Last week I responded to a rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education by University of Pennsylvania Professor Peter Conn (“The Great Accreditation Farce”). With considerable righteous indignation, Conn insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry” that supposed defines the secular academy. In my response (“Should Religious Colleges Be Denied Accreditation?”), I mainly pointed out that Conn’s diatribe failed to capture my own experience. Since leaving the University of Washington for Wheaton College I have enjoyed more, not less academic freedom.
Then, prompted by a question from a reader, I decided to follow up with two broader posts on the worldview of the secular university as I experienced it in my twenty-two years as a faculty member at such an institution. In the first (“Thoughts on the Secular University–Pt. I”), I primarily wanted to stress my belief that, at the level of the institution, today’s state universities are influenced by a hefty helping of market-oriented pragmatism. State universities are frequently enormous economic concerns. They employ thousands of workers and have billion-dollar budgets. And although they are non-profit organizations, they have to attract customers and keep them smiling just as much as Walmart or McDonalds.
We are tempted to think that state schools are shielded from market pressures because they receive state funds, and perhaps there was a time when that was largely true. State legislatures have slashed their support to higher education over the last generation, however, so much so that many state universities are “public” institutions in name only. Universities compete for students, they compete for wealthy private donors, and they compete for government and corporate grants. To a significant degree, they take the shape of what others are willing to pay for.
While this is true, I am not remotely suggesting that the secular university is an ideology-free zone. Far from it. There is a well-defined ideology that predominates in the secular university. Not every faculty member equally endorses it, but it is pervasive enough and dominant enough that it is reasonable to call it the secular university’s defining worldview.
So what does this ideology look like? It’s probably best to begin by defining terms. A political philosopher could come up with a much more precise (and convoluted?) definition, but I like the simple definition of “ideology” as essentially your ideas about the way the world is and the way the world should be. Let’s take these two components in turn. What is the prevailing view in the secular university of how the world is?
The answer is simple: it is material, period. More than anyplace else in America, today’s secular universities are strongholds of the materialist view (as opposed to the religious view) of the origins and nature of the universe. Matter and space have always existed according to this notion. Outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent. Nothing is transcendent. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan used to put it in the opening of the popular PBS series Cosmos, the material universe is all there is, all there ever has been, all there ever will be.
When it comes to higher education, the dogma of materialism finds expression in a single, overarching, non-negotiable dictum: in the words of atheist Matthew Stewart, “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” The label for this philosophy of knowledge is rationalism. Rationalism regards human reason as the only path to truth. It says that the only way to make sense of the world is to put autonomous humans at the figurative center of the universe and rely on human reason to explain whatever it can.
More to the point, rationalism dismisses the very possibility of divine revelation. This doesn’t mean that the university has to dismiss religion per se from the curriculum, as long as it’s studied as an odd cultural phenomenon that human reason explains away. Most universities of any size have departments of religious studies (often staffed by professors who are atheists or agnostics). Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians often touch upon religion as well. They just can’t profess to believe any of the truth claims of the religions they study.
All of this makes sense within a materialist, rationalist framework. So does the university’s theoretical stance on moral values. Remember, matter is all that there is. Matter can be weighed, measured, and explained. Values, on the other hand, are immaterial. They are, by definition, subjective and beyond proof. In the moral philosophy of the university, whatever values predominate in a particular place and time are best understood as “social constructions.” They are invented, not discovered. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because those who wield power over them find them useful. In sum, while there may be discernible patterns of human behavior and belief, these cannot reflect objectively true values that transcend space and time. Why? Because nothing transcends space and time.
This, in a nutshell, is how the world is in the eyes of the secular university. What is its vision for how the world should be? Well, it should certainly be more rational, which is another way of saying it should be more secular. For several generations scholars have been asserting that secularization is the natural path of human development and predicting that religion will soon be an embarrassing memory from humanity’s superstitious childhood. Billions of believers have failed to get this memo, however, and both Islamic and Christian revivals continue to sweep vast portions of the majority world.
The world should also be much more just than it is. If the secular university exhibits a fair amount of pragmatism, it also exudes more than its share of moral passion and righteous indignation. This was certainly the case at the University of Washington. Walking across campus on a sunny day meant running a gauntlet of leaflet-wielding student organizations, each bent on converting you to their “cause” of choice: Aids awareness, homelessness, environmentalism, human trafficking, apartheid, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer rights, etc. Both faculty and students spoke glibly of “social justice” and “human rights” and both took for granted that these concepts were far more than “social constructions” reflecting the “cultural hegemony” of the cultural elite. The campus was awash in moral claims.
From retrospect, this is the feature of the secular university that I find most striking: On the one hand, the university rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other hand, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing. Put the two together and you get the contradiction at the heart of the secular academy: Deny the possibility of moral Truth while crusading for moral truths.
The stereotypical embodiment of this contradiction is the self-described relativist who denies that there is any transcendent meaning or purpose to human existence, and yet expresses great hope for the future of humanity and feels passionately about his own non-negotiable set of ethical values. Michael Novak has called this oxymoronic outlook “nihilism with a happy face.” It flourishes in the secular university.
The contradiction underlying “nihilism with a happy face” is glaring, but it’s only troubling if you hold to the quaint belief that your worldview should be internally consistent. But I found that, for all its exaltation of reason, when it comes to worldviews, the secular university is not that big on logical consistency. That, at least, was my experience at UW. While I regularly encountered students with strong moral convictions, I encountered few who felt obliged to reconcile their moral commitments with a companion set of beliefs about the origin, nature, and meaning of the universe. In other words, almost none of the students that I got to know thought it essential to develop a comprehensive and logically consistent philosophy of life. It was not so much that they were opposed to the idea; they had never given it any thought. Nor were they much challenged to do so during their time at the university, sadly, for the university had given up on that project long ago.
It was pretty much the same with the faculty and graduate students whom I engaged in “meaning-of-life” conversations. Repeatedly I encountered scholars who condemned religion as irrational but were more than willing to jettison reason in order to cling to their own secular philosophies. When I gently accused one of my graduate students of inconsistency, she left my office mildly troubled and then returned a few days later to say that she had concluded that I was right and that she was quite willing to live with a measure of irrationality. When I confronted a colleague (a senior professor) about an irrational inconsistency in his worldview, he forcefully objected at first and then—unconvinced by his own argument—shrugged and observed that “perhaps it isn’t all that important to be rational.” Another colleague, a brilliant scholar and religious skeptic, ended our conversation by declaring, “Logical consistency is not my god.”
In “The Great Accreditation Farce,” Peter Conn insists that the faculty at Christian colleges like Wheaton necessarily abandon “the primacy of reason.” I haven’t encountered that yet, but thanks to my time in the secular university, I think I’ll be able to recognize it when I see it.