Journalist Riley examines some US institutions of higher learning with a religious bent, wondering whether their students will have more social impact in post-collegiate professions than those from worldlier colleges.
In a feisty introduction, the author derides secular students’ amoral behavior, flabby relativism, and feel-good spirituality that is a sorry reflection of the real thing. Against “those who consider traditional religion a small and sometimes backward part of American life,” she poses those who reject a spiritually empty education. Some of her premises seem dubious. When she records that more students at Bob Jones University than at Harvard joined the army after 9/11, she begs the question of whether military service is superior to, say, fashioning an estimable foreign policy. There is considerable room for debate when she pays respect to elected leaders who profess their faith (as opposed to earning our trust), nor does she offer convincing evidence that formal religious education is the only route to an ethical life. It would seem that readers are in for a broadside against public education, but that proves to be not entirely the case. Riley finds an admirable degree of focus and diligence in religious institutions, yet she also finds much to deplore. Bob Jones University contains “everything that was (and is) wrong with the rural South, everything that is racist, backward, and intolerant.” Meanwhile, Thomas Aquinas College fosters a disturbing lack of skepticism, Notre Dame a purblind conservatism. The intellectual climate at Yeshiva University is equally incurious. Unsurprisingly, it’s when these schools evince a measure of ecumenism and doubt that Riley finds them most vibrant. It’s hard to judge from her account whether religious colleges will succeed in their aim “to give their students the tools to succeed in the secular world and the strength to do so without compromising their faith.”
Intriguing, though the message is decidedly mixed.