It is well to remember, as we contemplate the relation of the university and church, that the Protestant Reformation was started by a professor in a university. Years later Luther insisted that he had never meant to be a reformer.
I was forced and driven into this position in the first place when I had to become a Doctor of Holy Scripture against my will. Then, as a doctor in a general free university, I began, at the command of pope and emperor, to do what such a doctor is sworn to do, expounding the Scriptures for all the world and teaching everybody.
Like Luther, some of the professors in our own universities protest that they have been forced, against their will, into the role of reformers. Willingly or not, however—and more often, I suspect, willingly than not—these professors are presiding over a reformation that is as momentous for the university as Luther’s was for the church.
The reformation we are now witnessing is not the first the American university has gone through; nor, I daresay, will it be the last. The first, like Luther’s reformation, involved the disestablishment of the church. Until this century, most private universities were affiliated with a church; in colonial and pre-Civil War days, some were barely distinguishable from seminaries. Gradually, almost all of them (with some notable exceptions) have been either officially disestablished or virtually so, leaving little more than a nominal relationship to a passive church.
It is generally thought that this disestablishment was a product of what has been called the “warfare of science and religion” precipitated by Darwinism. In fact, that “warfare” has been much exaggerated. The secularization of the university reflected a secularization of the culture going back at least to the Enlightenment and having more to do with the philosophy of rationalism than with science or any specific scientific theory such as Darwinism.
Indeed, it was the idea of “culture”—a secular, rational, cosmopolitan, liberal (in the nonpolitical sense of that word) culture—far more than the idea of “science,” that lay behind the secularization of the university in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There were even educators and intellectuals—“humanists,” they proudly called themselves—who thought that science (or too heavy a dose of science) was as inimical to a liberal education as was religion (or too sectarian a religion). Matthew Arnold’s famous definition of culture, “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” was endorsed by Irving Babbitt, Charles Eliot Norton, and other luminaries of American intellectual life.
The displacement of religion—not by science but by culture—occurred gradually but firmly. In 1881 the president of Williams College took the occasion of his inaugural address to attack the “infidel doctrine” that held culture to be more important than religious piety. Five years later, in another address, he reversed himself: The “union of culture and power,” he said, is the mark of the educated man, and the duty of teachers is to inspire their students “to love the best thoughts of the best authors.” The president of the University of Wisconsin echoed another of Matthew Arnold’s sentiments when he announced, “Religion is not so much the foundation of morals, as morals the foundation of religion.”
Some of these humanists were unbelievers, but they were not (except perhaps for Babbitt) aggressively anti-religious. At the annual meeting of the Religious Education Association in 1904, two professors from Yale and Brown recommended that the Bible be taught at the university as a literary document rather than as a book of revelation. It is interesting that they were content to have the Bible taught, if only as literature, just as they were willing to retain compulsory chapel, for purposes of morals if not of faith.
By the turn of the century, this reformation was well under way, with some of the country’s major universities transformed into essentially secular institutions. Some smaller colleges and a few large universities retained a more active religious affiliation and a more religiously oriented curriculum. But eventually most of these—again, with a few notable exceptions, Baylor University being one of them—succumbed to the spirit of the times. In part this reflects not only the secularization of society but also the secularization of the mainline churches, which made them willing accomplices in the transformation of the universities.
That was the first reformation in the university: the disestablishment of the church. The second was the establishment, so to speak, of society in lieu of the church. If churches have abdicated responsibility over the university, society has asserted itself in ways that an earlier generation of secular humanists could not have foreseen—and would probably not have welcomed.
The university has always had important social functions. In the most practical sense, it has fed its graduates into the professions—law, diplomacy, clerisy, the civil service. More important, it has served as a socializing, civilizing, even moralizing agent for the students who passed through it (and perhaps as well for the professors ensconced in it). It has also been an instrument for social mobility and advancement; for those lacking the privileges of birth and money, a degree and a diploma could be passports to rank and fortune. But it has done all this indirectly, as a happy by-product of its essential functions: the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge.
After World War II, with the vast increase in the student population and the infusion of large sums of government money, the university acquired new functions, among them the solving of society’s problems: poverty, pollution, urban unrest, crime, and whatever other subject might occur to a resourceful professor seeking a government grant. In place of a liberal education—an education in “the best which has been thought and said”—the university was now pleased to provide a relevant education, an education in what society deemed to be useful and needful.
Having committed itself to solving society’s problems, the university could hardly ignore the problems of its own students. Thus the university also became a therapeutic institution, coping with the feelings, desires, and egos—and the recurring “identity crises”—of the students. During the student uprisings of the 1960s, this therapeutic mission had as its corollary the “empowerment” of students, their admission to curriculum, governance, even appointment and tenure committees. At the same time, the faculty itself was “empowered,” assuming the right to express opinions on all subjects, within or without their discipline, and in or outside the classroom. Thus the socially conscious university inevitably became a highly politicized one.
It was also inevitable that a university eager to redress the ills of society would be called on to reflect the composition of society—its racial, ethnic, and sexual population. This is the meaning of affirmative action and multiculturalism, which have loomed so large in the university in recent years. The original intention was to open up the university to minority or so-called “marginalized” groups, to make both the student body and the faculty more inclusive and representative of society at large. But it was not long before this idea of inclusiveness or representativeness was extended to the curriculum, requiring the courses themselves, the very content of education, to reflect the interests and identities of these minorities.
Today, race, class, and gender are the holy trinity presiding over higher education in America. Although that is the familiar mantra—race, class, gender—it is not the actual order of priority. Class, which was once the reigning principle of a Marxist-dominated curriculum, has been relegated to third place, with gender occupying the first place. Few people have even noticed (I’ve never seen any mention of the fact) that religion is missing from this trinity, as if it is no longer a defining principle of one’s identity.
This new identity—centered education is evident not only in departments and courses of women’s studies, black studies, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, but in the more traditional disciplines as well—literature, history, philosophy, theology, anthropology, sociology. There is even an attempt to “engender” the sciences. An article by one mathematician, entitled “Toward a Feminist Algebra,” protests against the sexist nature of traditional algebra; and a book on feminist science declares Newton’s Principia to be so suffused with “gender symbolism, gender structure, and gender identity” as to be nothing less than a “rape manual.”
The university was once derided as an “ivory tower.” Today no one would characterize it that way, whether in praise or abuse. It is very much of this world—all too much of this world, some might say, as professors (in the classroom as without) openly declare themselves advocates of this or that cause, group, or ideology.
But a far more momentous reformation has recently taken place—more important, in my opinion, than either the secularization or the politicization of the university. This is the intellectual reformation of the university, which may more aptly be called a revolution than a reformation. A quarter of a century ago, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote a book with the memorable title, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma . To readers fresh from the dramatic events of the sixties—the student uprisings at Berkeley and other universities—Nisbet reminded them of the “dogma,” as he called it, that had sustained the university for centuries: the “faith” (again, this was his word) in reason and knowledge, in the rational, dispassionate search for truth, and in the dissemination of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
The objects of knowledge, to be sure, had changed in the course of time. The classical curriculum had given way to the modern one, with the addition first of history, literature, and modern languages, then of the sciences and social sciences, finally of professional and vocational subjects. But throughout the centuries, the essential dogma—the commitment to truth, knowledge, and objectivity—remained intact.
It was the abandonment of that dogma, Nisbet said, that ushered in a “reformation” (again, his word; the religious motif is consistent) of the university—a reformation, as his title suggests, that was utterly disastrous for the university.
Since that book was written, the academic dogma has been further degraded in ways Nisbet could not have foreseen. Not, I hasten to add, in all universities to the same extent, nor in all departments of all universities, nor for all members of all universities—but certainly in academia as a whole, and most of all in the most prestigious institutions of academia.
Today many eminent professors in some of our most esteemed universities disparage the ideas of truth, knowledge, and objectivity as naive or disingenuous at best, as fraudulent and despotic at worst. Indeed, the very words—truth, knowledge, objectivity—now habitually appear, in scholarly journals and books, in quotation marks, to show how spurious they are. Above all it is truth that is denigrated. This is obviously a by-product of the politicization of the university, but it has received credibility and respectability from the most influential intellectual movement to sweep the university in recent years: postmodernism.
This is not to say that all professors, or even most professors, have become postmodernists. A great many of them remain traditionalist, committed to the old academic dogma. But they find themselves in a defensive position. By now the spirit of postmodernism has pervaded the academy to the point where most younger professors, and a good many older ones, are accepting its basic assumptions and tenets almost unthinkingly.
The animating spirit of postmodernism is a radical relativism and skepticism that rejects any idea of truth, knowledge, or objectivity. More important, it refuses even to aspire to such ideas, on the ground that they are not only unattainable but undesirable—that they are, by their very nature, authoritarian and repressive.
This is very different from the relativism and skepticism that scholars have traditionally brought to their trade. Historians, for example, have always had a healthy dose of both. They have been acutely aware of the limitations of their discipline: the deficiency of the historical records, the selectivity inherent in the writing of history, the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian, and thus the imperfect, tentative, and partial (in both senses of the word) nature of every historical work. But historians have always made the most strenuous efforts to curb and control these deficiencies, to try to be as objective as possible, to strive for accuracy, veracity, and impartiality.
This is what is meant—or used to be meant—by the “discipline” of history, and why the keystone of every graduate program until recently has been a required course on “methodology,” instructing students in the proper use of sources, the need for substantiating and countervailing evidence, the conventions of documentation and citation. Such courses are very nearly obsolete today.
Today the very idea of a “discipline” of history, or of any academic discipline, is widely derided, just as are the ideas of truth, knowledge, and objectivity. (And facts as well; this is another word that now appears in quotation marks. One reputable historian complains of the “fetishism of facts,” while others disparage factuality as “facticity.”) These ideas—truth, knowledge, objectivity—are said to be nothing more than “social constructs,” inventions of the “hegemonic” or ruling class. There is no truth, the argument goes, to be derived from history—“not even partial, incremental, contingent truth. There is no objectivity—not even an approximation of it, nor any reason to seek it. There are not even any events in history—only “texts” to be interpreted in accord with the historian’s interest and disposition.
It is in this spirit that much of academic study has been relativized, subjectified, “problematized” (as the postmodernist says), and politicized. If there is no truth, no facts, no objectivity, there is only will and power. “Everything is political,” the popular slogan has it.
A year after Nisbet wrote of the “degradation of the academic dogma,” the distinguished literary critic Lionel Trilling described the denigration of mind that he sensed in the culture in general and in the university in particular. He deplored the tendency to “impugn and devalue the very concept of mind,” indeed to deny the “authority of mind,” and thus to reject the “intellectual ideal of objectivity.” That ideal, Trilling granted, can never be fully realized, but it has always to be strived for. “In the face of the certainty,” he wrote, “that the effort of objectivity will fall short of what it aims at, those who undertake to make the effort do so out of something like a sense of intellectual honor and out of the faith that in the practical life, which includes the moral life, some good must follow from even the relative success of the endeavor.”
“Intellectual honor,” “moral life”—these expressions do not come trippingly to the tongue today. Yet these words and the ideas they signify—truth, knowledge, and objectivity—are the only guarantees of the intellectual and moral integrity of the university. For without them as the guiding principles of learning and teaching, research and scholarship, there can be no standards of merit or excellence, no controls against willful ignorance and deception. “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”—that was Nietzsche’s definition of freedom. For the university, that freedom, the freedom from truth, is a prescription for intellectual and moral nihilism.
At this point we may take stock of the successive reformations or revolutions that have transformed the university. For we are now confronted with a university (again, I am speaking of the dominant mode of university in America) that has almost totally abandoned its original mission. It is now not merely a secular institution but a secularist one, propagating secularism as a creed, a creed that is not neutral as among religions but is hostile to all religions, indeed to religion itself. It is also a highly politicized institution; no longer subject to any religious authority, the university is at the mercy of the whims and wills of interest groups and ideologies. Finally, and most disastrously, the university, liberated from religious dogma, has also become liberated from the traditional academic dogma, the belief in truth, knowledge, and objectivity.
It is in this situation, in this postmodern world, that an institution like Baylor University takes on a new meaning and, I would suggest, a new mission. For it now has not only a religious tradition to uphold but an intellectual one as well: the mission to restore and revitalize the traditional academic dogma. This means reaffirming the faith in truth, knowledge, and objectivity, pursuing these ideals knowing they are ideals that can never be fully realized, and above all, resisting the appeal of a fashionable and profoundly subversive philosophy that is not merely relativistic in the familiar sense but that celebrates an absolute relativism.
This is a worthy intellectual mission—and a moral one as well. Nietzsche understood this better than anyone. Determined to destroy morality, he knew that he would also have to destroy truth, for so long as men believed in truth, he said, they believed in God, and if in God, then in morality. In this sense, a religious university is faithful both to its religious and its moral mission when it affirms the traditional academic dogma, the belief in truth.
There is yet another aspect of morality, the morality of practical life, that is at stake here. Here too a university like Baylor, respectful of religion and of the moral virtues derived from religion, can serve as a powerful corrective to the secular university, which has superimposed upon the counterculture of the sixties the still more relativistic, permissive, and amoral postmodernist culture of the nineties.
In very recent years, there has been a revulsion in society at large—although not yet in the academy—against this culture. It is a propitious time, therefore, for a university like Baylor, which has kept faith with its religious and ethical heritage, to contemplate a counterrevolution that will restore the original academic dogma and make the university once again a repository of intellectual and moral virtue.
Gertrude Himmelfarb , a member of the Editorial Board of First Things , is author most recently of The De-moralization of Society (Knopf). This essay and the one following by Richard John Neuhaus were originally presented last September on the occasion of the installation of Robert Bryan Sloan, Jr. as President of Baylor University.