It is graduation season, and college seniors move from the hallowed halls of the university to the wider world and workplace. The ceremony itself includes a procession, numerous speeches, awarding each graduate a diploma, and an official confirmation of the degrees. It takes on a religious aura even in a secular university. This isn’t surprising as the modern university evolved from church institutions.
So what role does religion have in a state-run university? What can or should a course outside a religious studies class say about religion? There are two extremes that I think are misguided. The first is the professor who uses a course to proselyte for a particular religious faith. The other is the professor who avoids or ignores relevant references to religion that emerge in his discipline out of fear of censure.
The former error in my estimation is quite rare; few of my colleagues, Christian or agnostic, use the classroom to evangelize for their faith.
The latter error may become more common because of the controversies surrounding discussion of religion in the classroom. Better to avoid discussion rather than risk offending someone — a position that I am afraid is becoming too common in higher education.
Most people probably assume that economics, the discipline I teach, has nothing to do with religion. In most areas of economics this is correct. So is a professor proselytizing if he uses a biblical reference in class? I think not. As I outlined in an earlier column, I regularly use the example of Joseph in Egypt to examine issues about speculators in the marketplace. I make clear to my students the intent is not to promote any religious view. Rather because the story is familiar to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular students, it is an example that helps them understand a number of economic concepts.