This pandemic fall semester has understandably raised anxieties about whether students will receive valuable instruction in the academic topics they study in class. But it also threatens the psychosocial learning students do in college, as well as the opportunities for personal development that so many of them seek.
Among the hallmarks of in-person higher education that students might lose in a semester or entire year without ordinary campus encounters are chances to learn from and build relationships with people who are different from them. Given the profound religious diversity in both the United States and globally, exchange across worldview differences is a crucial part of this story—and one that can be overlooked.
Just think: Remote education means no Friday night invitations to a Shabbat dinner for students unfamiliar with Judaism; no public Diwali celebrations that spark conversations of Hinduism and Indian cultures; no late-night pancake parties the night before exams hosted by campus Christian clubs that foster meaningful discussion over a meal.
Making matters worse—and despite the importance of understanding what other people believe for potentially also understanding their political behavior during an election year—students may go their entire college careers without having to take a class that introduces them to religious traditions different from the ones with which they’re familiar when they arrive as first-years. At many institutions, it’s those interactions that happen outside the classroom and those friendships built in residence halls, clubs and dining halls that support these developmental trajectories for all students.
While the loss of in-person campus community life may deal a blow to extracurricular programs of all kinds, diminished opportunities for interfaith learning directly relates to the mission common to so many colleges to develop “global citizens.” Research shows that students involved in interfaith friendships exhibit desirable collegiate outcomes such as goodwill and acceptance of others, appreciation of interreligious commonalities and differences, and commitment to interfaith leadership and service.
Given the importance of college for worldview development and cross-cultural exchanges, can interfaith learning continue in a virtual setting? We believe it can. But will it? Probably not—unless additional action is taken.
In this article, we envision how we can maintain interfaith engagement, which we see an essential component of the collegiate experience, even during a remote-learning semester. The upshot? Unless institutions take intentional steps to include religious literacy and interfaith dialogue formally and deliver these engagements virtually, current college students will miss out on important learning opportunities in a pluralistic world.
Learning Interfaith … Or Not
We base our insights and recommendations on findings from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), a national research study involving thousands of students on 122 campuses in the U.S. Mayhew and Rockenbach are co-principal investigators on this multi-year study, Selznick is a research affiliate, and Shaheen is a graduate student working on the project.
We all share a deep interest in studying faith and worldview as an aspect of diversity and development within the college experience. This study has allowed us to identify the experiences that help college students grow in a number of interpersonal dimensions, including appreciating others, creating friendships across faith lines, and becoming more globally-minded citizens.
Some of our findings from the pre-pandemic era were disconcerting in terms of the time that students spent learning about religious diversity. Looked at comprehensively, our data shows that students are more likely to dedicate time to learning about different races, nationalities, political leanings, sexual orientations, and gender identities than they are to learning about people of different religious and secular identities, including Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, and Latter-day Saints.
These data suggest that while college students are gaining vital education along crucial dimensions of identity differences, they are not gaining the necessary knowledge they need to meaningfully interact across worldviews. We speculate, especially given the at times “opt-in” nature of such engagement, that this lack of time focused on religious literacy will only increase as education moves to virtual environments.
Making Friends Across Worldview Differences
Our findings also affirmed that interpersonal relationships matter for positive growth in appreciation of diverse religious identities across the board. College is an optimal time for students to make and sustain friendships across differences, according to our data. Students come to college with varying numbers of friends of different religious or non-religious traditions, with 93 percent reported having at least one friend holding a different worldview identity. After only one year in college, the vast majority of students who started college with friends across worldviews either maintained friendships at that level or made more.
And these diverse friendships matter. Students who make a close friend from a different worldview become more appreciative of that friend’s worldview. Even more compelling is the positive effect that close interfaith friendships have on students’ appreciation of all worldviews.
In-person college campuses provide many avenues for new relationship building such as residential halls, dining areas and recreation facilities, among others. In fact, colleges are intentionally designed—as both locations and experiences—to foster sustained, novel social interactions. Interfaith friendships seem to form when students engage with peers of other worldviews both formally and informally, such as while socializing or using a shared interfaith space on campus.
In short, students make interfaith friendships through collegiate interactions, but can these friendship connections be made and sustained online? We worry not, or at least not as naturally nor as frequently.
Moving Interfaith Online
So … what do we do now?
The shift to remote instruction in higher education does not necessarily eliminate all opportunities for interfaith engagement. Our evidence suggests, however, that these opportunities must become much more intentional.
Time dedicated to interfaith learning during college is already uneven and inconsistent, and thanks to pandemic conditions, relevant peer interaction is likely to become far more self-selective. As a corrective, we strongly encourage educators to consider avenues for incorporating conversations connected to worldview diversity explicitly into the formal curriculum, and to help increase partnerships among campus-affiliated worldview identity groups.
Certainly, the most effective method for ensuring students dedicate more time to religion would be to require courses in religious literacy or interfaith dialogue as part of the general education curriculum. This would not only provide a space for all students to take time to engage religious topics, it would signal to current and prospective students that worldview diversity is a core part of what it means to be considered college-educated in the 21st century.
If a full required course is infeasible, at least in the near term, colleges should find opportunities within existing and upcoming required academic courses to incorporate interfaith learning. One potential avenue for action is to ensure that required diversity courses meaningfully and intentionally incorporate religion. Another opportunity for helping students spend more dedicated time thinking about religion could be to introduce interfaith issues in required first-year seminars or success courses.
Whichever route taken to move religion and interfaith from voluntary to required subjects, instructors should go beyond traditional group interactions and collaborative work to design more invitational pedagogies, such as assigning students to share virtual meals or swap life histories. This can foster climates in which students are motivated to build relationships and create friendships even in the absence of a physical presence on campus. Instructors may also look for creative and non-place-based approaches to learning and dialogue that draw on the unique opportunities afforded by online learning. These may include inviting guest speakers from another campus or nation, facilitating generative conversations through online whiteboards, and intentionally using virtual breakout rooms to facilitate authentic reflection.
If institutions begin planning now, pilot required courses can be ready to launch by spring if not sooner—regardless of delivery format.
Regarding peer-led social interaction, although it’s impossible to truly replace chance encounters with peers of different worldviews, our pre-pandemic data suggest that many students are able to intentionally find space in college to express their own worldview. This speaks to the importance of worldview-based groups on campus, both formalized groups such as Chabad on Campus and informal groups such as Catholic Student Associations.
We wonder, then, whether these groups could work with campus offices and student communities to meaningfully re-imagine forms of exchange for the virtual space. Organizations could collaborate to co-host discussions or celebrate fall-term religious holidays, for example.
One key strength of such organizations is that they may have already built close communities prior to the pandemic and have leadership structures and resources that can quickly turn ideas for virtually fostering connections into meaningful action. While perhaps drawing on a more self-selected audience than curricular requirements, such opportunities may build connections that can promote vibrant communities that are ready to re-engage face-to-face experiences as campuses reopen.
As administrators consider building robust interfaith communities—and, perhaps, sustainable student communities in general—they should ensure that students have space to engage safely and productively with those both holding their own and holding differing perspectives. Before COVID-19 changed how campuses operate, those spaces were often physical: dining halls, student organizations, guest lectures and campus initiatives. Through and post-COVID, such spaces must still exist. On this account, religious and also co-curricular and student leaders should be provided opportunities to promote their programming (e.g., virtual club fairs) and seek avenues to inspire collaboration, coordination, continuity, and community through such engagement—especially for first-year students who haven’t yet found their “home” within the university.
We have to ask ourselves as educators: Do we truly see value in fostering interfaith understanding and religious literacy in college students? If the answer to that is “yes,” we must make sustained and formal efforts to ensure students are engaging in these topics, especially in the many virtual and online classes being held this term. Ideally, we can also see this time as an opportunity to creatively build knowledge-bases and durable connections that prepare students—all students—for the diverse societies of the present and the future.