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The case for religion in liberal education
We live in a curious age. As the world grows at once more radically secular and more radically religious, American culture, too, seems to be dividing along deep secular/religious fault lines. Paradoxically, the institutions of higher learning that seem to be the most comfortable in this shaky terrain are those rooted in Catholic and Jesuit traditions.
Jesuits are known for their commitment to the life of the mind. From the days of the Society’s founding, in the 16th century, the Jesuits have believed in the redemptive power of education, and have built centers of learning wherever they have gone. Their impulse has been to engage the world with serious thought and reflection.
Faithful to these habits, American Catholic and Jesuit schools have carefully staked out a middle ground where religious traditions can encounter modern ideas in a climate of academic freedom. The key to advancing this middle way has been a partnership between clerical and lay leadership (a partnership that seems far more fruitful in higher education than in other sectors of the Roman Catholic Church). This collaboration has unleashed the energy, resources, and expertise of American lay Catholics upon a wide range of colleges and universities. The influence of these lay Catholics has propelled many institutions to the front ranks of the academy, bolstering endowments, facilities, faculty support, and financial aid. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are attracted to these academic communities, where religion is taken seriously and practiced intelligently.
Protestant higher education in America has had a much harder time finding anything close to this middle ground. In the 20th century, Protestant higher education became largely a two-party system comprising entirely secular and entirely religious institutions. Schools that once easily inhabited both realms lost their religious identity, with some exceptions: among universities housing divinity schools, for example. Counterpoised to these secular institutions are the hundred or so evangelical colleges, which require all faculty to espouse a statement of faith. These colleges continue a vital tradition and do a superb job of nurturing students, but none of them has a base that is broad enough financially or theologically to support building a university of scale.
The claiming of the middle ground by Catholic and Jesuit institutions has been criticized, from both conservative and secular perspectives. Conservatives, some within the Church, opine that the mission concedes far too much and has sold the Catholic birthright for the pottage of academic prestige. Secularists charge that even the middle ground is parochial and that academic freedom is constrained—sometimes resurrecting George Bernard Shaw’s canard that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms.
I would counter these complaints with the argument that Catholic and Jesuit institutions serve as crossroads in the academy—places that Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, has said can be “the salvation of pluralism on American campuses.” In these institutions, diverse faculty members can confront a student with different ways of thinking, some of them grounded in religious traditions. Here debate can avoid two extremes: the religious homogeneity of the evangelical colleges and the relativism of the modern, secular university.
To preserve this fragile balance, Catholic and Jesuit institutions face three challenges. The first is the tenuous status in America today of a liberal arts education. W.E.B. Du Bois noted that “the true college will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” Education in America began as an ideal—to nurture the intellect and character of the next generation, to call young people to lives of reflection and virtue, and to develop leaders of integrity. The Jesuit ratio studiorum (plan of studies), as it evolved, has much the same premise, and is grounded in the liberal arts, in classical ways of knowing, and in theology, philosophy, and literature.
Today, such values seem almost quaint amid the constrained economy in which we live, with its drumbeat of economic utility. The most pressing question seems to be how much a college costs in relation to what a college graduate can command in salary. This theme resonates not just from nervous parents, but also from congressional committees, from the U.S. Department of Education, and from powerful influences such as the Gates and Lumina foundations.
The task, then, for liberal arts universities generally and for schools with a religious heritage in particular is to defend the vital importance of a liberal arts education. We must not underestimate the danger that humanistic inquiry will wither into irrelevancy. The novelist Michael Malone, writing last fall in the Wall Street Journal, put it this way: For the humanities
to imagine that they have anything approaching the significance or influence of the sciences smacks of a kind of sad, last-ditch desperation. Science merely nods and says, “I see your Jane Austen monographs and deconstruction of The Tempest, and I raise you stem research and the iPhone,” and then pockets all the chips on the table.
The higher purposes of college warrant protection, despite our economic woes. A good reminder of that is C.S. Lewis’s address during World War II, “Learning in War-Time,” in which he said:
Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, that search would never have begun.
Another challenge that the liberal arts everywhere face is the almost magical connection to the world that students experience today, and the increasingly uphill battle to help them learn to be reflective and deliberative. The mystique of digital connection keeps us in a constant state of anticipation and interruption. When a beep goes off, our first obligation is to respond. William Powers has written an interesting book on this subject: Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (2010). There he warns that a digital consciousness is the enemy of depth, keeping us constantly distracted.
More than any other sort of college or university, religious institutions know the value and the practice of deliberation, concentration, meditation, and solitude. The question with regard to the coming generation is how to create environments for students that make such experiences possible and attractive in the midst of electronic attachments. Given the Jesuit tradition of being contemplative in action, Boston College and her sisters might help revive the virtue of reflection.
The third and biggest challenge that schools with a religious heritage face involves the very structure of the modern academy and the expectations of contemporary faculty. Are we able to provide a curriculum and develop a faculty that address larger questions of meaning and purpose, and that keep alive theological and spiritual frameworks as ways of understanding the world?
Sadly, even in the liberal arts the big questions about the meaning of life and the forging of character are increasingly ignored. Indeed, whether these questions should be asked anywhere in the university provokes healthy debate. Some scholars—the literary theorist Stanley Fish, for example—have argued that universities have no business trying to make people good (“Aim Low” is the title of a Fish article published by a higher education magazine.) Leave the spiritual task to churches, synagogues, and mosques, they say.
Many other scholars note ruefully the seeming inability of higher education to answer the question, what is living for? In his 2007 book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Anthony Kronman, who teaches law at Yale University, says that he has watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction. Harry Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, has written a similar cry of the heart: Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (2006). The excellence of the modern university, he argues, is hollow, because the university has forgotten Emerson’s conclusion that the honing of the mind is aimless without the development of character.
The Teagle Foundation, which has as its focus promoting liberal higher education and was led until recently by the classicist Robert Connor, has been engaging colleges and faculty to pose for students the big questions of meaning and value. Through this initiative and also by analyzing the results of surveys conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, the foundation has found that students are hungry to address such questions but find fewer and fewer faculty members willing to accompany them.
Connor has spoken and written about these diverging expectations and is clear about the reasons for them. Faculty are hired and promoted for their disciplinary knowledge and understandably resist suggestions that they should be involved in students’ moral development. In fact, many see such involvement as dangerous to their professional identities and reputations, particularly because so much talk about morality has come from the far right.
There is an incongruity here. Students come to college seeking more: among other things, a framework to discover meaning and purpose. At the same time, according to recent research, most students enter college already inclined to see moral conviction as the domain of personal preference. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, has been leading a major study of the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults. He concludes in his book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2009) that the dominant belief today is that people should decide for themselves.
The absolute authority, Smith and his research team are finding, is the sovereign self. Individuals are autonomous agents who have to deal with one another, but do so as self-directing choosers. The words duty, responsibility, and obligation feel vaguely coercive or puritanical. As one young adult told the researchers, “Morality is how I feel, too.”
How do we get beyond this deep gulf—what Dennis O’Brien (former president of Bucknell University and the University of Rochester) has called “the disappearing moral curriculum”? How do we begin to address the reality behind the stark assessment of the journalist David Brooks that, “on the whole, college students are articulate on every subject save morality”?
Those are hard questions. However, the Catholic and Jesuit institutions of higher learning, from their position in the middle ground of secular and religious inquiry, are perhaps uniquely able to answer them. They are poised to solve the problem of the disappearing moral curriculum by giving students something to believe in. To that end, their campuses are honeycombed with discussions, retreats, and activities that challenge students to renew their faith, to engage in solving social problems, and to consider professions for reasons other than self-interest.
Occupying the middle ground requires real diversity. There is no mantra more prevalent today in academic institutions than “diversity and inclusion.” But unfortunately, most American campuses tend to be blandly progressive and are less welcoming than one would hope of voices that are out of the mainstream.
Some of the sharpest divisions in our society involve issues in which American Catholics have a big stake: the rights of women and the rights of the unborn, the nature of marriage, the priority of free enterprise and of individual rights, and the priority of solidarity and the common good. Policies on immigration, on primary and secondary education, on poverty, on religious freedom around the world, and on foreign aid: Catholic and Jesuit campuses should pulsate with points of view and strong arguments on these subjects—including the diverse arguments flowing out of the Catholic tradition.
Students should be exposed to Dorothy Day, who cofounded the Catholic Worker Movement, and the conservative Catholic legal scholars Mary Ann Glendon and Robert George. If they are reading the work of liberal commentators like Gustavo Gutiérrez and E. J. Dionne, they should also be reading the work of conservative ones like Alasdair MacIntyre and Ross Douthat. Catholic and Jesuit institutions call students to be leavening in a divided world. To succeed in that mission, they must teach students to be comfortable with conflict and alert to the wisdom in opposing views.
Studies of the current generation of students, the so-called Y Generation, conclude that volunteer rates are soaring, but that students are unlikely to stay connected to a cause for long. They flutter from one interest to another. Their level of mistrust of institutions, political and religious, is unprecedented, and their civic engagement is perilously low. Fewer than 20 percent of students today say they have a personal stake in the major national issues of our country. For the most part, they come to college to find a good job.
So today we must serve students in two ways. We must argue for learning for its own sake, and we must help students think about and negotiate paths to professional leadership. Popular culture today exalts few heroes for young people to emulate. Many television shows, for instance, focus on dark and dysfunctional figures—Breaking Bad, The Tudors, The Borgias, Weeds, Dexter, and Boardwalk Empire all follow in the tradition of Tony Soprano, week after week beckoning audiences to root for the flawed leader. Universities (certainly, Catholic and Jesuit universities) need to provide counterexamples to these narratives. In a world that is cynical about political leadership, we need to show models of lively and persuasive civic engagement. In a world that is cynical about the Church and its leadership, we need to show patterns of worship and service that are winsome and life-giving. In a world that preaches that the self is the center of life, we need to show compelling examples that the purpose of life is not to find yourself but to lose yourself: in education, in health reform, in third world development, in building businesses and professions that are genuinely for the common good, and in a myriad of other ways that a creative campus can devise.
Nathan Hatch is the president of Wake Forest University and a former provost of the University of Notre Dame. On November 8, 2012, in the Heights Room, he delivered the keynote address at a conference on “Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education” marking the Sesquicentennial of Boston College. His talk set the tone for discussions that followed among journalists, academics, and the visiting presidents of three colleges and universities besides this one: Notre Dame, Bryn Mawr, and Wheaton (Illinois). A historian, Hatch is the author of The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).