God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America
by Naomi Schaefer Riley
St. Martin’s. 288 pp. $24.95
Is there a God on the quad? Does American higher education have any chance of acknowledging, or even accommodating, religion? The young author Naomi Schaefer Riley visited twenty-five American colleges to find out, and her resulting book, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, is a fascinating study of a moment in American culture.
Riley begins by offering six impressionistic reports on institutions that plausibly claim to be serious about their religious identity and mission: Brigham Young, Bob Jones, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas, Yeshiva, and Baylor. God on the Quad then offers critical essays on trends she found at these and other colleges, particularly feminism, religious minorities, student life, the integration of faith and learning, and political activism.
Her campus visits began with four questions: Why had students chosen these schools? How were their curricula different from those of secular schools? What was campus life like outside the classroom? And how would these colleges and universities affect their alumni’s later choices?
Riley’s ear for character is sharp. A faculty member at Thomas Aquinas, a relatively new conservative Catholic campus, reminisced how he had joined the Church. A statement on abortion by his original Episcopal church “‘was so this-worldly and mealy-mouthed; it didn’t sound like Christ at all. It sort of disgusted me.’ He pauses for a moment, reliving the irritation. ‘Here I am telling everybody that Rome and Canterbury are so close and that Anglicanism is just Catholic Christianity for English speaking people. Then when it comes time to speak with the voice of Christ, they speak with the voice of the New York Times.’”
Riley’s lengthy story of the Yeshiva University in New York City makes a particularly good case study. Yeshiva—where the professional schools in medicine, law, and psychology dwarf Jewish and Hebraic studies—was an institution united ethnically and religiously, held together by a considerable underlay of Talmudic studies shared by a large proportion of the professional student population (whatever their academic majors) and strongly led throughout the past half-century by Solomon Soloveitchik. But when New York legislation in 1969 interdicted the use of the state’s generous all-purpose funding by denominational schools, Yeshiva saw no way to survive but to declare itself nondenominational—and then, in the most rigorous, legalistic way, not only to allow students majoring in the other disciplines to drop their formerly required study of Judaica, but to allow the more conservative rabbinical students to minimize their time in humanistic or scientific disciplines, making “Yeshiva an institution at war with itself.”
Through her case studies, Riley perceives a broad trend among the educated, including Catholics and Evangelicals, away from the classical male-female roles of wage earner and child rearer. She finds an interesting and probably controversial difference between the choices women were making regarding marriage and career no further back than the 1970s and those they are making now: “As the students I interviewed demonstrate, women at religious colleges are reaching back into the foundations of their faiths for guidance in, and justification for, their decisions,” she notes. “The colleges themselves, rather than speeding along a process of secularization or stopping these women from achieving their full potential, are helping them to consider their futures in a more thoughtful manner, one in keeping with their religious beliefs.”
As the book moves on, Riley notices that despite the emphasis placed on affirmative action for racial minorities, there is no assurance that religious fellowship itself might be functioning as a desirable and effective counterforce to segregation. Rather than using religious fellowship as a countervailing loyalty that might draw students together across racial boundaries, “the schools’ own acknowledgement that members of a particular ethnic group are best suited to bring its other members into the fold supports secular society’s tacit message that only people of the same race can truly understand each other and can therefore communicate best with each other.”
Riley’s book is well balanced on an issue of great importance on most campuses: the official recognition of homosexual student groups. She sees value in support groups, “but it is a thin line between a group where students can seek guidance and support and an organization that appears to be condoning, if not facilitating through its social events, homosexual behavior.” She is notably shrewd about the gambits of educators and institutions that don’t want their religious identification to be taken too seriously. The students at such institutions are inclined to see gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, even regional origin, as more significant identifiers (and possibly separators) than their religion. She notes that colleges that take their distinctive religious professions seriously are likely to have more in common with each other than with colleges of the same faith that “have experienced many different levels ofsecularization.”
The trend toward generic religion leads one college president to remark that “Christian universities, like Christian individuals, are not Christians in general. At least not for long.” Ironically, says Riley, “a policy of mere ‘tolerance’ (understood as neutrality) can engender an intolerance of the religious perspective itself.” She goes so far as to observe that “at a few of these schools, like Notre Dame and Yeshiva, the students represent the most spiritually interested and morally serious element of the school.”
Readers may find the book’s occasional sloppiness distracting. Many small typos and solecisms are lazily neglected. They are a minor matter in themselves, of course, but they could have been easily caught—and so they should have been, for continual sloppiness in the editing suggests to the reader a sloppiness in the writing. Nonetheless, God on the Quad is a thoughtful and critical book that reminds readers of how much is lost when religious colleges and universities forfeit their prophetic independence. It is hard to restore such independence once it is gone. But books like this one may make it easier.
Ishmael Law writes on Catholic theology and education.