Christians often ponder the trajectory of higher education in America whereby scores of religious schools drifted from centers of pious orthodoxy into bastions of secularist infidelity. To understand this process, Julie A. Reuben's The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1996) proves most instructive.
It is, she says, above all a story of the shift "from the nineteenth-century broad conception of truth to the twentieth-century division between facts and values" (p. 2). Intellectuals in the 19th century "assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth and embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between 'facts' and 'values.' They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard moral values could not be validated as 'true.' In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only 'science' constituted true knowledge. Moral and spiritual values could be 'true' in an emotional or nonliteral sense, but not on terms of cognitively verifiable knowledge. The term truth no longer comfortably encompassed factual knowledge and moral values" (p. 2).
"The rapidly-expanding cohort of progressivist scientists embracing the Darwinian paradigm rejected both the historic Baconian commitment to common-sense empiricism and the philosophical tradition of natural law."
To verify her thesis, Reuben documents "the unity of truth" everywhere assumed by 19th century college and university professors. "The unity of truth entailed two important propositions. First, it supposed that all truths agreed and ultimately could be related to one another in a single system. Second, it assumed that knowledge had a moral dimension. To know the 'true,' according to this ideal, was to know the 'good'" (p. 17). In fact: All truth is God's truth! What's learned in biology classes harmonizes with biblical revelation; what's studied in history seminars illustrates divine providence; what's espoused by philosophy professors squares with the Logos
incarnate in Christ Jesus.
Nevertheless, the rapidly-expanding cohort of progressivist scientists embracing the Darwinian paradigm rejected both the historic Baconian commitment to common-sense empiricism and the philosophical tradition of natural law. Since everything is evolving, there are no intrinsic essences in things and, as William James concluded, "scientific theories were instrumental rather than descriptive" (p. 46).
Imbued with this conviction, prominent academics such as Cornel University's president, Andrew Dickson White, celebrated the victory of science in his widely read A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. They further insisted that educators devise curricula appropriate for the "new knowledge" and institute electives (consistent with the view that scientific "truths," whether biological or sociological, anthropological or psychological, constantly change) as a substitute for the prescribed classical studies (e.g. Latin and Greek) ingrained in the liberal arts. This better suited professors increasingly devoid of "faith in the ideal of the unity of truth" (p. 241).
Easily the most influential of the devotees to the "new knowledge," Harvard President Charles Norton Eliot, "began his administration with plans to promote science and decrease the presence of religion at Harvard" (p. 77). Conciliating constituents distressed by his agenda, he found he could promote the "scientific" study of religion as long as all forms of dogmatic theology were eschewed. In short order the Harvard strategy prevailed, and hitherto "Christian" universities such as Yale charted a secular course.
"In 1870 religious instruction in colleges consisted of required courses in moral philosophy, often supplemented by lectures on natural theology or the evidences of Christianity. By 1890 these courses had disappeared from the university curriculum."
As a result, Reuben says: "In 1870 religious instruction in colleges consisted of required courses in moral philosophy, often supplemented by lectures on natural theology or the evidences of Christianity. By 1890 these courses had disappeared from the university curriculum. In their stead, faculty advanced a variety of electives related to religion" (p. 88).
This move was applauded by liberal clergymen such as Henry Ward Beecher, who declared: "'To admit the truth of evolution is to yield up the reigning theology. It is to change the whole notion of man's origin, his nature, the problem of human life, the philosophy of morality, the theory of sin, the structure of moral government as taught in the dominant theologies of the Christian world'" (p. 96).
The time had come to reformulate the Christian faith in terms prescribed by Science, reducing it to what people "felt and did, not what they thought" (p. 112). Religion on campus was shifted from the classroom to the chapel (increasingly voluntary) and extracurricular activities.
With religion effectively sidelined at the dawn of the 20th century, university educators looked for scientific substitutes to replace it. They still believed in progressive moral development and prescribed courses designed to encourage it. So newly empowered "social sciences" instituted courses in social hygiene, eugenics, economics, psychology and sociology, all promoted as verifiable vehicles for ethical improvement. Representing the ethos of the day, John Dewey and James Tufts published their Ethics in 1908 and saw it adopted by scores of colleges and universities. The authors dogmatically rejected any Supernatural Source of morality and reduced to a purely naturalistic prescription.
Yet even this effort floundered as younger "scholars thought that eliminating ethical concerns was the key to achieving scientific rigor and intellectual consensus. These scholars viewed morality as a matter of personal preference" (p. 188). Subsequently ethics as well as religion was banished from prestigious university classrooms. "By the 1920s," Reuben concludes, "most natural and social scientists defined their academic role in terms of specialized instruction and the advancement of scientific knowledge, effectively undermining plans to make their disciplines the basis of a new secular moral education" (p. 210).
Given the assumption that morality lacks scientific justification, some university educators shifted their hopes for moral instruction to the humanities. Perhaps, following the admonitions of Matthew Arnold, an aesthetically-attuned "culture" might replace religion in perfecting "humanity through the 'harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature'" (p. 215).
"Over the twentieth century leaders of research universities strengthened their institutions' commitment to the advancement of knowledge, but they were never able to recapture university reformers' faith in the power of knowledge to elevate individuals and the world."
A cohort of "New Humanists," following Irving Babbitt, insisted that great literature and art, rather than science, contained the wisdom needed for modernity. To Edwin Greenlaw, "'the service of literature, rightly conceived, is akin to the service of religion. . . . Our materials are human lives, instruments to be played upon by spirits of the dead, by living spirits incarnate in poetry and music and art, by the deeper music of humanity'" (p. 218). But art and literature failed to bear the burden of inculcating morality-as did the assorted and ambitious programs promoting "student life." Consequently: "Over the twentieth century leaders of research universities strengthened their institutions' commitment to the advancement of knowledge, but they were never able to recapture university reformers' faith in the power of knowledge to elevate individuals and the world" (p. 265).
The Making of the Modern University successfully blends the depth of a Ph.D. dissertation with the accessibility and readability of a treatise targeting a general audience. Julie Ruben's work is essential to understanding why America's universities have become such bastions of secularism.
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books — The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue — as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.