The Purposeful Graduate
chicago, 320 pages, $27.50
Several years ago, I spoke to a group of Christian students at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “Why is it that, in our big public university, the only questions we explore are the tiny and medium-sized?” I asked. “The Big Questions—What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? How do I fit in the grand scope of reality?—are off the table.”
With amiable charm and a refreshing lack of pretense, Professor Tim Clydesdale has penned a more-than-hopeful volume with the message that the Big Questions can be back on the academic table. And some faculty and many staff and students think that is a good thing.
There’s only one problem. That welcome mat is not out at our public universities. Clydesdale researched the Lilly Endowment’s $225 million Theological Exploration of Vocation Initiative, which limited its massive $2.5 million grants to private, mostly church-related colleges and universities. Not one of the institutions was public, most probably because public universities don’t do theology, or so we think.
This is unfortunate, to put it mildly. Clydesdale’s research uncovers immense educational benefits—not just for students, but for faculty and staff as well—who engage Big Questions with theological (or, in some cases, merely spiritual) resources. Read the book and cheer for the 25 percent of college students in private schools, but then weep for the majority who attend public universities where Big Questions are largely off the table.
And why is this case? Our public universities are secular institutions where naturalistic and postmodern perspectives rule the academic roost. We are post-metaphysical. The academic jury long ago rendered a final verdict: We have no need of the God, or anything supernatural, in order to know reality. Science, and critical theories within the humanities and social sciences, confidently offer a public knowledge shaped by the habits of the academic disciplines. End of story, thanks to the secular revolution of a century ago (see Christian Smith’s The Secular Revolution).
But, it’s not only that the reigning knowledge paradigms are resolutely materialistic. Clydesdale exposes us to a deeply entrenched bias against religion and theology among faculty, even in institutions once affiliated with denominations. Whereas staff had fewer qualms and more quickly engaged the program, faculty, especially at formerly church-affiliated schools, required that religion be checked at the door. Faculty at these institutions “fear engaging students’ religious identities in class, being unsure about the right to express faith or spirituality in public settings.” If the bogeyman of religion is alive and well on formerly church-related campuses, imagine the terror that stalks public university faculties!
Do we need to do a much better job of forming future faculty who can engage the fullness of students’ moral, religious and philosophical identities? My research on devoutly religious international students, many of whom were intensely frustrated that faculty refused to engage them on matters of religion, suggests the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Truly engaging the Big Questions in the heart of the college curriculum is not just a matter of better faculty training, however. The real problem goes to the very secular assumptions that underlie our contemporary public universities. As secular institutions, they shelter, embrace, and propagate materialist faiths that offer only materialist answers to the Big Questions: no purpose, no meaning, no moral grounding. Crudely, devout students at public universities pay their instructors to sublimate their consciences, and all with public sanction and support.
In this light, the secular public university is not only shrunken and vapid, but an utter failure at preparing students for the pluralism of the broader society. The absence of the Big Questions that so enrich education in some private institutions makes this injustice even more shocking.
Why not transform our institutions into pluralistic enterprises where lively philosophical disagreement and debate is encouraged in classrooms and where multiple perspectives, religious and materialist, are given full expression? George Marsden’s recent article “Towards a More Inclusive Pluralism” captures the rationale behind this question. Until the public, and especially students, rise up to call for pluralistic instead of secular institutions, the enriched theological explorations of vocation, about which Clydesdale writes so elegantly, will remain the abode of those who can afford private education. The only bright light on the public horizon is that Lilly is now beginning to fund the same Big Questions program in a few of the Christian study centers serving public institutions.
Do I hear a cheer?
Robert Osburn is an adjunct lecturer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, and leads the Wilberforce Academy where he trains college students to be redemptive change agents in their home societies and workplaces.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.