Diversity and Democracy

World Ready: Incorporating Interfaith Learning into General Education

During the first week of class at Chatham University in fall 2015, all first-year students read about an anonymous street artist whose controversial work has been described as criminal and activist, feminist and antifeminist, pro-Muslim and appropriative of Muslim imagery. Faculty in ENG105, a required first-year communication seminar, used the reading to prompt discussions about fluidity, identity, gender, religion, perception, and culture. Student participation in these conversations was light but pleasant, so faculty were surprised when, in their response papers, some students lauded the artist for fighting against Islamic oppression of women—a troubling oversimplification of both the author’s and the artist’s positions. Faculty members worried that their attempts to engage with the complex piece had been counterproductive, and that they were not equipped to navigate the fraught topics related to religion that the reading raised.

As this story shows, undergraduate campuses remain spaces where students are challenged to engage with worldviews and commitments different from their own—and the implementation of programs that facilitate such engagement is not without its trials. Communicating across divides is an important skill for active citizenship in the United States, especially as the country is experiencing both rapid diversification and rabid polarization. According to unpublished data collected by Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a nonprofit organization that promotes interfaith work in higher education, nearly forty colleges and universities have launched or are developing programs in the new field of Interfaith Studies to help students grapple with these issues. Others, including Chatham University, engage religious difference through the general education core curriculum.

Interfaith Skills and Competencies

IFYC defines interfaith studies as an interdisciplinary field examining the multiple dimensions of how individuals and groups who orient differently around religion interact, and the implications of this interaction for communities, civil society, and global politics (Patel 2013). Classroom experiences provide a context for interfaith learning that goes beyond what most students encounter through cocurricular interfaith clubs and events. By engaging with interfaith topics in their courses, students practice thinking intersectionally about the many ways in which one aspect of their own identities influences other aspects of their lives, while considering the depth and nuance of differences among individuals. They also practice thinking critically about the day-to-day experiences, needs, and concerns of religious practitioners at a time when hostility toward difference seems to be increasing. When interfaith topics are situated in core courses, students learn that interfaith skills and competencies can affect aspects of other fundamental college learning outcomes related to communication, critical thinking, and relationship building.

Since fall 2015, all first-year Chatham students have taken ENG105. As in many required general education courses, students in ENG105 practice college-level writing, speaking, and critical thinking. But ENG105 is unique in that all sections focus on the themes of identity formation and dialogue across difference, an emphasis faculty felt would make explicit our commitment to gender equity and social justice as Chatham was becoming a coeducational institution. Since the course’s establishment, all sections have shared the same syllabus, readings, assignments, and deadlines, creating a common experience for all first-year students. Moving forward, faculty are exploring models that will allow for more customization to account for faculty expertise.

Early Lessons Learned

Chatham’s experience suggests five initial recommendations for institutions seeking to include interfaith learning in their general education curricula. First, schools should allocate resources to train and engage faculty early in the course development process. While most faculty readily embraced the project of incorporating race, class, and gender into ENG105, many felt unqualified to discuss religion, having internalized during their doctoral training the idea that religion is private and has no place in the classroom. Many faculty uncritically categorized religious affiliation as voluntary, distinct from identities like race or gender that may be understood as mandatory. It took significant reflection—through lesson planning, consultation with IFYC, and seeing students’ engagement with the material—to overcome these misgivings.

Second, start small. Explore how two faith traditions, one dominant and one less familiar, approach one aspect of everyday life. Consider making interfaith understanding relevant by tying the discussion to a current event, preferably a local one. Case studies, like those developed by IFYC and Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, are popular pedagogical tools that require students to examine one issue or encounter from multiple perspectives.

Third, use class discussions of readings and course concepts to help students develop the dialogue skills necessary to communicate across difference. In their response papers and informal writing, many students initially equated talking about race with racism and talking about religion with bigotry. They worried about revealing ignorance, hurting feelings, or injuring newly formed relationships. Faculty found that the concept of a “brave space” resonated with students (Arao and Clemens 2013), as did the practice of collectively formulating community standards as a class. Popular guidelines included using “I” statements and refraining from sharing others’ stories.

Fourth, faculty need not be religious studies professors to hold discussions about religious identity, but they do need accurate information about the religious traditions they plan to discuss in class. For interfaith learning to be a positive experience for students from both dominant and marginalized identity groups, faculty must avoid tokenizing or implying that students are responsible for explaining or representing all members of a group. Faculty training can be helpful in this regard, as can invited speakers or panel discussions that offer a variety of viewpoints.

Finally, frame interfaith learning as something of value to all members of the campus community, beyond the boundaries of campus life. According to the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (designed by Alyssa Rockenbach and Matthew Mayhew in partnership with IFYC), 83 percent of first-year students surveyed entered college already believing that the world can overcome many of its major problems if people of different religious and nonreligious perspectives work together, and 65 percent expected to encounter curricular opportunities to learn about different religious worldviews (Mayhew et al. 2016). These data, along with the rise of Interfaith Studies programs around the country, demonstrate a growing recognition that the skills and knowledge needed to engage across religious worldview differences are applicable far beyond college graduation.

Promising Indicators

Students ended the fall 2015 semester by reading the autobiography of a Muslim interfaith leader whom Chatham welcomed to campus to speak with first-year students during a luncheon and daytime lecture, and who also gave an evening address to the larger Chatham community. Students deeply engaged with the final reading, listened attentively during the lecture, and asked thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. While some of the first papers of the semester had illustrated unexamined prejudices about unfamiliar religions and the majority had indicated discomfort with expressing any opinion about religion, most final essays demonstrated students’ ability to articulate more sophisticated understandings of identity, with many students making unprompted connections between patriarchy and Islamophobia, racism and ageism.

More than half of first-year students enrolled in the fall 2015 course reported that the unit exploring religious identity was the one course component they would keep without changes. An additional 12 percent suggested that the course should spend more time exploring religion. As one student argued in the final paper, such exploration “opens your mind to being more accepting of others. It just reminds us to be understanding of others and what we don’t know about others.”

Chatham University’s mission is preparing women and men to be world ready: to build lives of purpose, value, and fulfilling work. Our work promoting students’ interfaith learning is helping us fulfill this mission.  


Arao, Brian, and Kristi Clemens. 2013. “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice.” The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, edited by Lisa M. Landreman, 135–50. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Mayhew, Matthew J., Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Benjamin P. Correia, Rebecca E. Crandall, Marc A. Lo, and Associates. 2016. Emerging Interfaith Trends: What College Students Are Saying about Religion in 2016. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.

Patel, Eboo. 2013. “Toward a Field of Interfaith Studies.” Liberal Education 99 (4): 38–43.

Esther Boyd is Manager of Curriculum Development at Interfaith Youth Core, and Katie Cruger is Assistant Professor of  Communication and Director of the Master of Professional Writing Program at Chatham University.

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