Secret Lessons of Religious Colleges

“Liberating Academic Freedom,” by George M. Marsden (First Things, December 1998)

George Marsden writes:

“My interest in the role of religion in American higher education was sparked by twenty years teaching at Calvin College. At the end of that time I taught for a semester at the University of California at Berkeley, and that made me reflect on the difference between the two institutions.

“The conventional wisdom that one has to be in a highly diverse atmosphere in order to have a creative intellectual environment is simply wrong. Calvin has strict religious tests for all its faculty. Most of its students come from the same denomination, Christian Reformed. Nonetheless, such apparent homogeneity produces surprising diversities. Rather than, as in a secular university, where almost every discussion has to go back to irreconcilable first principles, people can debate issues at a much higher level. They might agree on first, second, or third principles, but have strong and creative debates after that. No more subjects are off limits than at other academic institutions, and in fact there is greater opportunity to discuss the religious dimensions of topics.

“What was most striking in the comparison of Calvin with Cal was that the sort of education going on at Calvin was virtually unknown. What was especially unheard of in mainstream academia was what was central to the academic enterprise at Calvin — the integration of faith, learning, and life. … So one question I addressed in [my book] The Soul of the American University was why it is that twentieth-century colleges that retained any substantive religious identity came to be thought of as inherently inferior. … [For w]hile the [American Association of University Professors] has recognized the ‘right’ of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of their religion, the organization has made it clear that it holds in disdain schools that persist in exercising that right.

“[A]n AAUP subcommittee … endorsed … ‘(1) the prerogative of institutions to require doctrinal fidelity; and (2) the necessary consequence of denying to institutions invoking this prerogative the moral right to proclaim themselves as authentic seats of higher learning.’ … These subcommittee reports simply take it as axiomatic that an authentic seat of higher learning must be ‘free’ from any religious or ideological restraints. … My view is that the time has come to question this academic orthodoxy.

“The architects of such educational ideals [in the early years of this century] typically hoped that an inclusivist public moral and religious consensus would emerge that would replace divisive sectarian views. They sought a basis for such a consensus in a combination of science, the ideals of democratic civilization, American nationalism, the liberal Protestant heritage, and the larger Judeo-Christian moral tradition.”

But today, “Most of us recognize that our universities are incapable of providing the kind of coherent moral leadership that our Progressive predecessors hoped they would. Even though universities today contain many moral individuals, they are morally incoherent as institutions.

“Besides, most university students do not even study the humanities — at least not more than they have to. … [M]ost of us would agree that university education today is not notably successful in producing a moral consensus or in forming good citizens, whatever might have been envisioned for it early in the century.

“In light of all this, we should be rethinking the cultural role of religiously based colleges. Given the morally fragmented, technically oriented careerist state of our major universities and their undergraduate colleges, why in the world should we think that they should be setting the standard for the best education…?

“So perhaps the time has come when it is the secular universities that should be thought of as second class and urged to find some way to match in quality what the best of the religious colleges are doing. … Do secular institutions really encourage more wide-ranging inquiry? Or does their inquiry simply range over different areas?

“One of the oldest meanings of ‘academic freedom’ is that educational institutions should be able to set their own standards. Today outside pressures often come from government or other secular agencies which have a different view of what it means to ‘freely engage in higher education.’ ”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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