Tag Archives: secular education


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.


In my latest post I shared my positive opinion of Joseph Ellis’s award winning book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis ended his study by asking, “What, if any, are the values that the real person who was Thomas Jefferson embodied in his life that remain vital and viable over two centuries after he declared American independence?” Writing in the late 1990s, Ellis found only one that persists. “The principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices,” he concluded, “is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration.”

I would like to add one other dimension of American life in which I see Jefferson’s worldview alive and well. Over the course of my twenty-two years on the faculty at the University of Washington, I came to think of Jefferson as the patron saint of American higher education. If the modern secular university is not a product of Jefferson’s influence in a strictly causal sense, several aspects of his worldview are integral to its function and identity. Some have undoubtedly been positive in their effect, but two, at least, have been crippling: Today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism. Both are classically Jeffersonian features.

Here’s what I mean:

First, when it comes to their moral arguments, both Jefferson and the twenty-first-century Academy embrace irrationality as the price of rationalism. Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that regards human reason as the only path to truth. It posits 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.

To rationalism the contemporary secular university adds materialism, the unproven (and unprovable) assumption that outside of the physical world there is only nothingness. Everything is immanent, according to today’s secular Academy. Nothing is transcendent. The upshot is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it,” to quote atheist intellectual Matthew Stewart.

From these dogma it follows that all moral values are human creations, or “social constructions” in academic jargon. Societies adopt them over time because they are useful or, more likely, because elites who “exercise hegemony” (wield power over the common folks) find them useful. By “deconstructing” these so-called values, academics claim to reveal the more fundamental power realities or social forces that underlie moral truth claims and explain what’s really going on.

And yet, at the same time today’s secular universities are awash in moral claims. Faculty and students speak glibly of “social justice” and “human rights.” They bemoan and condemn a plethora of social ills, from homelessness to human trafficking. This is surely one of the secular university’s most striking features: On the one hand, it rests on a theoretical foundation that denies the very possibility of objective moral truth. On the other, it promotes an academic culture characterized by pervasive, passionate moralizing.

Jefferson’s approach to moral values differed in the details but was similar at the bottom line. Jefferson’s starting point was what historian Gregg Frazer labels theistic rationalism. Frazer means that Jefferson was willing to concede the existence of God on logical grounds, but reason was always in the driver’s seat when it came to determining his religious beliefs. He rejected as irrational almost all of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity (as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, for example), was skeptical of the concept of special revelation, and insisted repeatedly that reason was the only reliable guide to virtue.

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

But whose reason? Well his own, of course. Following early eighteenth-century “Common Sense” philosophers, Jefferson insisted that men and women, by virtue of their humanity, possessed an innate moral sense that naturally led them to seek the good of others. If left free from external interference, this common moral sense would inevitably lead to social harmony. It goes without saying that Jefferson offered no evidence for this utterly hypothetical postulate. He seems to have believed it must be true because he wished it so and because he could imagine it from his writing desk. (Joseph Ellis writes that Jefferson was “accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with more mundane realities. Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment,” Ellis finds that Jefferson “tended to . . . regard the disjunction between his ideals and worldly imperfections as the world’s problem rather than his own.”)

At the same time, it is clear that Jefferson took for granted that the liberation of the moral sense would free men and women to behave more and more according to his values. As Ellis describes him, Jefferson was convinced that anyone who was both intelligent and informed would look at the world exactly as he did. Although he would begrudgingly acknowledge the occasional exception (John and Abigail Adams come to mind), Jefferson instinctively believed that anyone who disagreed with him was either misinformed or malevelent.

Which brings me to my second point. As Ellis concludes, even a cursory examination of Jefferson’s views of his political opponents reveals “how alien Jefferson was to the pluralistic ethos so central to modern-day political liberalism, which accords respect to fundamentally different values and defines integrity as a civil, if spirited dialogue among opposing ideas.” A perfect example would be Jefferson’s approach to the creation of the University of Virginia. In his final years, Jefferson devoted the lion’s share of his time and energy to the project. The proposed institution—seated barely four miles from Monticello—was to be his living legacy, the institutional embodiment of his philosophical and educational ideals.

More to the point, he was determined that the new university promote his political values as well. Jefferson gushed to a correspondent that “the hobby of my old age will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” But when rumors reached him that a leading candidate for the school’s professor of government was at heart a Federalist (i.e., a member of the opposing political party), Jefferson reached the limits of his own commitment to “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

In February 1825 Jefferson wrote to his old political ally, James Madison, who was also on the original governing board of the institution. Jefferson noted that he had long believed that the new faculty hires should be left free to choose their own textbooks and approach their subjects of expertise as they thought best. “But there is one branch in which I think we are the best judges,” Jefferson told Madison offhandedly, a field of such importance “as to make it a duty in us to lay down the principles which are to be taught. It is that of government.” Noting that the government professorship could conceivably go to a “rank Federalist,” Jefferson now considered it “a duty to guard against danger by a previous prescription of the texts to be adopted.” In sum, academic freedom was all well and good—as long as it reinforced Jefferson’s political convictions. To his credit, Madison convinced his friend to drop the idea.

If a “rank Federalist” might someday teach government at Jefferson’s university, he made sure that an orthodox Christian would never be appointed as Professor of Divinity. His stratagem for insuring this was simple: there would be no professorship of Divinity. At a time when almost every college in America was overtly church-related and had a minister as its president, Jefferson’s university would be different. Intentionally secular in its vision and design, the school would have neither church nor chapel. Jefferson’s “academical village” would be laid out in such a way as to take the eye naturally not to a house of God but to a temple of knowledge, to the Rotunda—modeled on the pagan Pantheon of Rome—which housed the school library.

The Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, overlooks Jefferson's

The Rotunda, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, overlooks Jefferson’s “academical village”

With seeming willful obtuseness, David Barton insists that Jefferson’s goal was to create the first truly “transdenominational” school, that he wanted UVA to be robustly Christian, just not associated directly with any particular denomination. Nothing could be further from the truth. In confining religion in the curriculum to a course in “natural theology” to be taught by the Professor of Ethics, Jefferson was insuring that students would be inculcated in theistic rationalism, not Christian orthodoxy. Furthermore, in the very structure of the curriculum they would be reminded daily of the Jeffersonian dogma that revealed religion was irrelevant to the life of the mind.

In sum, Jefferson exalted the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” but balked at instruction that might challenge his political values. He wanted students to explore “every subject susceptible of . . . contemplation” unless that included religious beliefs that he rejected. That he saw no contradiction or inconsistency in these positions is testimony to what Ellis describes as Jefferson’s “capacity to keep secrets from himself.”

That same capacity pervades today’s secular universities. I had many wonderful colleagues at the University of Washington, men and women of integrity and kind and generous spirits, but overall the school was relentlessly homogeneous in its political values and worldview, especially so among its faculty. As is true across the Academy more generally, the school aggressively promoted “diversity,” by which it meant an equitable distribution of students and faculty by race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among other categories, but it was deafeningly silent when it came to the value of intellectual or ideological diversity.

Jefferson would have understood.


I responded over the weekend to a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education ridiculing the idea that any religious college could truly qualify as a legitimate institution of higher learning. (See “The Great Accreditation Farce,” by Peter Conn.) Offering a series of pronouncements rather than a chain of reasoning, the author, a professor of English and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry.” Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stan Jones, responded with a thoughtful essay that contests Conn’s twin assumptions, each equally naïve: the first, that scholars with religious convictions necessarily embrace irrationality and abandon reason; the second, that the secular university is devoid of dogma of its own. In my response I chose to offer a personal testimony of sorts, comparing my experiences on the faculty of the University of Washington, where I taught for over two decades, and at Wheaton College, where I have served since 2010. Although the UW has many strengths and numerous committed faculty, I have nevertheless felt much greater academic freedom since coming to Wheaton.

This was all that I originally intended to share, but a question from a reader has changed my mind. In a thoughtful comment to my original post, Daniel Davis asks whether, in my opinion, secular professors like Conn are aware of the holes or contradictions of their own worldviews. After some hesitation, I decided to offer a ridiculously broad reply to Davis’s focused question. In this post and the next one, I’d like to share my sense of the world view of today’s secular university. You should file this under the category of my thinking out loud with you about a question that’s way beyond my pay grade. I’d love to hear your perspectives, which may well differ from mine. As G. K. Chesterton warned, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”

But first, two caveats:

To start with, I need to stress that I’m not an expert on the philosophy of higher education. I can only offer my individual perspective as someone who taught at a fairly typical research university for twenty-two years. This does not make me an authority on the subject (although it does give me twenty-two years’ more experience at a secular institution than Peter Conn has at any of the Christian institutions he sweepingly condemns).

Beyond that, it is imperative that I reiterate my appreciation for the many positive aspects of the secular institution where I taught, i.e., the University of Washington. Although much of what follows will be critical, I do not mean to single out the UW as having more problems than most universities. Nor do I mean to cast aspersions on the faculty there. Although I differed dramatically in worldview with almost all of my colleagues, I was nonetheless surrounded by men and women who pursued their vocations—as they understood them—with dedication and integrity.

So what kind of worldviews did I encounter there? The answer is, “It depends.” It’s important to address the question at two levels. Institutions take on lives of their own, and the philosophies that guide overall decision making don’t always bear much resemblance to the personal values motivating the individuals involved in them. Most of my colleagues at UW were at least relatively idealistic. They loved their subjects. They were passionate about teaching, or research, or both. They genuinely wanted to make the world a better place. And they were willing to make personal sacrifices to be a part of such a work. Generalizing broadly, almost everyone I met at UW could have pulled down a much higher salary by opting for a career outside the academy. As a rule, they had compiled impeccable undergraduate records, thrived in top-notch graduate programs at elite universities, and earned their jobs at UW by beating out hundreds of other applicants. In sum, they had the intellectual tools to earn handsome livings, but they freely chose the much more modest compensation that the academy typically offers.

It’s crucial to stress this because, when it comes to the institutional philosophy that guides UW and schools like it, much of this idealism vanishes. At the institutional level, these schools aren’t driven by an irreligious or specifically anti-Christian ideology, as conservative Christians often claim. Indeed, they’re not very ideological at all. They’re pragmatic. At the institutional level, the values of the university are pretty much the values of the marketplace. Universities are enormous economic concerns (the UW is the third largest employer in the state of Washington), and they are shaped first and foremost by economic forces. This may be the most important thing to know about higher education over the past half century.

As Mark Edmondson explains in his wonderful book Why Teach?, colleges and universities expanded dramatically during the fat years of the GI-Bill and the baby boom. The baby boom had ended by the mid-1960s, however, and the rate of growth of the potential college population was slowing dramatically by the mid-to-late 1980s. Compounding this demographic problem was a political one. Just as demand/supply forces began to turn against higher-ed, state legislatures began to respond to straitened economic circumstances by slashing their appropriations to state universities. In 1975, state and local government appropriations accounted for 60% of total expenditures on higher education. By 2010 that proportion had fallen to 34%.

If anything, the trend has been more dismal at UW. When I joined the faculty in the late 1980s, state appropriations accounted for about 80% of the instructional budget, with tuition payments making up the balance. In the coming academic year those proportions will be almost exactly reversed. To call schools like the University of Washington or the University of Michigan or the University of Arizona “public” schools is more than a bit misleading. They are now, for all practical purposes, private institutions.

This demographic and political one-two punch has forced public colleges and universities to respond to market forces more than ever before. Many observers will think this is a good thing, and it’s possible that it has been—in some respects. Perhaps there is greater “efficiency”; maybe there is less fat in the budget than before (although trimming the fat typically involves cutting faculty rather than administrators).

But colleges and universities cannot stay afloat solely by cutting costs. To survive, they must do two other things: they have to be more competitive in attracting students, and they have to be more successful in attracting other sources of revenue beyond tuition payments and state allocations. The latter means courting wealthy donors and eliciting grants from the federal government and from large corporations. Both trends contribute to a growing “customer-is always-right” mentality. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the grade inflation that is rampant in higher education, the widespread acceptance of A.P. courses for college credit (despite dubious evidence that they are comparable to college courses), as well as the reduction in required courses that allow eighteen-year-olds more and more to define their own programs of study.

When it comes to research, universities are more and more dependent on outside grants. This is much less the case in the humanities, where the cost of research is typically minimal, but it is the norm in the hard sciences, where the costs of equipping a laboratory can be enormous. In 2009, grants from federal agencies (most notably the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture; NASA, the National Institute of Health, and the National Science Foundation) provided 59 cents of every dollar spent on university research in the fields of science and engineering. The total amount was just under $33 billion. (The University of Washington regularly leads all public universities in federal research dollars; in 2012, UW faculty received over 5,000 grants totaling nearly $1.5 billion.) Grants from private corporations are much smaller but growing. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012 private corporations invested more than $3 billion in academic research.

None of this means that the objectivity of the research itself is compromised, although many have made that charge. What is undeniable is that the lion’s share of the research conducted at public universities is research that outside sources with deep pockets are willing to pay for. Outside funding may not determine the answers researchers arrive at, but it surely helps to determine the questions that get asked. You would never know that from Peter Conn’s characterization of the secular Academy, however. In the secular university of Conn’s imagination, “unfettered inquiry is the hallmark” of research. In contrast to religious institutions, where blind submission to dogma is the order of the day, in the secular university scholars are committed only to the courageous pursuit of truth without respect to other considerations of any kind.

Call me skeptical.

Next time we’ll shift our focus from the institutional philosophy of the research university to the individual philosophies of its faculty. Thanks for reading.