ONE OF THE MANY paradoxes of America is that it is the same nation to give birth to pay-per-view pornography and the Christian Broadcasting Network, Planned Parenthood and the Promise Keepers. It hosts among the highest rates of divorce, violent crime, and drug abuse in the world, and yet significant minorities that shun drinking, gambling, dating, and even tea. Perhaps only in its natural diversity is its moral diversity exceeded.

Unsurprisingly then, its university system, the microcosm in which a society conceives its own image, is just as variegated. For those readers who studied in secular institutions, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s first and new book, God on the Quad, opens a fascinating window onto the alternate universe of religious colleges and universities. Once a negligible player in the American higher education scene, sectarian schools have since buoyed upwards, aided in part by surging enrollments and a renaissance in the evangelical world. The Ave Maria School of Law for example, a Catholic institution founded with a generous grant from the founder of the Dominoes Pizza Corporation, routinely averages in the top 25 law schools of the nation. Other schools have cultivated top-notch curriculums, imparting the Great Books to their students. Wheaton College, sometimes referred to as the “Harvard of evangelicals”, ranks 11th among all liberal arts colleges for the number of their graduates who go on to earn PhDs.

Riley begins her study with profiles of six schools, two Protestant-affiliated: Bob Jones University and Baylor University; two Catholic: Notre Dame University and Saint Thomas Aquinas College, one Mormon: Brigham Young University; and one Jewish: Yeshiva University. She concludes with analyses of what she regards as “six of the most salient issues” in religious higher education: the integration of faith and learning, student life, racial diversity, religious diversity, political activism, and feminism.

Her style is journalistic, relying heavily upon quotations from students, faculty, and administrators to paint an image for the reader of the school and its constituents. Student life holds a particular interest for her, and she devotes much of the book to describing a world far removed from the stereotypical college experience.

Visitors to Magdalen College, for example, will find no puerile posters of Jim Belushi as wall décor is prohibited. Magdalen students must further fold all of their clothes neatly, leave their desks uncluttered, and carry an extra pair of shoes with them so as not to sully campus buildings. Students at Bob Jones University are not permitted to listen to any music other than classical and must obtain their parents permission before dating. Wheaton college is a dry campus. None of the schools she visited experiences significant problems with drugs.

If God on the Quad falls short, it is first for its style. Riley seems uncertain of her purposes, writing primarily objectively, reporting her subjects voices in sympathetic manner and regularly employing statistics. At other times, however, she interjects her own judgments, often quite harsh. Bob Jones University’s decisions about minority admissions for example she refers to as “backward” and a revelation to a prophet of the Mormon Church she refers to skeptically as a “revelation.” In her introduction she even goes so far as to state that the education of secular schools is “spiritually empty.”

How odd that she should begin her book with a condemnation of secular schools’ “spiritual emptiness”, given her lack of in-depth treatment of the spiritual richness of religious education. She devotes only one chapter of her book: “The Classroom as Chapel”, to the subject and gives her readers little appreciation of the pains religious colleges have taken to unite faith with reason. What for example does a Christian perspective on teaching literature or mathematics look like? Rather than take the reader deep into the thought of such prominent contemporary thinkers as Alan Jacobs, Mark Noll, and George Marsden, who have all written extensively on these questions, she provides only cursory brushes, restricting herself to whatever can be captured by a short quotation from an interview or a book.

Riley concludes with a question she says she was invariably asked: “Have you visited any Muslim colleges?” Her answer is that “despite a population of some four million in the U.S. . . . Muslim higher education is virtually non-existent.” By way of explanation she cites the lack of discrimination comparable to that which historically forced Jews and Catholics to found their own schools (Jewish numbers were restricted at most IvyLeague schools via quotas through the 1950s).

For those interested in developing an American Muslim college or university, God on the Quad is useful insofar as it identifies many of the logistical, academic, legal, and social hurdles that would invariably have to be overcome: How does one teach cultural engagement without becoming mired in culture’s less salutary aspects? How can one best facilitate the moral development of the study body? How can one assuage skeptical employers and entice otherwise Ivy-League bound applicants?

In the end, God on the Quad is more about the “quad” than the classroom. As a guide to the scene, readers would do well to begin here, but after lingering for a while, should quickly move on to the library.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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