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Wellesley College's Religious and Spiritual Life Program

Religious Identity and Intellectual Development:
Forging Powerful Learning Communities

Victor Kazanjian, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Co-Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College

"In terms of my religion, I am invisible. My professors, they look at me, see the color of my skin and think they know my story. I am African-American and I am Jewish. How can they see me, if they do not know me? and how can they teach me, if they do not see me?"

Student questions like this suggest how important it is that we begin to talk about the relationship between religious identity and intellectual development in the context of curricular and co-curricular diversity initiatives. Religious life is an important dimension to how many students understand themselves and the world, and therefore it needs to be considered as we work to develop powerful learning communities on campus.

The philosophies and practices of the world's religious traditions have long been recognized as formative in the establishment of various systems upon which societies are organized--systems of law, governance, education. In most colleges and universities, however, the influence of these same philosophies and practices on the formation of individual students has gone largely unrecognized by educators.

While issues of racial and cultural identity are finally being seen as central to a comprehensive understanding of the intellectual development of students, religious identity has generally been ignored in many diversity initiatives. This situation, however, is beginning to change.

Scholars who work on the impact of identity on intellectual development such as Beverly Daniel Tatum and Daryl Smith have begun to include religion as a significant category of identity relevant to improving education for all students. In the Spring, 1998 issue of Diversity Digest, Daryl Smith includes religion in her analysis of campus diversity: "Diversity on campus encompasses complex differences within the campus community and also the individuals who compose that community. It includes such important and intersecting dimensions of human identity as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and ability. These dimensions do not determine or predict any one person's values, orientation, or life choices. But they are by definition closely related patterns of societal experience, socialization and affiliation. They influence ways of understanding and interpreting the world." As part of these intersecting dimensions of identity, the ways in which religious identity affects how students understand and interpret the world need to be understood as educational issues and need to be taken up by campus leaders both in student and in academic affairs.

The role of religious identity in students' lives has most often been separated from the educational programs of students and relegated to religious communities who have set up outposts, called "chaplancies," on college and university campuses. Often these programs have little relationship to the educational program of their institutions. They are usually vestiges of past entanglements between institutional religion and institutions of higher education and therefore are looked upon as either irrelevant or antithetical to contemporary secular education.

Where religious programs do exist, they provide services to students from those traditions which have been recognized in American society--varieties of Christian denominations and on occasion the Jewish community as well. But American colleges and universities are diversifying at an incredibly rapid rate. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Baha'is are increasing in numbers on campuses across the country posing new questions about the impact of religious diversity on campus life and the role of religious identity and spirituality in the educational process.

Inspired by the development of new models for incorporating religious and spiritual life into the educational program at institutions such as Wellesley College and Brown University, a national group of educators invited presidents, chancellors, deans, faculty, administrators, students, alumni, trustees, and religious life professionals from colleges and universities across the country to a two-day symposium entitled "EDUCATION as Transformation: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality and Higher Education," held on the Wellesley College campus this past September. More than 800 individuals from 250 colleges and universities attended, including 28 college and university presidents together with scores of faculty members, administrators, students, and religious life professionals.

In response to the remarkable interest shown by participants at the national gathering, the Education as Transformation Project, located at Wellesley College, has emerged as a national focal point for the exchange of ideas, information, and training around issues of religious diversity and spirituality in higher education. The Project is currently in contact with representatives from more than 400 colleges and universities across the country providing them with educational materials, consultation, workshops, and seminars through which they can begin to develop strategies to address these issues on their campuses.

One of the goals of this project is to explore the impact of religious diversity on higher education and develop strategies to address: 1) the dramatic growth of religious diversity in American colleges and universities, and 2) the desire of educational institutions to prepare their students for a religiously diverse world. The project will take the research and theory on religious identity, put it into practice, test it, and facilitate the creation of new models of religious life on campuses. The Project seeks to define education as a transformational process. Through it, students are educated to be global citizens with an understanding of the diversity of religious traditions and strategies to engage this diversity in creative and productive ways.

Another goal of the project is to consider the role of spirituality at colleges and universities. It will examine spirituality's relationship to teaching and learning issues, the cultivation of values, students' moral, ethical, and intellectual development, and the fostering of global learning communities.

By incorporating the research and theory on spirituality and education into discussions about the educational programs of colleges and universities and by piloting programs in participating institutions, the Project seeks to define a student's religious/spiritual development as critical to her/his intellectual development.

As educational institutions consider how best to prepare students for life and leadership in an increasingly interdependent world, including religious identity in their diversity initiatives is crucial to their becoming effective learning communities. Wellesley College's President, Diana Chapman Walsh, describes her college's religious and spiritual life program as affirming "the understanding of a liberal arts education as a spiritual journey as well as an intellectual one. We are reaching toward a future in which managing the new global realities will require the ability to move from culture to culture, to collaborate and communicate with fluency across national, racial, religious and socioeconomic lines, and to appreciate diversity as a vital resource for learning and growth."

For information, contact: The Education as Transformation Project at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481; tel: 781/283-2659, fax: 781/283-3676; e-mail: transformation@bulletin.wellesley.edu;

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"I am a scholar and I am a Hindu. Are these two parts of one person? Or I am two people separated from myself by the split in education between mind and spirit?"

"Why must I leave the religious part of myself outside the door of my classes, only to enter and encounter writings of those who were inspired by their religious faith?"