From time to time, a set of concerns reaches something like a critical mass. Familiar discontents vaguely felt turn into more focused anxieties, and then, all of a sudden it seems, a passel of scholars arrives at a similar analysis of what has gone so thoroughly wrong—and some similar ideas of what might be done about it.
If anyone is inclined to dismiss talk about the “death” of religious higher education as hyperbole, we urge him to reserve judgment until he bas read with care George Marsden’s article in this issue, “The Soul of the American University.” Marsden is by no means alone in his rendering of this doleful tale. Richard Hutcheson, Senior Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (RPL), recently stirred salutary controversy with an article in the Christian Century depicting the subtle slide when colleges that once described themselves as “Christian” now can bring themselves to say no more than that they are “church-related.” James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and James Burtchaell of Notre Dame, both active in the programs of RPL, are engaged in impressive long-range studies of evangelical and Roman Catholic higher education, respectively. And last October the Vatican issued a major and urgent document. Ex Corde Ecclesia (“From the Heart of the Church”), on the importance of Catholic universities being Catholic.
Also in October, RPL convened a scholars conference on “Religion and the Open University.” The title of the conference reflects the fact that, according to many educators, the single highest value of the modern university is “openness.” The reality, however, is that the university is not open to religion. This is true of numerous schools that were established by churches with the explicit purpose of advancing Christian thought and life but today are embarrassed by any mention of their religiously particularistic past. The list is a prestige roll, if not an honor roll, of American education: Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Brown, Vassar, Haverford, Williams, Smith, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Southern California, and on and on.
Some oldline Protestant denominations still disburse millions of dollars each year to “their” universities and colleges. The chief reason seems to be to maintain the illusion that such schools are still Christian, or even church-related in a way that might make a difference. The schools are glad enough to accept the money, on condition that the churches ask for nothing in return. One church executive in charge of dispensing millions was recently pressed on what he meant by saying that a major university was, in some significant sense, Christian. After some thought, be indicated that a Christian university is one in which Christian students can find an opportunity to grow in the knowledge of their faith. But surely, it was pointed out, the university in question also offered opportunities for Buddhist students to grow in the knowledge of their faith. Does that make it a Buddhist university? The executive allowed as how he would want to give that more thought.
The story told by George Marsden in this issue is unremittingly discouraging. It is in no way alarmist, but the reality it describes is indeed alarming. Perhaps it is much too late to do much about the prestige schools that have long since abandoned their founding purpose. Marsden and others are not resigned to that, however. At the above-mentioned conference there were heartening reports about authentic religious teaching (not just teaching about religion) taking place at some of those schools, as well as at state universities that never bad a religious association. In some religious studies departments, it is becoming more acceptable, mirabile dictu, for believers to teach without disguising the fact that they are believers. This is a trend importantly encouraged by Robert Wilken of the University of Virginia, also a contributor to this journal, in his presidential address to the American Academy of Religion this past year. Promising changes are afoot, even if they are at this point little more than the recognition that something must be and can be done.
Marsden, like most people who have studied the matter, bas no certain prescriptions for what to do or bow to do it. Insisting on genuine pluralism might be one way to open the closed university. Others say that the jig is up with most of higher education, and the only thing to do is to save the several hundred schools, mainly evangelical and Catholic, that still have a salvageable sense of religious identity. Yet others claim that almost all the existing schools are beyond hope. The thing to do, they say, is to establish new institutions of higher learning—in the full knowledge that they too will, in due course, probably abandon their founding purpose, thus making it necessary for another generation to start over again with its new schools. The prospect is one of a continuing cycle of identities established, dissolved, and established anew somewhere else. It is not a happy prospect, for it guarantees that religious seriousness about higher education will always remain on the distant periphery of the American university.
Editors possessed of a long-term intention to address problems of consequence must be constitutionally indisposed to despair. We believe that the death of religious higher education is not inevitable. We will therefore be publishing, in addition to George Marsden’s important contribution, further analyses of what bas gone wrong and proposals for a more hopeful future. With respect to religion and higher education, this bas been the century of massive, and in many cases irretrievable, loss. Why that happened bas to be more clearly and generally understood before we can begin to discern the promise that the next could be the century of renewal.
The beginning of wisdom on this subject is to recognize that the road to the unhappy present was indeed paved with good intentions. To be sure, there were relevant parties who made no secret of their hostility to religion. But, for the most part, the schools that lost or are losing their sense of religious purpose sincerely sought nothing more than a greater measure of “excellence.” The problem is that they accepted uncritically definitions of excellence that were indifferent to, or even implicitly hostile to, the great concerns of religion. Few university presidents or department chairmen up and decided one day that they wanted to rid their institutions of the embarrassment of religion. It may reasonably be surmised that most believed that they were advancing a religious mission by helping their schools become like other schools—or at least more like “the best” of other schools. The language of academic excellence is powerfully seductive.
In 1967, Theodore Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame, led a large number of Catholic educators in issuing what came to be called the Land O’Lakes Statement. It reads in part:
The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of every kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.
For “Catholic” in that statement, substitute “Evangelical,” “Presbyterian,” “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” or “Jewish.” The essential formula of Land O’Lakes is to be found in the “mission statement” of hundreds of colleges and universities that still maintain a plausible seriousness about being religious institutions. Not for long will they maintain it, for the formula is a perfect invitation to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone the way so incisively traced by George Marsden in this issue.