Religious Universities Provide a Better Education, the Society Decides

The Society convened on April 12 for the twelfth debate of the semester to examine the question Resolved: Secular, not religious, universities provide a better education.

Ms. Amanda Wynter and Ms. Laura Higbee, making her affirmation, spoke on the affirmation.  Vice President Peter Prindiville and Mr. Dennis Quinn, making his induction, spoke on the negation.

Ms. Higbee began by framing the debate as a question of if religion should play a role in higher education, a question to which the affirmation answers that it should not be the overarching message, even though it can play a part in an individual’s experience. She defined a secular university as one that does not declare an official religion whereas a religious university does. She argued that secular education does a better job of promoting self-discovery and independence in its students. Generally, the main attraction of a religious university is its affiliated faith, and as such most students there tend to be of that faith, which limits the scope of exposure, whereas in a secular university students can better prepare to understand the plurality of the outside world. Mr. Quinn countered that he still hadn’t heard a definition of education and went on to define it as a student’s collected experiences, both academic and otherwise, that shape the student as an individual and prepare him to interact with his chosen community. He argued that religious universities teach students to understand and respect the beliefs of others and how religion shapes individuals and communities in addition to promoting an individual journey of faith. He argued that in the United States, where 92% of Americans believe in a god, you cannot be an effective citizen without understanding religion and how it effects and shapes our cultures. Although he admitted that there are some non-pluralistic religious universities, he argued that for those students, if they are so involved in one religion that it defines who they are, then they must learn to understand that well in order to understand themselves. Since we choose our community, we have to accept that some will choose a local, non-global one. Ms. Wynter countered that the negation seems to have contradictions and argued that secular universities offer an opportunity to find one’s way without the imposition of a preferred path by providing theology classes and religious resources but allowing it to be individual-driven. She argued that the reasons we love Georgetown and the high quality of education it provides need not stem from its religious affiliation, pointing out that the idea of cura personalis is implemented in many secular institutions too. She argued that the debate was not anti-religion vs. religion or secular vs. Georgetown, but rather, many ideologies and views vs. one overarching view. Vice President Prindiville asked, “Does the religious nature of an education provide something different or more?” He argued that the affirmation must show that a secular education has something inherently better. He stated that one can receive the benefits of a religious university without even knowing it was religious, and cautioned the Society against looking at only extreme examples. He presented three ares that make religious universities better. The first, institutional culture, could be found in the university’s charism, or founding purpose and reason for existence that provides it with a guiding mission, promoting a different type of mindset. Secondly, religious universities teach students mechanisms for self-discernment, or learning about themselves, by encouraging them to explore the “big questions” in life. Finally, they push students to lead a life of mission, which need not be religious, and work for a higher purpose.

Mr. Henderson began the floor speeches by arguing that Georgetown is a secular university. He used the fact that Descartes attended a Jesuit university yet said he learned nothing to argue that it was the rigid religious scholasticism of Jesuit universities that prevented genuine free thought, advising the Society not to be trapped by religion, but to be freed by science. Mr. Dulik countered that Georgetown is religious, which shows the great variety present in religious universities. We still have diversity and we have a religious identity that is “particularly, but not exclusively,” affiliated with the university. It is this that challenges us to confront our decisions and be individuals. President Marsh countered that religious universities create a bipolar, adversarial way of thinking whereas secular ones give us more options. Countering that secular universities can be very one-sided, Chancellor Iacono exclaimed, “Try being a Republican at Columbia!” Ultimately, the biggest difference lies in the models of teaching. At secular universities like Harvard and Yale, they teach the students to go out and be successful as individuals, whereas at religious universities have a mission to better the world. Mr. Donovan disagreed, arguing that Georgetown is the exception because it imitates secular universities, and schools like Liberty are the norm, and “to negate is to affirm those universities.” On the negation, Mr. Medina argued that Georgetown, and religious universities, produce a certain kind of citizen because it is these students that come out driven by an individual faith and an idea, not simply academic technicalities. Mr. Manchester countered, “I’d rather have a university that is overly inclusive, even of crazy ideas, than one that is even remotely exclusive.” Ms. Wood added a voice of pragmatism, pointing out that the goal of higher education is  not simply to find the Truth, but it is also to prepare students for jobs, and secular universities are far more accessible in terms of cost and location.

Vice President Prindiville argued that we need to look to the middle on both sides, not focusing on the extremely negative examples. He argued that it came down to the students and what will give them the best opportunity to understand themselves and their world. He concluded that being at a religious university forces you to address certain questions more than just in the classroom three times a week. Ms. Wynter argued again that the negation is not just Georgetown and that secular universities do in fact have missions and provide the opportunity for students to individually explore religion. Using a plant analogy, she asked which seed would be better prepared: the one that was in a nice pot inside under a great lamp that was only eve directed at one angle, or one that was planted outside and survived the elements, facing everything, the good and the bad, taking in what improved it. On the negation Mr. Quinn argued that when you come through a religious university, it does not mean that you have to be exactly what they want you to be. He argued that when we get out of bed and dow what we do, we are doing doing it for a belief in a higher power so we must living in a community that espouses values of these sorts, which is a religious university. Ms. Higbee disagreed, pointing out that you can still believe in God in a secular environment because all the resources are still present. Religious universities subtly provide a bias because they believe in that with which they affiliate. She question that since the negation argued that it doesn’t matter if your higher purpose is religious, then why does it matter if you go to a religious university?

The Society voted 17-6-31 to negate the resolution.

The Society inducted Ms. Higbee and Mr. Quinn.  Huzzah!


Emily R. Coccia

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