Colleges Should Be Nurturing Interfaith Leaders

Eboo Patel in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_77286_square_850x850I recently met a graduate of an elite liberal-arts college who was working as the activities coordinator in a facility for senior citizens. The most interesting part of her job, she said, had to do with the diverse religious identities of her clients. She was constantly organizing event spaces for various religious holidays, working with the kitchen to make sure food was prepared in a manner that met different religious specifications, and arranging for funeral services according to the rites of diverse faith traditions. Occasionally she had to help calm an argument over doctrinal disagreements or contradictory religious practices. “I had to learn most of this on the fly,” she told me. “The one part of identity we never talked about in college was faith.” I was reminded of this story as I read through the recent Chronicle special report on diversity. As usual, the articles were sharp and provocative. And as usual, religious identity was totally ignored.

This is not so much a critique of The Chronicle as it is an observation about higher-education discourse more generally. Colleges are generally quick to respond to one set of important identity issues (racialized policing, transgender accommodations, sexist pay disparities) with academic and co-curricular programs meant to prepare leaders who can engage such challenges. Unfortunately, other dimensions of diversity, namely religion, get short shrift. But even a casual perusal of The New York Times on any given day illustrates that religious diversity issues — from diplomacy across religious divides to tailoring public-health campaigns to particular religious communities — are just as challenging as other identity issues. And the experience of the recent graduate I mentioned earlier who was working through religious issues at a senior citizens’ center could as easily have taken place at a school, a company, a hospital, a YMCA, or, indeed, a college campus — in other words, the spaces where much of American life takes place, and where college graduates get jobs.

Given this reality, I’d like to make a small proposal: Any college that promises to prepare global citizens has to take religious diversity seriously enough to educate their students to be interfaith leaders.

More here.