Last modified: Thursday, August 22, 2002
Religious studies majors increase significantly at IU
A significant growth in undergraduate students is rapidly filling the classroom space available for the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.
"We are projecting 205 majors in our program this fall, our highest total ever, which compares to 140 two years ago and 180 last year," said Richard Miller, department chair and professor of religious studies. In addition, the department's fall 2002 courses are already enrolled at 86 percent of their full capacity.
Why the surge? Miller believes the philosophy of the program is one key factor.
"We believe that college is the place to pursue the life of the mind and to explore issues such as culture and commitment. This department puts those concerns to thoughtful scrutiny," said Miller, whose research expertise encompasses religious ethics and social thought. "It's a misconception to view this department as providing vocational training for ministers or clergy. We embrace an interdisciplinary, liberal arts tradition that seeks to deepen and broaden the student's critical skills for interpreting what is involved in religious practice and belief."
He added, "The kind of liberal arts education that we provide aims to enrich the imaginative, creative and critical capacities of our students, enabling them to understand the varieties of religious experience historically and in the present age. We are finding that students are keenly more interested in such issues than the emphasis on pre-professional training and market forces would lead one to expect."
Miller said the department approaches undergraduate teaching in two ways. The first is to make the students examine things they think they intimately know. "We want to make the familiar less familiar by placing received views or opinions within new frameworks and comparative perspectives," he said. The second is to take issues that IU students may find strange or foreign and make these more familiar. This is achieved by taking courses on, for example, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism and learning how they deal with fundamental human experiences such as desire, illness, power or death.
Miller said religious studies, which also has a vibrant and selective graduate program, experienced an immediate surge in interest after Sept. 11. "The obvious change was wider interest in Islamic traditions and values. But more generally, what happened alerted people to the importance of religion in international affairs. You simply can't look at world politics and bleach out religion." He noted that a class on the ethics of war and peace in Western religion filled almost immediately.
Miller believes that other factors contributing to the enrollment growth pertain to the quality of the faculty and students. "We have outstanding faculty with national and international reputations in their field who really enjoy teaching and who have impressive communicative and interpersonal skills," he said. Regarding student quality, he noted that a recent Rhodes Scholar from IU (Raju Raval) was a religious studies major, and three of the last four IU nominees for the Rhodes honor were from religious studies. This year's Herman B Wells outstanding senior award winner for the entire Bloomington campus was Kathryn Bryan, and the first Chancellor's Scholar last year was Jonathan Lipnick, both religious studies majors.
Lipnick described religious studies as an "elegant community built around its revered scholarly endeavors. Nowhere else on campus," he said, "does one find such a supportive neighborhood of advisers, educators, mentors and peers eagerly striving for the success of all individuals within the whole. Uniting the various strands of the department is a common commitment to excellence. This inclination is palpable at every Religious Studies gathering, both inside and outside the classroom."
Miller couldn't hazard a guess on how long the surge of interest in religious studies may last. "This is very hard to predict, but we are seeing how important issues of identity are. 'Who am I' remains an important question for college students. They are keenly concerned with values that shape identity. As long as identity is politicized, religion will remain important," he concluded.