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Harvard University drops religion requirement

December 16, 2006

Over the course of the past three years, Harvard University has been working to restructure its core undergraduate curriculum. The current curriculum has been criticized both within and without the university community for being too abstract and academic, neglecting the more practical “real-life” issues. One recent proposal included a “faith and reason” course requirement, which would have introduced all undergraduate students to basic trends in religion. Such a requirement would not only affirm Harvard’s Puritan roots, but would also set Harvard in a unique a place among the Ivy League universities.

On Wednesday, Harvard announced that it had dropped the proposal. Here are some of the reasons and perspectives given for the move:

“Courses dealing with religion — both those examining normative reasoning in a religious context and those engaging in a descriptive examination of the roles that religion plays today and has historically played — can be readily accommodated in other categories.” (faculty task force)

“It is an important subject, but nationalism is an important subject, and race is an important subject and markets is an important subject. If we are going to go to that level of specificity of what we require there are probably half a dozen other things that can compete with it. So we thought we had to bump up the subject descriptions to include more things than religion.” (Professor Louis Menand)

CNN has the full story here.

In which other “categories” can courses in religion be accommodated, I’d like to know. Perhaps sociology of religion and cultural anthropology can discuss religion aptly, but from no more than the same abstract and academic perspective that Harvard is seeking to complement with more practical subject matter. Evolutionary biology and genetic psychology have begun to construct Darwinian-style theories that seek to explain the phenomenon of religious belief as the result or by-product of evolution, aiming at inferring its potential survival value. However, even when compared to the models of sociology and anthropology, these scientific theories are about as removed and esoteric as it gets.

The truth is, religion is not in the same arena of human life as such abstract and arbitrary categories as “race” and “nationalism”, both of which are accidental and circumstantial to human life. Religion and spiritual expression, on the other hand, are universal phenomena that transcend such artificial labels of race and nationalism, and it should be a source of utter embarrassment that one of Harvard’s own professors ventured to assert that the three are in any comparable. Religion is as abstract as it is practical and can, in a serious way, provide a tangible example of what Harvard seems to be seeking: subjects that are no more academic than they are practical–it is analyzed theoretically, but its must perfect elucidation comes by way of its lived reality. I have to say, Harvard’s faculty task force that was charged with revamping the curriculum has, indeed, become too detached from the world it strives to illumine.

I leave you with Richard Dawkins, the avowed Oxford evolutionary theorist and atheist, and his opinion that teaching religion to children and college students is very important in itself, for it serves to enlighten and open the mind to a number of other human enterprises:

“(Religion) is a defining characteristic, it’s universal. I mean, anthropologists tell that us that every culture has it.”

“Just because you’re an atheist it doesn’t mean that you are ignorant about religion, about the history of religion, about the history of religious art. I think it’s very important that education should include religious education in the sense that children should learn about the Bible, they should learn about the history of religion, they should about comparative religion, the anthropology of religion. Otherwise you can’t understand paintings, as you say. You can’t understand literature. But don’t teach children, ‘this is your religion.’ That’s child abuse. Teach them there are all these (religions).”

These comments were made during a 2006 episode of the Ireland’s talkshow, The Panel. Harvard would be well served to listen.

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