ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — As a high school student, James Spearman excelled in math and science, and for a hobby at home, he assembled insulation pipes into a model roller coaster looping from floor to ceiling and back. So it was not surprising that he chose engineering as his major when he enrolled here at Elizabethtown College.
Then Mr. Spearman ended up in his second choice for a first-semester seminar, a class titled “Big Theological Questions” that was taught by the college chaplain. Indeed, Mr. Spearman had already been asking himself questions since drifting from his Baptist upbringing toward atheism and trying out meditation.
The clincher came a few weeks into the term, when he heard a guest speaker on campus address the importance of interfaith relations in this age of deep divides not only among religions but also between believers and nonbelievers. Mr. Spearman put aside engineering and changed his major to interfaith leadership studies, a degree that he believes can help him become a political organizer.
Mr. Spearman’s decision reflected a combination of serendipity, personal curiosity and institutional direction, for Elizabethtown College had just begun offering a degree and core courses in interfaith studies. This unassuming dot on the intellectual landscape — 1,800 students on 200 acres in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland — had become the nation’s beta tester in the emerging academic discipline.
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