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Religion’s “return” to higher education

By Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen


This fall about ten million undergraduate students will be heading back to America’s 2500 four-year colleges and universities, and they will be attending schools that are significantly more attuned to religion than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Today’s students encounter religion in a wide variety of forms and settings, both on campus and off. They participate in traditional religious activities, they take classes about the history and sociology of culture wars and religious extremism, they interact with friends from diverse religious backgrounds, and they experiment with different forms of personal spirituality. Religion has “returned” to higher education, and the scope and nature of the learning taking place on campuses today is being enriched by this development.

We use the word “return” in quotes when referring to religion because the religion that is returning to higher education is a new kind of religion. In the past, religion usually meant historic religion or what is sometimes called “organized” religion. Many of the Ivies and older universities had been founded for the purpose of training students as ministers, and Christian or Judeo-Christian values and beliefs retained their strong influence on many colleges and universities until well into the twentieth century. But by the last half of the 20th century, secularization had become the academic norm, and religion was intentionally shunted aside, relegated to the private worlds of individuals.

In the last two or three decades religion in America has changed. Religion in America is now pluriform, a term we use to refer to the fact that American religion is now both pluralistic (because it includes all of the world’s historic religions) and spiritually brackish (meaning the boundary line between what is religious or spiritual and what is not religious has been thoroughly blurred). Some atheists may describe themselves as spiritual, and those who are non-religious (about 30% of the traditional-college-age population) often actively seek a religious-like sense of grounding, purpose, and meaning in their lives. As for trying to restrict religion to some kind of purely private or personal dimension of life, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 halted that myth once and for all.

Almost everyone now agrees that religion plays a major role in just about every aspect of American and global culture. For the past five years we have studied the ways colleges and universities are responding to religion’s return. At Harvard, it meant debating the inclusion of religion in general education requirements, while MIT appointed the first-ever Chaplain to the Institute. At the University of North Dakota, “spiritual wellness” was added to the list of major educational goals, and on dozens of campuses space was set aside for Muslim prayer rooms.

Based on conversations with hundreds of faculty, students, and administrators at colleges and universities as varied as Penn State, Vassar, and Brigham Young University, we have isolated six religious questions that are central to higher education. The first two questions deal with “historic religion” (i.e. traditional organized religion), the next two questions focus on “public religion,” and the last two are related to “personal religion” (i.e. spirituality):

  • What should an educated person know about the world’s religions?
  • What are appropriate ways to interact with those of other faiths?
  • What assumptions and rationalities — secular or religious — shape the way we think?
  • What values and practices — religious or secular — shape civic engagement?
  • In what ways do the personal convictions of students and faculty enter into the teaching and learning process?
  • How might colleges and universities point students toward lives of meaning and purpose?


These questions capture a mix of knowledge-based items (like religious literacy) and more reflective concerns about how religion functions in the world and in individual lives. Devoting time and energy to answering these questions will strike some critics as a luxury that simply can’t be afforded when college costs are soaring, student debt is mounting, and graduates are not getting jobs. But higher education in America has always been about more than jobs and about more than the merely practical. It has also been about understanding oneself and the world. In today’s religiously pluriform era, it may be that these “softer” competencies are precisely the ones that colleges and universities cannot afford to ignore.

Douglas “Jake” Jacobsen (Ph.D., History of Christianity, University of Chicago) and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Ed.D., Social Foundations of Education, Temple University), members of the faculty at Messiah College, are co-directors of the Religion in the Academy Project and co-authors of No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education (Oxford, 2012).

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Image credit: This building is Stuart Hall, in the main quadrangle of the University of Chicago campus. Photo by peterspiro, iStockphoto.

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One Response to “Religion’s “return” to higher education”
  1. Charlie says:

    The blessing of being in this country where religion and education is the accessibility. Individuals willing to sacrifice can obtain a higher education.

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