Higher Education

‘Diverse Society Needs a Place to Practice Pluralism’: Eboo Patel on the Peacemaking Potential of Higher Education

By Jacob Hess
Eboo Patel at the August 2023 Newsmaker Breakfast: A Conversation with University of Utah Impact Scholar Dr. Eboo Patel. Photo credit: BW Productions

Eboo Patel at the August 2023 Newsmaker Breakfast: A Conversation with University of Utah Impact Scholar Dr. Eboo Patel. Photo credit: BW Productions

(Deseret News) — College campuses continue to be in the spotlight this week, as tensions flare up at institutions of higher education. Among the many who have pursued helpful diversity work across American institutions, Eboo Patel of Interfaith America has articulated some especially helpful insights.

This scholar has effectively highlighted the role of faith in allaying American tensions on and off campus and proactively cultivating a pluralism that welcomes all. In the fall, we’re planning a public conversation with Eboo Patel at the Kem C. Gardner Center and livestreamed online (stay tuned for details). For now, we’ve gathered below some of the more important of his 27 Deseret News commentaries over the last couple of years relevant to these tensions. In each, we’ve highlighted a few stand-out insights. In chronological order, here’s what he has shared:

Building bridges, Sept. 14, 2022:

The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. … The question of whether religious identity is going to be a bridge of cooperation, a barrier of division or a bludgeon of domination will play a determining role in our common life together.

Eighty-nine percent of college students said that it is important for people of different faiths to work together on matters of common concern. Seventy percent said they were committed to bridging religious divides. … (Yet) while well over 50 percent of college students say they spend time learning about racial, political and sexual diversity, far fewer than 50 percent say they spend time learning about religious diversity. … It is time that higher education takes religious diversity as seriously as it takes other forms of identity.

When it comes to nurturing pluralism, the secret is serving others, Dec. 17, 2022:

One of the most remarkable things about the civic institutions established by religious communities is that they give adherents the opportunity to deepen their own faith identity, feel more a part of their own religious history and embrace more fully their own community by serving the needs of people who fall outside of it.

The prophet Muhammad showed us that our everyday actions are suffused with spiritual significance … following a mandate of “giving of one’s self, for the common good, in response to God’s benevolent majesty.”

The fate of the religious university and why it matters, Jan. 18, 2023:

Our nation needs to be a place where people who disagree about heaven can work together on important issues here on Earth. … The message of [religious] schools to their secular counterparts is clear: There are so many objectives that we share and matters on which we can work together. Let’s focus there. Let’s help poor students get an education and a better job. Let’s make sure that our faculty focus on research that lifts everyone up. That’s so much better than taking up opposing positions in the culture wars.

The secular world might not understand all of what we believe and every reason we do what we do, but can’t you see the results? The least you can do is affirm that our religious identity is an asset. It is what drives our commitment and results in our excellence.

The dream of a religiously diverse democracy is ours to achieve, March 18, 2023:

Imagine for a moment that all of the institutions founded by faith communities vanished from your city. In Chicago, where I live, here is what would be gone: Loyola and DePaul universities, Wheaton College, Northwestern and Rush Hospital, plus the Catholic K-12 schools that educate nearly 100,000 students in the Chicagoland area. Not just the worship spaces of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Temple Sinai and the Downtown Islamic Center, but their tutoring programs, soup kitchens, conference spaces and Thanksgiving turkey drives. On a national scale, the disappearance of institutions founded by faith communities would render our civic landscape literally unrecognizable.

The great genius of America (is) if you give people the freedom to express their faith, they will use that freedom to build up their nation. They will take the inspiration of their faith, plant it in American soil, and grow out of it institutions that serve people of all faiths and philosophies, from atheist to Zoroastrian.

Advice for college graduates — and everyone else, May 7, 2023:

Telling people all the things that prevented you from being good at something is no substitute for actually being good at something. So if you want to be a pilot, don’t surround yourself with people who will tell you about all the ways flight school is unfair. Surround yourself with people who will teach you how to fly a plane.

Wes Moore recollects: “I didn’t have to make excuses for myself because I had people who were making excuses for me. … I think their interpretation of caring for me was lowering their expectations.” Let me tell you right now: Whatever else lowering expectations for people might be, it is not caring for them. … Howard Thurman put it best, in reference to the group of people who believed in him at Morehouse College. He said they held a crown above his head and challenged him to grow tall enough to wear it. I hope you find people to do that for you — and that you will do it for others.

Talk to strangers. It’s how we build and sustain our democracy, May 27, 2023:

Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen says that “talking to strangers” is what it means to be a citizen of a democracy. … We all should have at least one unlikely friendship. A friendship that confounds other people. “They’re nothing alike,” folks will whisper accusingly as the two of you walk by, deep in conversation. College is the perfect place for that kind of friendship. But also, Earth in general is.

How do you have a pluralistic nation where people are free to disagree on cosmic matters if they are not also regularly gathering to cooperate on mundane things? … That’s what we do in our gyms and grocery stories, our schools and libraries, our parks and theaters, our basketball courts and our football fields, our workplaces and our volunteer sites. That’s what a civil society is — the spaces where, through a million genuine encounters, we take each other’s side, stitch a social fabric, write a shared story, build a national identity. We should cherish those spaces. Inhabit them. Insist on them. Build more.

How higher ed can help resolve our tribal conflicts, June 3, 2023:

“I witnessed the public forum — made up mostly of parents, administrators and educators — devolve into tribalist dissension,” wrote high school junior Sungjoo Yoon. “The meeting quickly became a two-sided shouting match pitting supposed ‘freedoms’ against purported ‘justice.’ There was plenty of arguing but no meaningful discussion …” That scene sums up too much of American life today. Civic institutions that we simply expect to work are melting down in tribalist fury.

This is a crisis, and we need help. Who should we call? Here’s an idea: higher education. I know, I know: Higher education is often viewed as the left flank of our tribal conflict, but suspend that idea for a moment and pay attention to the potential. Our college campuses gather people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies in a space with common activities — from biology classes to intramural badminton — that have the potential to shape cooperation. Catholic philosopher John Courtney Murray defines civilization as a conversation, the act of “living and talking together.” According to Murray, colleges are special places because they have the potential to model civilization to the extent that diverse views can be “at war intelligibly.”

How universities can build the next generation of interfaith leaders, Aug. 28, 2023:

Peacemaking is an ethic. It is also a knowledge base and a skill set. Advancing these is the specialty of universities. There is a great line about the key role that universities play in a society: If you want a great city, build a great university and wait a hundred years. … I think the University of Utah could easily be a laboratory for interfaith cooperation and a launching pad for interfaith leaders.

Faith gets short shrift in most conversations about diversity. That’s too bad, because religion is centrally important in American life. The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. Religion gives us binding narratives for our diverse democracy. Think Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” Lincoln’s “almost chosen people,” King’s “beloved community” and Jane Addams’ “cathedral of humanity.” Social capital is typically understood as civic structures that are beyond family, and faith communities are the single largest source of social capital in our country. And religious identity is easily the most important dimension of identity in American law.

The paradox of privilege: Is the push for diversity training working? Oct. 11, 2023:

People are not tropes, they’re poems — infinite in their particulars. We should be making appreciative inquiries into people’s magnificent individuality, not dogmatic declarations about their ascribed identities.

I experienced racism growing up. It was ugly and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy. But my family taught me a different story, a story of pride in identity. “You come from a glorious culture,” my mom would stress. “The most delicious food, the most colorful fashion, the most complex music. As far as your skin, people spend countless hours and thousands of dollars sitting in the sun to try to get your skin color. Be proud God gave it to you for free.”

Why diversity work on campus is essential for pluralism — and our democracy, Dec. 9, 2023:

Diverse society needs a place to practice and promote pluralism. Enter universities, which are a treasure of our civilization. Where else do you get a wide range of identities converging in a small physical space, the intellectual resources to teach about the world’s great traditions and the co-curricular opportunities (intramural sports, student clubs, volunteer programs) to apply what you learn?

In every generation, American campuses have stepped up to help address the urgent needs of the nation. Right now, the great problem we face in the United States is high conflict, and the urgent need is more collaboration and cooperation across differences. In this moment of extreme polarization, to serve the nation and improve themselves, campuses need to become laboratories and launching pads for pluralism, because, as Gwendolyn Brooks said, “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s harvest.”

Honor the ‘holiness of diversity,’ Eboo Patel tells young adults, Jan. 30, 2024:

You cannot have a civic life in a diverse democracy if people with diverse identities … cannot have conversations at school boards or libraries or city councils. The definition of a diverse democracy is that we have enough unity … that it can hold together our … divergent ideologies.

To move forward, America needs “a peaceful army of bridge builders. … The dopamine rush of quick judgment is not worth knowing less about the world.”

Eboo Patel’s advice to graduates at the University of Utah, May 5, 2024:

A diverse democracy requires spaces where people who disagree on some fundamental things can come together on other fundamental things. Your potluck is one of those spaces. A potluck is the ultimate democratic form. No mayor, governor, president or general can command people to potluck. It is an event of the people, by the people, for the people. Enough of them can save our democracy.

There are some who think that it’s sophisticated to emphasize all the things standing in your way, to highlight all the things you can’t do. If you host a potluck, you are sending the opposite signal. … Faith in the essential idea of a democracy: a belief in people.

We also recommend the broader scope of Patel’s writing on the subject over the years, including: