A case-based General Education course at Harvard College studies religious conflict in the unlikeliest of places: our own backyards. Launched in fall 2007, Professor Diana Eck’s “The World’s Religions in Multicultural America: Case Studies in Religious Pluralism” shatters the illusion that freedom of religion in America brings harmonious coexistence—instead, this freedom has put religions in direct contact, conversation, and conflict. Professor Eck’s class uses the case study method to fulfill a primary goal of the required undergraduate curriculum: “not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives.”
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, a research and resource-sharing venture in religious diversity founded and directed by Eck, developed these case studies organized by “Sites of Encounter”: schools and universities, city halls, suburbs, workplaces, and memorials. The selected problems were either nationally provocative, such as the “Mosque at Ground Zero”; locally consequential, as when the city of Cambridge considered adding the Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha to its school calendar; or internationally relevant, like the domestic traces of Middle Eastern conflict between Jews and Muslims.
I took this course in fall 2011; it was my first introduction to the case study method. The class centered on written and verbal discussion, and each student was encouraged to share their personal religious perspective. The diversity came alive in the classroom, proof that the lessons were widely applicable. Now, working at Harvard Law School, I imagine these case studies could be spun to teach future lawyers and leaders to interpret anti-discrimination law, negotiate and mediate faith-based controversy, advise local governments, and make fair and informed decisions on behalf of a diverse constituency.
“Driven by Faith or Customer Service? Muslim Taxi Drivers at the MSP Airport” asked us to articulate deeper, unspoken issues and to consider the risks of action and inaction in intractable conflicts. Other case studies required us to respond effectively to propaganda and religious rhetoric—rather than trying to change or dismiss certain viewpoints we considered inflammatory or incorrect, we had to legitimize every opinion and change our responses.
There were no exams to prove oneself as righteous or superior; it would have undermined the very point of the course. Rather, Professor Eck gave real attention to cultivating reflective, empathetic minds.
For the final project, each student wrote a contemporary case study about religious conflict—we were able to identify nascent crises around us, inhabit another’s perspective, and apply our problem solving skills to a novel situation.
Three years later, I don’t remember the names of every case study’s protagonist or all of the discussion questions asked, but I find myself approaching conflict with a greater appreciation of individual identity. So rarely in conflict do we value interpersonal skills to the extent we do strategy or power. Only by participating in these conflicts myself could I learn that.