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Don't leave religion out of the classroom.

America is unique among industrialized nations in that the rates of religious belief and practice do not seem to drop off dramatically as education increases. Those with high levels of formal education are only slightly less religious than those without such education. As a result, even many of those at the top levels of higher education--including those attending the best law, medical, and business schools--are profoundly influenced by religious beliefs.

That raises an interesting question: If religion is so influential in the lives of so many students, then why do we have so many unethical lawyers, doctors, and business executives? If Americans are so religious, then why do so many of our most trusted professionals act so irreligiously? The answer is that they have been taught to do so.

To be ethical, professionals must use the same moral compass in all aspects of their lives. They cannot use one set of ethics at home and another at the office. If they value such things as honesty, decency, compassion, justice, and mercy, instead of or in addition to, making money, that should not change after they sit down at their desks each morning. As Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mocking-bird put it, one "can't live one way in town and another way [at] home."

Any professional who is not well-anchored to the values that guide his or her personal life will drift with the strongest current. And in almost every profession--save, perhaps, the ministry--that current will push the professional to act in ways that will increase profits. Almost all professionals are under unceasing pressure to make money. Professionals do not act unethically because it is fun; they do so because it is profitable.

It is hard to resist the lure of money. Thus, if professionals are to act ethically, they need help. Among those who can help are the educators who prepare them for their professions.

Educators can help students to live integrated lives, to identify the values that are important to them, and to explore what those values will require of them in professional settings. Educators can--while leading class discussions, engaging in private conversations, supervising papers, or even drafting exams--help students to think hard about their own senses of right and wrong and about how they can practice law or medicine or business in a moral way.

A business student who values honesty can be challenged to consider what acting "honestly" means in the context of negotiating a deal. A medical student who values compassion can be challenged to consider what it means to be "compassionate" to an alcoholic who is in denial. A law student who is a Christian can be challenged to consider how one can be an effective trial lawyer while forgiving seventy times seven or turning the other cheek.

The problem is that educators cannot encourage students to integrate their personal values into their professional lives unless educators are willing to talk about those personal values.

And that means being willing to talk about religion--which plays an important role in the lives of most Americans and thus in the lives of most students. If polls are accurate, the vast majority of Americans believe in God. Most are members of a church or synagogue. Most pray. Most believe in a personal God who hears their prayers, has a plan for them, and will reward or punish their actions. Most say religion is "very important" in their lives. Only about 3 percent say that religious beliefs "have little or no effect on their lives."

Don't get me wrong: Educators do not have to encourage their students to be religious; indeed, in public schools, such encouragement would be unlawful. But educators must be willing to engage students on the turf that the students themselves have chosen. They must be willing to discuss with students the religious convictions that the students have already developed and the role that those convictions--whatever they are--will play in the students' lives after they graduate.

Unfortunately, though, this is something that most educators are unwilling to do. My own experience is instructive. At Harvard Law School, I never once heard religion mentioned in a classroom--with one exception: When we discussed religious freedom in our Constitutional Law class, we could not avoid discussing religion.

But even then, religion was treated by our professor as a strange predilection afflicting many of the "little people" out in the world. There was no sense that any of the "big people" in the Harvard classroom might actually take religion seriously. Religion was then--and is now--almost universally ignored in discussions about legal ethics and in the materials that law students use in studying ethics.

Nothing that I have learned since graduating from law school leads me to believe that my experience was unusual. Likewise, nothing that I have learned suggests that law schools are uniquely hostile to religion. To the contrary, as best as I can tell, religion is similarly ignored in medical and business schools and in other graduate and professional schools.

Indeed, the situation is not much different even in grade school. My daughter has learned much at her grade school about Jackie Robinson and Harriet Tubman, but she has not heard a word about Jesus Christ, or Saint Paul, or Muhammad, or Buddha, or Confucius. I am glad that my daughter has learned so much about two of her dad's heroes, but I have to wonder why she has learned more about a modern baseball player than about five of the most influential men in human history.

The almost complete exclusion of any mention of religion from the classroom--from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of graduate school--sends an unmistakable message to students: religion is relevant only to "private" life, not "public" life. Religion belongs in the home or the church, not the office. Religion is a hobby; it is a private avocation. Religion is not a guide to professional conduct; it has no role in the workplace.

We should thus not be surprised that so many of our lawyers and doctors and business executives have developed one set of ethics for personal life and another for professional life. Their professors have taught them to do just that. When educators treat religion as relevant only to private life, they teach students to separate their religious convictions--which, for most, are the source of their personal values--from their professional lives. The result is that professionals act less ethically, and all of us--believers and nonbelievers alike--are worse off for it.

Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

By Patrick J. Schiltz, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:social and educational relevance of religion
Author:Schiltz, Patrick J.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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