More research, less religion: What’s wrong with modern universities

by Kevin Schmiesing

1Somewhere around the middle of my fourth year of graduate studies in history, when I had finished my course work and was immersed in research for my dissertation, my adviser handed me a book he had co-edited entitled Religious Advocacy and American History.2 The essays it contained were the product of a conference on the subject which brought together scholars of various Christian denominations, as well as a few non-believers. My adviser, one of the latter, remarkable for his combination of personal friendliness and intellectual belligerence toward Christians, provided a telling commentary on the absence of interest in religion in today’s academy by asking rhetorically as he happily unloaded one of his copies on this Catholic student, “Who else am I going to give it to?”

It is not quite true that there is no “interest” in religion among scholars at the top universities in the United States. There has, in fact, been quite a lot of interest in the topic recently among historians, for instance. It is “religious advocacy,” or bringing one’s personal religious beliefs to bear on one’s scholarship, which is disdained. For the most part, of course, this is the case because many scholars have no personal religious beliefs (at least of a traditional sort) in the first place. But even among Christians, including Catholics, there is a distinct unwillingness to let religious beliefs have influence in the realm of academia. Father Richard John Neuhaus has written of a “naked public square,” a consequence of the privatization of religion in America. Universities are part of that phenomenon.

This is not an original observation. Many Christians, and presumably most Catholics of a Franciscan University stripe, deplore the situation. What is less well-appreciated are the historical and philosophical origins of the universities’ banishment of religion. The problems of how the universities came to this state, and what to do about it, are subjects to which I have lately given some thought. Through three and a half years of graduate study I had not contemplated just what it was about my experience that was unsettling. I knew most professors and fellow students didn’t share my religious Weltanschauung—that was clear enough. Yet there seemed to be more to the problem than a lack of Christian faith. My adviser’s book put me onto the scent of something rotten deep in the core of higher education.

More exactly, it was Daryl Hart’s essay which piqued my interest. Hart is one of a group of evangelical Christian scholars who have been having an increasingly important impact on historical scholarship. Hart’s essay, however, sounded a note of caution, imploring fellow Christians not to emphasize too much the need for believers to prove their academic credentials by participating whole-heartedly in the processes and programs of the modern American academy. Deeper than his concern over the current anti-Christian bias of many intellectuals, Hart detected problems in the very structures of learning predominating in higher education today. His caution was drawn from knowledge of the history of American universities, especially the underlying trends which had abetted the vanquishing of religion from a respectable place within these institutions.3

In the course of the twentieth century, Hart argued, the important universities had given themselves over to the goals of the political economy which supported them. As government and corporate largesse came to play an ever greater role in the funding of higher education, universities sacrificed their traditional curricula, allowing “economic interests, not “intellectual merits” to set their agenda. The new aim was the “production of knowledge,” not the search for the true, the good, the beautiful. The humanities in particular made a “fatal move” by embracing the “research ethic” which informed this new aim.4

Hart criticized especially the modern research universities and their emphasis on specialization. Such specialization undermines the indispensable task of generalization and ignores questions of value and meaning. He called for “a candid and thorough assessment of what the structures of modern learning do to learning itself, and whether those structures are wholesome ones for Christian minds.” Evangelicals shouldn’t necessarily strive to reproduce the great research universities of twentieth-century America, Hart warned. He pointed to the experience of mainline Protestant and Catholic institutions as examples of what might happen to religious beliefs in the process.5

These criticisms rang true. Graduate school is an important facet of the research university, and Hart’s descriptions reflected my own experience. His critique of specialization and its debilitating effect on the life of the mind was not only accurate, it resonated in the wells of my memory and called forth ideas I hadn’t considered for some time. It turned out that much of Hart’s argument was old hat. A.P. Sertillanges recommended in 1920 that “if you want to have a mind that is open, clear, and really strong, mistrust your specialty in the beginning.” Specialization, moreover, was related intimately to the loss of a religious sensibility.6

On the absence of religion in the university, John Henry Newman had gone further than Hart. “Religious truth,” he wrote in his Idea of a University, “is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge.”7 Compare this to the declaration of a 1988 subcommittee of the American Association of University Professors that any institutions that mandated doctrinal fidelity of their professors had no right to proclaim themselves “authentic seats of higher learning.” A school of theology requiring creedal orthodoxy ought not be included within a university, because it constituted an “unfree” entity within an “otherwise free institution.”8

Newman had asserted that dropping any “science”(theology and philosophy were both included in the term) from the “circle of knowledge” would result in other sciences falling into error. Theology was the most indispensable of the sciences. The AAUP had gotten it exactly backwards. There was indeed something seriously wrong with the modern university.

Evangelicals like Hart seem to be, in the 1990s, in a situation parallel to that of American Catholics in the 1930s and 1940s. Catholics at that time were beginning to emerge on the academic scene, were gaining intellectual respectability, and were on the verge of developing first-rate colleges and universities. Catholic institutions of higher education were also beginning to ape their secular and Protestant counterparts in the hopes of attaining equal prestige, often with the sincere belief that such prestige equaled academic excellence. Like Hart’s fifty years later, there had been some warning voices. The Jesuit George Bull, head of Fordham University’s philosophy department, argued in 1938 that Catholics would do well to avoid, not emulate, the research focus of the modern university. The goal of research was “discovery,” an aim consonant with an underlying belief in progress. The Catholic goal was different: “brooding over the whole Catholic life of the mind is the sense of wisdom achieved; and over the modern the sense of ‘progress’ or truth to be pursued.” The Catholic should desire not “discovery,” but “a deeper penetration into reality.” Bull believed that “particularism,” or specialization, which led to disintegration, was the hallmark of the “research mind.” His conclusion was that, “a Catholic university which accepts research as the dominant objective of its graduate school, is by that much attempting the impossible task of being Catholic in creed and anti-Catholic in culture.”9

I have portrayed specialization and research as the bogeys of an authentically Catholic university. The truth is not that stark. It is doubtful that Hart, Sertillanges, Newman or Bull would argue that the two are unmitigated evils. Sertillanges did not advocate avoiding specialization altogether. “We must keep from specialization,” he wrote, “as long as our aim is to become cultivated men…but we must specialize anew when we aim at being men with a function, and producing something useful. In other words, we must understand everything… in order to succeed in doing some one thing.” Bull admitted the utility, even the necessity, of research as part of the intellectual endeavor. What he criticized was research as an “attitude,” rather than an “instrument,” and as a dominant theme of graduate study. The point is that specialization and the research that accompanies it should be approached in a careful, informed and considered fashion. This has not been the case in the vast majority of American universities, Catholic or otherwise. Specialization to the exclusion of generalization has been embraced as an end in itself. This obsession has trickled down into undergraduate education as well. Not only professors, graduate students, and prospective graduate students, but all those involved in higher education, might do well to ponder the words of the Jesuit a half-century ago, ignored at the time but perhaps endowed with more potency in view of subsequent events: “Research is not an education. It is a vocation. And so it must go to its own place. And the sooner the better for all universities in the world.”10

Kevin Schiesing graduated from FUS in 1994. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on American Catholic intellectuals from 1895-1955 for the University of Pensylvania. He and his wife Anne (Lodzinski, ‘96) have one child.

  1. This article is a reflection pertinent particularly to fields in the humanities. It may apply in some ways to the natural and social sciences, but is not intended to encompass all the departments of the modern university. The role of non-liberal arts disciplines in the university is a subject unto itself. ↑
  2. Bruce Kuklick and D.G. Hart, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997). ↑
  3. D.G. Hart, “What’s So Special About the University Anyway?” in Religious Advocacy, 137-156. ↑
  4. Ibid., 147-148, 150. For a full account of the relegation of religion out of American universities, see George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishmen to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University, 1994. ↑
  5. Hart, 152, 156. ↑
  6. A.P. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, DC: Catholic University, 1987; first published in French in 1920), 103. ↑
  7. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Havern, CT: Yale University, 1996; first published in 1899), 57, 59-60. ↑
  8. George Marsden, “Liberating Academic Freedom,” First Things (December 1998): 11-12. On the centrality of religion in education, see also Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University, 1989, reprint, 1961). For another early critique of specialization, without reference to religion, see Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984, 1948), chapter 3. ↑
  9. George Bull, SJ, “The Function of the Catholic Graduate School,” Thought 13 (September 1938): 364, 376, 378. ↑
  10. Sertillanges, 120; Bull, 362, 379. ↑