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Mark Noll et al.


Revisiting "The Secularization of the Academy"

A symposium 25 years on.

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On June 1 and 2, 1990, the Pew Charitable Trust sponsored a major academic conference at Duke University on the subject of secularization in modern higher education. Those of us who were privileged to attend this gathering heard excellent papers and witnessed stimulating, though sometimes contentious, discussions on many aspects of this broad subject. Soon thereafter, at least as professors count time, Oxford University Press published a book growing out of the conference entitled The Secularization of the Academy (1992). George Marsden, who co-edited this volume with Bradley Longfield, had hosted the conference in connection with his own research into the changing place of Christianity in university life. When Marsden published his own study from that research, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (Oxford, 1994), interested readers almost unanimously expressed appreciation for the book's historical narrative. By contrast, decidedly mixed reactions greeted his "Concluding Unscientific Postscript," where Marsden urged the modern university to make room for religious points of view in the same way that it made room for other ideological perspectives. Controversy in response to this proposal in fact replayed some of the contentions aired at the 1990 Duke conference.

Now, 25 years after the original conference, some of the main contributors to these projects have agreed to reflect once again on questions of faith, scholarship, academic secularization, modes of specialized learning, and the production of knowledge at contemporary colleges and universities. As it was a quarter of a century ago, so it remains today: everyone recognizes that secular trajectories continue in modern higher education, but there is far less agreement on what exactly "secularization" means and in what ways it might include positive as well as negative effects.

This retrospective begins with Bradley J. Longfield, now the dean and professor of church history at Dubuque Theological Seminary. Longfield has recently authored Presbyterians and American Culture (Westminster John Knox, 2013), in which he explains how some of the same dynamics that he sees in higher education have affected the course of an important theological tradition. Alternative accounts of the modern situation come next from James Turner, Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and Darryl Hart, Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College. Turner, who in 2014 published the sparkling and wide-ranging Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton), agrees that the secularization debate touched issues of vital importance for academic and faith communities, but also wonders if the issues that seemed so pressing 25 years ago still possess the same salience today. Hart, author of The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins, 1999) and a number of iconoclastic critiques of American evangelicals, regards the secularization of the academy as a present-day reality, but also a reality that adherents of confessional Protestant convictions should mostly welcome.

George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, responded to criticism directed against the "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" of his Soul of the American University by writing an entire book, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1997). More recently he has published The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (Basic, 2014) in order to critique, as it were, some of the winners who propelled the secularization of modern university life. Here he reflects on what has happened for scholarship among self-identified evangelicals over the last quarter century and also revisits the arguments he had earlier made about securing recognition in the academy for Christian points of view.

The symposium ends with a reflection on contemporary academic life in Britain. David Bebbington, professor of history at the University of Stirling in Scotland and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Baylor University, positions developments in intellectual life within the broader context of contemporary religious change. He is the co-editor of a recent book that continues his long and much appreciated research on evangelical history: Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013). Not surprisingly, themes related to secularization figure prominently in this study.

Anyone who doubts the enduring value of historical insights should secure a copy of The Secularization of the Academy and read the essays that Professors Longfield, Turner, Hart, Marsden, and Bebbington contributed to that landmark volume. Their reflections here underscore the fact that historical insight can also grow sharper with age.

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