Mark Noll et al.

Revisiting "The Secularization of the Academy"

A symposium 25 years on.

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.

—Mark Noll

The Debate, and More Than Just Debate, Goes On

Bradley J. Longfield

With The Secularization of the Academy, George Marsden started a vigorous and critical national conversation about the place of faith, particularly Christianity, in higher education in America. If the past year is any indication, that conversation continues unabated and, in certain circles, has become increasingly strident. Peter Conn, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, criticized the accreditation of "religious colleges," claiming they "systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education." Last September, California State University withdrew recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it required its leaders to be Christian. And over the course of the year, Gordon College had to answer to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in defense of the college's policy, rooted in its faith, forbidding "homosexual practice."

At the same time, the important role of faith in higher education has been eloquently asserted. Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, claimed in the Huffington Post that "In many ways the American university is in danger of losing its soul … . It is my belief that without a unifying theme, without purposeful context, without answering seemingly audacious yet entirely legitimate questions like 'so what?' and 'for what?' … facts and formulas will lose both luster and efficacy." Similarly, R. R. Reno, in First Things, argued that "Great Books and classical education are largely Christian projects in America today. Christian colleges are the institutions most likely to encourage a sustained engagement with Western history, literature, and philosophy. To have an influential and lasting say in the living future, one must have a deep knowledge and love of what one has inherited."

The greatest factor minimizing the secularization of British universities in the 21st century is not Christian at all.

In The Secularization of the Academy, George Marsden noted that "leading campus pluralists … want to eliminate from academia those who do not broadly share their outlook." Clearly, the examples above demonstrate that this impulse is alive and well in the academy 25 years later. This tendency to seek to eliminate religious diversity in the academy reflects broader trends toward uniformity in higher education highlighted by Jeffrey Selingo of Arizona State University last year. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Selingo wrote, "American higher education loves to tout the diversity of its 4,000-plus institutions … . But most institutions that come to mind when we talk about higher education in the United States are strikingly similar in their structure and their ambitions." Selingo is concerned primarily about the increasing similarity among public schools, but the same concern can be raised about the place of Christian higher education in the constellation of American higher education. The prestige of the secular research university as well as increasing standardization due to accreditation and government regulation have pushed higher education more and more towards a one-size-fits-all model.

Against such standardization and secularization, Marsden suggested that Christians should "concentrate on building distinctly Christian institutions that will provide alternatives to secular colleges and universities," particularly building centers for graduate study. Such undertakings are expensive and, if recent history is any indication, would not go unchallenged. But if Christians are to nurture distinctive Christian perspectives in the scholarly world, and thereby offer a unique voice to scholarship and teaching, this proposal remains an exciting possibility, and one that would enrich not simply Christians but the world.

A Discussion Running Out of Steam

James Turner

I drove to the conference that produced The Secularization of the Academy via the Smoky Mountains, for a few days of hiking. My campground lacked shower or sink, and I strolled into the conference hotel looking and smelling like week-old roadkill. The desk clerk eyed me with frank misgiving. Finally, grudgingly, he handed over a room key. I'm glad he buckled. Discussion at the conference, and then revising my paper for publication, raised questions in my head that set the course of my writing since. Thank you, George, for roping me in.

But enough self-indulgence. That collection of essays opened a debate that sizzled for 20 years. What counts as "secularization"? What brought it about? What gains did it bring to higher education? What losses did it inflict?

The question of gains turned out to have easy answers. In an ever more pluralistic America, a de-facto Protestant establishment ruled even state universities until about 1900; all sides in the debate agreed that dismantling it came none too soon. When students and faculty might profess any faith or none, the once-universal imposition of Protestant chapel services is a corpse no one wants to disinter. Likewise, all accepted that religiously committed colleges and universities may continue to set standards of faith and behavior in line with their beliefs. Finally, everyone agreed that denizens of secular campuses, public or private, should be free to pursue any religious—or anti-religious—activity, so long as the institution remains even-handed in facilitating their doings. The debate thus revealed consensus on how secularization should express itself institutionally—and wide agreement that, in creating this new framework, secularization liberated American higher learning from a past it had outgrown.

The question of losses, however, proved neuralgic. Should faith—or religious intellectual traditions—play any role in research in now-secular disciplines? Some of America's most distinguished Christian scholars, including Marsden, argued for a limited rollback of secularization here, insisting that Christian perspectives (like feminist ones) could enrich research for all scholars. Skeptical opponents saw instead new religious fetters on reason, and they strenuously defended secularized knowledge against non-rational pollutants. These arguments grew sharp, even heated.

Vigorous though the latter debate was, it is unclear to me today how much it mattered. Religion has won a certain autonomy in the secular academy. More scholars now than two decades ago treat faith as a first-order phenomenon that cannot be reduced to biology or sociology. But Christian professors (in contrast, say, to feminist ones) have not proven adept at drawing on Christianity to propose new methodologies or fresh lines of research in their disciplines. Nor have Christian colleges and universities spent much capital egging them on.

Such Christian scholarship as exists today (beyond biblical and theological studies) lies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. (Methodist astronomy, anyone?) And arguments around it have lately been drowned out by wailing over the "crisis" of the humanities. If all humanistic learning is to give way to scientific research and technical training, what's the point in arguing about the Christian piece of it?

The fascinating debate set off by The Secularization of the Academy begins to seem a relic of a moment that has flown.

Religion, but Not Too Much

D. G. Hart

Over the last 25 years, I have attended any number of Christian academic conferences on the theme of Christianity and the university that convened over a weekend. Much to my surprise, the conference schedules included panels and presentations on Sunday, the day of Christian worship. If Christian academics would like the academy to be less secular and more open to religion because faith is such a significant part of human existence, why wouldn't these same believing scholars want to cease from their labors and worship the one responsible for the faith they deem so important?

My impression is that complaints about the marginalization of religion in the academy rest on a desire for an academy that is religion-friendly but not onerously religious. If we wanted a return to an academic environment where Christianity was prominent, would that mean the Harvard of 1636, 1790, or 1850? Each of those iterations of the Protestant institution was self-consciously Christian—from Puritan, to liberal, to Unitarian—but none could be mistaken for the university where today many Christian academics would happily accept a faculty appointment. In other words, the desire for more Christianity in higher education is no guarantee of the quality of the Christianity. Nor does it address the question of how to organize learning. Is a liberal arts college ideal? Or is the research university a better model? And what about those public institutions that bridge undergraduate education, pre-professional training, public service, and research? As many problems as higher education had in 1990, and still has, having more believing scholars or a religious presence on campus was not going to solve them.

But worries about a secular academy did for Christian scholars what fears about a naked public square did for the Religious Right. Christian academics generally had little patience with the Moral Majority, but the integration-of-faith-and-learning mantra that caught on in the late 1980s resembled the Christian America theme of social conservatives. Both relied on an understanding of the self (inspired by Abraham Kuyper) that saw faith informing everything a Christian did. Both objected to the idea of neutrality as a fiction that could be used (sometimes sinisterly) to exclude believers from jobs or offices. Both also sought to promote the Lordship of Christ in all walks of life.

Yet if Christian academics could spot the problems of a Francis Schaeffer, and could even recognize that travel budgets would not allow for an entire conference day to be devoted to worship, perhaps they could also see the difficulties of trying to establish academic rules and procedures that give preferential treatment to believers. After all, few Christian academics are prepared either to say that the United States was founded as a Christian nation or that Christianity should be established by law. If believing scholars can live with a secular nation (and even recognize the defects of Europe's Christian nations), what is wrong with a secular academy? For all its defects and sometime silliness, secular higher education provides more room for believers and non-believers than any Christian college or university ever did. That's not all bad.

Just Doing It

George Marsden

How does the project of promoting high-quality scholarship by "evangelical" Christians in the American academy look today as compared to when we held that conference a quarter of a century ago?

High-level scholarship among such Christians and their allies seems much stronger, especially in sheer numbers, than it did back then. That can be seen most clearly in the stellar faculties at the more than 100 institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Although they often carry heavy teaching loads, many scholars at these schools are publishing impressive work. At the same time, compared to 1990, one can find a much larger cohort of openly Christian scholars, especially younger ones, in positions in mainstream academia. Such scholars are still a small minority of all academics, but the gains are considerable. Today, evangelicals do not lack wide-ranging intellectual resources, even if most evangelicals may not appreciate them.

Our conference on "the secularization of the academy" in 1990 was a small part of what turned out to be a substantial stimulus package that helped promote the resurgence of evangelical scholarship. Originally I contacted Bob Lynn of the Lilly Endowment about possibly funding the historical research I was proposing on the topic. Lynn was enthusiastic but asked if it would be OK if the Pew Charitable Trusts would fund the project, an arrangement that resulted in generous support. Around this same time, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and George Rawlyk were enlisting Pew for far more extensive support of Christian scholarship. Eventually, under the leadership of Joel Carpenter, who became the religion program director at Pew, the foundation provided a total of something like 15 million dollars to support Christian intellectual inquiry, including grants for senior Christian scholars and funding for a cohort of the best and the brightest "Pew Younger Scholars" through leading graduate programs. That support coincided with an upsurge in interest in scholarship among younger evangelicals that is now having a payoff in academic excellence. In more recent years Carpenter, as director of the Nagel Institute at Calvin College, has been building networks of Christian academics around the world. The burgeoning of such networks is doubtless one of the most significant developments since 1990.

In The Secularization of the Academy I noted the historical anomaly that American Protestants had no research university that was Protestant in any interesting sense. Today Baylor University offers a counter-example, although its persisting struggles to move in that direction illustrate that going against dominant cultural-religious trends is not easy.

I have learned one lesson. Ever since that conference in 1990 I have been arguing that, since mainstream academia has some bias against religiously based perspectives, it should attempt to correct that by developing a more inclusive pluralism that would encourage religious perspectives along with other minority outlooks. So far as I can see, that argument, as sensible as it may seem, has little appeal in the academic mainstream. Prejudice against evangelicals in academia is now well documented by sociologists and does not seem to be receding. So fostering greater evangelical inclusion is not something many are willing to champion. Yet it has always been true that some avowedly Christian scholars produce scholarship strong enough to overcome the prejudice. Since there are more such scholars today, more are making it into the academic mainstream. The lesson is this: arguing for the cause is of limited value. Many will see it as simply complaining from a disliked minority. Instead: just do it. Just continue to produce high quality scholarship. If that happens and the numbers of high-quality "Mere Christian" scholars keeps expanding in anything like the way it has in the past quarter-century, the network of such scholars will be in a good position to be recognized, even if grudgingly, for what it already is: one of the most vital intellectual communities of our time.

The Secularization of British Universities since 1990

David Bebbington

My subject at the Duke Conference in 1990 was "The Secularization of British Universities since the Mid-Nineteenth Century." It may be useful to update that analysis by commenting on what has happened over the last quarter-century. What have been the main developments since 1990?

In 1990 I argued that the chief factor behind 20th-century secularization in British higher education was "the free play of social forces" rather than any deliberate scheme, whether by the state or by other agencies, to dismantle the religious components of the universities. That has remained the case. Religion has declined in British society at large. For the first time the national census of 2001 asked a question about religious allegiance. 72 percent in England and Wales professed to be Christians. A mere ten years later, however, the figure was down to 59 percent. Weekly church attendance has dropped to around 9 percent of the population. The consequence has been that the religious tone of the universities has faded.

The symptoms of Christian decay in the universities are many and varied. At Cambridge, Methodist ministerial training is ceasing this year. In Wales, nearly all theological education has been concentrated on a single campus at Lampeter. In Scotland, the theology faculties, with very few candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, have filled up their places with undergraduates in religious studies. The teaching of dogmatic Christianity has weakened.

By contrast with the 20th century, the 21st has also seen inroads by militant secularism. Richard Dawkins, the Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford from 1995 to 2008, unleashed a barrage of anti-religious propaganda which has undoubtedly had an effect on the willingness of members of the public to declare their unbelief. In 2001 the proportion of the population professing no religion was 15 percent; in 2011 it was 25 percent. Students have followed suit, probably (the available statistics are unreliable) to a greater degree.

There are nevertheless countervailing forces at work. The broadcasts of carols services at King's College, Cambridge, are more popular than ever before, illustrating the persistence of traditional religion in the academy. Christian Unions, supplemented to a greater degree than in 1990 by other evangelical organizations such as the Navigators, retain their hold on substantial student numbers. Christian graduate bodies, including the Christian Academic Network for faculty in higher education, think hard about the relation of faith and learning. But the greatest factor minimizing the secularization of British universities in the 21st century is not Christian at all. In 2011, 5 percent of the population of England and Wales was Muslim, and the proportion is increasing through immigration and natural growth. Hence campuses now possess official prayer rooms and unofficial societies, sometimes censured for the inflammatory rhetoric and the division of the sexes at their public meetings. The Muslim groups are certainly very religious.

In 2015, the self-consciously secular element and the confident Muslim presence exist alongside traditional Christian institutions and popular evangelical agencies. The universities of Britain are more secular than they were in 1990, but they are also more pluralist.

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