Friday, December 22, 2006

Even the Ivy League schools seem to have noticed: Their students are not only arriving biblically illiterate but leaving pretty much the same way.

So a faculty committee at Harvard has considered making a course in religion part of the school’s core curriculum.

The course would deal with “reason and faith,” and touch on topics like the relation between religion and American democracy. Goodness, why not just have the students read and discuss Alexis Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”? Nobody’s ever done it better, except maybe Daniel Boorstin in “The Genius of American Politics.”

But that would be too much like studying history for what it can tell us instead of for what we can read into it. It’s not as if the past had an existence of its own apart from what we make of it. A usable past, that’s what’s we need, right?

God may not matter all that much to Harvard’s well-gated community, but He seems to matter a great deal to a lot of us out here in the grubby world. Therefore, if America’s oldest university is going to turn out graduates who’ll be able to communicate with the rest of us, even lead us, they’ll need to be religiously knowledgeable. At last religion would be usable. There’s an old name for this approach: profanation.

A more tactful term for it is instrumentalism. And it’s not limited to academicians. People who consider themselves defenders of the faith have been known to justify theirs by pointing out all the worldly benefits of religion, from strong families to charitable giving to the work ethic, a k a the Puritan ethic.

It’s all enough to bring to mind what Edward Gibbon, in his “Decline and Fall,” said of religion in another empire: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

Harvard is scarcely alone in substituting what is relevant, that is, transient, for what is permanent. Reading a comic romp of a novel a friend gave me the other day, “The Family Markowitz,” I was proceeding blithely along from one amusing chapter to the next when I came upon a description of “mass-produced undergraduates processed through seedy lecture halls where, under flickering lights, they slump with their knees up and take in lectures as they might see movies. Where the familiar passes into the wide pupils of their eyes and the rest dribbles down the aisles to collect with the dirt and candy wrappers at the professor’s feet. … And the graduate students. Hasn’t he seen them at Princeton clustering around the office doors? Young Calibans eager for praise. They tear open the Italian Renaissance before lunch, strangle a Donne sonnet and crush its wings, battering away with blunt instruments. As for the older scholars — like students at a cooking school, they cook up Shakespeare, serve him up like roast goose, stuffed with their political-sexual agendas, carve and quarter him with long knives…. These are the scholars in the journals now. They are at war with the beautiful; they are against God and metaphor.”

Hey, this was supposed to be a comic novel, not a diagnosis of the higher education at our better — or, rather, more prestigious — universities. The least this author, Allegra Goodman, could have done was put up a road sign before taking us around this curve: Caution. Slow. Truth Ahead. Falling Rocks.

At last report, that Harvard faculty committee was backing away from making a separate course in religion part of the school’s core curriculum.

That’s understandable. Such an innovation could prove dangerous. A professor might slip up and make faith interesting, even imperative. And some student somewhere out there in the dimness of a lecture hall might get religion.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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