Each year, dozens of undergraduate and graduate students arrive at Emory University to think about the big questions as they study under faculty members in the Department of Religious Studies. By looking at topics ranging from Greek and Roman philosophy, to ancient Hinduism and contemporary Islam, professors aim not only to equip students with the right credits for a degree and skills for the workplace, but also to help them ask and think about the cosmic questions any emerging adult encounters. What is a life well-lived? What is purpose? How do you define success, joy and happiness?
With regularly offered courses like Death and Dying; Religion and Sexuality; and Religion and Healing, among more traditional topics, the department tries to “help students better understand themselves” and their outlook on life, says department chairman Gary Laderman.
“What is a life well-lived? What is purpose? How do you define success, joy and happiness?”
That quest follows a trend at American universities. Many have increasingly attempted, as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted, “to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement” and “cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.” At Amherst College, that has included a campus dialogue called “Ask Big Questions,” while at Brown University, it has meant a relatively new concentration in Contemplative Studies and a campus series on Ethical Inquiry. Since 2009, the National Endowment for the Humanities has distributed $3.2 million in grants to fund college and university courses that tackle the “enduring questions.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Laderman, who has spent his 23-year career at Emory studying the ways humans create meaning, shared how he and his colleagues are helping students explore their life journeys. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What’s the mission for religious studies at Emory?
It’s a big question. We might have answered that differently 20 years ago. We want to help students better understand themselves and the world that they are in. In doing that we look at several topics, but it's also got to be done in the world of pre-professionalism. Not that we are giving ourselves away to that mentality, but we have to figure out a way to meet halfway so that college doesn't become a one-track pre-career experience, but also one of larger exploration.
“Sooner or later these questions will come up for these young kids. It’s part of our jobs to help them get to a place where they can ask them.”
It's all about finding a way, especially at that transition from youth to adulthood, for reflection and contemplation of the biggest questions and the purpose of life. Sooner or later these questions will come up for these young kids. It’s part of our jobs to help them get to a place where they can ask them.
Religion has a special dilemma. Most people don't get it, in that they assume you are being religious or advocating a religion or going into a vocation. We are arguing, “No, there is knowledge you can gain here that you can draw from in a career as a doctor, a lawyer, a politician.”
You offer several nontraditional courses, such as Death and Dying as well as Religion and Healing. Can you share more about these?
Like other departments, we offer more traditional introduction to religion courses like the history of Christianity and the history of Buddhism, but some of our biggest courses are those that are more thematic and unconventional. This semester I’m teaching on Religion and Sexuality. The enrollment is 220 students, which is unprecedented for humanities. I teach Death and Dying once a year, and that is another course that gets over 100 students.
We also have courses on religion and ecology, religion and the body. These all address some of the themes we are getting at, in terms of getting students to think about the meaning of life and purpose. You can find some hooks that really draw students into larger modes of thinking, whether it’s sex or the body or popular culture.
What attracts so many people to want to learn about death and dying?
I think it has to do with the age people are at, and an intellectual curiosity into certain areas of our life that we don't talk openly about or that we are only are able to speak about under certain constraints, whether it's in the church or with doctors. It can be a little more confined in those contexts, in terms of really being able to speak openly and freely and emotionally.
In general, students are interested in finding a space to talk about things that they don't get to intellectualize about. Then there are the specific reasons they come in. I know some that have come in in the midst of grief. It’s also a course that students hear about when they are deciding between economics and organic chemistry and want a relief in their schedule. But they realize it’s not exactly a relief!
“It’s a luxury students don’t always have today, to feel the life of the mind and follow your own passion. It’s part of an older model of education, but I hope students can pursue more in that way as time goes on.”
What was your own journey in becoming someone who thinks of the big questions as a central part of your career?
I was a psychology major at California State University, Northridge. From early on I was interested in death and was thinking of going into psychology and becoming a therapist. I became interested in psychoanalysis and started reading a lot about existentialism. It was through those courses that I started taking religion courses. Then I went to graduate school at U.C., Santa Barbara. I started out in the psychology of religion, but got waylaid from that and went more in the direction of history and culture.
I got my B.A. in ‘86 and my Ph.D. in ‘94. Working at Emory is the first and only job I’ve had in the field. I was following my own intellectual interests. It’s a luxury students don’t always have today, to feel the life of the mind and follow your own passion. It’s part of an older model of education, but I hope students can pursue more in that way as time goes on.