Students in Stan Thayne’s Secularization of Whitman College course grapple with the College’s history

Naia Willemsen, News Reporter

Despite the fact that Whitman’s namesake, Marcus Whitman, was a religious missionary, today Whitman has no institutional religious affiliation. This is a topic students in politics professor Stan Thayne’s course, Politics/Religion 260: The Secularization of Whitman College, seek to understand and discuss.

The course description states that “though the college now has no official ties to Christianity, we continue to bear the names of the Whitmans, house artifacts collected by our missionary founders, repent of our mascots, mark and wash our monuments and have a mission statement outlining our goals and aspirations.” 

The goal of the class is “to consider the present politics of Whitman College in light of our archives, collections and relationships, as well as broader scholarship on religion and secularism.”

Sophomore Zakir Hussain chose to take the class to learn more about Whitman’s history and the ideas surrounding it.

“Surprisingly, there were not a lot of mentions of Marcus Whitman and his mission [in my education previously]. I even thought that the college was named after Walt Whitman,” Hussain said. “So, a course like this has helped broaden my historical knowledge of the missionaries and the U.S. involvement in the Pacific Northwest before it was a part of it.

Senior Kaima Weiss-Penzias was drawn to the course’s syllabus; as she put it, she “could not stay away.” So far, the course has given her new perspectives on Whitman and religion.

“Even though I have taken other classes that have discussed the Whitman myth, I never gained such an in-depth understanding of the events. Additionally, it has been really interesting to think about in the context of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. That was an aspect that I was not aware of before this class,” Weiss-Penzias said.

In the course, students have read and discussed books surrounding the Whitman myth, as well as ventured on field trips, including to the Whitman Mission and the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute.

Another notable feature of this course is the final project students were assigned, due Nov. 30: “pick a site or object on-campus that sticks out to you or interests you for some reason. Think about it. Visit it. Touch it. Read it. Maybe even smell it. Now write about it or make a podcast about it or a video. Use themes and discussions from class. This could be something from the archives, or a site we visit or talk about, or something you stumble upon or find on your own.”

For Weiss-Penzias, the purposeful vagueness of the assignment allowed her the opportunity to dive into what interested her: she chose to research the spirituality room located in Prentiss Hall. 

In doing so, she combed through old newspaper articles and “came across an Op-Ed written from a 06’ graduate who had some hot takes on secularity, so I reached out to him for further comment, and he responded which was super exciting!”

In contrast, Hussain chose to research former professor and religious counselor George Ball.

“I am creating a dialogue between Marcus Whitman and George Ball and how Ball could have gotten things mixed up in terms of his political ideas,” Hussain said.

Both Weiss-Penzias and Hussain expressed their appreciation for the freedom involved in the project.

“This project has been beneficial because it has been an independent one. We could choose any medium to compare the site/object we have chosen,” Hussain said.

The discussion of the Whitman myth has been prominent this year with lecture series’ and the discourse surrounding the Marcus Whitman statue. As such, this course—and project—are especially relevant.