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‘Quad’ looks at religious colleges

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GOD ON THE QUAD: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley; St. Martin's Press; 262 pages. $24.95.

When a young journalist named Naomi Schaefer Riley decided to write a book about religious colleges, her first stop was Brigham Young University. She got to Provo on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, and checked into her hotel. Sept. 11 dawned sunny.

Outside Riley's window were some brown mountains, steep and bare. Her surroundings, as Riley describes them in her book, felt a bit alien. Then she turned on the television and saw the Twin Towers collapsing and the Pentagon in flames.

Riley had never lived anywhere except in "blue states," she says. In a time of trauma, she wanted the comfort of places and people she knew. But the airports were closed and she had no way to get home to the East Coast.

So Riley stayed in Provo and started interviewing people, and she found, over the next week, that BYU students welcomed her into their lives. "Their kindness and compassion, their civic-mindedness, their understanding and intense interest in national and international affairs, the quiet comfort they were able to find in their faith, and their ability to relate to this stranger in their midst gave me cause for optimism," she writes in the introduction to her book, "God on the Quad."

Riley came away from her time at BYU convinced that she was onto something: that a religious college does offer a unique education. Her research had shown that 1.3 million students a year graduate from 700 different religious colleges and universities. Riley couldn't visit them all, but the ones she chose to write about must surely be among the most fascinating.

From BYU, she went to Bob Jones University, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas, Yeshiva, Baylor, Wheaton, Gordon, and a few others. She even visited Southern Virginia University, a new LDS school close to her home.

At about the same time that Riley began her quest to understand students at America's religious universities, Tom Wolfe was setting out to study students at the secular schools. He found binge drinking, rampant sex and cheating. He found all this was going on with the implicit approval of the university administrators, whom he described as caring more about basketball than ethics.

Wolfe published the fictional version of his research, "I Am Charlotte Simmons," a few weeks before Riley published her book. If you, as a reader, are looking for an intriguing contrast, read his book and Riley's at the same time.

Readers who don't live in Utah may find Riley's description of Brigham Young University the most compelling part of the book. But Utahns are going to be more fascinated by her chapters on other colleges.

It seems that Thomas Aquinas College is the school for future nuns and priests. Eleven percent of the graduates go on to try the religious life; they enter a convent or monastery. As for the others — even though they are not allowed to date during their four years at the school — after they graduate they marry mostly each other.

They marry each other because they have such similar values, Riley learned. They are not merely the most devout of Catholics, but they have been educated in something she calls the Western Great Books tradition. They have learned by reading the classics and by inquiry and discussion. In the end, it is not only religion but an educational philosophy that draws these students together and separates them from the rest of the world.

And as for being separate, the students at the Jewish university, Yeshiva, are certainly that. There is a secular school and a Torah school at Yeshiva, and the Torah students have such little use for the secular classes that they often cheat in them, Riley learned. They see a worldly education as a waste of their time.

Many of the young men at Yeshiva have become disgusted with the wanton American culture and are headed for Israel as soon as they graduate, Riley learned. They will not be around to change this culture. They have given up on it.

Yet the majority of the students Riley met will be around. And, she believes, they will be in positions of power.

They will carry a sense of purpose into their professions, she believes. They will be more ethical, perhaps, than the students Tom Wolfe describes. And they will be conservative. Although it will not be the conservatism of their parents and grandparents, Riley says.

In general, they will be more welcoming of gays and racial minorities than their parents were — and they will be welcoming to people of other faiths, she believes. And they might just make their values felt, she writes. That's the challenge for these graduates. "If religious college leaders can navigate between the dangers of secularization and isolation, these schools can more effectively transmit their ideas to a larger American audience."

E-mail: susan@desnews.com