In the fall of 1701, a group of 10 Protestant ministers came together to form the “Collegiate School,” a theological seminary aimed at providing a sound religious education for students. Over the first 150 years of its existence, the College expanded its curriculum, requiring students to be well-versed in logic and the natural sciences as well as Biblical texts. A Yale education was an education of spirit, first, and a preparation for worldly pursuits, second. Yale could not create good leaders without first creating good men. The College’s ability to balance these two modes of education, the spiritual and the worldly, made it a unique place to produce national leaders.
Yale has come a long way since its humble beginnings over three hundred years ago. Yet, for a school that has spent the greater part of its history producing ministers of the church, it seems strange that today most Yalies would not consider religious practice a necessary part of their moral and spiritual education.
We have instead relegated religion to the “cultural space,” denying ourselves the very characteristics that make religion special. Where there were once classes debating the merits of faith and our personal obligations to one another, we now have classes where we read the Bible as literature and interpret Islamic theology through the lens of politics. Religion has become an ornament to be studied at convenience, rather than an important way of ordering our lives.
We must recognize that religion is one of the few institutions on campus that balances our individualistic tendencies. At its heart, religious practice is about centering our life around our relationship with God; it requires reflecting on life choices, serving the community and subduing selfish attitudes. While there are organizations on campus that fulfill any one of these functions — and their members should be lauded — only in religion can one find the harmonious synthesis of all three.
Yale should be responsible for the moral education of its students. One of the first steps it can take towards that end is instituting a theology requirement. At universities like Georgetown, students are required to take classes on theology in addition to core requirements in the humanities and the sciences. The theological classes are taught by Georgetown’s Jesuit professors who challenge students’ beliefs, atheists and theists alike, in classes such as “Problems of God.”
One could argue that this suggestion leaves very little room for atheists and agnostics. “Yale may have started out as a theological seminary, but today it is a secular institution,” they would argue. “Who are we to force religion on what should otherwise be a neutral, a-religious space?” This view is not wholly without merit; because Yale is a global institution, it would be inappropriate for the University to be engaged in the business of assimilating its students into a single religious tradition. Such a view, however, obscures the difference between the University encouraging its students to actively engage religious questions and the University endorsing any one religious view. Yale’s obligation to respect the various cultural backgrounds of its students does not absolve it of its responsibility to provide for our moral education. A secular Yale need not be an atheist one.
If you were to take a straw poll of students’ favorite classes on Yale’s campus, you would find that the most praised classes are the ones that force us to think about how we ought to live our lives: “Death” with Shelly Kagan, “Humility” with David Brooks and “Fractal Geometry” with Michael Frame. The clear demand for classes that educate us on how to be good people is further evidence of our expectations of Yale. Yet, external incentive structures such as job security, major requirements and GPA orient us away from the classes and clubs that would make us good people. If Yale is to fulfill its mission of producing global leaders, it needs to emphasize both our spiritual and professional development. A theology requirement would be a simple means of fulfilling that obligation.
Ugonna Eze is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.