Society for Values in Higher Education
The Society for Values in Higher Education (SVHE) is a US-based non-profit membership organization. Founded in 1922 to promote the teaching of religious studies in American colleges and universities, the society’s members are now broadly interested in issues involving education, including pedagogy, ethics, and social concerns. It has no political or religious agenda. SVHE’s headquarters are at Western Kentucky University, with members across the United States and in other countries.
Most of the first colleges in the American colonies—such as Harvard College (1636), Yale College (1701), and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) (1747)—were established by Christian churches with the mission of training clergy and lay leaders. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, many American colleges had adopted the model of the German university, focused on science rather than religion, preparing students for a wide variety of professions besides the ministry, and allowing students to choose from a large range of courses. By the early decades of the twentieth century, relatively few institutions offered courses on religion; such courses were even rarer in the rapidly growing state universities.
In 1922 Charles Foster Kent, a professor of biblical literature at Yale University, started advocating for the teaching of religion in American colleges and universities, arguing that such instruction was essential to prepare men and women for ethical practice in any profession. He founded the National Council of Schools of Religion, which would help train teachers for independent schools of religion at state universities. Renamed the National Council of Religion in Higher Education in 1924, Kent’s organization offered scholarships (later called Kent Fellowships) for graduate study in religion. Recipients of these scholarships became the nucleus of departments of religion and religious studies at universities across the country.:26
American higher education grew quickly in the decades after World War II, and the teaching of religion grew with it. During those decades the National Council of Religion cooperated with the Hazen Foundation to sponsor a series of Faculty Consultations on Religion that helped create programs and curricula for this instruction.:36 Meanwhile the Danforth Foundation started offering financial support to graduate students in religion and other fields. In the early 1960s the two fellowship programs merged to create the Society for Religion in Higher Education, which continued to support the preparation of college teachers of religion and advocate for the study of religion as an important part of the humanities.:86
By the 1970s the context for the Society’s work had changed. Many public universities had created religious studies departments, and scholarly associations like the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature had assumed the Society’s role as advocate for those departments. While Kent and his colleagues were interested in religion as a moral and spiritual element in higher education, these departments and associations were more focused on the scholarly study of religion. Meanwhile, the Society began welcoming members with personal and academic interests beyond religious studies. Reflecting this changing context and membership, in 1975 the Society changed its name to the Society for Values in Higher Education.:189–190
This new name meant an expanded mandate for the Society’s work, as it carried out a series of research projects concerning practices in American higher education, with particular focus on interdisciplinary and values-conscious teaching.
Current mission and work
In 1998 the Society’s board adopted the following mission statement to guide its work:
|“||The Society for Values in Higher Education is a fellowship of teachers and others who care deeply about ethical issues—such as integrity, diversity, social justice and civic responsibility—facing higher education and the wider society. We believe that such values call for study, reflection, discussion, and action. We pursue these activities through publications, projects, regional gatherings, and an annual national meeting.||”|
It carries out this mission through several programs.
The Society continues to carry out research and programmatic projects, generally led by members and supported by foundation grants. Several reflect its historical interest in religion and higher education, including the Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life, which brought together scholars and academic leaders to discuss the place of religion on college and university campuses. A follow-up institute supported model programs that encouraged religious engagement on several campuses.
Continuing the Society’s interest in pedagogy, SVHE sponsors a summer workshop for college teachers which encourages faculty to develop ways to include values issues in their classrooms. The Society has also organized several summer conferences for college teachers supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Starting in 2011, SVHE has offered the Summer Workshop for Teachers in China, collaborating with college teachers in China to incorporate critical and creative thinking, intercultural competence and interactive classrooms.
In the 1920s Kent started annual meetings of the fellowship recipients, where they could share their scholarly work and teaching ideas. These meetings brought together senior fellows—often prominent scholars in religious studies—with graduate students and new professors. They were academically rigorous but informal, with social events alongside scholarly debates, and programs for families. The Society continues this tradition with its annual meeting, held each summer on a college or university campus. Over the years the meetings become an academic and personal community for fellows and their families.
The Society’s journal is Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal (originally called The Christian Scholar). It is an interdisciplinary journal focused primarily on the humanities and social sciences, published quarterly by the Society and Florida State University.
In its earlier years the Society’s membership was made up of current and previous recipients of Kent Fellowships, and later recipients of Danforth Fellowships. In the 1970s the Society expanded its membership, inviting recipients of other fellowships, such as the Danforth Graduate Fellowship for Women, the Harbison Awards for Distinguished Teaching, and the Newcombe Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Membership is now open to others, however, either through nomination by other members or through self-nomination. The Society currently has 500 members.
SVHE has had a long history of members who were well-known scholars in religion and other academic fields. Current and former members include:
- Benjamin Barber
- Cathy Bao Bean
- Bennett Bean
- Ian Barbour
- Robert McAfee Brown
- James Fowler
- Marilyn French
- Edwin Gaustad
- Lewis Gordon
- Richard Guarasci
- Yvonne Haddad
- Vincent Harding
- Stanley Hauerwas
- Bruce Lawrence
- Richard Marius
- Martin Marty
- Jacob Neusner
- Michael Novak
- Thomas Oden
- Rosemary Radford Ruether
- Claude Welch
- Bruce Wilshire
- Edith Wyschogrod
- Marsden, George (1996). The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510650-3.
- Sloan, Douglas (1994). Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-22035-8.