God on the Quad: At Religious Colleges-Which Are Growing Fast-Student Life Is Different

Article excerpt

In February 1988, author Tom Wolfe gave a Class Day address at Harvard in which he described ours as the era of the "fifth freedom"--freedom from religion. Religion, he commented with his satirist's smile, is "the last hobble" on the emancipation of students from "ordinary rules."

It's undeniable that college faculties, dominated as they now are by Sixties kids, continue their generation's endeavor to "liberate" others from the strictures of orthodox religion and traditional morality. Students who manage to arrive on campus with some traditional religious identity quickly find themselves a beleaguered minority. In the classroom, their beliefs are derided as contrary to tolerance and "diversity." And in their extracurricular lives, their sensibilities will be consistently offended by amoral behavior among many of their peers, with the tacit approval of college officials.

On today's college campuses, religious students generally confront what modern terminology would call "a hostile environment." A Harvard student running for president of the undergraduate council a few years ago was vilified by the campus newspaper for his religious beliefs. He never mentioned them on the campaign trail, but a young woman on the election commission, unbeknownst to him, had e-mailed some friends asking them to pray for the candidate. That led the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson to warn that the candidate's "ties to religious groups have raised concerns among many students."

In an earlier, more widely publicized case, a group of Orthodox Jewish students at Yale sought to live off campus because the co-ed dormitories forced them to encounter half-naked members of the opposite sex in the hallways. The students were denounced for being "judgmental" and told that if they left campus, they would still have to pay the $7,000 dorm fee. As a university spokesman explained, co-ed dorms are just one "aspect of the Yale educational experience."

Among the relatively few students who are involved in faith groups on campus, many describe themselves as "spiritual, not religious." A recent book titled Religion on Campus offers a clear picture of what this means. At a weekly meeting of a Methodist +group on a large western university's campus, leaders asked, "How can we keep the spark of God burning inside us this w+eek?" The responses included, "I'm a vegetarian, and that's religious to me," "Smile," and "Take time to be quiet and alone." Another student who is active in the Catholic Newman Center calls herself a "spiritual junkie," citing as an example her experience of turning out the room lights and listening to the Indigo Girls with a male friend.

Feel-good spirituality turns out to be a sorry substitute for the real thing. Academic insiders and outsiders alike have often described a certain malaise among today's college students. A 2002 New York Times story profiled Jeffrey Lorch, a sophomore at Columbia, whom the reporter found typical of the more than 2,600 students who had sought help at the university's counseling center the previous year. Jeffrey apparently has no real problems, but it takes him three quadruple espressos and an unknown quantity of Prozac to get through the day. Looking at his college experience, Jeffrey notes, "There have been times when I've felt like every conversation [I've had at school] was a sham."

"Souls without longing." That's what Robert Bartlett, a professor of political science at Emory University, calls the dozens, if not hundreds, of Jeffreys he has encountered in the classroom. In a striking essay in The Public Interest, Bartlett argues that this malaise is evident in the "narrowness of students' frame of reference or field of vision; in the pettiness of their daily concerns; in the tepid character of their admiration and contempt, their likes and dislikes; in the mediocrity of their ambitions.... The world could be their oyster, but they tend to stare back at it, pearls and all--and yawn. …