Should Religious Expression Be Banned from the College Classroom?
April 27th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
It is not uncommon for college students to share their religious viewpoints particularly during class discussions. This expression of faith is also highly evident in online classes because students take advantage of sharing their ideologies in a format where they do not have to explain, justify, or defend their response directly to other classmates. Should this type of religious expression be allowed in all college classes or is it necessary to impose limitations? In a culturally diverse student population this is a topic that should be considered from the perspective of students, instructors, and institutions, while also considering any related legal issues that may have a direct bearing on how it is addressed.
Expression through Class Discussions
Class discussions are designed to help students process information presented through the course materials and gain new perspectives through their interactions. Students are often expected to provide informed responses that demonstrate what has been learned and progress made towards meeting the learning objectives. A religious expression usually involves opinions that are anchored in a personal belief system and can take the discussion off track if the subject is not directly related to religion. What students should consider is whether their religious perspective is inclusive and accepting of the diverse views of other students or narrowly focused on right and wrong. When students are willing to listen to others without offering judgment, effective discourse can occur.
In the article, American Students Find New Expressions of Faith, it was noted that “going to college is often a chance for young adults to explore attitudes, ideas and beliefs different from the ones they grew up with. In many cases, students are finding new ways to express their faith.” Students have an opportunity to gain a new awareness of a culturally diverse society through their interactions in the class. However, it may be difficult for students to listen to other viewpoints if they consider their particular belief system to be the only correct one. This can result in a communication barrier and lead to improper forms of expression and heated exchanges.
Some schools are encouraging students to embrace diversity and learn from it. For example, at Princeton University an Office of Religious Life was created and it “is dedicated to building bridges — not of theological and spiritual agreement, though commonalities frequently emerge, but of understanding and engagement — between faiths as well as between religious and nonreligious students.” The hope is that by finding common ground within a safe environment, students will develop an enhanced view of the world and a new level of self-awareness. This can also be accomplished at the classroom level through encouragement from the instructor, as students’ openness and self-awareness will likely translate to their classroom activities.
Should Instructors Monitor or Control Discussions?
During class discussions, instructors have to make a decision about intervening when students share personal beliefs or make a religious expression. Some may choose to redirect the discussion and focus students back on the required topic. Other instructors may tell students to provide fact-based or research-based response. As an educator, I welcome discourse provided that it is relevant to the topic and done in a respectful manner. When students share a perspective that is based upon their belief system, I’ll ask questions to prompt critical reflection and have them consider how those beliefs were formed, along with the role of those beliefs on development of their worldview. Because of the multi-cultural nature of the classroom I find it beneficial for class discussions to establish ground rules at the beginning of the class and uphold students to these expectations.
The American Association of University Professors adopted an Academic Freedom and Tenure statement that includes the following aspects:
• “The campus climate can profoundly affect an institution’s continued diversity. Hostility or intolerance to persons who differ from the majority (especially if seemingly condoned by the institution) may undermine the confidence of new members of the community. Civility is always fragile and can easily be destroyed.
• Members of the faculty, too, have a major role; their voices may be critical in condemning intolerance, and their actions may set examples for understanding, making clear to their students that civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women.”
As I read this code it was a reminder that educators should welcome diverse views as part of the learning process and at the same time, promote civility or respect among students by serving as role models. Instructors should also respond quickly to any act of hostility or intolerance to avoid incivility.
A Legal View of Religious Expression
Students often consider religious expression to be protected as free speech under the First Amendment. Within the Higher Education Law website, the following further explains what protected student expression means:
• “Students’ expression of political or ideological views is protected by the First Amendment as long as it is not libelous, defamatory, inflammatory, lewd, vulgar, or viewed as promoting illegal activity.
• Private expression may be curtailed if it is likely to disrupt the educational process."
Within a legal context, religious expression cannot be banned from college classes unless it is an inappropriate or disruptive expression. This leads back to one of the questions posed at the beginning of this post – should this form of expression be limited in any manner? The answer for many instructors is associated with its relevancy to the course subject or discussion topics.
Consider When Expression is Appropriate
Every student is entitled to subscribe to a belief system; the question is the appropriateness and relevance of those beliefs during discussions. Class discussions contribute to the process of learning because students have an opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences, gain insight from others, and develop critical thinking skills. Their diverse backgrounds can enrich the conversations if students are willing to consider the views of others. If they rely upon their opinions or offer religious-based perspectives as the basis of their responses, the instructor may need to weigh the overall effect on the dialogue and either intervene to maintain focus or guide students through the process of exploring their views.
As a student, do you observe or hear instances when religious viewpoints are shared by other students? If your course is not designed to address topics related to religion, how do you respond to your classmates who offer their religious perspectives? For example, how do you react to another student who talks about their faith or presents a moral value judgment rather than focus on the required topics? As you consider these questions, talk to your instructor and ask for their guidance. It is important for the development of effective communication and working relationships that you maintain an appropriate form of expression and share it in a neutral, non-judgmental manner.
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