us remain confident that these natural questions and concerns should not hold us back from proceeding and seeking (in our own small way) to reshape the truncated discursive practices that currently define the practice of liberal arts education on most liberal arts campuses.

Thus, the next steps in our program: Last fall, we four members of “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” felt a great desire to take the conversation, its readings, and our distinctive point of view to other liberal arts colleges and universities. With continued support from the Teagle Foundation, we developed a one-day workshop, “Reconceiving the Secular and the Liberal Arts,” to take on the road, as it were, to other liberal arts colleges and universities.  The workshop would introduce our revised secular ideal and begin to interrogate what this ideal might mean for the practice of liberal arts education. Like the first introductions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture as aspects of student learning, we insisted that redefining secularity as a flexible ideal and diverse set of practices would help campuses better reflect their increasingly cosmopolitan character.

Judging from the response to our call for applications, it seems that liberal arts campuses are ready for and deeply interested in this conversation. We received fifteen applications from a remarkably diverse set of institutions. Some were religiously affiliated, some were not; they hailed from all corners of the country and ranged from large universities to small colleges. The point is that there seems to be a strong demand in our modern moment to address this set of questions about the role and place of religion in the ostensibly public life of liberal arts education. More, given the diverse set of schools that responded to our workshop, there is clearly a demand for a conversation that challenges conventional notions of the secular. Schools with historically different ways of structuring the secular and the religious are eager to reach out to each other.

During the fall of 2010, we will visit seven of these institutions to conduct our workshop. We’ve invited four more members of our original “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” project and divided ourselves into teams of two, each comprising one faculty member and one religious life representative, to conduct these learning-based conversations on reconceiving the secular and the liberal arts.

We cannot emphasize enough the notion of “learning” here. We will travel to these campuses pretty confident about how we have come to revamp the secular, but we are genuinely uncertain and seeking to learn how this notion of the secular will play out in different liberal arts settings. We feel like we’ve cleared the brush away enough that having this new conversation about the secular is possible. But how this conversation will go and what it will lead to as yet remain unknown.

To us, “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” and the response to our current workshop, “Reconceiving the Secular and the Liberal Arts,” uncover vacant and fertile ground for a conversation about religion and the secular other than the rancorous and well-worn debate between “wall of separation” secularists and political theologians—largely Christian ones—who want to turn America into a theocratic state. Unlike these antagonists, we don’t offer one set of substantive norms for being an American citizen. Believe in religion, small-government, taxes, same-sex marriage, or not. The goal of our project is to develop better models of how citizens in a democracy can engage with their counterparts despite deep and abiding differences. Our final conceit, in other words, is this: Reconceiving the secular can lead to reconceiving the practices of citizenry. That these conversations are beginning to happen in thoughtful and inventive ways on liberal arts campuses only speaks to the enduring practical value of liberal arts education.