Mark Noll et al.
Revisiting "The Secularization of the Academy"
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."
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
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.