19 September 2011


Back on May 7th, the headline in the NY Times read: "Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism." The problem is that this headline was simply false.  No major was proposed; and none was approved.

The NY Times article also reported the founding of a "department of secular studies" at Pitzer College (along with the major).  The truth or falsity of this second claim is more complex than the claim about the major--but this claim too is largely misleading.  

To start, Pitzer prides itself on not having any "departments."  The closest analog to "departments" at Pitzer are odd beasts known as "Field Groups," and these "Field Groups" come in two kinds at the College.  The kind that is most like a department at other colleges are known as "Type A" field groups; there are also "Type B" field groups (which I will explain in a moment).  And the grain of truth in the NY Times story was that Pitzer College established a Type B field group in "secular studies" last spring.  

So just what is a Type B field Group?  Here is what Pitzer's Faculty Handbook says: Type B field groups are "Field Groups in which there are no primary appointments. . .  Such Field Groups may come into being whenever four or more members of the Pitzer faculty feel that such a Field Group will serve their interests."  

Put simply, then, to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "major" in secular studies is false; and to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "Department" of secular studies is stretching the truth—quite a bit, in my view.  

In this matter, then, the NY Times did not so much report the news as become, in effect, a PR organ of a nascent movement to establish secular studies (both here at Pitzer and nationally).   I'll come back to the question of the Times’s responsibility (or irresponsibility) in this matter below, but first I want to take up a different issue: the role that I myself played in voting to establish "secular studies" as a Type B Field Group at Pitzer College.

The vote that established a "Type B" Field Group in secular studies was taken by Pitzer's faculty executive committee (and not by the faculty as a whole, contrary to what the Times’s article suggests).  As it happens, I was serving on the faculty executive committee when the vote was taken, and I myself voted in favor of the motion, even though I was skeptical about “secular studies” (for reasons I will discuss in a moment).  The argument that swayed me was, 'live and let live; if a handful of colleagues want to have a type B field group in secular studies, it involves no resources, and it is illegitimate to block such a pursuit, even if one is critical of it, on the principle of respecting intellectual diversity and academic freedom.'

That was and remains a very good argument.  But had I known last spring that the vote of the faculty executive committee would repeatedly be represented, in the larger public sphere, not as a vote to respect academic freedom and intellectual diversity, but as an endorsement of "secular studies," I would have voted "no."  

Indeed, the longer I have thought about this matter, and the more I have discussed it with my colleagues who support secular studies at Pitzer, the more I have become skeptical that "secular studies" should in fact exist as an undergraduate, liberal arts major, at least at this historical moment.  Here's why.

An undergraduate major establishes a space within which that major's students do a disproportionate amount of their coursework.  An important concern when we set up majors should thus be whether, and in what ways, they may create--in the manner of cable news channels--echo chambers.  In other words, we should be wary of setting up an undergraduate major that cordons off as a “major” what is a fundamentally a position, or side, within a legitimate academic debate.  This is not always an easy principle to apply.  But my concern is that establishing a separate major in secular studies would expose students to too constrained (or circumscribed) a range of views on religion and secularism.   Note, very importantly, that this is in no way an argument against the teaching of any such courses in secular studies; it is, rather, an argument against having the set of those courses established as a major.    

The reason I think this principle applies in the case of secular studies is that, as best I can tell, the version of secular studies that is being championed at Pitzer (and which has outposts nationally and internationally) is in fact something like a re-inscription of modernization theory--since it always turns out (in this secular studies) that religion is 'behind' (or 'backward') and secularism is 'ahead' (or distinctly 'modern').  And it almost never turns out the other way. 

What makes it particularly important that this social evolutionary (or developmental) view of religion and secularism not be given a 'safe house' in its own academic major is precisely that this view already has significant ascendency within the secular academy.  It is, of course a view that is contested outside the academy, specifically in religious contexts.  But this view is very rarely contested beyond the academy from a secular perspective that doubts the absoluteness of secularism itself.  We owe it to our students that study secularism to insure that within the academy, they get this rarely heard, nuanced, and troubling critique of secularist triumphalism.

So here's my point: even though I think this re-inscribed modernization theory is as mistaken as the Cold War era version of modernization theory (as exemplified by Walt Whitman Rostow's The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto), I steadfastly support the academic freedom of my valued colleagues who believe passionately in their "secular studies" to offer their "secular studies" courses.  Their academic positions are legitimate components of a larger debate about secularism and religiosity; and their courses thus have a legitimate place in the curriculum.  But I do not similarly support bundling these courses together and making them a major unto themselves.  To do so would too much diminish the extent to which students in this major (were it to be established) would hear critiques of this social evolutionary, or developmental, view of religion and secularism.

An aside: I just spoke of modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s as bearing the stamp of the Cold War; contemporary "secular studies," I am suggesting, is a re-inscription of this older modernization theory, a re-inscription that bears the stamp of our time as an era that is marked, for many secular persons, by concerns about both Christian and Islamic religiosity (that is, about both Christian and Islamic "fundamentalisms," so-called).  It is this fear of religious "fundamentalisms" that is catalyzing this new secular studies I am suggesting, just as the fear of communism catalzyed Rostow's modernization theory.  End aside.

So I am now on record.  As of this moment at least, I am disinclined to support in the future what the NY Times has falsely reported already happened at Pitzer College: i.e., the founding of a major in secular studies.

Which gets me back to the awful job the Times did in this instance.  It's not so much the initial error that I find unconscionable; it turns out, the Times trusted a mistaken press release and failed to check its sources.  But we’re all fallible.  What's unconscionable is that the Times has steadfastly refused to print either a correction or even a letter criticizing its shoddy reporting.   

The so-called "newspaper of record" should wear a paper bag over its mast-head for a year, as penance.


  1. I think you're too hard on the Times. They took a short-cut that was good enough for their purposes.

    The rest of the argument is a great criticism of the manner Pitzer has set up Field Groups in the past. I would add there are a few FGs that really don't meet the minimum rigor standards that should apply and should be abolished.

  2. Hi Will,

    1. I specifically give the Times a pass for their initial error; my hard criticisms are for their refusal to print any acknowledgment of their error. What I do not say in the blog is that I had a pretty lengthy back-and-forth with Joan P. Nassivera, who is the NY Times's "senior editor" before writing the blog.

    2. And keep in mind, the last line is meant to be funny, not entirely serious.

    3. Which Field Groups do you have in mind, as ones that should be abolished?

  3. Keep in mind much of this is from my own experience, but:

    IIS, in its form at Pitzer, was a joke.

    Why are EWL and Creative Writing different FGs?

    American Studies seems like it would be better as part of history, perhaps as a concentration.

    I also have mixed feelings about the ethnic studies groups. I'm not sure abolishing them is a good idea, but I'm also not totally confident they serve their intended purposes (or even have definite purposes) anymore.

    Perhaps "abolish" is a poor choice of words. I really mean "reform." Most, maybe even all, of the above are valid majors if they're rigorous. It just feels like there's very little accountability in some FGs and that filters down to the student-level very quickly.

  4. Also, this article would have been the absolutely perfect discussion topic for our Capitalism class, as a counter-point to Krugman's Freshwater/Saltwater argument. It's the best economics piece I've read in 3 years.


  5. Dan, have there been any cases in recent memory of respected newspapers getting into serious trouble for errors of fact? I was trying to think of examples and could not...

  6. Daniel,

    First, thanks for sending me a link to this. It is relevant to what I do, so I am interested in discussing this further.

    Second, I'd like to know why you think the following is true:

    "The reason I think this principle applies in the case of secular studies is that, as best I can tell, the version of secular studies that is being championed at Pitzer... is in fact something like a re-inscription of modernization theory--since it always turns out... that religion is 'behind' (or 'backward') and secularism is 'ahead' (or distinctly 'modern'). And it almost never turns out the other way."

    As a sociologist who studies "the secular" I do not take that perspective in my work. I may believe that secularism is a better approach to understanding the world for me, personally, but in my work as a sociologist, I'm simply interested in studying the nonreligious and find them interesting in their own right. My research is guided by a variety of theories (primarily religions as pseudo-corporations or the religious marketplace and secularization theory). So, why do you believe "modernization theory" is the primary idea that will be championed in the secular studies major?

    And, finally, what about religious studies? If you're concerned that disciplines are walled off from views that may disagree with the dominant perspectives in the field, why not advocate for a joint religious studies/secular studies major? That would seem like a more reasonable response then - kill secular studies. It seems as though you're grinding an ax with secular studies but giving religious studies a free pass. Why?

  7. Hi RTC,

    Here in Claremont, many of the courses in religious studies do in fact attend to the embranglement of religion and secularity. I have also found this to be a particular strength of the scholarship, in cultural-social anthropology, on Islam in modernity.

    By contrast, here in Claremont, I have found secular studies faculty resistant, for example, to a work such as David Hollinger's book, "Science, Jews, and Secular Culture."

    Also, I advocated what you describe as a "reasonable response"--that is, having a joint religious studies/secular studies major--to my valued colleague Phil Zuckerman (the leading figure in the secular studies field group B at Pitzer) and Professor Zuckerman dismissed the idea. Professor Zuckerman's response was that "secularism" is so vulnerable that it needs to have the protection of a "safe-house" -- a major of its own.

    And too much of what is proposed be put in that protected space is secular triumphalism--which is to say, modernization theory for our time of fear of "fundamentalisms," so-called.

    Thanks for your thughtful comments and questions.

  8. The idea that a field of studies is so vulnerable that it needs to have a "safe-house" is laughable, not to mention the fact that it undermines everything academe stands for.

    It seems the good professor wishes to sing the triumphs of his field while ignoring the very context in which it exists. Secularism, as you correctly phrased it, is a position within a spectrum, not an independent position.

    As for the Times' error, shame on them.

  9. Nicely articulated. I lean towards your points of view.
    Hal Fairchild