Academic decorum should not silence religious beliefs
I lived the loneliest years of my life in higher education. As an undergraduate student, I silently struggled through a torturous spiritual crisis. My early years as a graduate student were marked by a dearth of relationships and sad, lonely meals in a small studio. My first college job was in a small office above a quiet reading room in the library.
We know that Americans are more widely confronted with a emerging crisis of loneliness: a new poll reports that 18 percent of the population feel they have no one in their life they can trust. But we’d expect those numbers to drop on college campuses, where conversation and shared spaces abound. Unfortunately, my experience is typical.
Even before the pandemic, college transitions left many students feeling lonely. Loneliness has long been a experience among academics and early-career professors, and is not it necessarily improve as careers progress.
Higher education – what I’ve come to call Lonely University – has a fundamental relationship problem and doesn’t know how to talk about it. To solve this problem, we must first recognize that hidden struggles and beliefs have a profound impact on our inquiries and intellectual discussions.
A metaphor we sometimes use to describe academic discussion is the “Burkean Parlour”. invented by rhetorician Kenneth Burke, it represents entering a room where a conversation is in progress. You listen, you become familiar with the interlocutors and wait a moment to engage. No one is helping you – discovering the hidden rules and assumptions of the conversation is part of the learning process.
You quickly learn that discussion at Lonely U is characterized by parlor decorum: a polite and studied intensity, focused on ideas and tolerating little or no intrusion of personal affairs. From my earliest days of studying literature in graduate school, I realized that my faith, which so richly fueled the way I read our shared texts, was a source of embarrassment. The fear I felt in handling old books was incidental to my investigation of them. My experiences with loneliness were not something that could improve a discussion of isolation in King Lear.
This culture is deeply embedded in Lonely U. Campus Expression Survey driven by Heterodox Academy reveals, the predominant factor that motivates students and teachers to self-censor is fear of each other, with 62% of students in the sample being afraid to share their beliefs.
Given this crisis of brotherhood, it is no wonder that we are also witnessing a renewal to call at to consider and welcome religious identity in class and on campus. People are looking for deeper ways to build relationships. Additionally, the parlor culture’s inability to understand how personal belief can influence intellectual life is detrimental to research as well as mental health. If I had felt free to discuss my religious faith more openly in graduate school, I would have more clearly articulated the goals of my dissertation — and most likely found other believers to collaborate with.
To be clear: the opposite of decorum is not offense, but authenticity. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that inviting people to fully share their personality on campus fits in Good with diversity, teaching and intellectual stimulation. A classroom marked by genuine discussion and curiosity can sometimes forgo subtlety, but it also allows for deeper exploration and dignifies all learners.
Even the simple acknowledgment that religious belief is welcome can help believers stop self-censoring and allow their faith to define their learning. It invites others to bring their own experiences and beliefs to their learning and to connect with others through them.
To research suggests this deeply held belief can improve all learners’ abilities to engage with each other, reducing incidents of polarization that leave people angry and isolated. Common modes and qualities of religious belief can be healthy reminders that colleagues are more than their intellectual positions, that human loyalties extend beyond academic units, and that all academic theory has limits. These reminders can be seen as threats to carefully constructed theorems and social relations. But they can also ignite the humility and curiosity needed to learn more about others’ perspectives, recognize our own limitations, and forge collaborations on new issues.
For secular schools, the finding that religion strengthens relationships could mean broader inclusion of religious perspectives in lesson readings and classroom conversations, and greater collaboration between religious and non-religious groups of students. Such practices normalize religion, help religious students who end up in non-religious schools feel welcome, and model a commitment to exploring the most complete dimensions of human existence.
In addition, religious schools may also be inclined to culture wars, loneliness and ideological division as secular schools. There, leadership can signal division as an opportunity to learn more about each other and listen, while instructors can openly show how their faith enriches their inquiry and collegiality with fellow scholars, whose beliefs can differ significantly. Indeed, interfaith efforts can provide models for other groups to engage across differences, as well as broaden the scope of questions and research on campus.
During that lonely season in college, my studio was above the offices of a campus church group. For years I have seen a stream of teachers and students – religious and non-religious – come in and recharge in real and vulnerable community with one another. The experience ultimately inspired me to find my own community of faith, which boosted my confidence and sharpened my intellectual pursuits.
In contrast, two of the saddest conversations I had involved rigorous academics who hid the deep faith that imbues their work with vitally important knowledge. It was our breach of decorum – our misbehavior in the living room – that first allowed us to discuss faith, but their fear persisted and they asked me not to reveal their beliefs (a promise I will keep) .
If you work on a college or university campus, someone in your department or class feels incredibly lonely. As you attend the fantastic intellectual feast in the Burkean Parlor, forget the decorum for a minute. Turn to your neighbor with boldness and encouragement, and break bread together.
Kyle Sebastian Vitale is Director of Programs at Heterodox Academy. He writes about higher education (and Shakespeare when he can!) and has taught literature and education for over a decade at the University of Delaware, Yale University, University of New Haven and Temple University..