College Board C.E.O.: Religious schools have gifts for everyone

Students and faculty at The Catholic University of America celebrate graduation on May 12 in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Dana Rene Bowler, courtesy The Catholic University of America) Students and faculty at The Catholic University of America celebrate graduation on May 12 in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Dana Rene Bowler, courtesy The Catholic University of America) 

There is a division that haunts us in education. It diminishes the human spirit and too often brings us into conflict. I am talking about the divides between religious schools and secular schools in this country, whether in grade schools or in colleges. We need a more productive relationship between faith and education, where we not only tolerate the diversity of educational institutions but cherish it.

We need a conversation that fosters a deeper respect for the learning that happens at these institutions, and this dialogue can only occur if we adopt shared virtues. In the rancorous times we live in, we must move beyond disagreement to the patient devotion that allows us to learn and grow.

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There are several distinctive gifts that the best religious schools bring. The first is productive solitude.

My first opinion piece as president of the College Board was published by the National Review, and it was a defense of Wheaton College, the same evangelical college I had visited to discuss C.S. Lewis, reading and the religious tradition. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania had argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton’s accreditation should be removed, along with those of many other religious colleges, because they required declarations of faith. I wrote not only in defense of Wheaton’s right to exist but in “gratitude that it does exist” and went on to extol the special qualities of teaching and learning I had seen at the college.

I ended the essay with words I still believe:

If students want to further both their intellectual and spiritual development at an accredited religious institution, if they feel they will learn best in that kind of setting, if they want to be part of a community that has a faith tradition (often not their own), they should have that option, with federal aid. It’s a wonderful thing and a source of strength that we have religious diversity among our institutions of higher education.

There are several distinctive gifts that the best religious schools bring. The first is productive solitude. We need not travel as far as a monastery to see the essential link between solitude, contemplation and learning. Today the technology of interruption has outpaced the technology of concentration, but there is no deep analysis in math or any other academic subject that is possible without long periods spent alone in devoted focus. The research on deliberate practice required for excellence in any field—from the arts to athletics to academics—shows that productive solitude is essential to achieving excellence. The digital world has changed none of this and has made no shortcuts. It still takes extended concentration to make or do anything great. But our society has made it harder to pay sustained attention. It is urgent for all educators to recover the deep knowledge and practice of productive solitude that our religious institutions have spent centuries cultivating.

Think what many of our secular colleges have lost when there are no longer books that everyone has read.

This is one reason why my family and I keep the Sabbath holy. I am moved by the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s most influential Jewish theologians, on God’s role in forging the “architecture” of time. Time is uniquely holy in a way that material objects are not, Rabbi Heschel wrote, describing the Sabbath as “a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” And who can forget the call of Isaiah: “In returning and rest shall you be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”

Another gift of religious schools is the reverent reading of shared texts, with the full powers of the mind and heart. C.S. Lewis compares reading well to looking at a work of art: “We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”

In so many schools, students are asked more about themselves and their preoccupations than about the books they have read. But at issue is not only how we read but whether we have texts in common. Think what many of our secular colleges have lost when there are no longer books that everyone has read. What is lost at the university in which so little is universal? People forget that in the most vibrant eras of the university, it cultivated a great debate between faith and other perspectives, but that debate is not possible when common texts like the Bible are lost. (On a more personal note, I recently saw the transformative effect a shared text can have on a community of people from all walks of life when I hosted a Passover seder at my home.)

A third gift offered by religious schools is grace and gratitude. A religious training invites us to strive with all our might but also to recognize the limits of our power. My job gives me the blessing of dealing with many students and their families who have earned academic distinctions of all sorts; let me assure you that what is lasting is the grace and gratitude that makes a young person both more humble and stronger, less fragile in their success. We have all too many examples in our society of highly successful people who have hurt us all by taking still more, drunk on an exaggerated sense of what they believe they have earned by their own hand alone. In replacing entitlement with gratitude, we are invited to think deeply about what we owe to others instead of what is owed to us.

If we are going to make education excellent, we must go beyond defending the right of religious schools to exist. We must celebrate and share their gifts.

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