Varieties of Secular Experience: Pedagogy, Politics, and Meaning in the Liberal Arts. November 13-14, 2008

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY— Bucknell University, Macalester College, Vassar College, and Williams College formed the ‘Secularity and the Liberal Arts Project’ two years ago to address a set of concerns related to students’ personal lives, according to the Rev. Dr. Samuel Speers, director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar College and the project coordinator. The concluding phase of the project is the two-day conference, “Varieties of Secular Experience: Pedagogy, Politics, and Meaning in the Liberal Arts,” which will be held at Vassar College, November 13-14. 

“Our four institutions value secular ideas as a means to promote tolerance and critical thought, and to create democratic institutions and civic engagement. But we also wonder whether uncritical secular assumptions are unintentionally stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identity: if secularity is truly ‘neutral,’” explained Speers. 

Supported by a “Fresh Thinking for Liberal Education” grant from the Teagle Foundation, the project’s working group has explored how current understandings of secularity could both help and hinder efforts to integrate questions of value and meaning into the curriculum. Among their key goals, the four partner colleges sought to develop leadership on their campuses to ask whether and how secularity is an enabling condition of liberal arts education.

Speers explained that the earliest catalyst for the ‘Secularity and the Liberal Arts Project’ was “Religion? Faith? Spirituality? and the Liberal Arts?,” a 2005 lecture and discussion at Vassar by Rebecca S. Chopp, president and professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. “Her talk sparked a small group of Vassar faculty and administrators to discuss how the changing religious and spiritual landscape on college campuses is bringing new questions to the classroom. From there the idea of our four-college project began to take shape. It’s very fitting that our upcoming conference, the culmination of this project, will feature President Chopp’s continuing discussion of secularity and liberal arts.”


Conference presentations will include the lectures “Secular, Not Secularist,” by Jeffrey Stout, professor of religion at Princeton University and President (2007) of the American Academy of Religion, and “Secularity, Meaning, and the Liberal Arts,” by Rebecca Chopp, president and professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. The closing session “Transforming ‘Secular’ Campus Life,” will be moderated by Stephanie Paulsell, Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies and associate dean for faculty and curricular affairs at Harvard Divinity School.

The sessions will begin with a student roundtable, “Varieties of Secular Experience,” with 8 student panelists from the four campuses who will discuss how “big questions” of meaning and purpose are engaged on their campus. “Politics of the Secular and the Religious,” will seek to uncover the political interests and conditions of current discussions of secularity on campus. “Pedagogy of ‘Big Questions’ in Secular Education,” will include case study presentations on the capacities and limits of the “secular classroom.”

Panelists and moderators will include W. Robert Connor (Teagle Foundation), Randolph Cornelius (Vassar College), Douglas Jacobsen (Messiah College), Rhonda Jacobsen (Messiah College), Jonathon Kahn (Vassar College), Rachel Kitzinger (Vassar College), Amitava Kumar (Vassar College), Ken Livingston (Vassar College), Paul Macdonald (Bucknell University), Joseph Murray (Bucknell University), Richard Spalding (Williams College), Clay Steinman (Macalester College), Ian Oliver (Yale University), Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Wesleyan College), and Samuel Speers (Vassar College).

The conference will also include participation of faculty and chaplains from Amherst, Bates, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Drew, Hamilton, Hampshire, MIT, Princeton, and Union, among other institutions, as well Vassar alumnae/i.

For more information about the conference, and to register, go to: or email:

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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, October 21, 2008