Tag Archives: Christian education

DAVID BROOKS ON CHRISTIAN COLLEGES

I thought I’d call your attention to a speech that New York Times columnist David Brooks recently delivered to a celebration in Washington, D.C. marking the fortieth anniversary of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.  I’ve often appreciated the conservative columnist’s columns and also recently picked up a copy of his 2015 book The Road to Character.  In his address to the CCCU, Brooks, although not a Christian himself, made a case for Christian higher education that I wish more evangelicals would take to heart.

Brooks2

Here is a sample of what Brooks had to say:

You [Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect.  You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul.  Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it.  From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent.  I visit many colleges a year.  I teach at a great school, Yale University.  These are wonderful places.  My students are wonderful; I love them.  But these, by and large, are not places that integrate the mind, the heart and the spirit.  These places nurture an overdeveloped self and an underdeveloped soul.

Regarding his students at Yale, specifically:

They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self.  They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral and romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic.  The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage.

I’m sure that my colleagues and I at Wheaton don’t fully realize the goal that  Brooks ascribes to us, but I know that we aspire to do so, and being part of that collective endeavor has been rewarding beyond words.

WHY I LOVE WHEATON COLLEGE—PART ONE

Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall

These are difficult days at Wheaton College, dark, discouraging days. A storm broke over our heads last December. It erupted when our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, posted comments online that some readers interpreted as equating Islam and Christianity. It intensified when the college’s administration first suspended Dr. Hawkins, then announced that it would seek to dismiss her from the faculty. Perhaps an end is now in sight. Over the weekend the administration announced that it was withdrawing its request to terminate Dr. Hawkins and then disclosed that Hawkins and the administration had mutually agreed to “part ways.” How these steps will be received—what they will mean to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the larger world—is an open question.

What is certain is that the controversy has exacted a heavy toll. For the past two months we’ve been besieged left and right. Liberal detractors have denounced Wheaton’s fundamentalism and Islamophobia, even as conservative critics lamented the school’s surrender to theological liberalism and political correctness. “Woe to you when all men think well of you,” Jesus said. At least we don’t have to worry about that.

Just as sloshing a coffee cup reveals what’s inside it, the stress and strain of the controversy has shown the world the truth behind our admissions brochures. We’re a fallen institution staffed by fallen men and women. More precisely, we’re sinners—to use an unpopular term—and I’m the chief of them. As a recent speaker on our campus put it, it’s wholly fallacious to think that we’re in the business of receiving innocent Christian teenagers (they’re not) with the goal of preserving their innocence (we can’t). Instead, we’re a community committed to joining a two-thousand-year-old conversation about the meaning of the claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Together, we explore the implications of that declaration, both for our innermost selves and for the way that we engage the world. Yes, we are fallen, but our calling is high and wonderful, and the opportunity to pursue it is unspeakably precious.

That is why I love Wheaton College.

I don’t love it because it’s perfect. (See above.) And I’m not saying that I love it at this moment in order to make a point about who’s been right in the current controversy. I’m making this declaration—I feel compelled to make it—because I’m sick at heart and I’ll burst if I stay silent. Too much recent criticism of the college goes beyond the matter at hand to call into question Christian education more generally. In reply, I want to follow the example of generations of evangelicals before me and share my testimony. I use the term advisedly. What follows isn’t a systematic argument about the pros and cons of Christian education. I’m just going to testify to my experience. You can make of it what you will.

You should know that my perceptions of Wheaton College are inseparable from the twenty-two years that I spent at the University of Washington before coming here. William Faulkner is famous for observing that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” More poetically, in Intruder in the Dust, one of Faulkner’s characters explains, “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.” Faulkner meant that we never meet the present in pristine purity. The past is ever with us, shaping who we are, what we notice, how we see. Surely my story bears this out. Every day that I come to work, I see and feel and experience Wheaton in the light of my time in the secular Academy. How could it be otherwise? It was in the secular Academy that I first learned to think, to research, to teach and to write. It was there that my sense of vocation was originally conceived and nurtured. And it was there, above all, that I developed a longing for a kind of education that the secular Academy could never deliver.

The University of Washington's "Cathedral of Learning," Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library's fifth floor.

The University of Washington’s “Cathedral of Learning,” Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library’s fifth floor.

As I reflect on it, my time at the University of Washington divides neatly into two periods. The first was the tenure-track years, when my highest priority was not to think about my job but to keep my job. If you’re not familiar with the process, most colleges and universities give their new full-time faculty six years or so to earn tenure, and if they fall short of the institution’s standards, they’re sent packing. You’ll probably think that’s more than generous if you earn your living in the business world, where employees are regularly fired or laid off with short notice. The difference is that in the academic world—in large part because of the tenure system—job turnover and new job creation is minimal. Professors who are denied tenure rarely find other academic positions. You don’t start over at another school. You start over in another line of work. And if you’ve already spent six to eight years (or more) toiling on a Ph.D. and another six years of 60-70-hour work weeks as an assistant professor, you can understandably conclude that you’ve just wasted a good part of your life. The stakes are enormous, and that has a way of keeping you focused.

At the time, I would have described these years primarily in terms of their intensity. Now, I remember them more as a period of sleepwalking and inertia. With little self-awareness, I jumped onto the academic treadmill and did what the Academy asked of me. It wasn’t unpleasant. I benefited from UW’s exceptional resources, worked with bright students, and learned from supportive colleagues. And if you had asked me during those years, I would have said that I was being faithful to my calling as a Christian university professor. I was teaching a college Sunday School class, occasionally witnessing to unbelieving students, and (as a good Southern Baptist) saying “no” to wine at faculty parties. Above all, I was pursuing excellence in my field, loving God with my mind by pressing toward the prize of tenure, promotion, and professional recognition.

Or so I thought. And then I got tenure.

Isn’t it funny how God can expose the emptiness of our ambitions by fulfilling them? In the spring of 1994 I received two momentous pieces of mail almost simultaneously, and in tandem they changed the direction of my life. First, I received an advance copy of my first book, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. It was pretty typical of first books that begin life as doctoral dissertations. It was deeply researched but narrowly focused. Specialists praised it—it won two professional book prizes—but almost no one else could understand it or desired to. Worse, there were no eternal issues in its pages, no engagement with Permanent Things, no grappling with questions of importance to my local church or to the broader community of faith. It was of the Academy, to the Academy, and for the Academy.

And the Academy, for its part, said “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your lord.” That same week I received formal notification from the UW trustees that I had been promoted and granted tenure. The real decision on my tenure application had been made much earlier—once Cambridge had offered me a book contract the outcome was certain—but there was still something symbolically jarring about receiving the book and the promotion letter in the same week. I weighed these two “successes,” figuratively holding one in each hand and reflecting on what my university chose to value and reward. What I felt wasn’t elation, or affirmation or gratification, but a profound sense of emptiness. I was thirty-three years old, at the salary I was earning I knew I would have to work until I died, and I couldn’t imagine being able to continue for much longer.

Humanly speaking, I was experiencing what academics know as the post-tenure letdown. It’s so common that it’s become a cliché, so I don’t pretend for a moment that my experience was unique. But I believe that God used this time of discouragement and searching to help me think critically and deeply—really for the first time—about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part. I began to read—more enthusiastically than systematically—about the relationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the nature of true education. And as I did so, I began to see the university with new eyes. Then I began to see myself with new eyes, as I realized how effectively the Academy had shaped me into its mold.

Peter Kreeft writes that our culture wants us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of This World.” Through years of osmosis, I had come to be a well-adjusted citizen of the Academy. It didn’t strike me as odd that the university had no cohering vision, that it denied the unity of truth, that it sought to expand knowledge while ignoring wisdom. I swallowed the Academy’s claim that it was ideologically neutral. Most troubling, I accepted as natural its compartmentalization of religious belief, with the attendant assumption that we can understand vast domains of human experience without reference to God.

I began to see these things, little by little, in the years following my promotion and tenure. This wasn’t a Damascus Road experience—no scales suddenly fell from eyes. It was more like coming out of anesthesia, a gradual awakening to reality. And like a patient just out of surgery, my discomfort increased as the anesthesia wore off.  As I began to see my surroundings differently, I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

My Christian friends in Seattle regularly assumed that life was hard for a Christian professor in a place like the University of Washington, and they were right, but not for the reasons they supposed. They imagined that the environment was openly hostile to believers and figured that I must be the target of ostracism or even persecution. That was never my experience. Oh, there were continual reminders that I wasn’t in church: the student government association distributing “condom grams” in honor of Valentine’s Day, drag queens performing in the library courtyard (for course credit, no less), the school newspaper proclaiming “Jesus Should Have Been Aborted,” the department colleague who was a transvestite, to mention a few.

Such things were disturbing, but it’s not like I’d been unaware of them earlier. What distressed me far more were the limitations that I faced in the classroom. I hadn’t felt them when I first arrived at UW fresh from grad school. My primary goal was to help students understand the past on its own terms and largely for its own sake. And because they typically came to the university with pretty simplistic historical views, I would inevitably explode many myths that they harbored and complicate their understanding both of the past itself and of the craft of the historian. In the process, I was quick to assure them, I would also teach them critical thinking skills that would help them land good-paying jobs at Boeing or Microsoft or Amazon.

And then my sense of vocation began to change, in large part because of the reading I was doing about the nature of true education. I came to believe that my highest goal was not to help my students make a better living, but to help them wrestle with what it means to live well. I came to believe that authentic education is not the same thing as vocational training (important though that is), that it is a transformative experience that changes who we are. And as I began to take that goal seriously, I began to struggle with an ever increasing sense of futility.

In his 1947 meditation The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not primarily to debunk our students’ unsubstantiated convictions. “The task of the modern educator,” Lewis maintained, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s challenge both inspired and depressed me. Every day I taught students who had learned at the university that it was not necessary to have a consistent philosophy of life, that rationality was a “western construction,” that ideas were merely “convenient perceptions” and moral claims only rationalizations for self-interest. And because of the authoritative rules of the secular Academy, when those students came into my classes, I was free to pose religious questions to them but never answer them authoritatively. I was allowed to introduce religious perspectives to them but never endorse one above the rest. I could demonstrate the contradictions of particular belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative. In sum, if I was going to irrigate deserts at UW, I would have to do so without ever testifying to the “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13).

This was frustrating, as well as profoundly alienating. I never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular university until I began to try to think like one. As I did, I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” And so, by the year 2000, I had begun to pray for an opportunity to teach in a different setting built on a firmer foundation. A decade later, God answered that prayer.

I’ll be back with Part Two in a few days.

Wheaton I

ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT–MORE THOUGHTS

It’s been too long since I last posted. I marvel at bloggers who are constantly connected and constantly conversing with the rest of us. All I can figure is that they have more hours in their days than the paltry twenty-four I get.

It’s been nearly two weeks—the internet equivalent of an “eon”—since I wrote about the academic freedom I’ve known at Wheaton College these past six years. I wasn’t trying to make a systematic argument comparing secular and Christian contexts. I just wanted to testify to my experience. Ever since my colleague Dr. Larycia Hawkins posted comments comparing Christianity and Islam last month, Wheaton has been the focal point of a social media frenzy. Champions and critics have rushed to do battle, one side denouncing Hawkins for her fanaticism, the other condemning the college for its bigotry. Charity has been scarce, but there’s been more than enough dogmatism to go around. As Alan Jacobs has observed, both sides seem able “to read the minds and hearts of people they don’t know.”

The goal of my previous post was not to take sides in the dispute, but to take issue with critics who insist that academic freedom can’t exist in a confessional community. For me, joining the Wheaton faculty in 2010 after twenty-two years at the University of Washington was a profoundly liberating experience. Day after day, I enjoy a degree of freedom in the classroom here that far exceeds what I knew at UW. And day after day, the freedom that I feel here thrills my heart and nourishes my soul.

This post elicited some thoughtful responses, and I’d like to reply to one of them briefly. One commenter says that his experience teaching at two Christian colleges was less positive than mine has been, and I take his testimony seriously. I also respect his conclusion that he “functions much more effectively . . . at a secular institution.” If that is true, then a secular institution is where he should be. And let me add here that I have no doubt that God often calls believing scholars to secular schools and empowers them to labor faithfully. But Steve’s point is not simply that his story is different from mine. While he respects the “many excellent scholars at Christian” institutions and the “amazing work” that they do, he knows that no school that requires its faculty to affirm a statement of faith can pretend that it also honors academic freedom. The two are simply “incompatible.”

So where does this leave us? I observed that I feel greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I experienced at my previous secular institution. Steve replied in so many words, “No, you don’t.” Wheaton may be a “good fit” for me, but what I’m experiencing here can’t be true academic freedom because, as he understands it, academic freedom can’t exist here.

We’re at an impasse. But before we throw up our hands and drop the matter, it might be worthwhile to go back and define our terms. To paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya, let’s make sure that “academic freedom” means what we think it means. The early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker once wrote, “When I meet a word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, I find it a good plan to look it up in the dictionary and find out what someone thinks it means. But when I have frequently to use words with which everyone is perfectly familiar . . . the wise thing to do is take a week off and think about them. The result is often astonishing; for as often as not I find that I have been talking about words instead of real things.”

Maybe we need to take Becker’s advice and revisit what we mean by “academic freedom.” What we cannot mean by the phrase is the liberty publicly to explore, espouse, and promote any conceivable value or set of values as an employee of an academic institution. Such a definition would be utterly useless, for I know of no place where it exists.

The unsubstantiated, near universal assumption suffusing the present controversy is the fiction that secular schools erect no boundaries to academic expression. When Steve says that secular universities “do not require people to hold a certain perspective,” I don’t begin to know how to respond. I could quickly tick off a long list of conservative political or moral positions that are unacceptable across a broad swath of today’s secular Academy.  There are countless positions which, if not kept private, would effectively preclude those who hold them from promotion and tenure, or even the possibility of employment to begin with. There’s no need to make such a list, however, because one simple example will suffice.

Today’s secular Academy insists that faculty adhere, at least publicly, to a materialist, rationalist world view. Its credo, to quote atheist Matthew Stewart, is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” In theory, at least, faculty are utterly “free” to pursue truth wherever it leads, as long as they do nothing to challenge this a priori answer to the most fundamental of all human questions.

Again, Alan Jacobs puts it well:

Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view.

I would add to Jacobs’ example that if the hypothetical public university in question ousted this trouble-maker, it would deny that it had infringed on his academic freedom. If this looks like hypocrisy to an objective bystander, technically it’s not. This is because when the twenty-first century university speaks of freedom, it really has in mind a concept closer to the seventeenth and eighteenth-century meaning of liberty. Three centuries ago, liberty meant the freedom to behave uprightly. It was commonly contrasted with license, the practice of abusing freedom by behaving immorally. From the dominant viewpoint of the secular Academy, appeals to religious truths are intrinsically illegitimate, which means that no educator has a moral right to make them in the classroom, and an institution committed to academic freedom has every moral right to prohibit them. It’s a comforting rationale.

Let’s be clear: neither Christian nor secular institutions exalt unfettered academic freedom as their highest good or as an end in itself. This is because both claim to serve something larger, whether they speak in terms of “the public good” or of “Christ and His Kingdom” (goals that are hardly mutually exclusive, by the way). In pursuit of these greater goods, both Christian and secular schools establish boundaries within which they expect their faculty to operate.

The main difference I see is that the secular Academy denies that it does so.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT

Last week I asked for your prayers for Wheaton as the College seeks a resolution to the heart-wrenching controversy swirling around our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Several of you have contacted me privately to say that you are praying, and speaking for the whole campus community, we are grateful. For now, the firestorm continues, exacerbated by an often misinformed media and by a cacophony of voices certain that they know exactly what has transpired and who is to blame.

Some of the criticism directed at the college comes from concerned Christians who believe in Christian education but disagree with how the controversy over Dr. Hawkins’ public statements has been handled. Much of it, however, comes from secular critics who believe “Christian education” is an oxymoron. From this perspective, the current controversy merely highlights the utter incompatibility of academic freedom and Christian conviction.

Last week my friend and colleague, Dr. Timothy Larsen, responded to such views in a thoughtful essay for CNN.com, and I highly recommend it. In his plea to “Let Wheaton and Other Christian Colleges be Christian,” Larsen reminded us all that “Wheaton College is a covenant community” in which faculty “voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community.” Secular critics, Larsen acknowledges, will conclude that this “prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.”

But “it feels differently from the inside,” Larsen observes. He goes on:

The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

I am one of the professors Larsen is describing. I have previously written at length on this blog about my experiences in both secular and religious academic contexts, essays sparked by University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn’s crusade against religious institutions of higher learning. (See here, here, and here.)  Perhaps this much is worth repeating:

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my wellbeing, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally—in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided. I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis. In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW. For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum. If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good. Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton five and a half years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—Pt. II

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.