Religion and Diversity in American Society:
An Interdisciplinary Approach

An NEH Summer Institute, 1996

held at

Haverford College

Haverford, PA

The Project

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 sociocultural context.

The Group

On July 6-8, twenty-two participants ( fourteen men; eight women) arrived on the Haverford campus for the five-week seminar.

The Program

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 classrooms!

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 Americans!)

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 contained.

The days were full: discussions, field trips, too-short visits to local archives. Thursday evenings became the time for decompression.


The Questions

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 interests.

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,

but rather

to offer analytical skills, vocabulary and bibliography

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 return to Special Collections Home Page

Return to Lapsansky Home Page.

To return to Haverford College Home page

Last updated, 1/24/97.