OPINION: Integrating School and Spirituality


Danny Harris

Many millennials seem to share the misconception that all religion is simply a set of rules one must follow in order to appease a powerful overlord or face punishment for a lapse in morality — and thus fail to see the value in following an organized religion. In any event, I contend that some kind of metaphysical instruction for life might benefit students at Vanderbilt. Recognizing the benefits of religion for personal well-being and opportunities for community improvement, the introduction of at least one class concerning religion into the required curriculum would encourage deep thinking and give some kind of perspective to students’ lives at Vanderbilt.

First off, we must consider the interests and values that Vanderbilt University upholds, especially in regards to liberal arts. The College of Arts and Sciences mission statement describes its objectives as seeking “to engage in significant and innovative research, scholarship, and creative expression in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, to offer distinguished, well-taught programs of undergraduate and graduate education in the liberal arts and sciences, and to foster service to society overall.” The school purports to advance scholarship in the liberal arts, among other virtuous pursuits, in order to serve the purpose of producing students who will bring beneficial change to society at large.

Furthermore, the AXLE curriculum in the College of the Arts and Sciences mandates that a student must take courses from the categories of English, United States History, the Humanities, Mathematics, Foreign Language, Social Sciences, and Perspectives. These categories seem essential to “Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education,” but will they necessarily add something to the community at large, as the mission statement maintains? I argue that the answer to this question is no. A Foreign Language major and prospective diplomatic translator will have little need for Single Variable Calculus in her mission to aid society. By the same token, a class in European Art History would have a negligible impact on a Mathematics major and future investment banker’s ability to shape his environment.

Consider the following statistics. According to the Pew Research Center, Atheists compose 3.1% of the United States’ population. The remaining 96.9% are either religious, searching for religion, or are ambivalent to the concept of religion. For those that are religious, a course on religion would bolster an understanding of both their own religion and that of others. For those searching for an answer to the bigger questions or those unsure of their stance, my proposal would at the very least offer perspectives conducive to self-reflection. Conceptually, religion is one of the most universally useful subjects that can be taught in a classroom setting. In both cases of the translator and the investment banker, it seems that a general grasp on religion would enable both with tools that would enhance their understanding of workforce associates — not to mention the effects on personal development.

On this note of personal development, busyness pervades the lives of Vanderbilt students. Students lack the time for serious contemplation of questions such as, “Why am I here?” and, “Why do I do what I do?” There is no time to stop and ponder the direction in which society attempts to lead each individual, and the meaningless unspoken rules that govern collective behavior.

Pink Floyd produced a song in 1977 entitled “Sheep” which reads, “What do you get pretending the danger’s not real/ Meek and obedient you follow the leader/ Down the well-trodden corridors into the valley of steel/ What a surprise!” Ominous as it is, most cultures maintain a framework of implicit rules one has to follow in order to achieve success by societal standards. If one is going to bemoan the strictures of religion, he or she must look to the same elements of strict adherence prescribed in society as well. Any class on religion would bring up these types of thought-provoking questions for discursive examination, rather than as a topic of Facebook commentary and pseudo-debate.

Not only would a class on religion foster thoughtfulness, but it could become foundational for the well-being of weary college students. Judith Green, director of Penn State’s Center for Health & Counseling Services reports that, “Millennials, in particular, have been more vulnerable to the stressors of college life.” Seemingly, every student at Vanderbilt either suffers from some kind of mental health issue or knows someone that does, and might benefit from a course that allows students to self-reflect on their own sources of weariness.

Intrinsically, the object or driving force in every religion is other-worldly, while the priorities to which most in college cling to are thoroughly of this world. Dependence on relationships and aspirations such as popularity, academia, or success end in disappointment somewhere along the way, as students are left inevitably grasping for the next rung on the never-ending ladder of ascendance. A firm base in an unmovable religion can ground a student in a vision undeterred by the unsteadiness that life brings. One class in religion would guide students in positive direction toward happiness.

According to Vanderbilt’s theoretical endorsement of liberal arts, it follows that religion ought to be included. In regard to the practical implications of a mandatory course for each individual, its inclusion would send students into the community with an enhanced understanding of his or her peers. As it pertains to personal well-being, a religious studies class would certainly not be detrimental, and at best would provide better self-worth and balance.

This prescription of mine may seem antithetical to the development of critical faculties and open-mindedness. Further, it is manifestly clear that religion has been used to commit the worst of atrocities as well as to stamp out academic progress in some cases. However, in such instances, religion is typically manipulated by self-interested individuals for political means. I believe that the re-integration of religious studies into the undergraduate education (in a modern society with a clearer separation of church and state) will allow individuals to judge religious tenets on their own merits, and not those characterized by distortion. A study of religion, instead of being founded in self-righteousness, would actually give Vanderbilt students and Americans qualifications with which to identify the religious hypocrisy of peers and political leaders alike.