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Students: Big fans of religious diversity in abstract, but not in reality

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As a consequence of empty rhetoric about diversity, students champion it in the abstract — but deride the specifics of meaningful differences.

Though students say they want their colleges to be open and welcoming to all religions, they’re less inclined to support religious diversity when researchers give concrete examples, according to Inside Higher Ed.

As Jake New wrote:

About 85 percent of the freshmen said that it is “important for their colleges to provide a welcoming environment for individuals of diverse religious backgrounds and nonreligious perspectives.” The students said religious diversity is as important as other forms of diversity, including gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.

When students were asked about their own attitudes toward specific religious and nonreligious groups, however, the responses were not as aspirational. Just over half of the students surveyed said they had “highly appreciative attitudes” toward Buddhists, Jews and evangelical Christians. Less than half of students reported having highly appreciative attitudes toward atheists and Hindus.

About 43 percent said they had highly appreciative attitudes toward Muslims. Just 39 percent held favorable attitudes about Mormons.

The numbers come from a survey conducted by New York University and North Carolina State University professors. They aren’t encouraging. Students have been taught to respect diversity, but have not adapted those teachings to their beliefs.

College campuses are a chance for students to increase their interaction with students of different social and religious backgrounds. It’s a microcosm of society that most students won’t get exposed to afterward. Yet their opinions on specific religious beliefs don’t improve from the experience.

Either those exchanges are hardening their opposition to different beliefs and perspectives, or students have carved out circles that navigate them around those interactions. Students have a wealth of opportunity, but avoid uncomfortable discussions or a chance to form a religiously diverse social circle.

Yet students believe in diversity to rid society of problems.

“About 83 percent of respondents said that they agreed with the phrase ‘we can overcome many of the world’s major problems if people of different religious and nonreligious perspectives work together,’” New wrote.

The survey exposed the success of sloganeering and the failure of colleges to train students in thought. It’s easy to talk of the importance of “dialogue,” “diversity,” or “differing perspectives.” It’s hard, however, to teach the art of thinking, tolerance, and rigor. Students can praise religious diversity in the abstract, but not in reality.

It’s reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s critique of schooling in The Abolition of Man: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

A college education, fraught with restrictions on speech and prioritizing the intellectual safety of students over challenging them, fails to deliver on the promises of intellectual freedom.


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