Religion dept. FSP location frustrates

by Kaitlin Bell | 7/23/03 5:00am

Steeped in Scottish history and culture and home to an ancient Christian divinity school, Edinburgh might seem like the perfect place to hold the Religion department's Foreign Study Program.

But a number of professors and students alike said that the program's location in Scotland's capital city, while full of interesting out-of-class opportunities, is far from ideal academically.

Students who have attended the program said that the courses they took at New College Divinity School came up short intellectually -- in large part because of the institution's theological focus. And according to some students and professors, the program's location is antithetical to the Dartmouth religion department's commitment to a secular study of faith.

"We are a religion department -- not a theological department," religion professor Susannah Heschel said. "Why we would send students to a Christian denominational institution, I don't know."

Heschel worried that Jewish, Muslim or Hindu students might feel uncomfortable in a place where an assumed Christian faith is integral to the teaching.

But some religion majors suggested that being exposed to a different kind of teaching of religion is valuable -- no matter what kind of theology is being taught.

"I personally had no problem with the Christian focus," Ryan Abraham '04 said. "I'd taken a breadth of Eastern religion and other non-Christianity classes at Dartmouth and I went over there knowing that Christian theology is their specialty -- it's a tremendous place if you're interested in that."

Other program participants who do not consider themselves devout followers of any religion said that they did not feel burdened by the preponderance of ministers-in-training.

"One of the ladies in my Christian ethics class was about to be ordained," Brennan Mallonee '04 said. "But I never got the feeling that she was trying to push anything on me."

The bigger problem, professors and students said, is that the theological focus makes for a less-than-rigorous academic experience.

New College offers mostly courses in Christian theology, including some that students said were more conducive to personal testimonials of faith than the kind of intellectual analysis they are used to at Dartmouth.

"It was definitely more theological than Dartmouth," Abiel Acosta '04 said. "I felt like I was being trained in seminary to be a priest or a minister. One of my classes was like Sunday school."

A significant percentage of the reformation theology class was comprised of adults training for the ministry who were unwilling to engage in the kind of objective intellectual debate that Dartmouth students usually take for granted, Acosta said.

The same was sometimes true for Christian ethics, others noted.

The older ministers-in-training often "threw in life stories and information that really wasn't very pertinent to the course, and sometimes they were preaching," Abraham said.

The overall result, students said, was a term that was socially and culturally invaluable, but academically, a breeze.

"It was my best term socially," Mallonee said. "There's nothing like sitting in Starbucks and looking outside and seeing a castle."

Still, she and others noted that their terms in Scotland were nowhere near as challenging as a typical term at Dartmouth.

"I didn't feel like I learned a lot," Mallonee said.

But professors said that a range of academic options -- some of them under the tutelage of noted scholars -- are open to students and that they are in no way forced or even limited to courses within the divinity school that focus on Christianity. New College is affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, which offers a range of classes on religious subjects that more closely resemble the religious studies classes typical of Dartmouth and other American institutions.

Several scholars at the university are particularly prominent in their fields, including Islam and Buddhism, former Dartmouth religion professor Amy Hollywood said, adding that the Middle Eastern Studies and the Art History departments offer excellent courses in Islam and Islamic art, while many philosophy courses also deal with religious issues.

The Religion department warns students against taking courses that are notorious for being taught by hard-line theologians. Other classes, such as pastoral counseling, are outlawed altogether for class credit.

Some students said, though, that despite this advice, they ended up taking classes that they wished they had been told to avoid.

But Heschel, who is also the chair of the Jewish Studies program, said that regardless of the other options available outside of New College, the very act of holding the program within a divinity school has the potential to put some students ill at ease.

"When I was a student I would have been deeply offended," she said. "Every FSP should be comfortable for every student."

Nor is the religion department unaware of some of the potential problems with the program. Within the department, the location of the FSP has long been a subject of ongoing debate, Hollywood said, although no formal vote on moving the program during her time at Dartmouth in the 1990s.

Department members periodically raise concerns about the appropriateness of holding the program at a theological institution, but the primary concern for professors has been the academic rigor of the program, Hollywood said.

But if the classes at New College are less challenging than professors -- and some students -- would prefer, the courses offered at the University of London, where the program was held until the mid 1980s, were far worse, Professor Susan Ackerman said.

Ackerman, who will lead the FSP in the fall, also attended the London program as an undergraduate. She described the University of London's classes as "intellectually lightweight." Students took classes pass/fail and had almost no outside assignments, she said.

"I think my colleagues in the department had some problems with the academic integrity of the program," she said, adding that the lack of affordable housing in London makes Edinburgh -- where program participants live in dormitories with Scottish students -- a far more desirable location.

But Ackerman acknowledged that Edinburgh's lack of religious diversity makes for a more Christian-centered curriculum than she or most of her colleagues would like to see, given the department's efforts to offer a curriculum at Dartmouth that represents a variety of religious beliefs.

"In my fantasy life our program would be in Jerusalem," she said. "But that's not a viable option right now. Similarly, holding it at a major temple center in India would be interesting, but there's a marketability issue there too."

That secular religious studies are a primarily American phenomenon and that any religion study-abroad program would need to be offered in a place where English is the language of instruction does little to expand the department's other options.