WHAT THEY LEARNED: Abigail Sweeney ‘15

She combined her education and religion studies for her thesis, “Reading The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Religion and Multicultural Education in the High School Classroom.”

Like many Fords who major and minor across disciplines, religion major and education minor Abigail Sweeney wanted her thesis to combine her interests.  “Initially [I] thought that I would look at how textbooks addressed religion as a facet of history and society,” she says. “As I took a course titled ‘Multicultural Education,’ however, I realized I didn’t want to examine the extent to which the nature of religion is included as a valuable in the classroom, but rather imagine one possibility for how this could productively be done.”

Her thesis, “Reading The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Religion and Multicultural Education in the High School Classroom,” used a comparison of two texts she initially discovered in her Haverford religion courses as a means to discuss religion in high school classrooms. It is back to elementary school, however, where Sweeney is heading next. She plans to be a teacher, and, though the texts she covered in her thesis won’t be appropriate for her much younger students, she hopes to use the broader lesson of her thesis in her classes. “This project helped me imagine possibilities for how challenging subject matter, including religion, can be thoughtfully included in educational settings in a way which is neither coercive nor manipulative, but rather inviting for all students to explore the nature of the world in which they live,” she says.

How did your advisor help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?

[Professor of Religion] Ken Koltun-Fromm was my advisor and helped me narrow the focus of my project to something that could realistically fit within the parameters of the project. He helped me strengthen my rationale for writing about both books, rather than just one, by often challenging me to defend why the comparative aspect of my thesis mattered so deeply to me. He also read The Fire Next Time as I was writing, so that he too had a sense of the literature, and encouraged me to develop educational materials to include in the appendix of the thesis.

What did you learn working on your thesis?

I learned the flexibility needed in studying any topic in depth.Although both men wrote in the same time period about race and oppression in America, Baldwin and Malcolm X experienced different religious trajectories [that] shaped their respective understandings of the nature of religion. Exploring how their understandings of religion evolved reminded [me] of the constant nature of change. My biggest take-away from the thesis writing project is that a person’s religiosity is rarely, if ever, static.


Photo: Library of Congress PPD; (cc) Allan Warren

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.