Recently, I sat down with Professor William A. Graham, Dean of Harvard Divinity School since 2002 and a member of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1973. Among his many previous positions at Harvard, Dean Graham has served as Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. His scholarly work has focused on early Islamic religious history and textual traditions, and problems in the history of world religion. Dean Graham spoke of HDS' recent evolution, the study of religion, collaborations across Harvard, bridging research to practice, and the need integrate the study of major world cultural and religious traditions into the basic fabric of undergraduate education.
Rahim Kanani: How has Harvard Divinity School evolved over the years in terms of its priorities, teaching and curriculum?
Dean Graham: I think the changes in a way started 30 or 40 years ago, but I can speak to the time since I joined the faculty here in 2002. At that time, I had been on the Harvard faculty for nearly 30 years. Thus I came into a situation where I knew a number of the faculty and had even taught jointly with a few of them in graduate seminars or undergraduate courses, and I had also had divinity students in my classes frequently over the years.
When I arrived, no degree programs had been revised in about 25 to 30 years. I have a philosophical view that you should review and change any curriculum, undergraduate or graduate, every 20 to 30 years or so, not because the new version is going to be necessarily better, but because it will be different. It will make everybody shake up their teaching, rethink what they're doing, and it will reestablish with a new generation of faculty, as well as students, what the philosophical underpinnings of their subjects are. I've been through such reviews twice in Arts and Sciences with the undergraduate curriculum, and while not everything the process brings is ideal, it does bring some very good things with it, and it's necessary.
So the first thing to do, I felt, was to look at the curriculum, and the MDiv degree was the one we chose to tackle first. We're just now wrapping up the five-year review of the new curriculum and required common courses that the MDiv review put in place six years ago. The program opened up MDiv studies to new constituencies, and it was the faculty who decided that we should expand our reach in this fashion. Buddhists should be able to come here and study their own tradition and go back to leadership in their communities, as should Hindus, Muslims, or whoever. An MDiv degree should not be just a Christian or even a Unitarian ministry program. We already had Jews, Catholics and Protestants in the program and there seemed to be no reason why we couldn't take on Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and so on, which we have done. In fact, the Buddhist ministry program has now reached a sort of critical mass, and we're in the process now of getting long term funding for it, which I think will be established in the next few months, so a lot of this has just developed organically from within. Partly it has been in response to student interest, where students have come here to do what they want to do in terms of our resources, and then we've tried to respond to that institutionally.
However, a lot of it came initially from the faculty, the largest number of whom were specialists in Christian studies. Then, over the last 7 years we've made 31 new appointments and 21 people have retired or left, so the composition of the faculty, some 47 or so in number, has expanded as well as grown larger, and its makeup is now very eclectic and global in terms of the fields it covers within its ranks. We have three Islamicists, three Buddhologists, three Hindu specialists, and so on. We have not yet built up strength in East Asian religions, but we have great strengths in Arts and Sciences in this area, and for people who do actually do religion both in China and Japan, there are at least three people in each in Arts and Sciences. We also have three anthropologists on the faculty now working in totally different areas of the world and in different religious traditions, and two or three others who work with anthropological methods and approaches, so we've added that to all of the history, philosophy of religion and so on, so now we have a more diverse curriculum. It is also now more diverse than ever before, both in terms of personal backgrounds and fields of studies. It was of course a faculty long known to be very strong in women's studies in religion. This continues, and our female faculty has grown in number as well.
By the same token we now have basic strength in Latino and Latina studies as well as in African-American studies, with these fields together involving at least seven or eight faculty members now—something that we really didn't have before. We had had some strength in African-American, but lost it, and then had to rebuild, so I think we're making progress in this and other important areas important to our diversity and overage.
Changes here have been somewhat organic. After we were half way through the MDiv we started reviewing the MTS, and the MTS is very different in that it is a much more open and flexible degree. This was necessary in the faculty's view because people come into it with such different purposes. Even of students taking the MDiv, only about 40% or so actually go into regular ordained ministry of some kind. The others go in a variety of fields similar to those taking the MTS degree, such as NGOs or other service organizations. Many from both masters' programs go onto do other professional degrees. They work as hospital or university chaplains. They work in prisons. They do a variety of social, or what I call social service careers. And I think that is true for a certain number of the MTS candidates, although about 70% come in aiming to do doctoral work in religion and at least 40-odd percent do actually go onto do this, so we still are a training ground for academic study of religion much like the master's program at Chicago, for instance. Thus the MTS needs to be very flexible about possible fields of study, as it is the classic pre-doctoral masters' program because you can do anything from Chinese or Sanskrit to Hebrew or Greek to develop language background and you can specialize in any of the world's religious traditions for which study of those and other languages are necessary.
I think what really has probably changed the most is that the variety of opportunities in these programs is much wider and larger now because we have an expanded faculty and a more diverse faculty both in terms of who they are ethnically, nationally, or religiously, but also terms of what their fields are.
Rahim Kanani: Given that students come to Harvard Divinity School with a variety of goals and missions, and there are now several different streams within the MTS degree, does that mean HDS is collaborating more with other schools at Harvard?
Dean Graham: I think to a large extent it means the we're encouraging students to take advantage of the larger university, to do courses in the Kennedy School or the Law School or particularly the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which they always have done to a large degree, just as we have a lot of students from other faculties do work here. One of the strengths of being a university Divinity School at a major research university is that you have a wealth of resources. The first thing one generally sees important for divinity students in other faculties is language study, so people can do Arabic and Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese, etc., because we have those available in Arts and Sciences even though we do teach Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, and various languages of Christian traditions in the west here at HDS also. Today, HDS students can do history and anthropology and cultural studies in various areas of the world within the Divinity School as well as Arts and Sciences, but they can register for courses at the Kennedy, Business, Public Health, or Law school, or even at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University to give them work in other areas important to individual plans and needs. That is why being part of a larger university is important.
Rahim Kanani: Should there be more students from other Harvard schools actually coming to HDS versus the other way around?
Dean Graham: There maybe should be. I expect the balance of trade is more or less in favor of our students going, for instance, to Arts and Sciences, if only because of the discrepancy in sizes of the two faculties. The balance of trade between HDS and Kennedy or Law or Education may be a bit more evenly divided. As far as balance is concerned, especially with Arts and Sciences, it is also the case that Divinity faculty offer roughly 60 to 70% of the courses every year that undergraduates can take as religion courses in the College, so that is where the balance of trade goes the other way. It is also the case that there is much doctoral-student traffic in both directions in terms of both course work and dissertation committees and advisers. We have at least 20 people in Arts and Sciences who are seriously engaged in religious studies. There are nearly 50 in HDS, so it's obvious that doctoral students have tremendous resources in the two faculties together. In general, I think the openness across faculty and school lines works pretty well. We don't count the courses or worry greatly about the free access of students among the schools at Harvard because it's a more free flowing environment now and the university is becoming, I think, more unified in a number of ways, all of which are good as far as I am concerned.
Rahim Kanani: As the school tries to align the curriculum in some sense with the needs and challenges of the world, and you look at a lot of the health services, education services, and social services that are provided globally, a large portion of this subset is faith-based and faith-inspired organizations. Should there be more collaboration between Harvard Divinity School and the School of Public Health, or the School of Education, or the Kennedy School of Government?
Dean Graham: That is a very good question. There definitely should be more and we do make efforts to improve collaboration. Even at the moment I'm in touch with faculty members or deans in three other faculties about new collaborative possibilities—one in a healthcare area, one in business, and one in education, so new possibilities are always on the horizon if we can muster the faculty capacity and financial support to realize them. We already have some collaborative arrangements even with schools outside of Harvard, such as the Fletcher School at Tufts, where some of our students regularly get credit and vice-versa. So some of this is already going on and we have also the occasional student doing a business degree and a divinity degree at the same time or a law degree and a divinity degree or a medical degree and a divinity degree. That happens only in small numbers, but it happens. I would say that we are not yet where we ought to be with joint programs. I do think that given today's world, we would like to be farther down that path. I think that if we were able to find high-enough-quality faculty specializing in contemporary religious studies, it would be easier to make the connections across schools; we have tremendous strength in pre-modern religious studies, but in most religious studies fields, contemporary studies lag behind pre-modern studies in the academy for largely historical reasons.
Rahim Kanani: So there is a clear gap there.
Dean Graham: There is a gap in terms of sufficient numbers of really high quality scholars who want to do specialized scholarship in the contemporary world. It's true in my world of Islamic studies. We've just hired an outstanding contemporary Islamic specialist here in the Study of Religion and Near Eastern Languages. She works in politics and religion in Islamic studies and she is as good as anybody in any field here in Islamic studies. But you could count on one hand the Islamicists around the world who really are in the top rank or are coming into the top rank of Islamics scholars and who happen to do contemporary politics and religion. There is not very many of them. That is really a shame. And you can repeat that in Buddhist studies, in Hindu studies, even in Christian studies. Take the traditional field of religious, which meant "Christian" ethics. I'm really convinced that the field of religious ethics is going to look very different in 10 years even than it looks right now and I think a group of people we are gathering here are going to have a lot to say about that. I think they are going to change the way we think about how you teach religious ethics and that is going to, I hope, provide stronger points of contact and conversation with ethics in the Business School, ethics in the School of Public Health and ethics in the School of Medicine.
Rahim Kanani: With regard to bridging research to practice, how does that translation manifest itself at HDS, and how can it be strengthened from a student's perspective?
Dean Graham: I think it already is getting some strengthening from having a faculty now who do such diverse things, a lot of whom work in non-Christian and non-Jewish traditions, but who have been participating in the basic master of divinity courses. They are teaching in the basic MDiv courses and they're working with and directing theses for MDiv students who are going out to practical careers in the real world. We have a faculty here that is enthusiastic about supporting this program and helping with it even if their own area doesn't normally bring them right up against social activism, social work, or political work, let alone ministerial work, but I think we are seeing faculty as well as students thinking about the nexus of theory and practice in new and exciting ways. We're in the process of a search right now in science and religion, where there are two finalists. One of them even has an MD degree in addition to doctoral studies in science and religion, and I think we are going to see more and more scholars coming along, in the younger generation, who are or have feet firmly planted in practical areas or in practices of different kinds, as well as in theory and scholarship of a more traditional kind in religious studies. I think we have just, in a way, laid a basis for what the school can be in that regard. I don't think we're there yet, but there are hopeful signs we may be facing in the right direction in that regard.
Of course if you look out at the U.S. scene right now in particular, but also the world scene too, there is so much incomprehension about religion and so much ignorance really, just basic ignorance, that I don't think we're doing necessarily a bad thing to have persons simply teaching the history of religion, teaching how persons of faith in various world traditions have dealt with major issues. We have good people doing that and writing on that, so I hope we'll have some impact there, but we don't have numerous faculty writing op-ed pieces. That may be bad, or it may be good. I don't know, but such engagement in the public arena is probably going to ebb and flow as it usually does. I would say that our first job is twofold: doing scholarship that is on the leading edge of our various fields and training new generations of young people, both those who are going into scholarship, and those who are going into careers in the public and private sector. The latter careers may be in medical fields. They may be in ministry fields. They may be in government. They may be in NGOs. Wherever they are, I don't think it's a bad thing that they're being trained by people who are at the cutting edge of their own fields of history or anthropology or sociology or philosophy or theology. Whatever the our students go on to do, I feel that at least they're getting a lot of what is the best in the study of religion today from our faculty, and that counts for a great deal.
Rahim Kanani: With regard to ignorance and lack of comprehension, surely you've come across the recent Pew Religion Survey, which showed that the people who were most knowledgeable about faith are in fact atheists, and that those who were religious knew very little of their own tradition. What does this tell you?
Dean Graham: It tells me, for one thing, that people who consider themselves atheist or what have you have probably wrestled a lot more fundamentally with religious options and found for their own tastes all the options lacking, but they are more likely to have looked at four or five options than the person who accepts whatever they have come into or who has been a new convert and is convinced that there is only one truth, so it's perhaps not so surprising. The abject ignorance is more surprising and more distressing. Or given the level of our public discourse in other areas such as politics or social concerns, it may not be surprising, but it's certainly distressing. But look, we don't really know how to teach the history of religion in our primary and secondary schools in such a way that citizens grow up with any kind of knowledge, let alone thoughtful understanding of even major religious traditions. I'm not talking about teaching Christianity or teaching Judaism or teaching Islam. We don't know how to teach children and young people about religion and its history as a human phenomenon, a global human phenomenon. We've had a really fine, very small, but unique program here that was aimed at training and certifying MTS graduates to go into secondary school teaching in religious studies as a non-confessional subject. Right now, unfortunately, we have that on hiatus because we can't afford its costs after the recent recession. It's a very expensive program to run, but we've been producing 10 or so graduate's a year for many years now who go out to teach religion in secondary schools.
There is not much of that kind of training available to people. We're also doing some of it through the Harvard Extension School and helping teachers retool in this area. We're trying to do things in small ways, but one school doing this is not nearly enough to really make a dent. And that's unfortunate, because I think the ignorance of people about both their own tradition and about other traditions really comes in good part from a lack of presence of religion in school curricula. (Again, I don't mean confessional presence, but I mean presence of teaching an understanding of religion, as much as we teach the understanding of government or other societal institutions. There has been very little of that kind of teaching in the past and we need that.)
I think the other thing to be said is that part of the ignorance comes from people feeling that religion is represented by its', you might say, loudest voices in every tradition, and by the people who make the biggest bang or the biggest splash. And so "Christian" or "Muslim" is being defined by so-called "fundamentalists", and often the most extremist of those, because they're exceedingly vocal and monochromatic in the messages they give, and they're not very subtle or nuanced in the public images they present. Such persons have come to be, for a lot of people, the face of Christianity or of Islam, which is a real distortion of what worldwide Christianity or Islam looks like, although it's seems clear that literalist and extremist traditions in Christianity and Islam are growing around the world. All the while, there are huge numbers of Christians or Muslims who are devout, but not literalists and not rigid and not extremist. There are vast numbers of Christians who are not chauvinistic about their Christianity, but it's the chauvinists that we see and similarly in the Islamic tradition. We see both extremists who claim Islam for their own purposes and we see people who are probably in most cases frustrated by the socioeconomic and political repression they've lived under, which is associated with the non Muslim world, particularly with the Christian west. The Christian and Jewish west has largely been the oppressors for them or we have supported their oppressors who are local, and often that political and social malaise translates into supporting groups that claim to be Muslim but have other agendas. Many devout Muslims are willing to support them largely for political or social reasons, and this gives a much distorted picture of Islam. We have a distorted picture I think of the Hindu tradition in much the same ways. We see the Babri mosque destruction in Allahabad or the bombing of trains and these kinds of things are held up as indicative of Hindus more generally, which they are not. We are in an interconnected world in which the international media jumps on what is most sensationalist or abhorrent about religions. Thus people generally get their understanding of religion from sound bites and scary images, not out of any sort of serious knowledge of people of other faiths whether they are next door to them in their communities or thousands of miles away.
There is this tendency to make people and traditions into monoliths and that is exactly what a strong religious studies curriculum militates against. We have a curriculum at HDS that works against any easy reduction of our own religious traditions as monolithically "good" and others "evil". We have to be educated to understand that there are infinite permutations on "Christian", "Muslim", "Buddhist", "Hindu", or even "Jew". And to get beyond dismissal of people who are not Christians like us or Muslims like us or Hindus like us.
In the end it's tolerance or toleration that we are teaching through knowledge and critical understanding. And it is crucial, because we live in a world where by and large you're not going to change the religious make-up anywhere more than at the ends of the spectrum. One tradition may gain ground for a century and lose for a century and gain for a century and so on, but I don't foresee a future that I could ever imagine when one religious tradition is going to conquer the world. It's simply stupid of any one group to think that they're going to do that. The fact is that we need to learn to live with other human beings, whatever their religious traditions are. We cannot afford to focus on people as first a part of a monolith that we type in a certain way rather than as human beings who happen to have a religious adherence that we could understand better if we listened to them. We can't afford to do that in a shrinking world above all, and so the kind of education that I'd like to think we're trying to do here in a small way, frankly needs to be propagated more widely.
Rahim Kanani: Along those lines, I recently spoke to Larry Bacow, President of Tufts University, and he stated that collectively, we've underinvested in the study of religion, not to encourage people to become religious, but to understand the religious dimension of domestic and international affairs, where many debates therein are rooted in some kind of belief system or another, often based in religious text.
Dean Graham: Absolutely, and if they're not rooted in religion, they often have a religious expression. So whether it's religious motivation or utilization of religion out of other motivation I don't have an answer to that, because I think it varies a lot, but I couldn't agree more. I'm an historian and I work particularly in the Islamic world, but I've also studied Indian traditions and western traditions at various times and written about them, so I do what is often called comparative work. What I realize is that my actual books and articles reach frankly a fairly limited audience when you look at the scholarly world in which they circulate. It's very hard to disseminate some of the work that is being done by scholars in the various fields that are relevant here. Probably most of us studying religion in the academy have been less good than we should be. I would like to think that we are teaching our students to change the world's ignorance about religion from their diverse standpoints, but that may not be enough. I am proudest in some ways of being part of a world history team for the last 26 years with a college text that is going into its 9th edition next month. There are 5 of us, 2 at Yale and 3 here at Harvard and the fact that I am an historian of religion means that at least that in putting this together the publishing company thought it important enough to see religion as somehow critical. That book may be one place in which I'm able to reach a wider audience because thousands of students read this book, but it's sad that we don't have greater distribution of the wide range of work that tries to talk about what the good and the bad in the history of religion have looked like.
Religion has not been a good thing in world history, my own mentor used to say, but it's been a great thing. In other words, for good and evil, it has been an important element in human experience, and remains so. I think people don't understand enough about it, and people ought to have a little sophistication in dealing with religious pluralism if nothing else, because they're going to live in America or anywhere else alongside people of 6 or 7, if not 30 different religious persuasions just in their own neighborhoods and certainly in their towns and cities.
Rahim Kanani: Recently, His Highness the Aga Khan stated that in the West, the definition of an educated person does not include any knowledge of the Islamic world. As you sit atop Harvard Divinity School, how do we redefine the notion of what it means to be educated in the 21st century?
Dean Graham: It's hard to know. We now have four Islamic specialists here at HDS, which is at least three more than ever before, but whether this means we are educating most of our students about Islam is another question, largely because our graduate students are doing so many different things. For me, it is more important that non-Western studies generally need to be more regularly integrated into undergraduate curricula around the country. They are much more available in colleges nationwide than they were in, say, 1960s or 70s, but we still have a ways to go. For 30 years I taught basic Islam courses in the College here, and let's say I might average 100 undergraduates a year in those courses. We have over 6000 undergrads in the college, so it's still a pretty small percentage of those, even with 1 or 2 of my Islamics colleagues teaching similarly general undergraduate courses. Let's say we reach 200 people a year. You're only reaching a small percentage even of the Harvard population. What is really needed is to integrate the study of major world cultural and religious traditions into the basic fabric of undergraduate education, into the general education required of all students for an A.B. degree. It is important to educate as wide a swath as we can of our citizenry about not only Islam but religious traditions more widely. General education in particular ought to include at least an introductory level of awareness of the history of religion and culture globally, including that of the Islamic tradition. That was the reason I joined the aforementioned world civilization textbook team in 1984; but we don't have enough of such education yet in almost any American curriculum I have seen.
We are especially ignorant in this country of the Islamic tradition. What the average American knows of Islam comes from hearing about terrorists who have identified with Islam and in a way co-opted the name of Muslim and the name of Islam for their own purposes. As I indicated earlier, they have indeed gotten some support in portions of the Muslim world, but that does not make the terrorists representative of world Muslims. As in the Christian world the great majority of people are probably pretty silent about their faith and about what they think. It's a very private thing for a lot of people and so it's just very hard, given the media, for people to factor in the degree of distortion involved in what one reads about Islam. I do think the study of other traditions like the Islamic for people who are not Muslim gives one some sense both of the breadth of the tradition, its diversity, and some appreciation for the fact that extremists and fanatics exist in all traditions, but no great tradition in the world has ever been made up of largely of extremists and fanatics.
Rahim Kanani: What is your vision for Harvard Divinity School as you move forward in terms of the teaching, the curriculum, and the collaborations?
Dean Graham: Going back to what we talked about earlier, I really am hoping that cross-university, cross-faculty collaborations and teaching and even collaborative or joint student programs, including degree programs, are going to become more and more possible now that we have built up a faculty that is bigger and stronger and better able to offer a variety of things, and now that all the faculties of the University are becoming more desirous of collaboration with each other. I think now we're sort of at a threshold at Harvard as a whole. We just now in a way gotten to a point where we can begin then to build for a different kind of future, which I hope is going to be a collaborative one, so that is certainly one thing that I see in the future of HDS.
One of the big areas of collaboration is clearly trying to continue to rationalize better the relations between Arts and Sciences and Divinity, where we have such a long history of close ties and now a number of faculty who are members of both faculties. There are a lot of linkages here. In most large universities, religion is housed in a religion department, not in a school of divinity. We're as much like a very large university religion department and as we are a reasonable-sized divinity school, and we're still trying to sort out if we can be both kinds of unit. We think we can, but our question is how can you do that well and how can we integrate the curricula and bring all of our strengths in both faculties to bear most fully on both undergraduate and graduate studies in religion?
We've had probably Harvard's longest collaboration in doctoral studies between Divinity and Arts and Sciences. Our religion PhD goes back to 1935, so it has been around a long time, and the traffic of students across school lines has been always much stronger than the traffic of faculty, to be perfectly honest, and I'm hoping that we continue to get outstanding students and they continue to want to work with people in any school of the University who make sense for whatever their project may be. I find that the students often lead the way in making such connections; I am hopeful that in the coming years, the faculty will do more and more of such connecting across schools themselves. I think we're trying to find ways that we can do that better because the ideal is to drop the kind of walls, not just between disciplines, but between whole professional schools and whole faculties here. That is the future I would like to envision for HDS and for Harvard.
Rahim Kanani: Thank you so much for your time.
Dean Graham: You're very welcome.