The first secular educational setting I attended was as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I spent grades K-8 in Catholic parochial schools, 9-12 in a Jesuit high school and my undergraduate years at a Jesuit university, Marquette in Milwaukee. Nearly every classroom I sat in, from age 6 to 22, had a cross or a crucifix in it, usually hanging near the clock, over the door. Every time I wanted to see how many minutes were left to class, I saw the cross1.
Norman E. Borlaug statue by sculptor Benjamin Victor. University of Minnesota, St. Paul, campus
As I found myself drifting toward agnosticism, I still associated Jesuits with erudition and intellectual rigor. I still do, which is why, last year, I nearly fainted when I was one of twenty to have breakfast with the Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ. It was a bit like having breakfast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sister Wendy Mary Beckett, and Harlan Ellison, except it was one man.
Being a student at a land grant university2 meant replacing the imagery of the cross and of the Jesuit intellectual with the statue of Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug was a scrapper — someone whose family wasn’t college-bound and who had to fight for his education. And Borlaug is now described as the man who “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.” I wasn’t sure whether I could be like Brother Consolmagno, but Borlaug. If I could follow him one-thousandth of the way down his path, I would lead an amazing life.
Reflections on Access and Inclusivity
So much of our interest in the place of religion in the public university is about access and inclusivity3. For 22-year-old me, the statue of Borlaug was a symbol of access and inclusivity. At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that Borlaug was white and male (and so that inclusivity resonated with me in ways that it didn’t resonate with others). I didn’t think about whether claiming a commonplace about Borlaug, that he saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived, would have rubbed a younger, more Catholic me the wrong way.
I hadn’t considered, in other words, whether a land grant university manages, in its claims to inclusivity, to extend that inclusivity to the religious among us. My interests in religious inclusivity extend in two directions in this collaborative.
How can a secular context welcome a religious student?
In our Collaborative, we’ve read about the complexities of addressing the whole student. For example, in “(Inadvertently) Instructing Missionaries in (Public University) World Religions Courses: Examining a Pedagogical Dilemma, its Dimensions, and a Course Section Solution,” Nicole Karapanagiotis invites discussion of whether pedagogies or even learning outcomes should change when teaching religious students in religious studies courses in a state university context4. Of course, we adjust our teaching to the starting points of our students — but do we consider their religious identity as part of that starting point?
What we enact in the public university has consequences for the quality of dialogue in the public sphere. In “Talking with Students who Already Know the Answer: Navigating Ethical Certainty in Democratic Dialogue,” Robert Kunzman reminds us that “it is important to recognize that the deliberative obligations of democratic citizenship require thoughtful engagement with a broad array of values and priorities. We cannot judge fairly among competing visions of the good society— and the laws and policies that come with such visions— if we are not willing to listen carefully to our fellow citizens about what matters to them and why.”5 A climate of inclusivity, including religion, is necessary not just for the classroom, but also for the public life that we claim, as a land grant university, to be preparing our students to enter.
How can a secular context welcome a religious faculty member?
My questions are not only about students. In a thrift shop in Duluth, the location of the UM branch campus where I teach, I found a copy of Professors who Believe, edited by Paul M. Anderson, an emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
I have no idea how many of my colleagues at UMD are religious.
In 2013, David Gore and I began writing a pair of articles (in God and Popular Culture and in Finding McLuhan) about Marshall McLuhan which essentially argue that McLuhan was recrafted as a secular thinker for safe consumption in popular culture and in media studies. But McLuhan wasn’t a secular thinker. He was a deeply Catholic thinker, especially given that he came to Catholicism by choice, in an adult conversion. It’s impossible to fully understand what McLuhan means when he says “the medium is the message” unless you consider that he claimed, too, that “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message.”
To understand McLuhan without understanding his Catholicism is to come to an impoverished understanding of McLuhan.
As an employee of a state university, I wonder whether my understanding of my colleagues’ work is impoverished because I do not recognize their intellectual/faith commitments. I wonder whether the climate of inclusivity we want to create for students might also create a climate of inclusivity for faculty and staff.
I’m excited to continue these thoughts with my colleagues across the UM System and from other institutions in the region.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the RPUC as a whole or the University of Minnesota.
- The presence of the cross was not always noncontroversial. See “MU Prof Who Covered Crucifix with Backpack Apologizes,” Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 2, 1994, section Al.
- I am now a faculty member at a branch campus of that same university.
- Borlaug began in the open-admissions unit of the University, because his test scores were too low for admission into the University directly. He is literally a symbol of one path of access to one of the finest universities in the world, now lost since the General College was dissolved in 2005.
- Karapanagiotis, N. ( 2017) (Inadvertently) Instructing Missionaries in (Public University) World Religions Courses: Examining a Pedagogical Dilemma, its Dimensions, and a Course Section Solution. Teaching Theology & Religion, 20: 46– 65. doi: 10.1111/teth.12364.
- In Religion in the Classroom: Dilemmas for Democratic Education, edited by Jennifer Hauver James; Keith C Barton. New York: Routledge, 2015.