One of America’s finest scholars, George M. Marsden, offers us a first-rate intellectual history in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 1994). The book’s subtitle sums up Marsden’s thesis. He moves from the Colonial era’s “establishment of Protestant nonsectarianism” to “defining the American university in a scientific age” during the last century, to analyzing “when the tie no longer binds” in our day.
America’s “university system was built on a foundation of evangelical Protestant colleges” (p. 4). Until after the Civil War, virtually all universities retained a certain “evangelical” commitment, with required chapels, recurrent revivals, and resident clergymen-presidents. Yet within a short 50 years virtually all these universities underwent a metamorphosis, so that “by the 1920s the evangelical Protestantism of the old-time colleges had been effectively excluded from leading university classrooms” (p. 4). During the next half-century, the faith which had founded and structured the universities would be routinely ignored, pilloried and rejected.
Marsden finds a key to this process in the bombshell of a book William F. Buckley, Jr. published in 1951, God and Man at Yale. Reviewing his texts and teachers at Yale, Buckley pointed to “the triumph of ‘relativism, pragmatism and utilitarianism,’ in the spirit of philosopher of John Dewey. ‘There is surely not a department at Yale,’ Buckley observed, ‘that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths'” (p. 12). Though his judgment may have been severe, Buckley incisively exposed the true state of Yale’s secularized irreligion.
Sixty years earlier Yale had still seemed distinctly Evangelical. Noted preachers such as Dwight L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, A.J. Gordon, and John R. Mott found the campus open to their ministries. Students responded zealously to Christian appeals. Only inwardly, especially in the minds of the faculty, Yale was changing. “Higher criticism” of the Bible incarnated itself in professors such as George Adam Smith, and social action rather than personal piety increasingly attracted students’ commitments. While sustaining an appearance of Evangelical orthodoxy, Yale in fact lost its intellectual integrity as an orthodox Christian college. It became a purely secular institution.
To explain this process, Marsden presents in-depth case studies of significant colleges (or presidents or scholars) which illustrated significant trends in their day. Decade by decade, accommodations were made, often with little understanding the ultimate import of such moves. Religious principles and objectives, encrusted like fossils in mission statements, were often assumed, since they had provided the basis for the colleges’ founding and comforted their donors. But in fact they were increasingly pushed to the periphery of institutional operations.
Generally speaking, by the end of the 19th century, colleges such as Harvard retained a commitment to only a vaguely Christian morality. For example, Harvard’s president, Charles Norton Eliot, announced, “‘The moral purpose of a university’s policy should be to train young men to self-control and self-reliance through liberty'” (p. 188).
Committed to the notion of human goodness, Eliot embraced William James’ voluntarism, defining man’s nature as the result of exercising his free will. So Eliot eliminated required courses (Latin and Greek and the classics, including doses of Bible and Christian theology) in favor of “electives,” allowing students to design their own course of studies. He also eliminated mandatory chapel, insisting young men be allowed to choose whether or not to learn about the Christian faith.
Almost alone, as the 19th century ended, Princeton University retained a commitment to more traditional Evangelicalism. Publically debating Eliot, Princeton’s President James McCosh (an eminent philosopher as well as administrator) insisted that students must be exposed to traditional Christian teachings. To simply tolerate Christianity, as one among competing ideologies, would effectively dislodge it from the core of the institution. Still more: McCosh insisted there could be no “morality” without distinctly Christian theology, a position proven self-evident by spending a few days on most any modern university campus!
McCosh, however, was a lonely resister. His successor, Woodrow Wilson, deserted McCosh’s standard. In short order most universities followed the model which flourished during the 1890s at the University of Chicago, where John Dewey espoused “the religion of democracy.” In Dewey’s opinion, “‘a society in which the distinction between the spiritual and the secular has ceased, and as in Greek theory, as in the Christian theory of the Kingdom of God, the church and the state, the divine and the human organization of society are one'” (p. 250). Progressive politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and social reformers such as Jane Addams sought to inaugurate the new kingdom enunciated by John Dewey: the religion of democracy.
Illustrating the change taking place in the universities, in 1909 Cosmopolitan magazine published an article by Harold Bolce, “Blasting at the Rock of Ages.” Bolce’s words bit with the teeth of a pit bull: “‘Those who are not in close touch with the great colleges of the country, will be astonished to learn the creeds being foisted by the faculties of our great universities. In hundreds of class-rooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils; that immorality is simply an act in contravention of society’s accepted standards; that democracy is a failure and the Declaration of Independence only spectacular rhetoric; that the change from one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable a styles of dress; . . . and that there can be an are holier alliances without the marriage bond than within it'” (p. 267).
Bolce’s prescient words charted the course of higher education in our century. Flagship colleges and universities cut down their religious emblems, casting off from the denominations which had chartered them. Virtually all abandoned any reservations concerning naturalistic evolution; virtually all abandoned compulsory chapel; and in time virtually all abandoned any clear identification with Christianity. The “liberal” Protestantism which triumphed on American campuses quickly lost much resemblance to traditional Christian orthodoxy.
What American universities such as Harvard and Yale lacked was what John Henry Newman had espoused his Idea of a University: a firmly-anchored theological center which maintains a genuine university. Unfortunately, most Evangelical colleges too easily majored in emotions and ethics rather than theology. They frequently fomented life-changing revivals and dispatched missionaries around the world. But they failed to immerse and dye their intellectual clothing in the classical theology which could sustain their institutional mission.
To identify such trends, note the difference between two mission statements of Duke University, a Methodist institution. In 1924, the statement said: “‘The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God'” (p. 422). In 1988, this was revised to read: “‘Duke cherishes its historic ties with the United Methodist Church and the religious faith of its founders, while remaining non-sectarian'” (p. 421). Secularization was, essentially, complete.
The Soul of the University concludes with a brief challenge, a “concluding unscientific postscript,” from Marsden. It’s more a wish-list than an agenda for action, but he does have some reason for hope. Given the openness to various perspectives of “postmodern” academicians, Christians need to insist their views get a fair hearing on university campuses. It’s time to disestablish the anti-religious orthodoxy which has dominated academia for decades. The book’s value, however, is its wealth of historical data and skillfully-drawn vignettes. To understand why American education has developed as it has, Marsden’s treatise is essential.
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Whereas Marsden’s work is historical, Campus Wars: Multi-culturalism and the Politics of Difference, ed. John Arthur and Amy Shapiro (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, c. 1995), gives us a set of reports–a collection of articles by noted scholars–from the trenches of academia.
In Part One, “Multiculturalism and the College Curriculum,” the editors include articles by two traditionalists, Allan Bloom and John R. Searle, who insist a true college education focuses on classics of Western Civilization because of their commitment to such ideals as truth, objectivity, rationality. Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, explains: the “Western Rationalistic Tradition” adheres to a realism which believes we can, with words and logic, rightly represent truth regarding reality. “In a word, true statements are made, but the truth of statements is not made, it is discovered” (p. 45).
This tradition, underlying the grandeur of academia, is now endangered–assaulted, Searle and Bloom say, by leftist political agitators who follow Nietzsche’s dictum that “There are not facts, but only interpretations.” Intent on orchestrating social change–often of a feminist or homosexual or environmental sort–“postmodernists” pose a revolutionary threat to the integrity of the university.
Illustrating such postmodern forces, Barry Sarchett, who teaches English at Colorado College, asserts that TV and rock music may be as thought-provoking and thus worthy of study as Plato or Shakespeare. Discounting the claims that words and ideas correspond to the real world, Sarchett supports Derrida and Saussure in realativizing knowledge and value: what we imagine to be “true” or “good” merely represents our inner desires or cultural influences and can be altered at will.
Campus Wars includes essays on campus sexuality by Catherine A. MacKinnon, who argues that all sex is rape, and Camille Paglia, who says it’s not. There are essays on free speech, or its absence, illustrating the irony of “liberal” institutions instituting byzantine speech codes to protect the feelings of various groups from “hate speech.”
Questions concerning affirmative action elicit extensive discussion. While often denying the fact, masking it under the rubric of “diversity,” many schools clearly mandate quotas, giving preferential treatment to some racial groups.
Approximately one-fourth of the articles in this collection espouse a traditional, conservative view, while the rest improvise on the postmodernist theme. There is, clearly, a “generation gap” between the traditionalists and the insurgents. This collection helps one discover what’s happening in today’s universities.
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George Roche, president of Hillsdale College, one of the few colleges which still refuses government aid, has launched a jeremiad entitled The Fall of the Ivory Tower: Government Funding, Corruption, and the Bankrupting of American Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, nc., c. 1994). Roche argues, as the subtitle outlines, that colleges have sold their souls and lost their birthrights. Easily-acquired tax-based funding prompted them to overbuild, overextend, and inflate tuition (while masking inefficient operations) so as to keep tax monies coming in. What’s true for individuals is true for institutions: the love of money is the root of many evils!
Now the money-well may well dry up and the hopelessly-addicted colleges collapse. Many are even now seriously troubled. The most elite institutions, such as Harvard, have been diving into the deficit swamp–in 1991-92 Harvard had a $42 million deficit! Johns Hopkins, despite getting grants of more than $500 million a year, recently slashed departmental budgets, froze salaries, and delayed capital improvements.
Such problems, in schools great and small, stem from taking government subsidies which “have shielded colleges and universities from the normal forces of the marketplace” (p. 24). Like the S&Ls which collapsed in the 1980’s, many academic institutions may fold up for much the same reason!
Roche charts the history and paints the portrait of increased government activity in higher education, mainly since WWII. The establishment of a federal bureaucracy, the Department of Education under Jimmy Carter, and the proliferation of programs and agencies designed to aid students in their quest for college diplomas, have resulted in an elaborate web of financial ties between government and institutions of higher learning.
Available money meant additional requests for “research” and “innovative” instructional experiments. Consequently, whereas the total budget for all U.S. colleges and universities in 1960 was $7 billion, thirty years later it soared to $172 billion! This was not because of inflation or increased enrollment, though such factors, of course, must be considered. To get the funds, armies of lobbyists, representing associations such as the AAUP and Association of Independent Colleges and Schools, have encamped in Washington, D.C. They frequently link arms with the largest union (by half a million members) in the country, the NEA.
With federal funding, of course, comes federal control– politely disguised as “guidelines.” Affirmative action, women’s athletics, preferential treatment of homosexuals, all infiltrate the acceptance of government funds. Roche cites examples and statistics to prove his case (though his illustrations are, of course, of the dramatic variety).
Easy money easily corrupts those who get it, as is evident in scandals at universities such as Stanford, which was spending 74% of its federal research grants for “overhead,” often overcharging Uncle Sam to the tune of millions of dollars. Stanford’s president managed to allocate “overhead” monies to such items as a 72-foot yacht and a $4,000 wedding reception! The list of grants returned to the federal government by prestigious universities, whose malfeasance was uncovered, is in itself a damning indictment of the whole scene.
Easy money has also inflated the size of universities’ faculties. More professors have been hired–not to teach more students but to do more research. At Harvard, for example, the size of the faculty has grown by 100% while undergraduates have increased by only 14%, and the number of courses they could take has decreased by 28%! Graduate students have increased by 45%, however, since they’re needed to teach the undergraduate classes and help professors do research.
At the University of Wisconsin, less than two-thirds of the faculty regularly taught classes, and increased budgets went “to reduce teaching loads rather than increase the number of classes” (p. 212). One senior economics major at the University of Minnesota complained: “I am graduating from one of the best economics departments in the country, and I have never had a professor” (p. 214). TAs and adjuncts did the grunt work: teaching.
In light of such dreary details, Roche calls for revolutionary change in higher education. Colleges and universities should re-enter the market economy, compete for students, and reduce their costs to the necessary and only real reason for their existence, teaching! Such reform can mainly take place in the nation’s many private four-year liberal arts colleges, he admits, but it’s a place to start.
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Thomas Sowell, in Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas (New York: The Free Press, c. 1993), adds his voice to the chorus of critics of education. By training, Sowell’s an economist, currently a fellow at the Hoover Institute, who taught for years in academe. He’s distressed by the declining standards he’s witnessed in his lifetime, visibly evident in such trends as SAT declines, grade-inflation, and wide-spread student cheating.
Facing these realities, “the public education establishment has responded with: (1) secrecy, (2) camouflage, (3) denial, (4) shifting the blame elsewhere, and (5) demanding more money” (p. 8). Sowell’s work is designed to unveil and hold accountable those responsible for the failures in this nation’s schools. The main problem, he contends, is this: the schools have lost sight of their raison d’etre. Obsessed with frills like “affective education” (which Sowell labels “brainwashing”), bilingual education, multiculturalism, and sex education, there’s little room for truly intellectual disciplines such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, science, history, and literature.
As a conservative black scholar, his judgment that such programs have damaged ethnic minorities deserves a thoughtful hearing. He asserts that the educational establishment’s racial policies have harmed “every racial or ethnic group involved–with the worst damage being done the blacks, the supposedly most favored beneficiaries” (p. 283). He remembers, almost nostalgically, the education he received before the Civil Rights Movement, when youngsters like himself (despite the limitations of less-than perfect facilities) were challenged to learn–to think and speak and write in order to make something of themselves as adults.
Along with his critique, however, Sowell celebrates the dignity of teaching and the worth of genuine education. “Few responsibilities weigh so heavily as the responsibility for the development of a young mind and few temptations are so corrupting as the temptation to take advantage of the trust, inexperience and vulnerability of students. Cheap popularity, ego trips, and ideological indoctrination are just some of the pitfalls of teaching” (p. 203).
The hope for the nation, the hope for youngsters of whatever race, resides in the quality of education they receive. Sowell grieves for the generation of young blacks whose preferential treatment has shielded from the necessity of disciplined study and accomplishment. And he grieves for a nation now betrayed by its professional educators. “They have taken our money, betrayed our trust, failed our children, and then lied about the failures with inflated grades and pretty words” (p. 296). Strong words!
Private schools, however, may offer solutions. Sowell, like Roche, celebrates the worth of small, private, liberal arts colleges which singularly focus on teaching young people.