Emerson affiliated faculty member Carol Ferrara. Photo/Courtesy
By Molly Loughman
Anthropologist and Marketing Communication affiliated faculty member Carol Ferrara will advance her research on religious education and interfaith relations in France later this year through one of the world’s most prestigious and competitive fellowship programs — the Fulbright Program.
The core of the study surrounds the recent rise of independent private religious schools within the otherwise centralized secular national French public school system, which has sparked concern over religious extremism, isolationism, and threats to national unity.
“It’s a really different culture and structure of secularism, structure of government than in the United States,” said Ferrara, who also teaches a class on Religion and Secularism in Contemporary Societies in the Institute of Liberal Arts & Disciplinary Studies this semester. “We talk about how in France, because of the history and strength of the Catholic Church and the overthrowing of the Catholic Church in the Revolution, there’s a greater sense of having freedom from religion and ensuring it does not capture the hearts and minds of the French citizenry in a dangerous way – whereas in America we are more concerned about the freedom of religion.”
Ferrara earned her master’s degree in Islamic Studies, Middle East Studies and International Affairs at the University of Paris after initially being drawn to France’s headscarf debate, wherein headscarves were banned in public schools in 2004. While there, she studied public schools and state-funded Muslim and Catholic private schools to observe how religious tolerance and understanding was fostered in the schools. The centralized public school system doesn’t teach about religion, whereas private schools – even those funded by the state – are allowed to do so, she explained.
Ferrara earned her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Boston University, where she conducted a study that built upon work she conducted while pursuing her master’s degree, but this time with a focus on French national identity, the inculcation of Frenchness, how people become French, and the country’s particular perception of what it means to be French. The Muslim schools in that study are an example of how hard the Muslim communities are trying to fit in with government standards and national identity, she said.
“Those schools [in my earlier studies] wanted to be funded by the government, doing everything to play by the [French government’s] rules. The Fulbright study is born out of the combination between those two previous projects. Here, I’ll be looking at schools that purposefully aren’t seeking state funding – the ones that don’t want to play by the rules… so they can teach an alternative curriculum that fits their religious ideology. They can even limit who’s allowed to come to the school based on religion,” said Ferrara.
“It can be a very narrow vision of what it means to be Catholic or Muslim in these schools. The study is a comparison between Catholic schools and Muslim schools that have this alternative education model to see how that maps onto this very centralized, unified, and singular French identity model that’s fostered in the French public school system.”
With expertise in anthropology, humanities and cultural studies, and religion, the question that keeps Ferrara blazing her academic path is: What is keeping us from embracing pluralism?
“That’s really always been the heart of my research,” said Ferrara. “What fuels these divisions in society? – That’s why I do these studies, to see what we can learn about trying to understand each other, and to try and fix some of those structural and institutional problems in society that keep us from living together well.”
In addition to Ferrara, two Emerson College students were recently selected to receive Fulbright Scholarships, becoming the ninth and tenth Emerson students chosen for the prestigious grants. Noreen Plabutong ’19 will travel to South Korea to teach English, and Gabriela Mancuso ’19 will travel to Colombia to teach English at National University.