campus partner(s)

Vassar College

Bucknell University

Macalester College

and Williams College






Fresh Thinking

award date


project director

Samuel H. Speers

Vassar College

Grant Summary

$99,377 over 24 months. The collaborating institutions will devise and test new understandings of secularity in liberal arts education as a means of engaging students in questions of meaning and value. Established in the late 18th or 19th centuries, when liberal Protestantism was assumed to be integral to teaching, learning and service at a college, all four institutions have over time come to reflect the secular and secularizing trends in US higher education. These institutions value secular ideas as a means to promote tolerance and critical thought, and to create democratic institutions and civic engagement, but they also wonder whether uncritical secular assumptions are in various ways stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identity. They wonder, in other words, if secularity is truly "neutral." Exploring how current understandings of secularity both help and hinder efforts to integrate questions of value and meaning into the curriculum as well as the co-curriculum, faculty and administrators on each campus will develop initiatives specific to their needs to devise and test more robust and capacious understandings of secularity.

The working group proposes a joint series of initiatives, including a quantitative and qualitative assessment of student attitudes, an inventory on each campus of what "big questions" students are asking and where they are asking them, faculty-administrator seminars, new course models, faculty-student research projects, campus-wide discussions, visiting scholars, and, at the conclusion of the first year, a multi-campus public conference. In the second year, the partners will continue the first year activities, implement new curricular, teaching development, and co-curricular initiatives, and convene a working group meeting for the preparation of the White Paper. This project will propose new definitions and test models of secularity in the liberal arts, and describe best practices for incorporating questions of meaning and value into the classroom and beyond.