The Soul of the American University Revisited
Susan M. Felch is Emerita Professor of English at Calvin University and the former director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. She was the Executive Editor of the Calvin Shorts series and is the author or editor of numerous books including The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2016); Teaching and Christian Imagination, with David I. Smith (Eerdmans, 2016); and Anne Vaughan Lock: Selected Poetry, Prose, and Translations with Contextual Materials (Iter Press, 2021).
“Do you have hope for Christian higher education?”
We were sitting around a small table, drinking coffee at the close of a conference for graduate students in the arts and humanities. They were all appreciative alums of Christian colleges and universities. We had been talking about dissertations, the shrinking job market, the loss of tenure-track or even full-time positions, their investment in graduate programs, and their own joy in teaching and writing. Then the students asked, “Do you have hope for Christian higher education?” I knew what they were asking: “Will I find a job as a professor? Will I be able to make a living in this vocation I am coming to love?”
I wanted to say “yes.” Yes, you are brilliant and thoughtful and empathetic and well-trained. Yes, you will find a job, and you will be an exemplary and beloved teacher-scholar-colleague. But given the precarious state of higher education, particularly in the humanities and arts, I could neither give, nor could they receive, such a cozy promise. But their question deserved, and deserves, a response: Is there hope for Christian higher education?
One of the salutary effects of reading George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University Revisited is recognizing how quickly the terrain of higher education can shift. The subtitles of the original and revisited books mark out a surprisingly swift and seismic disruption. The movement From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994) took place over nearly three centuries; From Protestant to Postsecular (2021), less than three decades. Although neither edition offers a declension narrative, it is not difficult to tabulate changes that might be recorded as losses: the dissolution of soul as the university became a multiversity; contestation of what was once assumed to be common ground or the common good; disintegration of the humanities; the “drift from education to consumer satisfaction” (351); declining interest among traditional college-age students in exploring the “big questions” or developing a life philosophy; professionalization at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with an eye toward education as primarily an economic investment. And of particular concern to Christian higher education: tension between Christian scholars and larger Christian constituencies, political polarization, stagnant enrollment, and rising costs for residential programs (385).
And yet, in Soul Revisited, Marsden remarks, with something like astonishment, on the “remarkable resurgence of self-consciously Christian teaching, learning, and scholarship” that “few in the mid-twentieth century would have predicted” (365). That sounds like hope to me. In fact, given that the biggest changes in higher education, for good or for ill, have occurred in the last few decades, why not write a sequel to The Soul of the American University? Why revisit its long history?
I must confess that a cursory reading of Soul Revisited might suggest that the first 300 years have little to say to us today. Although Marsden has trimmed his account, many of the narratives feature a prominent white male educator at an elite institution whose speech, book, or administrative action marks an inflection point in the history of American higher education. African American educators, land-grant institutions, historically Black universities, and, of course, denominational colleges and Roman Catholic institutions appear only as lightly sketched foils. It comes as something of a shock to encounter discussion of a female-authored book, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, on page 296.
As dispiriting as it may be to remain immersed in such a selective universe, it is also instructive. Marsden chose in 1994 to write the history of elite institutions, recognizing that history’s inherent limitations (192), because he believed these institutions established the framework within which American higher education developed (6). To be considered excellent, even to be considered viable as a university, one could deviate very little from their model. HBCUs, Christian colleges and universities, Roman Catholic institutions, even community colleges were constricted by and within this model, as were the journals, publishers, and promotion protocols that came to define distinct academic fields. Although both post-secularism and, more recently, economic and pandemic pressures have begun to decenter academic power, reopening questions about ways to define excellence, the common good, the purpose of undergraduate and graduate education, the relation of teaching and research, and other significant issues, it would be foolhardy to suggest that elite institutions have lost all their power to shape the conversation. And yet, the establishment stranglehold has been loosened: neither “establishment” or “established” appears in the 2021 subtitle, despite their twinned appearance in 1994. One reason for hope is simply this: it can be otherwise. American universities are no longer inextricably bound either to a potent but often unacknowledged form of Protestantism or to the rigidity of nonbelief. And the space that “otherwise” opens up is one into which Christian colleges and universities may step as they speak not just to their own familiar constituencies but also to the broader spectrum of higher education.
Soul Revisited also offers readers, or at least offered this reader, a cautionary tale, an exemplary tale, and a prophetic tale. The cautionary tale is this: the most powerful forces that shape our institutions are often, usually, or perhaps even always, occluded, visible only when they begin to dissolve as a result of deep structural defects, accumulated unresolved tensions, or a penetrating external gaze. Marsden convincingly uncovers the long reach of unacknowledged Protestant Christendom well into the 1970s, “the centuries-old story of efforts to make Protestant Christianity integral to mainstream American higher education” (365). Educational leaders retained the language of Christendom years after “Christian” had migrated from Calvinism through liberal Protestantism to Unitarianism. Even after its language was jettisoned, the university soul continued to be shaped “by the cultural triumph of many of the ideals of liberal Protestantism despite the sharp decline of the Protestant mainline as an institutional force” (345), ideals such as individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, anti-dogmatism, free critical inquiry, and the authority of the human experience. As these ideals suggest, however, religious and national interests were neatly aligned. To be American was not merely to be Christian but to be Protestant, even though such unions of church and state had supposedly been abandoned on the other side of the Atlantic. Hence the scandals of William Buckley’s 1951 expose, which revealed the extent to which Yale was neither religious nor particularly democratic, and Marsden’s own 1994 diagnosis that the soul of the secular American university was still the soul, albeit slightly shabby, of Protestant Christendom.
This tale is cautionary on any number of levels, all of which have their counterparts in 2021: the ease with which partisan and religious rhetoric intermingle; the difficulty of identifying the implicit assumptions and unacknowledged priorities that govern actual decision-making, but that eventually prove too contradictory and too fragile to maintain institutional integrity; the opacity of exclusionary logic, visible only to those who are on the outside.
In Marsden’s telling, established nonbelief, hastened if not precipitated by the embrace of scientific neutrality and the adoption of the German research model for graduate education, both succeeds and was layered over the conflation of Protestant establishmentarianism and American democracy. This is, by now, a familiar story, but the new nonbelief had a consequential effect on undergraduate education, since the faculty who taught undergraduates were trained in the “value-free” zones of graduate schools. They imported expectations for standardized excellence, intellectual neutrality, research agendas, disciplinary loyalty, and professionalization that did not always integrate well with the formation of character to which most liberal arts colleges remained at least notionally committed.
As established nonbelief collapsed into a scrum of warring secularisms, belief in scientific neutrality and confidence in traditional graduate training dissipated. Critiques of scientific neutrality and, to a lesser extent, the culture of graduate schools came from within the postsecular academy, fueled by intellectual shifts in epistemology; the pressure to reshape research agendas to encompass ques-ions relating to gender, power, ethnicity, race, and spirituality; and the growing of ranks of both professors and students for whom white, male habits of being in the world proved an uncomfortable fit. Ernest Boyer’s Carnegie Report, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990) dislodged the primacy of discovery scholarship by articulating the equally important scholarly agendas of integration, application, and teaching.
But critiques also came from the increasingly visible world of religiously-affiliated higher education. And herein lies the exemplary tale, which is hinted at but not fully developed in Soul Revisited. Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (1992) opened the door to a flood of publications, to associations such as the Lilly Fellows Program, and to campus centers for teaching and learning that urged the development of faculty as whole persons and refocused their attention on undergraduate teaching. Marsden’s own The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997) advanced the claims of interested scholarship he had suggested at the end of the first Soul. Later Paul Griffiths’ distinction in The Vice of Curiosity: An Essay on Intellectual Appetite (2006) between understanding one’s academic discipline as a gift to be received rather than as a field to be mastered, offered an alternative, theological vocational vision to graduate students and newly-emerging faculty. In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (2020), Willie James Jennings’ excavation of traditional academic formation and “common good” as shaped by the colonizing instinct to create men who would exhibit possession, mastery, and control suggested ways to examine and re-form the basic tenets of Western education.
These books are themselves products of the American academic meritocracy, written by men groomed by the elite institutions they critique. At the same time, they exemplify some ways in which Christians scholars and Christian institutions have stepped into the “otherwise.” Even better, they represent only a tiny fraction of the robust interventions into higher education by Christian scholars, many in the pages of this journal.
I find, however, that the most hopeful, and prophetic, tale of Soul Revisited is articulated on its final page. Marsden writes:
One lesson of the past would seem to be that Christian and other religiously based higher education is better off when it recognizes, as is easy to do in our postsecular age, that it is a minority enterprise in a richly diverse society. As such, it will not be able to impose its will on others, but, rather, its challenge will be to make itself so attractive in its practices and outlooks that, despite its inevitable imperfection, others will admire it and want to emulate some of its qualities. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, people are persuaded of the merits of an alternate view not so much by argument as by how that view works for its followers: “They can say: I don’t know how the proponents of the new view succeed, but I must learn whatever they are doing, it is clearly right.” (389)
Or as Stephen Dunn ruefully puts it in his poetic reflection on his young daughter’s enthusiastic response to her first encounter with Vacation Bible School: “you can’t teach disbelief / to a child, / only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story / nearly as good” (“At the Smithville Methodist Church”).
The best hope for Christian higher education is that we know a good story, a very good story that is meant for every “tribe, people, tongue and nation,” to cite an old metonym for diversity. Yet to make this story “attractive in its practices and outlooks” I believe we need to rehabilitate the word that rings with negative overtones throughout Soul Revisited: sectarian.
In 1754 we are told, Samuel Johnson, the first president of King’s College in New York City, formulated the creed that would remain intact for two centuries: “There is no intention to impose on the scholars the peculiar tenets of any particular sect of Christians” (52). In subsequent years, “sectarian” would be reserved for those denominational colleges and particularly the perceived authoritarian Roman Catholic schools where dogma replaced dignity. Yet, what Marsden uncovers on nearly every page of Soul Revisited and what post-secularism’s dismantling of epistemological neutrality has shown is the untenable nakedness of “non-sectarian.” Calvinism is a sect; liberal Protestantism is a sect; Unitarianism is a sect; moral philosophy is a sect; scientific naturalism is a sect; progressive politics is a sect—all forms of human knowledge, by virtue of being finite, necessarily select, organize, include, and dismiss. All perspectives are necessarily limited. “Virtuous neutrality” is a myth (200). It is no shame to say so.
While sectarian often connotes bigotry, it need not do so. Nor need sectarian be synonymous with partisan, a word that reeks of militant zeal. It is possible, of course, that an institution might replicate the worst of Protestant Christendom, assuming its own cultural instincts to be isomorphic with Christianity. But sectarian can also signal our willingness to be a creative minority, to claim identity, to articulate without embarrassment who we are, and to live as consistently as possible into and out of that identity. It can signal our willingness to take up our primary vocation as followers of Christ. For Christian institutions, sectarian also carries the connotation of a particular tradition of belief and practices within Christianity. I am exquisitely aware that in viewing multiple and sometimes competing Christian traditions positively, I am speaking as a Protestant, although it is my Roman Catholic colleagues who have taught me to value distinct charisms, those peculiar habits of being entrusted as gifts for the blessing of others. What I learn from a practicing Benedictine or Mennonite or Methodist colleague is not what I would learn from a generic Christian blog. When a student joins an institution that is clear about its mission, its thick identity provides both ballast and catapult as she finds her way into adulthood, even if she remains an alien or a sojourner.
Nor is sectarian a barrier to internal disagreements. Marsden’s comment that “the outlooks of serious practicing Catholics come in a wide variety, from ultra-conservative and traditionalist to highly liberal and progressive. These Catholics may worship together but seemingly disagree on just about everything else” (388) seems to me just right. It is precisely the core of our sectarian posture, worship, to which we should look for unity, not to a uniformity of positions.
Self-consciously sectarian college and universities also offer an authentic chronological and global reach. Even the most contemporary forms of Christianity find their roots in the Hebrew Bible. Some form of historic consciousness is part of the Christian DNA. Similarly, every denomination and most non-aligned churches are part of global alliances even if these are not pursued in the most robust ways. There are Christian colleges and universities on every continent. International associations of Christian scholar-teachers, such as the Society of Christian Scholars and the International Network for Christian Higher Education, are steadily growing. As Marsden notes, “self-consciously ‘Christian scholars,’ mostly from evangelical traditions without strong intellectual heritages, have become one of the truly significant meaningfully interconnected and ethnically diverse interdisciplinary academic communities in the world” (386). I see great hope for global Christian higher education and for American institutions as we learn to open our pores to cross-pollination from sister schools. There are more black Christians than white Christians in the world. There are more Spanish-speaking than English-speaking Christians in the world. It is time to leverage the diversity that already exists within Christianity into the structure of our colleges and universities.
At the same time, amidst the diversity, sectarian colleges and universities hold the gift of common ground, an absence much-lamented in education declension narratives. As Soul Revisited demonstrates, “common ground” or “common good” has often been illusory and exclusionary, a small turf protected by those who have the most to gain from standing on it. Christian education, however, begins with an assertion of common ground and common good that is both imminent and transcendent, that every human being is made in the image of God. That we cannot precisely define imago dei may frustrate theologians, but that is because it is less a doctrinal position and more a posture we assume, a posture of awe, gratitude, humility, and responsibility, a posture convinced that every human already possesses dignity and worth.1 If it is true that “the experience of greater exposure to diverse groups, if not embedded in a common ideology or set of commitments, is likely to create greater distrust rather than greater solidarity” (348), then imago dei offers an antidote to tribalism, a basis from which diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can move, rather than merely lurch, forward.
So, do I have hope for Christian higher education? Yes, because I think sectarian institutions have the spiritual and intellectual resources to meet the challenges of educating this anxious generation, if they are willing to be deeply and truly themselves. It is bracing to read Soul Revisited as an obituary of the traditional, modern, and the postsecular American university. As we ponder a life lived and its ongoing consequences, we can be grateful for what has come before but also alert to the ways in which higher education has been deformed by inherited “best practices” that are at odds with our deepest commitments. At my institution, faculty are regularly asked to write “faith and learning” statements. But we also urgently need “faith and administration” statements and “faith and Board of Trustees” statements and “faith and human resources” statements that wrestle with and articulate which practices and protocols we should keep, which we should revise, and which we should jettison.
Do I also have hope that the new cadre of Christian scholar-teachers, formed as integral human beings and bursting with promise, will be able to find their vocations in higher education? Yes, if. If we change expectations of who should be educated and how. If some of us take early retirement. If we think globally. If we form real partnerships with communities who are eager to learn. If we are willing to experiment. Facilities do not educate students; faculty do, and we cannot afford to squander the emerging scholar-teachers we have helped to form.
There are many creative ideas being proffered to strengthen and expand Christian higher education from cohort-based curricula to city-based, non-residential programs to increasing our vision for who wants and needs a college education. Here is just one: Whatever you may think of the tag line for its humanities core (“Philosophy and History for guys who like to blow things up”), a new two-year school for men in Michigan draws directly on the tradition of Catholic Workers to offer a residential program that integrates Christian intellectual and spiritual formation with trade skills. This unabashedly Catholic start-up for tradesmen, a more robust term than “blue-collar worker,” shares a campus with a Protestant college, enabling both to remain financially solvent. I must confess I offer this example with a touch of envy, since I proposed, without success, a similar but gender-inclusive and Calvin-inflected program to my own university.
Near the end of Soul Revisited, Marsden apologizes for the brevity of his survey of the renaissance in Christian academia:
Yet given the many-sided nature of evangelicalism and its varieties of denominations and institutions, the whole story would be much more complex and lengthy. One could tell similar stories at scores of other evangelical schools and regarding a multiplicity of academic disciplines and involving differing theological traditions and philosophical perspectives. (378)
This multitude of untold stories is what most gives me hope. And these are the stories I hope my graduate students will write.