The Colgate Scene
November 2007

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
Meaning and purpose in the liberal arts

President Rebecca S. Chopp
[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko] The weekly Heretics Club is a lunchtime gathering, hosted by the chaplaincy, that was created to foster wide-ranging dialogue about spirituality and faith. Despite the name (chosen to catch students' attention), the group does not promote anti-religious beliefs, but rather offers an open environment for asking questions and exploring religious ideas. It attracts a diverse group, from atheists who want to understand religion better, to devout Christians who wish to understand other people better. Topics have included everything from life after death, to prayer, to Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step spirituality, to spirituality and the environment; occasionally, guest speakers are invited to bring their insight into specific conversations.

Education, in its most basic sense, prepares students to understand the self and the world. At its deepest level, education is about meaning and purpose and wholeness. As educational activist Parker Palmer expressed so beautifully, "every way of knowing becomes a way of living."

During the college years in particular, students receive the time and resources necessary to learn how to understand one's self on the journey to responsible adulthood and a life well-lived.

One of my greatest pleasures is to hear alumni express a deep appreciation for those at Colgate who have shown them the pursuit of meaning, the multiple ways of being meaningful, the hidden beauty of images of wholeness, and the challenge to be serious, authentic individuals who live lives of integrity and truth.

On campus today, students are hungry to talk about identity, values, and the basis of humanity. They are clearly searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. And as they become the next citizen-leaders of our society, our students will need to master the critical, creative, and integrative thinking skills that will enable them to address those big questions. Colgate's faculty and staff do not try to provide answers. Instead, we outline the variety of ways in which the human species creates meaning, and we encourage our students to become habitual seekers of purpose through activities inside and outside the classroom; for example, through the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education.

As we in liberal arts education provide our students with opportunities to wrestle with those big questions, we also need to ensure that religion plays a part in their exploration; so, we support them in the practice of their own religions and learning about other faiths, as well.

Over the past generation, religion has emerged as a significant aspect of societal, cultural, and personal meaning. Globalization has revealed that religions are a real force in our contemporary period, making it crucial for us to understand how meaning operates differently in different religions of the world. One of the many implications of 9/11 is that few Westerners can afford the luxury of thinking that religion will disappear or be reduced to the fringes of society. As well, understanding religion is essential to addressing some of the major ethical, political, and cultural issues of our day, including the environment, stem cell research, and health care.

More than ever, undergraduates need to master the basic assumptions and become handy with the critical thinking skills involved in religious studies and theological studies. Students need to know how to think about religions as cultural forces (the subject of religious studies), and how people internal to specific religions act and believe (the subject of theological studies). They need to understand that religion can be a powerful force for good and for bad.

Religion in its many forms is taught across the curriculum — our religion department offers courses in Hinduism, Native American religions, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — and in special campuswide programs; but teaching about religion should not be confused with handing out eternal dictates or requiring conversion. The language of theology, the aesthetics of religious experience, the power of community, and the morality of religious performance can all be explored in many ways through different departments and courses. Our students explore the making of meaning through the core curriculum, but also through courses in areas such as ethics, the arts, history, literature, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Serious exploration of religion as a force in the world is part of our programs in peace and conflict studies as well as international relations and political science. And our off-campus study program provides opportunities for students to explore religion in the world in a variety of local contexts.

Although Baptist in origin, our community of humanists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and agnostics live together, quite parallel to the world in which our students will live and lead. No questions can be "off-bounds" in the critical thinking of the liberal arts. All questions of self and world most certainly belong in the liberal arts curriculum of the 21st century.

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