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It is often said that every book is autobiographical. That certainly is true of mine. About a decade ago I began working on a book that I eventually called The Soul of the American University (Oxford University Press). My interest in the role of religion in American higher education was sparked by twenty years teaching at Calvin College. At the end of that time I taught for a semester at the University of California at Berkeley, and that made me reflect on the difference between the two institutions.

What struck me was that Calvin measured up surprisingly well in the comparison. Berkeley was an exciting place with many wonderful people. Yet Calvin had many professors who were as talented as those teaching at Berkeley and the best Calvin students seemed as good or better. All in all I was pretty sure that the best students at Calvin were getting as good or better an education as were the best at Berkeley. They seemed on average to be excited about a wider range of intellectual interests and to relate these to ethical and social questions that would shape their vocations. They were more likely to see some coherence in their education and to view it as preparation for a vocation and not simply for a career.

These impressions were no doubt biased and may be hard to prove, but one thing I do know from teaching twenty years at Calvin. The conventional wisdom that one has to be in a highly diverse atmosphere in order to have a creative intellectual environment is simply wrong. Calvin has strict religious tests for all its faculty. Most of its students come from the same denomination, Christian Reformed. Nonetheless, such apparent homogeneity produces surprising diversities. Rather than, as in a secular university, where almost every discussion has to go back to irreconcilable first principles, people can debate issues at a much higher level. They might agree on first, second, or third principles, but have strong and creative debates after that. No more subjects are off limits than at other academic institutions, and in fact there is greater opportunity to discuss the religious dimensions of topics.

What was most striking in the comparison of Calvin with Cal was that the sort of education going on at Calvin was virtually unknown. What was especially unheard of in mainstream academia was what was central to the academic enterprise at Calvin––the integration of faith, learning, and life. As sophisticated as the discussions of such issues seemed to be at Calvin, in most of the rest of academia they were simply dismissed as “religious” and therefore passé, irrelevant, and unprofessional. People who heard that Calvin had strict religious tests for its faculty would assume that it was on that basis second class and backward.

So one question I addressed in The Soul of the American University was why it is that twentieth-century colleges that retained any substantive religious identity came to be thought of as inherently inferior. No matter how good they might be academically, they were thought to be essentially a little below standard. They would have to conform to the prevailing secular national standard if they were to be fully respected.

The American Association of University Professors is one of the best illustrations of the attitude in question. The AAUP, I want to emphasize, has done valuable work in providing procedural safeguards for faculty at all institutions. For instance, it has established the point that, in fairness to faculty, every institution must make clear its standards prior to hiring. Nonetheless, despite such accomplishments, since its beginning the AAUP has treated schools with religious tests for their faculty as necessarily second rate. While the AAUP has recognized the “right” of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of their religion, the organization has made it clear that it holds in disdain schools that persist in exercising that right.

This disdain was evident in the classic Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of 1915. The committee noted that a church or a business has a moral right to set up a proprietary institution to be used “as an instrument of propaganda.” While the committee professed not to have an opinion on “the desirability of the existence of such institutions,” it insisted that it was “manifestly important that they should not be permitted to sail under false colors.” The hopeful sign, the committee suggested, was that “such institutions are rare, and are becoming ever more rare.” Most denominational colleges were evolving toward uniform ideals of academic freedom in which their particular religious traditions would not substantially intrude.

The 1940 report on academic freedom by the AAUP and American Association of Colleges likewise upheld the “right” of colleges to define themselves religiously, but also implied that religious discrimination in hiring was a departure from a higher standard that would remove religion as a factor in choosing faculty. In 1970 an “Interpretive Comment” was added to the 1940 declaration, making explicit that any departure from the norm of freedom from religious tests was undesirable. “Most church-related institutions,” the signers noted, “no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.”

In 1988 an AAUP subcommittee on academic freedom was asked to help the organization clarify the implications of its stance toward religious colleges. That subcommittee endorsed what it saw to be the essentials of the 1940 position: “(1) the prerogative of institutions to require doctrinal fidelity; and (2) the necessary consequence of denying to institutions invoking this prerogative the moral right to proclaim themselves as authentic seats of higher learning.” The subcommittee on the one hand repudiated the implication of the 1970 Interpretive Comment that seemed to undermine the first of these essentials. Yet at the same time it emphasized in the second of these principles that no “authentic” institution of higher learning could have religious tests. So, for instance, the subcommittee said it was “a wrong” for “an otherwise free university” to include a school of theology “that requires creedal orthodoxy as a consequence of its singular religious mission.” “In sum,” said the committee, “the housing of an unfree school within a free university is a contradiction: it may be in the university but, being unfree, it is not of the university, and it has no business being there.”

In 1996 this subcommittee was asked to reflect further on the implications of its stance. While maintaining its earlier principles, it now also acknowledged that religiously defined institutions “unquestionably contribute to the pluralistic richness of the American intellectual landscape.” “But,” the subcommittee added, “they are usually not institutions of a kind to which the academic freedom provision of the 1940 Statement apply, and hence imposing censure on them would usually not be appropriate.” The committee accordingly recommended that the AAUP should not seek to prosecute academic freedom cases in institutions of this inferior type that persist in retaining religious tests for faculty, so long as they are entirely up front about their standards and follow due process.

This policy is an important step forward in taking seriously the legitimacy of religious pluralism in education. However, the principles on which the policy is based are still demeaning toward institutions with religious tests. Essentially the view seems to be that these are hopeless cases and that the AAUP should not attempt to turn such institutions into schools “freely engaged in higher education.”

These subcommittee reports simply take it as axiomatic that an authentic seat of higher learning must be “free” from any religious or ideological restraints. They seem to see this as a fixed truth, or as a sort of orthodoxy of the academic profession. Professors at an “authentic seat of higher learning” must be fully free to question everything, with no prior restrictions.

My view is that the time has come to question this academic orthodoxy. It is, after all, not all that old. As an orthodoxy, it has existed for less than a century, and it is very much the product of the assumptions of the American Progressive era. If we go back to the early twentieth century we find a culture dominated by the ideal of national consolidation. Some groups, such as Catholics, fundamentalists, and ethnic minorities, were resisting, of course, but national consolidation shaped mainstream educational policies. What was most needed, according to the prevailing wisdom, was to get away from local and parochial prejudices that threatened the unity of the nation and held back its economic and moral progress.

This was particularly true in higher education, which in the nineteenth century had been badly fragmented by denominational loyalties. Religious tests needed to be 1eft behind if educational institutions were to participate in the intellectual mainstream. As the AAUP Report of 1915 put it, religious colleges were moving from being private proprietary institutions to being “public trusts.” Religious belief might be fine as a private matter, but education was being defined as an essentially public enterprise. In the public domain, the report affirmed, science should rule. “Education,” it said, “is the cornerstone of the structure of society and progress in scientific knowledge is essential to civilization.” Unlike religion, which could divide, science was unbiased and nonsectarian, and so would unite society. Scientific education could help defeat religious and other prejudices, thereby ensuring social progress. The architects of such educational ideals typically hoped that an inclusivist public moral and religious consensus would emerge that would replace divisive sectarian views. They sought a basis for such a consensus in a combination of science, the ideals of democratic civilization, American nationalism, the liberal Protestant heritage, and the larger Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

A number of those foundational assumptions no longer command the wide assent they once enjoyed. Few of us have faith in the advance of science as the great unifier or the best hope for humanity. Just about all of us would, of course, like to retain some national unity and to find some moral basis for doing so. Few of us today are confident in American nationalism or can see much hope for the institutions of the now-consolidated central culture for producing the consensus necessary for moral leadership. Since the 1960s such hopes for moral progress through national consensus have been in a shambles. We still somehow manage to muddle through, but we hardly want to look to the centers of our culture––whether it be the government, the media, or the business world––for our moral leadership.

Nor do we look to the universities. Most of us recognize that our universities are incapable of providing the kind of coherent moral leadership that our Progressive predecessors hoped they would. Even though universities today contain many moral individuals, they are morally incoherent as institutions. Aside from championing ideas of tolerance and freedom, they stand for very few first principles. Conflicting political claims have long preempted most meaningful ethical debate. True to postmodern promises, power often determines what is “right.” No moral claim is safe from deconstruction. The humanities, where one might most hope to find a basis for moral guidance, have been effectively immobilized for that purpose.

Besides, most university students do not even study the humanities––at least not more than they have to. Universities and their undergraduate programs are typically dominated by technical and career concerns, so that precious little of their curricula even contemplates any ideal higher than success. We might argue about the details of this characterization, but most of us would agree that university education today is not notably successful in producing a moral consensus or in forming good citizens, whatever might have been envisioned for it early in the century.

In light of all this, we should be rethinking the cultural role of religiously based colleges. Given the morally fragmented, technically oriented careerist state of our major universities and their undergraduate colleges, why in the world should we think that they should be setting the standard for the best education and that religious colleges should be trying to catch up? True, secular universities still have vastly more resources. But what else do they have? In these days of a perpetual buyers’ market for faculty, many religious colleges, even of modest means, can have excellent faculties. Building a vision around particular religious traditions often makes such colleges better at producing morally responsible citizens than the giant universities.

So perhaps the time has come when it is the secular universities that should be thought of as second class and urged to find some way to match in quality what the best of the religious colleges are doing. To do so they would have to begin to cultivate subcultures of religious diversity. Rather than perpetuating the myth that the best education must be free from religion, they should begin taking seriously the possibility that various religious perspectives might have legitimate bearing on academic inquiry.

Early-twentieth-century academic progressives assumed that “free” scientific-based inquiry would lead to social and moral progress. While one can point to real benefits from such ideals, it is now apparent that such policies are also in many ways counterproductive. They certainly have not produced the moral and social progress originally envisioned. Encouraging merely “free inquiry” in universities has ended in moral incoherence; the achievement of technical expertise is now the principal benefit of most university education.

The best religiously oriented schools offer academic communities that sustain rigorous interdisciplinary discussion on the meaning and limits of human experience and its relation to larger reality. Early in this century the founders of the AAUP could assume that such wide-ranging interdisciplinary discussion would automatically take place at the best colleges and universities. Even nonreligious scholars then shared common enough heritages to allow vigorous debates relating their disciplines to the larger issues of life. Today, little can be assumed and as a result most scholars confine their inquiries to their specialized subdisciplines. Religiously defined institutions offer intellectual communities that can provide the best alternatives to our fragmented intellectual life.

What grounds remain for believing that nonreligious schools are superior seats of higher learning compared with their religiously defined counterparts? Do secular institutions really encourage more wide-ranging inquiry? Or does their inquiry simply range over different areas? Freedom, after all, is not an absolute. It exists only within a system of restraints and higher values. All educational institutions impose limits on what may be said or taught; religious institutions will simply determine those limits somewhat differently than will nonreligious ones. These are relative differences, not absolute differences in kind between some schools that are “free” and others that are “unfree.”

One of the oldest meanings of “academic freedom” is that educational institutions should be able to set their own standards, free from undue outside interference. Today outside pressures often come from government or other secular agencies which have a different view of what it means to “freely engage in higher education.” These agencies sometimes set standards based on wholly secular notions of “the public good,” and so inhibit religiously based academic inquiry. Further, so long as fair procedures are followed, professors who choose to teach at a religiously defined institution are not being unduly restricted in their academic freedom. They, after all, have freely chosen to work under such confessional constraints.

(None of this means, of course, that we do not continue to need national standards for procedural justice. Some religious schools have been dictatorial and unfair in their practices of hiring and firing faculty or in inhibiting what may be taught or published. It needs to be emphasized that a religiously defined school’s freedom to set its own standards does not provide license to arbitrarily enforce such standards. Religious institutions need to be up-front about their rules and follow openly stated standards of due process. They should recognize as well that educational institutions are healthiest when there is room for real intellectual inquiry, honest questioning, and creativity. So they should enforce their stated rules with enough flexibility to maximize freedom within the bounds of loyalty to their tradition.)

If we open-mindedly revise our estimations of what is important for colleges and universities to achieve and of which schools measure up to this standard, the religious universities and colleges will cease to be well-kept secrets and will become subjects of discussion and emulation. If we are looking for what is truly the best in higher education, the virtues of religious institutions make them strongly deserving of our highest regard.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from a presentation at a conference in Chicago on “Academic Freedom at Religiously Affiliated Institutions” sponsored by the American Association of University Professors.

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