White Paper Executive Summary

This White Paper describes how four campuses with different Protestant histories developed conversations about their institutions’ secular boundaries. Paying attention to and beginning to analyze what makes this conversation difficult helps educators and students see the conversation’s promise—for student learning and civic life.

The first section of the paper describes the background and dilemmas that led up to this project; project organizers were responding to the stories they heard students, faculty and administrators tell about how stymied they felt trying to understand where and how the secular lines of campus life are drawn—in classrooms, office hours, campus observances, student activities, residence halls, and more.  As leading scholars debate the pressures on secular ideals and their histories in the public realm, we brought these conversations to bear on campus discussions of whether and how the secular frames we provide for our learning communities are working.

The second section of the paper describes the qualitative research our Working Group implemented with a total of 119 faculty, students, and administrators across all four campuses.  We studied whether and how secular assumptions structure students’ questions of meaning and purpose. This paper gives an overview of key themes from our research—including where students engage their “big questions,” how they experience campus secularity as something both invisible and powerful, and the many different ways people define “secular.”

Section three describes key findings of this project: we learned contextually specific ways to ask a set of questions about secular boundaries that our campuses are not sure how to discuss. By turning potentially polarizing dilemmas—how secular assumptions affect students’ education—into faculty-student research projects, study groups, Working Group writing projects, teaching and learning forums, and more, we established trustworthy distance on these politically charged questions and gave ourselves room to begin re-imagining the secular boundaries and practices of our campuses.  

Section four outlines future directions our campuses are taking with this project. The final section of appendices includes definitions of key terms, abstracts for the “Varieties of Secular Experience” Working Group Essays and November 2008 conference that this White Paper seeks to introduce, and a schedule for the conference. In one of these Working Group Essays, a Protestant chaplain in our group distills both the process and goals of our project: 

Our experience has shown us that elite, secular institutions like ours are almost allergic to these questions [about our secular borders]. . . But over time and with patience, almost all constituencies in our communities responded to approaching these questions from a de-pressurized, inquisitive educational perspective. Like the first introductions of race, gender, class or cultural categories as factors in student learning, redefining secularity as an intentional and flexible category will meet decreasing resistance as constituents trade politicized understandings for more nuanced ones. De-pressurizing our campus communities on these questions will take time, but will, in the end, both open liberal learning to now marginalized inputs and become a unifying factor in a liberal arts education for a large group of students.

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