The Evolution of the Religious Studies Curriculum

by John Jackson

Staff Writer

The religious studies department at Manhattan College has had its share of changes in terms of curriculum and courses offered over the years.

In the last half century, there have been a few notable changes to the curriculum overall. Before the 1970s, when the school was not yet officially a coeducational institution, students took 16 credits in what was then considered the ‘theology department.’

When Brother Robert Berger, ’73, began his studies at Manhattan College, the students took two-credit religion courses each semester taught by a Christian Brother whose field of expertise didn’t necessarily lie in religion.

“When they were teaching two-credit courses in the ’60’s, any brother would be able to teach a religion course and it was out of the field of his expertise,” said Berger. “So you could have a brother who was teaching chemical engineering and would also be teaching a religion course.”

The courses taught in those times focused on the Catholic religion. However, in 1970, the theology Department sat down together and decided that their current curriculum was not what was in the best interest of the students. They felt the students needed an education in religious studies rather than the specific education in Catholic theology. So they revamped the curriculum and students started taking three three-credit courses which weren’t limited to just Catholic teaching.

This is when the college’s current Nature and Experience of Religion course was originally created. The other two requirements included courses on religious traditions and religion and culture.

“That was a radical shift and they were really thinking ahead of the game,” said Robert Geraci, Ph.D., the current chair of the religious studies department. “Because that really not only is a better match to our more diverse student body that we have now, but it’s a better match for what you might actually have use for when you go out into the working world.”

A couple of years before Brennan O’Donnell took over as Manhattan College’s president in 2009, the religious studies department changed its curriculum again. The department discussed different ways to construct the curriculum and talked to the administration about it.

“Several years back, we were encouraged how to give the students the right balance,” said Religious Studies Professor Michele Saracino, Ph.D, in regards to the religious studies curriculum.

The department as a whole felt it was important to the school’s heritage for its students to take a class in Catholicism. The Catholic studies 200-level courses came out of this discussion and students are currently required to take one of those courses.

“Just to honor that this is a Christian Brother school and that Christian theology is one of the issues we value,” said Saracino.

A current student at Manhattan College begins his or her religious studies education with the Nature and Experience of Religion course which was introduced in the 1970s. The course has stayed pretty static over the years, but teachers are allowed to teach a different number and variety of religions in the course as long as they teach at least three, with one being an Eastern religion.

“I love teaching it because I get to teach religions that are not my specialty,” said Saracino regarding the Nature and Experience of Religion class. “I didn’t go to graduate school for Buddhism, I didn’t go to graduate school for Taoism. My graduate degree is in Christianity. My Ph.D. is in Christian theology. So to learn those religions and to collaborate with colleagues on them to figure out how to teach them effectively has been great.”

MC students continue their religious studies education with one of the aforementioned Catholic 200-level classes. In the Spring 2018 semester, there will be nine 200-level courses in addition to multiple special topics. Special topics classes are not currently a permanent part of the Religious Studies curriculum. The four different topics offered in the spring are Labor Studies Colloquium, Monasticism and the Arts, Introduction to Peace Studies, and Catholic Mass and its Music.

Students then finish off their Religious Studies requirement with a third class which encompasses either another religious tradition or a study between religion and culture. For the upcoming Spring 2018 semester, there will be 12 of these 300-level courses as well as two special topics. One of the topics is Women and Islam while the other one is Religion, Conflict and War.

“[The 300-level courses] sort of enables students to still think about the wider global issues that religion is pertinent to,” said Geraci. “To emphasize that it’s not just about our intellectual heritage, but also the world in which all of us are thrust.”

Like many departments at the college, the religious studies department has truly evolved over the years. It went from Christian Brothers teaching the courses to doctoral professors teaching it. It went from an extreme focus on Catholicism, to not requiring Catholicism, to now having a balance of Catholicism and other religions. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the religious studies department’s commitment to staying student-centered.

“But today we have people who have doctorates in their field and they’ve continued the tradition of being student-centered,” said Berger. “It’s people who are aware of what’s going on in the world in the 21st century and they’re able to articulate the dilemmas of these things and challenge students to think about it.”