TNaomi Schaefer Riley, who’s spent time at NR and the Wall Street Journal, writing for both, as well as writing for the Boston Globe, New York Times, and others, is author of the new book God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America. In it she reports on her travels to a variety of religious colleges in the U.S. In these schools, for the most part, red-state students are escaping the broader secular college to prepare to engage it. God on the Quad is about a movement on the rise, which you’re soon to hear a lot more about.
Riley recently talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about red-state educations, the singles’ scene on the quad, and more.
National Review Online: What’s the “missionary generation”? Can we call them Gen M?
Naomi Riley: Sure. Generation M sounds very hip. And the missionary generation is nothing if not with it. But the members of Generation M–religious-college graduates–are quite distinctive from their secular counterparts. And the stronger the religious affiliation of the school, the more distinctive they are. The young men and women attending the 20 religious colleges I visited in 2001 and 2002 are red through and through. (Though the schools are sometimes located in blue states, the majority of students hail from red states and view faith accordingly.) They reject the spiritually empty education of secular schools. They refuse to accept the sophisticated ennui of their contemporaries. They snub the “spiritual but not religious” attitude. They rebuff the intellectual relativism of professors and the moral relativism of their peers.
These attitudes mean that the missionary generation doesn’t participate in the typical model of college behavior. They don’t spend their college years experimenting with sex or drugs. They marry early and plan ahead for family life. They oppose sex outside of marriage, as well as homosexual relationships. Most dress modestly and don’t drink, use drugs, or smoke. While they would disagree among themselves about what it means to be a religious person, they all assume that trying to live by a set of rules, generally laid down in scripture, is the prerequisite for a healthy, productive, and moral life.
NRO: How big of a deal is this population? How large; geographically where are they? Are they going to work in their churches or are they all mixing in the general population?
Riley: There are about 1.3 million students in religious colleges today and that number is growing fast. For instance, enrollment at the over 100 member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (four-year liberal arts colleges committed to teaching Christian doctrine, hiring only professors who share the faith, and providing a Christian atmosphere outside the classroom) jumped a remarkable 60 percent between 1990 and 2002, while the number of students at public and private schools barely fluctuated.
The missionary generation is a small but increasingly influential group. Unlike members of their parents’ generation, these religious youth want to move to blue America–they dream of living in the cultural and political centers of the country. And no, they don’t see their primary role as working in churches. They go on for advanced degrees and aim to become professionals in every walk of life. A good number join the Army. They are also becoming lawyers, doctors, politicians, college professors, businessmen, psychologists, accountants, and philanthropists.
NRO: Does Gen M have the power to change social trends in dramatic ways?
Riley: Absolutely. Because they are willing to leave their comfort zone. They don’t want to live in communities with people who are just like them. They want to have influence on the culture as a whole. And I should say that this doesn’t mean they’re knocking on doors proselytizing–some are, but this is really such a small part of how their influence comes through. They are involved in community-service organizations, in the running of businesses, in school systems, in politics on the local and the national levels. Their missionary work is much more subtle and more powerful.
NRO: How did you choose the 20 colleges you wound up at? There are some 700 religious colleges in the U.S., right?
Riley: I have to acknowledge that the schools I visited were chosen somewhat haphazardly. First, the schools I discuss constitute a tiny fraction of the religiously affiliated colleges out there, and for each school I stopped at, I heard about another four or five that I should also have visited. I tried to visit schools of a variety of denominations, but the number of each kind of school does not correspond with the population they represent. In some cases, I visited a few from one religious group to see if my observations were true across institutional lines. For the most part, I focused on undergraduate programs, but there are a few graduate schools I visited as well, which I think display characteristics similar to the colleges. I picked some well-known schools of which many readers are likely already to have at least general impressions, and others that are quite obscure to the general public.
I tried to spend time mostly at schools that have strong religious affiliations, but that judgment is inevitably subjective. As indicators of the strength of a school’s religious affiliation I considered such factors as whether the majority of a school’s students were religious, whether professors had to sign a statement of faith, whether they had to be of the same denomination as the school, whether the school had mandatory chapel attendance, and how strict the behavior codes were. The schools described here nonetheless represent various levels of religiosity; in a couple of cases, the schools turned out to be hardly religious at all.
NRO: Not to be too prurient here, but: Do these kids at religious schools walk the walk? Is there less sex, drugs, and rock and roll?
Riley: I have to say that religious-college students generally seem to avoid the kind of trouble that put secular campuses in the headlines. There are certain exceptions, of course, but on the whole, religious campuses are devoid of the alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, and violence that plague many secular universities. Some of this stuff goes on, but the standards are set high and when people violate the rules, they’re careful not to flaunt it. It creates a whole different environment.
There are a few factors at work here. First, most of these kids actually want to be at these schools. It’s not their parents making them go. And when they get there it’s almost a relief. In high school they were often subject to a barrage of bad influences. At religious colleges, though, their standards of behavior are the norm. Second, I would say the colleges are pretty clear about their rules and fair about the enforcement of them. The aim isn’t to kick students out, but to get them to be a little more reflective about their behavior. If they do violate the rules, the administration generally takes what they call a “redemptive” attitude, trying to help students prevent it from happening again.
NRO: Do religious colleges get respect? Some consider them less rigorous and less free–the old academic freedom debate. Are they? How to they measure up? How do their faculties measure up?
Riley: Across the board, religious colleges are getting better applicants and their academic standards are going up, and they’re beginning to get more respect as well. Wheaton ranks 11th in the country in the percentage of its graduates going on to get PhD’s, for instance. Evangelical colleges in general have improved enormously in the last few decades.
Just like with secular colleges, there is a range of religious colleges. But in trying to decide between secular and religious colleges whose students report comparable SAT scores and GPAs, there is at least one academic advantage that colleges of faith seem to offer–a more motivated environment. The students I have observed and interviewed tend to approach their studies with a sense of mission. As the kids at BYU say, “The glory of God is intelligence.” That’s a pretty strong motivator. When asked how teaching at a religious college differs from their previous experience teaching at secular ones, dozens of professors have offered me the same answer: The students here do the work and they come to class.
As for academic freedom, as NRO readers surely know, the standard is not very high. Secular colleges say they offer academic freedom but only within a very small politically correct range. Religious-college professors are generally hired only after they can explain why they agree with the mission of the school and how their faith will play a role in the way they teach their discipline. So right there you have a filtering process. These schools offer a real liberal arts education though. But if a professor at BYU starts denouncing the Mormon church in class, you can bet they won’t be around long.
NRO: The Catholic schools are all having internal and wider debates about their religious identity-what’s your sense of the lay of that land? More going to go secular or get back to their roots?
Riley: Just like in the rest of the Catholicism, where there is a widening gap between the conservative and the liberal, Catholic colleges and universities are moving in two different directions. Many Jesuit schools are becoming increasingly secular. In many cases, there are few priests left on campus, the student body is usually only a minority Catholic one and the faculty is made up of mostly non-Catholics or nominal ones. The smaller conservative ones are reacting to that reality. Their student bodies are almost entirely Catholic, the faculties are all Catholic. Many students are considering vocations and the academic life revolves around the Catholic intellectual tradition.
But many of these conservative communities are so concerned that they shut out the influence of liberals within Catholicism that they close themselves off from the rest of the country. One college I visited considered eliminating their political-science department because it was too worldly. A young woman at another school told me her peers suggested her parents must not love her very much since they didn’t homeschool her. Many graduates of these colleges remain in the immediate area of their school after graduation, because they are too worried about living outside of these communities.
NRO: When you asked students why they were at these schools, were most there for the reasons one might think-the principles of the place? Or were there large I-just-had-to-choose-a-school populations-or their parents made them?
Riley: Students rarely attended because their parents made them. Admissions officers confirmed for me that the process has become much more student driven lately. Evangelical youth groups play a big role in introducing young religious people to evangelical colleges for instance. I was surprised to find that most of the students applied to both secular and religious colleges and then weighed the options–looking at the atmosphere and the academics–and then made their decisions, much like many secular college applicants.
NRO: You report that more students dropped out of Bob Jones than Harvard to join the military post-9/11–is that a trend across these schools?
Riley: There is a strong sense of patriotism at these schools. You didn’t see many protests at these schools after 9/11 and they’re largely supportive of sending troops to Iraq too. BYU has a tremendous ROTC program. There aren’t a ton of kids who are leaving college to join the Army–they consider their college education very important–but there are plenty who are considering military service after graduation.
NRO: What kind of effect is/will the rise of religious colleges have on higher ed more generally?
Riley: Well, to start with, I think religion will eventually regain a place of respect in the classroom. People will be more willing to study the interaction between religion and literature, religion and philosophy and even, between religion and science. I think there will ultimately have to be an acknowledgement among even the faculty of the elite secular universities that religious people are not just stupid or crazy.
NRO: Who’s the target audience of God on the Quad? Parents? Educators?
Riley: I think there are several groups of people who would find this book worthwhile. Certainly parents and teachers who are helping young people choose a college. But I think it’s broader than that. The missionary generation is coming to a neighborhood, an office, a city council, a soup kitchen, or a school near you. If you want to know something of what to expect, I think you’ll find it in God on the Quad.
NRO: You’re more secular than not, right? Anyone try to convert you?
Riley: I’m a Conservative Jew, but compared with the people I interviewed, I would say faith plays a less significant role in my life. As for conversions, a dean at Bob Jones tried. There was no hellfire or brimstone mentioned but he emphasized that he loves the Jews and he just hoped I used my time at their university to come to Jesus. It was an awkward moment but nothing you couldn’t handle with a “Thanks for your time. I have to be going now.” A young woman at BYU gave me a Book of Mormon. And that was about it. I think that these young men and women see explicit proselytizing as a kind of last resort. I can’t tell you the number of kids who quoted the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Everywhere you go, preach the Gospels. Use words if you must!”
NRO: Going around to these colleges as you did, what most surprised you, a specific incident perhaps, or overall?
Riley: I think the most surprising thing from a sociological point of view is that religious colleges have racial self-segregation problems in much the same way secular colleges do. You’ll have to read my chapter on race to find out why. But from a personal perspective, the fact that almost no one tried to convert me was very shocking.
NRO: You’re a Harvard girl–wish you went you were at one of these schools?
Riley: Not really. I liked Harvard. To be honest, I went there over the objections of my conservative parents. I learned if you do a lot of research, you can find good people to study with there. And I worked on the Harvard Salient, the conservative paper, too, so I had some conservative friends. If I were very religious, though, I think I’d be attracted to a religious college. It seems like there would be more freedom to speak and act the way my faith taught me to.
Buy God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America from Amazon here.