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Mark Noll et al.


Revisiting "The Secularization of the Academy"

A symposium 25 years on.

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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.

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