Three cheers for Kahn et al., on the occasion of their bold ride into the heart of liberal arts territory, where they will wrest the definition of secular away from religion-banishing secularists and invite all voices, including theological ones, to a free-wheeling conversation about the nature of liberal arts education. Pointing to the collapse of the secularization thesis and the agreement of diverse philosophers that a secular space “scrubbed free of religion” is impossible, Kahn et al. believe not only that they will accomplish their purposes, but that the time is ripe for a truly inclusive conversation about the liberal arts. I applaud their optimism and respect their daring, but I caution Kahn to keep his riders together and enter only those colleges that invite them. Not all colleges ripen for difficult conversations at the same pace, and in many the inhabitants carry out their business oblivious to postmodern philosophical convergences or to the crumbling of secularization theory. There is, to be sure, a ripening for this conversation which I have seen firsthand on a number of campuses, but there are powerful countervailing forces that must not be underestimated, and there are complexities of both secularization processes and popular epistemologies that need to be understood.

I will be eager to learn how Kahn et al.’s conversations unfold. Having visited forty American campuses during the past three years, I observed some twenty campuses on which theological questions were welcomed as part of the liberal education process. This happened, moreover, not to appease denominational sponsors or meddling bishops, nor because these campuses were religiously homogeneous and devout (a few were, most were not), but because they received sizable, multi-year grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., to launch programs of their own design that nurtured the theological exploration of vocation among students, faculty, and staff (known as Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, or PTEV, and implemented on 88 church-related campuses between 2000-2007). Often, these theological explorations took place in classrooms, where faculty encountered many students eager to engage questions of meaning and purpose. Intellectually curious and religiously devout students were of course the first to participate, but their enthusiasm rapidly spread to a wider array of student types, as did instructors’ enthusiasm to their colleagues. So desirous were PTEV campuses to keep these vocational conversations going that several campus presidents organized through the Council of Independent Colleges a Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (or NetVUE) in 2008. Despite its launch during the Great Recession, NetVUE now boasts 146 dues-paying college and university affiliates and sponsors a variety of conferences so that participants can learn to continue and improve this theologically informed conversation.

Intrigued by what I observed during my evaluation visits to PTEV campuses, I began to insert questions of purpose and meaning into my own classes—asking senior seminar students, whose looming task is to “make a life,” whether making that life a meaningful one was a valuable question, and if so, what its answer involved. The response was overwhelming: students tore into readings, writing assignments, class discussions, oral presentations, and even group projects with a palpable energy that amazed me. And yes, religious students framed their answers religiously, environmentally passionate students framed them ecologically, feminist students framed them using the language of feminism, and all found the experience both affirming and liberating (which they told me directly and confirmed through anonymous course evaluations). In hindsight, I realized that these senior students had long learned to communicate to diverse listeners in every other space on campus; all I had done was signal that it was safe to bring all of their identities into the classroom, and it seemed as if I had opened the floodgates.

Since others have well documented the academic revival of the study of religion (for instance, see John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen A. Mahoney’s “American Scholars Return to Studying Religion,” David Smilde and Matthew May’s SSRC Working Paper “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion,” and D. Michael Lindsay’s “Evangelicalism Rebounds in Academe”), and since one can readily visit a host of campuses to witness diverse course offerings on religion (and no shortage of students enrolled in them), I will not embellish these signs of conversational ripening further. Instead, I will underscore Kahn et al.’s acknowledgment that these signs of ripening occur in a larger context, in which hostility to deep religious commitments “remain[s] the norm,” and where the conversation that Kahn et al. propose will require “extraordinary balance” from faculty and students alike. There are plenty of faculty who, despite holding the Doctor of Philosophy degree, missed the postmodern memo. They will laugh when Kahn et al. announce the rejection of an “Enlightenment conception of universal reason,” and they will sputter angrily when they hear that religious discourse should be welcomed in the classroom. Few faculty have the time to follow contemporary philosophical discussions of secular life, nor are faculty views on these matters exclusively rational. So, I caution Kahn et al. to not expect too much from their guest lectures and discussions.

What might Kahn et al. s conversations accomplish, then? Well, they will certainly draw faculty who have already made their beds in the postmodern camp, faculty with deep religious commitments, and faculty generally interested in matters of pedagogy and liberal education. But even these faculty members will chafe at the thought of granting classroom time to religiously exclusivist discourse. How would an instructor manage a classroom where all students feel both safe and free to express deep identities—including exclusivist ones? Kahn et al.’s essay does not indicate as much. One potential solution, which I observed among my senior seminar students, lies in the use of what conflict resolution counselors and diplomatic negotiators call “I-Language.” My senior students, with three years’ experience in talking to diverse others, had learned this I-language as a way of expressing particularistic statements in pluralistic settings: “I come from an orthodox Jewish background, in which family life is an utmost priority,” said one student, explaining her decision to marry soon and postpone graduate school. She and her classmates were intelligent and reflexive seniors who had learned to talk civilly with each other well before entering my seminar—sparing me the matter of managing awkward or hurtful classroom discourse. I would not attempt this again without first training students in the use of I-language, however, and I will need to sort out how I will handle students who refuse to frame exclusivist statements in this way. Yet, I fully intend to add I-language training to my classes when I return to the classroom, for I am convinced that transformative education can only occur when deep identities are engaged.

Which brings me to this: any educator who wishes to see the liberal arts revitalized must modulate this wish against two powerful realities. The first is a popular epistemology that leaves American citizens widely distrustful of all knowledge claims, as I discuss in my article“Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology,” in The Chronicle Review [sub. req.]. The second is the instrumentalism with which the overwhelming majority (I estimate 4 out of 5) of college students approach their education—as a means to an occupational end, and absolutely not as a time for reflexivity and transformation (I discuss this in my first book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School). The first implies that instructors need to earn the right to teach, by inductively leading students from data to patterns to theory, by respecting students as the arbiters of knowledge that they have become, and by approaching the classroom as public intellectuals. The second implies that even in a best case scenario, efforts to draw in students fully will be resisted by most, and welcomed by 1 out of 5 students. Given the wider cultural forces at work, we need to be realists about what any pedagogy can accomplish. Most college students are profoundly individualist in their normative frameworks, as Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s comprehensive study of emerging adults demonstrates. Efforts to engage most students’ deeper identities will hit a traction-less “whatever-ism” that will frustrate educators if they do not anticipate it.

How, then, should educators passionate about a transformative liberal arts education proceed? My point is not that we should abandon hope but that we should set achievable goals for transformative education among our students. Quite frankly, it is the rare classroom and rare campus that has even 20 percent of its students deeply engaged in their education. But there are 20 percent eager for such an education, if we approach them properly. Who are they? They are chiefly of three types: rebels, the future intelligentsia, and reforming activists. (I develop this typology in a book I am currently writing about my evaluation of PTEV, tentatively titled Changing on Purpose: When Students and Professors Find their Callings.) True rebels are rare on campuses these days, and the future intelligentsia consists of those one-in-a-hundred students in whom we delight and who become our future colleagues. It is the middle type, the reforming activists, who comprise the lion’s share of this 20 percent. Though their passions do not reside in academic disciplines, their passions can be tapped to motivate deep engagement with academic work. And here’s good news for Kahn et al.: most of these reforming activists are religiously motivated, so they will be drawn into transformative education when their deep religious commitments find an appropriate welcome in the classroom.

Kahn et al. are thus onto something with significant potential, as long as they can successfully navigate their efforts around the cautions I describe above. Secularization’s dominance may be eroding, but its effect on the privatization of religious belief remains robust. Freeing ourselves and our students from privatization’s iron cage may, as ironic as it may seem, be the very thing that extends a transformative liberal arts education beyond the very few to a critical mass, the influence of which we would be foolish to underestimate.