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The Soul of the American University Revisited

George M. Marsden
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

Susan VanZanten is the Assistant Vice President for Mission and Spiritual Life and Consulting Dean for Christ College, the Honors College at Valparaiso University. She will be retiring in 2022. She has published many essays and books, including Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New Faculty Members (Eerdmans, 2011).

I have spent over 45 years of my life in the Christian academy: as an undergraduate at the evangelical Westmont College, as a graduate student at the nominally Methodist Emory University, as a novice faculty member at the sectarian Covenant College, as a visiting graduate professor at Baylor University, as an emerging teacher-scholar at the stalwartly Reformed Calvin College, as a senior professor testing administrative waters at the Free Methodist Seattle Pacific University, and—most recently—as the Dean of Christ College, the Honors College at Valparaiso University, the only “pan-Lutheran” school in North America. What this mini-biography demonstrates, if nothing else, is the diversity of educational institutions that are part of today’s Christian academy. And, as George Marsden discusses in The Soul of the American University Revisited, these are the places in which Christian teaching, learning, and scholarship have experienced a renaissance in the past three decades. That makes them significant vantage points from which to consider Marden’s magisterial historical narrative about the role of religion in American higher education. Since, in Marsden’s words, “historical interpretation is properly meant to illumine one’s own times,”1 let us consider the light that the updated The Soul of the American University sheds on present realities and future possibilities for Christian higher education.

In his introduction, Marsden explains that “most of the essential history [in this account] remains the same” (7). But the historical and cultural moment in which we examine and reflect on that history is distinctly different; the ground has shifted, and that difference affects our understanding and interpretation of the history. Without conducting a detailed comparison of the two versions, I will reflect on the ways in which the book now reads differently. When I first encountered The Soul of the American University in 1994, I was teaching at Calvin College, deeply involved in faculty development programs with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), and continuing to wrestle with what it meant to be a faithful Christian teacher and scholar. At that time and in that context (both at the Christian Reformed Calvin and in the more broadly evangelical CCCU), Marsden’s work was often seen as a cautionary tale of “what we might become” if we were to stray too far from our theological and denominational particularities. The path of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton could easily become our path, if we were not on guard. What could we learn from their apparent religious decline, and how could we avoid it? If we embraced new analytical categories such as gender, race, and class; advocated to expand the traditional canon; rejected a seven-day creation, supported the abolishment of mandatory chapel; distanced ourselves from denominational ties, were we not heading down the slippery slope of secularization? We did not want to lose our soul. 

To be fair, such a reading did not do justice to Marsden’s nuanced depiction of the muddled identities, ironic paradoxes, and non-democratic practices that strew the narrative path of American higher education. Marsden was clear that his tale was not one of the loss of an educational Golden Age. As he explains, the influence of Christianity on higher education in the United States “was a heritage that helped ensure that some high ideals would be part of the enterprise, but it was mixed with so many other interests and discriminatory—at times even exploitative—practices as to always provide at best a mixed blessing” (389). From its seventeenth-century origins to the early twentieth-century rise of the modern research university, American higher educational institutions drew on Christian religious thought and practice in their concern for morality and the common good while simultaneously ostracizing women, Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. Furthermore, many of the country’s elite institutions, which are at the center of Marsden’s account, were built and made possible by slavery. While Black Lives Matter and recent social unrest has called greater attention to these facts, the AAUP reports that since 2001, more than 70 US colleges and universities have researched their institutions’ involvement with slavery, uncovering how enslaved African workers contributed to the establishment and growth of private and state flagship universities, including Harvard, Yale, the University of Virginia, Brown, and Emory.2 In this respect, our present context, along with new historical work, allows us to see the contradictions identified by Marsden in even sharper focus.

Any good narrative theorist can tell you that if you change the ending, you have changed the story. So, what is the impact of the conclusion’s change from “established nonbelief” to the “postsecular”? Marsden notes that he originally argued that “instead of assuming that higher education should become increasingly secular,” a diversity of both religious and secular points of view should be allowed (2). His new conclusion suggests that such a shift has successfully occurred. The refutation of the secularization thesis also helps us to see more clearly the meandering and circular path of American higher education. The “soul” of the university, according to Marsden is “some sort of essence growing out of a common story that shapes its identity and purpose” (1) but what his account shows is that American higher education never had a common story or identity; it has been riven with contradictions and competing raisons d’être almost since the very beginning; it had multiple souls. Nonetheless, several consistent strands are woven throughout this tangled story, including the relationships among college, church, and state; the relative validity of pagan/scientific knowledge, biblical knowledge, and church authority; the opportunities and limitations created by a devotion to freedom; the proper role of morality and service to others; and the paradoxical affirmation of both diversity and a common culture. The book’s new conclusion makes religion’s role in these recurring themes even more visible. 

Let us follow one of those strands for a few minutes: education’s role in developing moral people and practices. The original colonial colleges, intent on preparing clergy and leaders for Puritan civil government, were committed to the moral formation of graduates through both the curriculum and regulation of student life. With the eighteenth-century foundation of a democratic nation, a more non-sectarian concern to form citizens of public virtue to serve the needs of the new republic emerged. Postmillennial and Whig belief that America was destined to spread civilization and the sacred cause of liberty throughout the world continued to call for moral education, albeit in a non-sectarian, humanistic manner. Moral philosophy courses replaced the study of theology as the locus of moral principles shifted from religious authority to human reason. Most of these approaches were broadly compatible with traditional Christian norms even though they were not uniquely Christian.

Even the transformation fueled by the scientific era and economic expansion in post–Civil War America was still characterized by concerns to promote human welfare. The turn to value-free, methodological naturalism was understood as a way to benefit and improve society; objective scientific research could develop, for example, a vaccine to fight a worldwide pandemic, saving millions of lives. The modern university maintained its personal formative function, although changing its diction from morality to character, through the humane ideals promoted by liberal arts programs. As Marsden writes,

Though the various changes can sometimes be described as “secularization” in the strict sense of removing a privileged form of religion from a particular activity, it is almost always more accurately seen as a repositioning or relocating of religious or spiritual interest from one place to another. (173)

Despite the changing language, origins, and locations, American education has been concerned with the formation of wise moral people committed to an idea of a communal good for hundreds of years.

Although we still find interest in forming character, instilling public virtues, and developing a spirit of concern for others in higher education, those ideals often struggle for recognition and influence. Most R1 institutions have moved away from such goals—except perhaps in student affairs programs or Greek life—to focus on the creation of knowledge, technological innovation, and individual upward mobility. Elite American universities are now massive corporate bureaucratic structures devoted to many functions other than teaching, much less forming, students. The modern liberal university does not exist for guidance on how to live. The new “soul” of today’s university is found in what Grubb and Lazerson tellingly term “the education gospel”: education is a moral good because it serves market interests. This gospel proclaims two major doctrines: increasing the number of students pursuing higher education will solve America’s social and economic problems, and the central purpose of education is workplace preparation. Grubb and Lazerson demonstrate the fallacies inherent in this gospel and complain that a devotion to personal success and worker preparation has replaced civic education and the intrinsic value of learning. Even more disturbing, the focus on schooling as a mechanism of equity has paradoxically reinforced social inequality.3

We can see the effects of the education gospel in parents and students obsessed with careers, job preparation, and return on investment. Professors are pressured to embed career-relevant information in their courses. The liberal arts are now sold as effective ways of learning critical thinking, oral and written communication, and problem solving. In 2020, Georgetown University released a report that found that the median return on investment of attending a liberal arts college after 40 years “is nearly $200,000 higher than the median for all colleges.”4 Of course, US News and World Report promptly followed up with a new ranking of colleges with the best return on investment. What Chad Wellmon terms “the higher faith” that a college or university education will lead to material success serves to justify the increasingly high debt that students and families are willing to incur for a college education.5The massive expansion of for-profit institutions preys on this faith, convincing many—primarily Black students—to take on crushingly high loads of student loans only to receive a poor education or fail to complete a program. While elite institutions and for-profits may be the most susceptible to the education gospel, those of us in the private non-profit middle are not immune to these forces.

Nonetheless, many sectors of American higher education continue to emphasize character formation, religious ideas, and the instillation of public virtues in their teaching and scholarship. For example, one of the strategic goals of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, with over 1,200 public and private institutional members, is the importance of values, character, and citizenship. The Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) includes over 270 schools that promote the exploration of vocation among undergraduate students “whose attitudes and behaviors are shaped by their values and commitments.” The Lilly Fellows Program, with over one hundred Protestant and Catholic institutional members, is dedicated to strengthening the religious character of church-related institutions through a variety of programs. 

One institution illustrating the path that moral formation has taken in American higher education over the past 200 years is Wake Forest University. Founded in 1834, Wake Forest underwent fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s, formally separated from the North Carolina Baptist Convention in 1986, and moved to a fairly non-sectarian stance. Yet, according to its current mission statement,

Wake Forest is proud of its Baptist and Christian heritage….Far from being exclusive and parochial, this religious tradition gives the University roots that ensure its lasting identity and branches that provide a supportive environment for a wide variety of faiths….Through innovative teaching, creative programming, and cutting-edge research, we aim to transform the lives of students, foster an inclusive culture of leadership and character at Wake Forest, and catalyze a broader public conversation that places character at the center of leadership.”6

Under the leadership of President Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest inaugurated a highly successful Program for Leadership and Character in 2016 that grows out of its Baptist roots, is compatible with Christian ethical thinking, and affirms both student formation and research into character development.

Today’s postsecular society has a bewildering array of educational options, including what I call “mission-driven” institutions:7 mostly mid-sized private colleges and universities that are religiously affiliated or informed, the kind of institutions that founded, support, and read Christian Scholar’s Review. Marsden’s new conclusion to the story of the soul of the American university celebrates such enterprises and the unexpected “renaissance of Christian academia” in the twenty-first century. Yet as the pandemic sputters to a close in the United States, what is the outlook for such colleges and universities? Will the renaissance continue? Even before COVID, higher education was in turmoil, with growing public anti-intellectualism, rising costs and student debt, and changing demographics leading to lower enrollments and significant budget challenges. In The College Stress Test, Robert Zemsky and colleagues estimate that 20 percent of private liberal arts institutions are on the verge of closing,8  but despite initial apprehensions, the pandemic does not appear to have significantly increased these numbers yet. Since 2016, 67 public or non-profit private institutions have closed or consolidated (many more for-profits have closed).9 In 2020-2021, 16 institutions have either closed or merged; all were small private institutions, and about half had some kind of religious identities, including Judson College (Alabama) Holy Family College (Wisconsin), Nebraska Christian, and—in a major blow for Lutheran higher education—Concordia College, Portland, and Concordia College, New York. Financial challenges have also resulted in significant budget reductions, staff and faculty layoffs, and program discontinuances at institutions such as Wheaton and Calvin—two of Marsden’s success stories—along with Gordon, Messiah, Bethel, John Brown, Southeastern, and Valparaiso University. 

The evangelical world is imploding, with potentially serious consequences for mission-driven institutions. A preference for simplistic formulas and a bizarre kind of anti-rationalism have led many evangelical Christians to embrace demagogy, conspiratorial thinking, and misinformation. Within evangelical colleges and the CCCU, breaking points are occurring over the issue of gay marriage and other LGBTQ+ controversies. But other types of small to mid-sized mission-driven schools, both descendants of mainline denominations and Catholic institutions, also struggle with the demographic cliff, the education gospel, and an unclear sense of identity. In these schools, affirmation of any kind of Christian identity, no matter how ecumenical, is sometimes viewed as exclusionary. The difficulty of including and welcoming a variety of perspectives and beliefs, trying to avoid one of the major contradictions revealed by history yet still affirming a core religious commitment, is one of biggest challenges in today’s Christian academy. I sometimes think that it is easier to pursue a Christian scholarly career today, to embrace the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship, than to run a Christian college successfully.

I can only offer a few preliminary thoughts on these challenges. My starting point is the belief that there will always be some people who want a personal, student-focused, values-based education that includes religious ideas and pursues truth, inclusion, and justice. The sustained interest in religious and spiritual matters in American education that Marsden demonstrates will no doubt continue. The expansion and increased respectability of Christian scholarship should also provide intellectual content to sustain the Christian academy. However, I expect that many small, poorly endowed Christian colleges with narrowly defined denominational or theological identities will close in the next 10 years. Others, though, will survive to fill this long-standing role in American higher education and provide an alternative to other university “souls” on offer. The dwindling numbers of denominationally affiliated Christians with a surplus of colleges in these traditions (I am thinking of the conservative Lutherans, for example), suggests that only one or two of institutions in each tradition may endure. More ecumenical institutions will need to determine how to affirm their foundational beliefs without constructing fences, identifying the central beliefs and values supporting their programs and paying less attention to non-essential differences. 

My journey through the landscape of Christian higher education and involvement with the Lilly Fellows Program has shown me the strength of mere Christianity. Not only is it more inclusive, embracing the full variety of the Christian family, but it allows faculty and students to explore the value of incorporating the gifts of other Christian traditions into their own life and thought. Mission-driven institutions should practice “receptive ecumenism,” emphasizing learning from different Christian (and non-Christian) traditions rather than arguing for the superiority of one’s own tradition or attempting to work out compromise positions. All Christians, including myself, can be just as closed-minded as anyone else, thinking our own understanding is the absolute truth. But authentic Christian belief acknowledges our frailty and requires humility. It teaches us that we are limited and make mistakes. It reminds us that we need to hear multiple points of view and be especially sensitive to different ethnic and cultural perspectives. We should not prohibit other theories, stories, and perspectives, but welcome all to the conversation.

Rooted in mere Christianity, then, we must pursue both the search for truth and a commitment to student formation, resisting the “education gospel.” We should not exist only to prepare people to obtain well-paying jobs or to produce research that increases the wealth of the one percent. Rather, we should be concerned about the formation of students and ideas: people and practices that will change the world. We should challenge and prepare students to work for a better world in their jobs, family life, community engagement, and leisure time. However, we must maintain a delicate balance between drawing on our religious roots and promoting human flourishing in broadly humanistic terms, attempting to be faithful in our commitment to moral formation and character (and truth, for that matter) without necessarily being distinctively Christian. In this way, we may be able to continue to practice Christian learning, teaching, and scholarship as the story of the soul of the American university enters another chapter.

Cite this article
Susan VanZanten, “New Ground, New Story: Updates on the Soul of the American University”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:1 , 37-43


  1. George Marsden, The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 7. Subsequent references will be given in the text.
  2. Leslie M. Harris, “Higher Education’s Reckoning with Slavery” (2020), accessed June 12, 2021,
  3. W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  4. Anthony P. Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Martin Van Der Werf, ROI of Liberal Arts Colleges: Value Adds up Over Time (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2020).
  5. Chad Wellmon, “The Crushing Contradictions of the American University,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 22, 2021).
  6. History of Wake Forest University,”, accessed June 12, 2021.
  7. Susan VanZanten, Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).
  8. Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, and Susan Campbell Baldridge, The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures across a Crowded Market (Annapolis: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
  9. Higher Education Dive, “A Look at Trends in College Consolidation since 2016,” May 6 2021,, accessed June 12, 2021.

Susan VanZanten

Valparaiso University
Susan VanZanten, previously a Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, is Dean of Christ College at Valpraiso University. Dean VanZanten specializes in African literature, American literature, and literary criticism.