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The Soul of the American University Revisited

George M. Marsden
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

George Marsden has taught at Calvin College, Duke University Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame. His principal books include works on American evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards, and on Christianity and higher education. He was a founding editor of Christian Scholar’s Review.

I am truly grateful to Christian Scholar’s Review for sponsoring this symposium and for these thoughtful and kind responses. They are nicely complementary and, taken together, offer helpful reflections on just about every theme in the book in its updated version.

The main question that emerges from these responses is whether we can be hopeful about the continuance of what I have called “a renaissance of Christian higher education.” I conclude my updated version with a largely enthusiastic account of the remarkable flourishing, especially in the past 25 years, of Christian scholarship, largely of the sort found in the institutions that sponsor this journal. The commentators rightfully warn that the prospects for the next 25 years look less bright, even ominous. The problem is not likely to be that there will be a lack of those eager to engage in high-level Christian teaching and scholarship. Rather it is that institutional support for the distinctive Christian liberal arts vision may collapse under economic pressures. Declining demographics combined with increasing difficulties of attracting students and their parents to invest in the supposedly impractical aspects of the Christian liberal arts, particularly the humanities, have often led Christian institutions to look elsewhere for sustainability. I was well aware of these dangers when I submitted my revised book with this optimistic conclusion to the publisher in the early spring of 2020. Now, after the COVID year and seeing examples of how Christian institutions, even with the best of intentions and announced ideals, may be willing under financial pressures to compromise some of the integral parts of their heritage, I agree that remedial measures may be urgently needed.

The most conspicuous trend is to scale down or cut programs in the humanities that were until recently seen as vital to the institution’s mission but are not popular in today’s market. The irony of deemphasizing humanities offerings and requirements at Christian institutions is that in doing so, they are losing one of their advantages over mainstream secular universities. As I recount in my penultimate chapter, on the “soul” of twenty-first-century American universities, one of the most common laments is the demise of the humanities. The background is that, as specific religious teaching had all but disappeared at most schools by around 1900, the humanities took their place as the loci for building moral character and good citizens. Today these have become peripheral at most universities. Part of the problem has been self-inflicted wounds, as in literature departments that turned from edifying appreciation to esoteric theory. But the overwhelming consensus is that the principal culprit is that universities are almost entirely market driven. As Susan VanZanten, citing one of the many recent studies, summarizes:

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.

VanZanten also mentions that she was at Calvin College when The Soul the American University first came out in the 1990s and that there it was sometimes seen as a cautionary tale concerning “the slippery slope” of secularization. I was in fact arguing that secularization was formidable but not inevitable in a pluralistic society. But the slippery slope idea nonetheless gained some traction, so to speak. Now, a quarter century later, in the twenty-first-century update I agree with those who characterize ours as a “post-secular” age. Secularism is now sufficiently fragmented and incoherent that our culture has lots of room for religious expression, even if some of it is strongly contested. For instance, no longer is there a widely compelling argument that the there is something like scientific neutrality and that the highest forms of intellectual inquiry need to be at least compatible with the exclusively naturalistic assumptions of modern science. So the whole enterprise, to which this journal has long been dedicated, of building intellectually Christian perspectives has proven largely viable in the context of the modern academy.

Meanwhile, as VanZanten and the others are in effect pointing out, the new “slippery slope” is the one even some of the best of Christian institutions seem to be on. That is, they are following the lead of secular schools in letting their mission be reshaped by the current market-driven “gospel” that education is tantamount to career preparation. Principles about what it means to be a meaningful Christian community and workplace can turn out to be dispensable when market considerations dominate. While there still remains much that is good and distinctive about such institutions, the more they go down the slope of allowing economic concerns to shape policy, and the more they try to compete with state schools in professional and vocational training, the less they will have to offer to justify expensive private education. One irony, as VanZanten observes, is that traditional liberal arts education has proven in the long run more profitable, even if measured just financially, than most other higher education.

I realize that it is predicted that a fair number of private colleges, including some Christian ones, will not long survive. I can certainly understand that administrators in such institutions may have to take radical measures if they are to keep their schools afloat and still provide opportunities for meaningful Christian communities and education. And every administration has to realistically assess how to best prepare for ominous years ahead. So even though it may be easy for those of us who deal with the theoretical more than the practical to question some policies, we need also be sympathetic to anyone who takes on the tasks of admin-istration at Christian institutions these days. They have to balance an astonishing number of considerations. Nevertheless, some decisions that seem good in the short run may have unintended long-term consequences of undermining other good things or institutional principles.

Moreover, it is worth urging administrators at schools that do have substantial resources to put some fundraising priorities on features that have made their institutions strong but are not supported by the market alone. In that regard, I am encouraged that Wheaton College’s president, Philip Ryken, emphasizes an example of such an approach. In my account of the “renaissance” of evangelical academia I highlight Wheaton and some of those, such as Arthur Holmes, Clyde Kilby, and Mark Noll, who helped turn a school that was once widely written off as a fundamentalist backwater into a model of liberal arts education and a formi-dable center for Christian thought. Ryken embraces that heritage and clearly sees maintaining those ideals to be among his essential responsibilities. As president he also sees the practical issue:

Sustaining a strong faith and learning program requires substantial investments, made by generous donors who continue to believe in Christian higher education. I mention this in part because when I compare notes with colleagues at other schools who want to develop their faculty members theologically and intellectually, adequate funding often turns out to be a significant obstacle.

Ryken is talking about a specific faculty development program that requires funding priority, but it seems that the same principle would apply to all sorts of programs that might help sustain the faith and learning and character-forming heritage that are threatened by today’s academic market. By the twenty-first century it is not unusual for Christian institutions to have relatively prosperous alumni and for at least some schools to be able to raise money for other projects, such as buildings or vocational programs. If the statistics that VanZanten cites are correct, then a fair number of those prosperous alumni were educated in the humanities and likely remain immensely grateful for the education they received by the equivalents of Holmes, Kilby, Noll et al., at their alma mater. So might there not be prospects specifically for various sorts of “save the humanities” programs?

The humanities, even going back to the time when that meant studying classic Greek and Latin literature, have always depended on being kept high among institutional priorities. For a long time they were simply parts of set curricula. When after about 1900 student choice became important in higher education, the humanities still had to be supported by substantial core requirements. Only a small minority of eighteen-year-olds have ever recognized on their own that studying great literature, the fine arts, history, philosophy, and other languages and cultures are important to broadening their horizons and developing life-long character traits and shaping them into responsible citizens. Such studies when integrated with solid Christian theological perspectives have been invaluable aspects of the burgeoning of Christian higher education. But as the market is increasingly being left to shape the curriculum, these dimensions of Christian institutions are being moved to the margins. Supporting them may be costly. But alumni or benefactors might see these as invaluable parts of a distinctive heritage worth preserving. Endowed chairs are one possibility, though expensive. In a recent informal discussion of this topic, one participant suggested that one way to support upper-level offerings would be to establish scholarship incentives for students to complete a second major in the humanities or the arts. Providing such scholarships might appeal especially to alumni in the fields involved and would not be prohibitively expensive. That is just one example, and there must be other creative possibilities if sustaining the humanities as integral to Christian higher education is made a priority.

As an historian of higher education, I am well aware, of course, that times change and educational policies and curricula change with them. I also appreciate that Christian institutions may need to offer a host of career-oriented majors and that these programs may be vital to both their Christian mission and to their survival. I also recognize that there are tremendously valuable ways in which Christian perspectives are being integrated with more scientific, technical, practical, and vocational disciplines.

Still, preserving academic disciplines that have historically been central to cultivating good character, civic engagement, appreciation of art and beauty, and appreciation of cultures and languages, ought to be among a Christian institution’s essential financial priorities. Moreover, offering that sort of holistic education that is becoming rare elsewhere might in the long run prove to be a distinctive advantage. Much of the history of American higher education has been a story of what David Riesman once called a “snakelike procession” of conformity to a dominant set of education ideals and practices. But today, the secular academy is in such disarray that following its lead in jettisoning the disciplines that have some of the best potential for moral formation may not be the best route to true flourishing.

In my overall concerns I think I am largely in agreement with Susan Felch. I too, despite the trends mentioned, tend to be hopeful about the future of Christian higher education. The heritage is strong. But if one looks at the dynamics of how institutions actually operate there are often “implicit assumptions and unacknowledged priorities that govern decision-making” and these can undermine announced principles. She is correct, therefore, that there ought to be “faith and practice” statements for administrators and trustees just to remind them of their essential priorities and perhaps to head off unintended counter-mission consequences of well-intended decisions.

There is another factor to consider here: Some of the commentators remind us that American Christian higher education has reached a point of substantial interaction with a growing number of counterparts around the world. Such interactions may be among the most important developments in the coming decades. One of the distinctive achievements of recent American Christian higher education has been in developing “the integration of faith and learning.” As Philip Ryken’s remarks about Wheaton suggest, the humanistic disciplines played leading roles in shaping such wide-ranging Christian perspectives. It would be ironic if, at a time when interactions around the world are increasing, American Christian institutions allow local market pressures to marginalize disciplines that have been among the most helpful in showing the way to making Christian academic inquiry distinctive.

Finally, these essays speak not only to market pressures threatening the “renaissance” of Christian higher education but also to cultural pressures. Philip Ryken cites in some detail the “culture wars” pressures that may inhibit Christian higher education in years to come. One cannot predict the future, but I wonder if the illogic of promoting “diversity” by enforcing cultural uniformity may not lead eventually to legal recognition that there should be mutual tolerance. It is one thing to target institutions that are predominantly white evangelical Protestant, an ethno-religious group widely seen as associated with unjust discrimination. But when the institutions involved are Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic, African-American Protestant, Muslim, Mormon, and others who have been traditionally discriminated against, then it would seem be more difficult to enforce legal sanctions against minorities who cannot in good conscience conform to the liberal mainstream.

The culture wars, however, may be a threat in another way. While in the past quarter century evangelical academic thought has been burgeoning and maturing, it may well be that the audience for such thought is shrinking. There seems to be a sort of evangelical mind/body problem. This has long been the case, as Mark Noll famously lamented in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). But recently, after some decades of seeming progress, the culture war divide within evangelicalism has emerged with a vengeance. Most notoriously, that divide pitted those who saw Donald Trump as embodying the antithesis of almost all Christian virtues, against those who saw him as a bold champion of Christian concerns. Levels of education correlated closely with that divide. Partisan misinformation often flourished unchecked and fed on populist evangelicalism’s longstanding anti-intellectual tendencies. On the one hand, such phenomena suggest that evangelical academics have an important mission in helping to foster deeply committed yet balanced Christian thinking among at least an influential segment of those who share their faith. But on the other hand, in an era when political biases increasingly seem to shape religious outlooks, rather than the reverse, even politically moderate Christian academics and their institutions may be viewed with increasing suspicion.

A number of the commentators speak to this issue, at least implicitly, in helpful ways. Particularly, as Hedjuk emphasizes and as Felch says also, we need to emphasize the ecumenical dimensions of Christian higher education. As Felch observes, everyone is sectarian, and schools need some specific Christian principles to define their missions and their communities. But at the same time, they can emphasize that in practice, as VanZanten remarks, they stand for “Mere Christianity.” They are not primarily denominational institutions, or “evangelical” institutions, but they are broadly Christian institutions. As Hedjuk’s essay suggests and has been illustrated at Baylor, Notre Dame, and elsewhere, self-consciously “Christian” Protestant scholars of broadly evangelical heritage can find major conversation partners and allies among Catholic scholars. I wonder if more might be done to attract committed Catholic students and faculty to historically Protestant institutions as well. Theological and ecclesiastical differences are going to remain, but there are also more commonalities than differences. As Jens Zimmermann of Regent College has recently reminded us, the Christian humanist tradition goes back not only to the founding of Medieval universities, but to Augustine and the Patristic era.1Protestants and Catholics share that long-lasting, many-sided, and resilient spiritual and intellectual heritage. Recognizing our common concerns for finding ways for it to continue to thrive may be one avenue for creatively moving into the future.

In conclusion, I need to underscore that in today’s complex world Christian higher education is faced with many vital tasks and concerns, most of which I have not mentioned. I have, rather, emphasized one of these: the Christian humanism that has been essential to the history of Christian higher education but today is being diminished. By highlighting that one dimension I want to raise consciousness that the Christian humanist heritage, even if it is out of style in the rest of twenty-first-century higher education, is a wonderful and integral aspect of Christian higher education that is worth preserving. That does not mean that the current generation should simply hold on to the way the previous generation did things. That has seldom worked well in modern times. Rather, as institutions inevitably change, it means that in the midst of all the other essential priorities, other good and desirable emphases and programs, and in the face of formidable economic, social, and demographic pressures, Christian educators keep Christian.

Footnotes

  1. Jens Zimmermann, “Restoring the Divine Likeness: Christian Humanism and the Rise of the University,” Christian History 139 (2021): 6-11. See this Christian History issue on “Christianity and Higher Education” for a nice overview of many aspects of the history.

George Marsden

University of Notre Dame
George Marsden was a professor of History at Calvin College (1965–1986), Duke Divinity School (1986–1992), and The University of Notre Dame (1992–2008). His publications include The Soul of the American University (1994) and Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), winner of the Bancroft Prize.