In the proposal for "Religion and Diversity in American Society:
An Interdisciplinary Approach," funded by the National Endowment for
the Humanities, hosted by the Magill Library and the Department of
History of Haverford College, and directed by
Emma J. Lapsansky, Professor of History
and Curator of Special Collections, the plan outlined was to bring
together some two dozen scholars/teachers from American colleges to
develop curriculum for handling the complex issues of religion in a
On July 6-8, twenty-two
participants ( fourteen men; eight women) arrived on the
Haverford campus for the
The group--which ranged across the disciplines of religious
studies, American studies, anthropology, history, literature,
philosophy, communications and sociology-- representing eighteen
states from all regions of the country--and met four-to-six hours per
day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, reserving most Wednesdays and
Fridays for field trips, research and library work. A sequence of
eighteen lecturers demonstrated a variety of materials and
techniques, from primary source materials to scholarly articles,
slides, video, field trips and the
bibliography emerged, with annotations about
possible classroom use generated out of the discussions. Session
discussions were wide-ranging, moving frequently between issues of
recent scholarship and issues of classroom management. In addition,
the group chose to take on a somewhat "rowdy" style, with lively
discussion and many interruptions of lecturers and speaker. We
literally stumbled over each others' words in our enthusiasm to get
ideas heard and responded to. The positive aspect of that style is
that often there was electric intellectual energy in the room. On the
negative side, sometimes ideas were not as fully explored as some
would have liked (as interruptions sometimes took the conversations
far afield of their points of origin); sometimes also, shyer,
quieter, more contemplative voices were drowned out by quicker,
stronger (but not necessarily wiser!) tones. In other words, we
were, as a group, a model of some of the issues we face in our own
In the interest of practicing our theme of respecting diversity,
we agreed that no aspect of the subject would be taboo, and, in
addition, that we would try to be respectful of the varieties of
opinion and experience that each participant brought to the table.
One of the first issues of contention was the logo which the
directory had chosen as a symbol to publicize the Institute. The
director had chosen the 1580s watercolor Roanoke "Medicine Man,"
drawn by English artist John White. This painting, one of some
seventy drawings in which White tries to understand New World culture
and to transmit it to the "Old" World, who took seriously (if, to our
modern eyes, erroneously) the culture he sought to portray. Seeing
the Native Americans as shapers of a complex society worth
comprehending, he reproduced aspects of that culture to send home to
his compatriots. The director saw this as one of the earliest
embryonic attempts of Europeans to come to terms with "religious
diversity," and, at the same time, a fitting symbol of how thorny a
thicket of misunderstanding we still face with "religious diversity"
in our own time.
That White's goals were ultimate the exploitation of that culture
simply adds depth to the meaning of his artwork. In the May planning
session, however, one of the lecturers strongly objected to the use
of White's portrayal, feeling that its use trivialized the modern
tensions, and moreover, would be seen by modern Native Americans as
offensive. (And, indeed, though targeted mailings were sent to
institutions with significant Native American populations, the
Institute received no applications from self-identified Native
Nevertheless, those of us who did gather on the Haverford Campus
represented quite some diversity in many ways, including gender,
region, religion, race, age, discipline, stage of career and type of
institution. In the summary below, in the
Institute syllabus, and in the
linked pages of notes from
each days' sessions, you will get a sampling of what the five weeks
The days were full: discussions, field trips, too-short visits to
local archives. Thursday evenings became the
time for decompression.
How can we define "New Age" in such a way as to distinguish it
from modern manifestations of "traditional" religions?
How do we keep all students involved in the challenging ideas
without challenging their deeply-held religious beliefs?
How to avoid having students who have unpopular perspectives feel
shut out of the educational exchange?
How do we help students think both analytically and
sympathetically about their own and others' traditions?
What are appropriate readings which do not oversimplify or
trivialize the issues, but, at the same time, do not make the issues
so complex that undergraduate cannot follow the argument. These and
other broad issues arose in the course of the discussions.
A recurrent theme in the discussions was the need to create a
classroom atmosphere such that students would not be comfortable
voicing what might be a "minority" position. So often did the group
return to this theme that, at the end of the five weeks, they
designed a T-shirt on which they
reminded each other to "hear a different voice."
One woman, during the course of the Institute, began to read Mary
Rose O'Reilly's The Peaceable Classroom,
which raises not only questions of what to present in the classroom,
but also issues of new ways to carry out the presentation. O'Reilly
explores the idea of using periods of planned silence in the
classroom, a technique that seemed, perhaps, particularly appropriate
when dealing with such emotionally-charged issues as religion, which
have both substantive and affective qualities.
What are the uses of silence in the classroom to help students
have time to digest that they are learning, before the new idea is
blurred by yet another new idea in such rapid succession that it
cannot be absorbed?
How do we help students grasp ideas that may be only imperfectly
express-able in European/English language frameworks?
How do we help students behave "responsibly" when constructing a
self-identity, e.g., not seeing who they themselves are as so
"correct" that others' ways of being must, of necessity, be
destroyed? In other words, how do we encourage "tolerance" of diverse
religious traditions? At the other end of the spectrum, how do we
help students not so romanticize some aspects of a newly-learned
tradition that --perhaps unwittingly--they use those aspects for in
mocking, exploitative, or other disrespectful ways.
These and other issues arose during the lectures and discussion.
Several of the participants
and lecturers were involved in
projects that are in press, and others in the group found their
currency with recent issues stimulating and enlightening.
Other, more traditional scholarship on the subject of religion was
also examined. Perhaps inevitably in an interdisciplinary discussion,
there were moments of frustration, as concepts that were
deeply-embedded in one discipline were viewed quizzically,
skeptically, or with annoyance by participants from other
disciplines. In creating the group, the director had tried to create
a group that was diverse by region, gender, discipline, type of
institution, etc., with the goal of creating a mix that might mirror
the mix we might find in our classrooms. The director also chose the
lecturers/resident scholars with an eye toward a diversity of
backgrounds and presentation styles as well as disciplinary
But no one could not have anticipated two important realities of
the mix: the degree to which there would be clashes of personality
and perspective, and the degree to which each member of the group
would work together to help mold harmony. At the end of the five
weeks, a Christian Biblical scholar, who had always taught the Bible
from the perspective of its message of unconditional love, had a
sudden insight about why a Jewish member of the group might view the
Bible as a deeply anti-Semitic document. The two then engaged each
other in constructive discussions of how to handle these issues in a
classroom, without denigrating either the Bible or the Jewish
traditions. Likewise, we could not have anticipated the wide
diversity in reaction to the lecturers.
Each of the lecturers was appreciated by some in the group, but
different participants "took to" different lecturers/presentation
styles, and some of the evaluation discussion centered around the
usefulness of having the opportunity to watch a series of teaching
styles, and contemplating one's own teaching style/goals in that
context. Real friendships--personal and intellectual--emerged as the
group worked and lived together. Thursday evenings usually entailed a
group decompression evening, hosted at the "home" of one of the
participants. One Thursday involved a
group-cook dinner at the home of the
institute director. Watch, in the next few weeks, for some good
recipes that came out of that evening.
Several in the group had experience in
helping train teachers in
pedagogical style and classroom dynamics--especially around sensitive
topics. The input of these group members was also quite valuable, as
the discussions ranged across issues of rites of passage, uses of
religious ceremony, the role of a "leader" in various religious
communities and movements, the place of suffering in creating
religious cohesion, the importance of religious traditions in shaping
family/culture/community behaviors (in even so simple a thing as a
calendar) even when the family/community is ostensibly non-religious.
Less attention was paid to Islam and Buddhism than one might have
wished, and the discussion only occasionally touched on the contents
of religious texts--either oral or written. One member commented that
he thought that this "institute will acquire something of a legendary
status as the moment when the teaching of religion at American
universities was first systematically critiqued from a 'fin de
siecle' perspective." While this is certainly an overstatement, the
evaluations suggest that, aside from some minor physical discomforts,
the experience was a valuable one, for participants and for
lecturers, and a number of participants have made significant changes
in perspectives and in course syllabi as a result of the seminar. In
addition, some important networking occurred across disciplines,
across regions, across perspectives, and we became more aware of the
availability of allies--teachers who are facing similar challenges.
We ended the summer mindful that our goal is
not to have our students think what we think,
believe what we believe,
to offer analytical skills, vocabulary and
with which students
may make informed choices in their intellectual
and personal lives.
This page will be updated regularly until Summer,
1997. Then it will be dismantled.
to Special Collections Home Page
Return to Lapsansky Home Page.
To return to Haverford College
Last updated, 1/24/97.