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The Secularization of the Academy
edited by George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield
Oxford University Press, 323 pages, $35 cloth, $15.95 

The Vice-Chancellor gives notice that presentation to the vacant benefice of Brantham, in the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, devolves on the University. Candidature is restricted to graduates of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who are either the kin of Sir Wolstan Dixie or who have been educated for one year at Market Bosworth School.

The source of the advertisement above is not P. G. Wodehouse, nor Anthony Trollope, nor even Mark Pattison. It appeared in the Cambridge University Reporter—in 1973. The eleven essays assembled by George Marsden and Bradley Longfield on the demise of university patronage of religion in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain make it clear that the history of this development is not a straightforward one. Anachronisms abound: we find surprising vestiges of the old order, as with the benefice of Brantham, and surprising anticipations of the new, as in president Daniel Coit Gilman’s success stimulating graduate research at Johns Hopkins. David Bebbington, Philip Gleason, D. G. Hart, Robert Wood Lynn, George Rawlyk, and James Turner add their own scholarship to that of Marsden and Longfield in attempting to track and illuminate the subtle, often paradoxical, forces that, in a century and a half, effected a nearly complete inversion of the religious culture of the academy.

The studies presented address the predicament of religion at state universities as well as that of church-supported colleges. Denominational schools of the nineteenth century characteristically placed great stress on cultivating a learned piety in their students; it is striking to what extent this concern was shared by the state institutions as well. Bradley Longfield tells us that “In the 1850s the first class on Monday morning for all students at the University of Michigan was Greek New Testament. This was intended not only to teach the Scriptures but also ‘to keep the students from violating the Sabbath by pursuing secular studies.’ In a similar manner, Minnesota did not hold classes on Monday for fear the students would violate the Sabbath.” Prior to the Civil War, Michigan required attendance at chapel twice daily. A University of Wisconsin graduate in 1896 penned this recollection of her student days in Madison:

I shall never forget my first evening in South Hall and the sweet, impressive voice of the Preceptress as she led the kneeling girls in prayer. Sunday afternoons we learned a Bible lesson which we recited in the evening.

Contemporary parents, baffled by the contents of the freshman orientation kits given their children, may find the contrast instructive.

The general problem addressed by this volume is set out by George Marsden: “Why has Christianity, which played a leading role in Western education until a century ago, now become not only entirely peripheral to higher education but has also often come to be considered absolutely alien to whatever is important to the enterprise?” The kinds of answers offered by these authors concern the process of “secularization” understood in a descriptive, rather than a normative, sense; the word is glossed by Marsden as “the removal of some activity of life from substantive influences of traditional or organized religion,” and thus bears no implicit judgment of progress or decline. The essayists, for the most part, are scrupulously attentive to the task of description and cautious in their imputation of motive.

While different kinds of pressures and populations are at work in British colleges and American, in church-supported institutions and those administered by the state, the overall picture of the change from 1850 to 1990 is one of growing intellectual confusion on the part of Christians—confusion about the nature of the university, the nature of the Church, and the social value of religion. When believers can’t explain to themselves or to sympathetic fellow citizens what precisely is to be gained by the academy’s patronage of religion, it seems that secularization occurs by default. Several authors make the point that ideological hostility to religion, though present in some measure from an early date, played a very minor role in the transformation. Nor does it seem that the change which came over the believers corresponds to what is usually meant by a “loss of faith”; what was lost, rather, was the confidence and the ability to make a public argument for what was increasingly seen to be a private good.

While the authors are commendably stingy in bestowing praise and blame, a good measure of the blame they do bestow is accorded to university officials for their incapacity to give a coherent account of themselves and their institutions. George Rawlyk writes:

Despite the hollow moral platitudes offered by countless university administrators, the essential justification for the university is its technological usefulness, its crucial hegemonic role in the shaping of the consumer and the therapeutic culture.

Citing Edward Maloney’s study of the place of religion at Catholic colleges, Philip Gleason says:

The catalogues of most of the institutions Maloney surveyed no longer stated their religious objectives in clear-cut terms, and in some cases remained entirely silent about them. The presidents he talked to confessed “an inability to articulate properly their religious objectives today, even though they want[ed] the college to have a religious orientation.”

Robert Wood Lynn suggests that less creditable factors played a part in the transformation of some denominational schools into ecumenical seminaries:

Sometimes these institutions self-consciously embraced this transformation out of deep theological convictions. And then occasionally others simply drifted in this direction, prompted by “market imperatives” that lurked unacknowledged beneath the surface of talk about “service.” In the latter instances, seminary representatives must be artful when supporters press them with questions about the school’s tie to the sponsoring denomination. The answer given … depends partly on who is asking.

Few of us who have watched at close hand these “artful” representatives in action will rejoice in the recollection.

The academicians, of course, do not deserve all of the responsibility for secularization. Another common factor is that the churches themselves have gotten progressively murky about their self-understanding during the period under consideration. A Methodist minister of 1850 could almost always explain to you on doctrinal grounds why he was not a Catholic or a Presbyterian, without having to keep looking over his shoulder as he did so; the arguments were public property. But the vocabulary in which this kind of discussion must be conducted is simply not part of religious discourse in America today, and hasn’t been for some time—with the exception of those “cognitive minorities” that define themselves consciously in opposition to the dominant culture.

Evelyn Waugh once remarked that the West is dying of sloth, not wrath. For the most part institutions are lost not because they are stormed by hostile outsiders but because their custodians, overcome by apathy, diffidence, and intellectual fecklessness, simply give them away. A recent visit to the Braun Room of the Harvard Divinity School found oil portraits of the nineteenth-century clerical worthies in their doctoral gowns and preaching bands gazing down on “Sacred Condoms,” an exhibit of prophylactic devices filled with alphabet soup, honey, etc., which was designed (according to the University) as part of “an important ministerial conversation.” This tableau might serve as an allegory of the history so skillfully detailed in The Secularization of the Academy—a history ending not with a bang but a whimper.

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., a frequent contributor to First Things, is a doctoral student in Comparative Semitic Philology at Harvard University.

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash. Image cropped.