Monday, August 03, 2009

God and Majors

Some parents of faith have long worried about the possible impact of (secular) colleges on the religious observances of their children. A new national study that looks at trends between study of certain subjects and religious observance provides some evidence to back up those worries, but also may surprise members of some disciplines and some faiths. And the research also finds that religious students are more likely than others to attend college. The study is by four scholars at the University of Michigan and was released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract and ordering information available here). Among the findings:

The odds of going to college increase for high school students who attend religious services more frequently or who view religion as more important in their lives. The researchers speculate that there may be a "nagging theory" in which fellow churchgoers encourage the students to attend college.

Being a humanities or a social science major has a statistically significant negative effect on religiosity -- measured by either religious attendance and how important students consider the importance of religion in their lives. The impact appears to be strongest in the social sciences.

Students in education and business show an increase in religiosity over their time at college.

Majoring in the biological or physical sciences does not affect religious attendance of students, but majoring in the physical sciences does negatively relate to the way students view the importance of religion in their lives.

Religious attendance is positively associated with staying in majors in the social sciences, biological sciences and business majors. For most vocational majors, the researchers found a negative relationship between religious attendance and staying in the same major. The researchers compare this finding to their data about how students who attend services are more likely to enroll in college in the first place: "In both cases, religious attendance encourages a shift toward a higher status path."

The study also pays attention to those who switch majors in college, noting that initial majors may reflect in part students' pre-collegiate values (or parents' values and religiosity). Here the study students with high levels of religiosity are significantly more likely than others to switch into education majors, and more likely than others to switch into the humanities and biology.

The data in the study are from the Monitoring the Future Study, a University of Michigan research project that conducts surveys of a nationally representative sample of high school seniors, following a representative sample of them into college. The study is the primary source of national data on trends in drug use among students, but the survey participants are asked many questions about demographics, beliefs and education that allow for the comparisons made on student majors and religiosity.

The Michigan scholars who wrote the study -- Miles S. Kimball, Colter M. Mitchell, Arland D. Thornton and Linda C. Young-Demarco -- write that they were interested to see whether a scientific mindset would discourage religiosity, or whether postmodern ideas associated with the humanities and some other fields would.

"Our results are thus consistent with the overall theoretical framework guiding this research. We believe that there are important differences among the college majors in world views and overall philosophies of life....," they write. "[O]ur results suggest that postmodernism, rather than science, is the bête noir -- the strongest antagonist -- of religiosity."


Should Public Schools Close for Muslim Holidays?

New York City public schools have long recognized Christian and Jewish holidays. Now many Muslims want classes canceled for theirs as well. Last month the City Council agreed, passing a nonbinding resolution which urges that Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha be included. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has the final say on the matter, is not so enthusiastic. "If you close the schools for every single holiday," he argued, "there won't be any school."

Addressing the dispute begins with understanding how religious holidays end up on public school calendars. Though the First Amendment blocks government bodies from promoting religion, faith-based holidays often have secular impacts that can be taken into account. Specifically, if enough students — not to mention teachers and staff — will not show up on a given date, it is difficult to conduct business as usual. Charles C. Haynes writes:

Christian and Jewish holiday closings can probably be justified under the First Amendment because there are legitimate secular grounds for the policy. In New York City, Christians remain the majority faith and Jews make up approximately 12% of the population.

If New York schools are unable to function well due to high absenteeism among students and faculty on certain holy days, then school officials may close for educational reasons without violating the establishment clause.

So how many Muslims attend New York City public schools? Activists who support the resolution claim that 12% of students are Muslim. It must be noted, however, that U.S. Islamic groups have a history of overstating the size of the population they represent. Indeed, a 2008 Columbia University study estimates that Muslims comprise closer to 10% of city pupils, while others insist that the fraction is lower still. Clearly we require better data.

Yet if it could be demonstrated objectively that the numbers of Muslims and Jews in the school system are comparable, it is hard to see how the city would be able to justify canceling classes for Jewish holidays but not for Muslim ones. After all, the same secular arguments used to back closure on religious holidays would apply equally to each set.

Because conflicts are inevitable in a diverse school system with ever-shifting demographics, New York City would be wise to adopt a neutral formula for recognizing holidays, based solely on the number of students who celebrate them. It also would be reasonable to grant pupils an excused absence or two that could be put toward fulfilling religious requirements.

Successfully navigating the challenges of a multi-faith society starts with a simple mantra: equal rights for all and special privileges for none. To this end, if and when schools accommodate religious holidays, they must do so in a manner that is unbiased and detached from politics.


Britain: Teacher who complained about training day 'promoting gay rights' is cleared

A senior teacher who was suspended after complaining that a training day for staff was used to promote gay rights has been reinstated. Kwabena Peat, 54, is to return to his £50,000-a-year job at a North London school next term after his plight was highlighted by The Mail on Sunday in April.

Mr Peat was one of several Christian staff who walked out of the compulsory training session in January after an invited speaker questioned why heterosexuality was assumed to be natural.

Mr Peat, a history teacher who is also a head of year, said he had expected the session on child protection issues merely to provide information to help teachers tackle homophobic bullying.

He sent a written complaint to three staff members involved in organising the session and was then suspended because they said they felt harassed by the letter.

The teacher, supported by the Christian Legal Centre and human rights lawyer Paul Diamond, denied harassment as the staff to whom he had complained were senior to him. The school’s appeal panel has now agreed the charge was out of proportion.

The director of the Christian Legal Centre, Andrea Williams, said: ‘What kind of society are we living in when a legitimate orthodox Christian view is construed in this way?’


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