By Bryce J. Christensen | “What an empire is in political history,” declared John Henry Cardinal Newman, “such is a university in the sphere of philosophy and science. . . . It maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected. . . . It acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order and precedence.”
A rare and far-seeing wisdom inheres in these words, written in 1854 while Newman was serving as rector of the Catholic University at Dublin. It is, tragically, a wisdom largely ignored rather than honored in most twenty-first-century American institutions of higher learning, institutions that are fast forfeiting any claim to the lofty title of university.
On campus after campus, professors and administrators act not as umpires between truth and truth but rather as gladiators in often-bitter fights over resources and policy, fights in which truth counts for far less than sheer bureaucratic power. At many schools these fights have grown particularly heated as traditional academic disciplines—lacking all sense of order and precedence—have fissioned and mutated into new specialties and subspecialties, each with its own academic agenda, none with a unifying vision grounded in philosophical universals. Women’s studies, ethnic studies, business ethics, sports management, leisure studies . . . the list of accredited disciplines just keeps growing while the shared philosophical understandings uniting the academic congeries of the modern polyversity dwindle.
The beginning of the cultural and intellectual fracturing of the modern university was evident to physicist-novelist C. P. Snow when he lamented in his famous “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959 that the literary humanist and the technical scientist inhabited cultural worlds separated by a gap of “incomprehension” that had grown “destructive” and even “dangerous.” But the balkanization of the twenty-first-century American university has grown far worse than Snow could ever have dreamed.
Before his death in 1988, the prominent American physicist I. I. Rabi complained pointedly about the effects of increasing specialization. “In a university,” he insisted, “you should live an intellectual life, your interests should go beyond your research specialty.” But as Rabi surveyed changes in American universities in the decades after World War II, he confronted an overspecialization that killed catholic and inclusive interests. During the period in question, Rabi acknowledged that “physicists became narrower,” resulting in “a drop-off of interest in physics among physicists other than for their own particular specialty.” It is hardly surprising that Rabi consequently saw “collegiality on the campus and within departments . . . diminished to the point that it was no longer a vital factor in the life of [the] institution.”
Lacking even the shared rigor of mathematical logic, professors in the humanities have seen their part of the university lose its intellectual integrity much more dramatically than have the physics departments Rabi rightly criticized. Longtime professor of English at Stanford William M. Chace has candidly acknowledged that during his university career “disrupted continuity and an emphasis on the very recent past” had opened the door of the English department to “sociologists of literature [and] commentators about popular culture or film, and TV critics.” Such developments, Chace admits, along with the incursion of “queer studies [and] post-colonial seminars,” had inevitably “weakened the notion that the study of English and American literature is a ‘discipline.’ ” Chace thus cannot seriously challenge those who now look at his own once-integrative sphere and see something that “looks less like a coherent field of study and more like the result of political and social compromises arising from political quarrels which themselves have little to do with English and American literature.” Such a situation leaves Chace convinced that by the time he left the classroom for administration, “the plight of the humanities was disturbingly real.”
Nor does Chace offer much hope for improvement as he contemplates the pedagogical effects of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that “question[s] the structure and meaning of all known entities and structures” as well as English professors who pour out upon their vulnerable students a toxic mix of “epistemic relativism, pop-cultural leveling, radical proselytizing, and the tunnel vision of ‘subject positions.’ ” Nor can an academic quarantine keep intellectual disease in the English departments. After all, as Chace observes, “as English departments go, so go many other departments in the humanities,” and “at the heart of what many people want to find in the university is the human wisdom once believed to reside within the humanities.” The phrasing and verb tense are both apt and telling: “once believed to reside.”
The cultural disintegration of the university is increasingly evident not only in the way professors teach and students now study literature on campus but also in the way that campus-based writers now produce literature. Poet Dana Gioia marvels at the “proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs” in recent years—mostly on university campuses—a proliferation that is “astounding by any historical measure.” Yet Gioia admits that, “at the same time this explosion of publications and readings and creative writing programs [has taken place], the audience [for poetry] continues to diminish.” For those who see poetry as a unifying and integrative cultural force that can and should transcend social and political divisions, it is indeed deeply ironic that Pushkin—writing in tsarist Russia with very few universities—could count on railway workers knowing his poems, while poets in a democratic America with hundreds of universities can now count on only a few other university-affiliated poets knowing their work.
Because American poets now typically have no readers except those academic conscripts enrolled in their own campus-based writing programs, Gioia acknowledges that poetry in modern America is increasingly the possession of a distinctive “subculture” that must depend heavily on a “complex network of public subvention, funded by federal, state, and local agencies” to maintain its insular, artificial, and campus-centered existence. “The more [poetry readings] I attend,” Gioia frankly remarks, “the more I begin to feel like I’m living on an asteroid.” It is hardly surprising, then, that informed observers, in fact, now openly speak of poetry as “dying, dead, or in decay.”
The fracturing of today’s university and its loss of cultural and pedagogical health would hardly have surprised Newman. After all, he recognized more than 150 years ago that the increasing secularization of the university could only lead to intellectual confusion. Theology, he argued, and theology alone could give the university an integrative and unifying center. “How,” he asked, “can we investigate any part of any order of knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the first and the last.” For Newman the conclusion was inescapable: “University education without theology is simply unphilosophical.” For an institution even to call itself a university without making provision for the study of theology could only be “an intellectual absurdity.”
That absurdity is all too palpable at a time when American universities—including a number initially founded to educate clergymen—have become so hostile to religion that historian George Marsden sees in them “the virtual establishment of nonbelief, or the near exclusion of religious perspectives from dominant academic life.” Endorsing Marsden’s perspective, Louisiana State political scientist James R. Stoner Jr. has decried a “secularization of the university” so complete that “on campus, or at least on the faculty, the theological voice is absent or barely audible.” It is to a large extent this university-based secularism that historian James Turner has in view when he assesses the emergence of unbelief in late-nineteenth-century America and its growth in the twentieth century. This unbelief, Turner argues, has “dis-integrated” our national culture by denying religious belief its traditional function as a “unifying and defining element of that culture.”
Yet, even as secularizing professors drive traditional religion and theology from campus, a goodly number of them are converting the university into a sanctuary for a surrogate faith, a faith of ideological politics. What is happening on the university campus is clarified in perceptive remarks by critic J. Hillis Miller: “When God is annihilated, at the same time man annihilates himself and annihilates also the world around him. He annihilates them in the sense of hollowing them of any substantial presence.” “The disappearance of God” from modern thought, Miller explains, translates into the disappearance of an “extrahuman foundation for man, nature, or society.” This radical shift in the perceived foundation of meaning—a shift that Miller discerns among Victorian skeptics of the very sort Newman had in view when he complained about the secularizing of the nineteenth-century university—“bring[s] into existence a society which generates its own immanent basis for meaning.”
If society has replaced the transcendent God of Scripture as the ground of meaning, in the way Miller perceives, then Society has become a type of surrogate deity. And for many of those who regard Society as the new deity, the university serves as the new Sanctuary, the new Secular Cathedral. The prominent academic Wayne Booth—who abandoned the Mormon faith of his boyhood without embracing any other scriptural or transcendent credo—is only too typical in professing belief in “a God who is the totality of Reason in Action in the World,” with Society clearly constituting the World in which Reason in Action makes itself felt. And since the university is the repository of the Reason guiding human Action in the social world, Booth and others like him can only be expected to regard the university as “the last true church” where the surrogate deity can be worshipped.
Let it be understood, however, that when secular-minded university professors begin to worship Society, they rarely worship Society as it is. No, usually they reserve their devotion and reverence for Society as it might be if perfected along utopian lines. The dream of making a perfect Society has, of course, beguiled intellectuals at least since Plato wrote the Republic more than two millennia ago. But as Nobel laureate Peter Medawar has pointed out, the utopian impulse has manifest itself as a strongly “audacious and irreverent” cultural force since the fifteenth century, as Renaissance thinking and modern science have enlarged the scope of human powers and as secular regimes have displaced ecclesiastical authority.
Though his sixteenth-century Utopia lent its name to the entire genre of works about perfect societies, Thomas More actually depicts an imaginary society that differs markedly from those hoped for by most other utopian writers. As translator Clarence Miller has pointed out, because More creates a society with “both good and bad features,” his Utopia “does not fit the ordinary meaning of the word as it came down in modern languages, where it signifies an unreservedly ‘good place.’ ” Zealously intent on depicting a society that—from their perspective—is flawlessly ideal, the utopian prophets that now receive the most favorable attention in “the last true church” of the modern university offer a vision strikingly different from More’s. As a committed Catholic, More would probably have regarded as a strength the religiously informed family life in his flawed utopia, where “matrymoneie is . . . never broken but by death” and “husbandes chastise theire wyfes, and the parents their children.”
In contrast, the utopian prophets that now receive the most favorable attention in “the last true church” of the modern university are those who call for decidedly secular societies in which religion, marriage, and family life are all weak or absent. In works such as Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Dom Léger-Marie Deschamps’s Le Vrai Système (1761), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1891), H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia(1905), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Moving the Mountain (1911), and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), utopian theorists have laid out blueprints for an ideal Society in which religion and family count for very little.
When professors strive, as many now do, to convert the university into a sphere where faculty and students can defy all the traditional restraints of religion and family, they appear to be creating a small model of the utopian Society they crave—a sacred sanctuary of sorts—that can then inspire a much broader utopian transformation. All of Society—not just the campus sanctuary—may then be united within “the last true church.” Thus, the “Reason in Action” that Booth and his university-based cosecularists have been worshipping in their campus sanctuaries inevitably turns out to be not merely political but relentlessly ideological and utopian.
Of course, the fragmentation of the university can make the ecclesiology of the “last true church” a bit unwieldy. At times, ordinary Americans might even give thanks when bureaucratic gridlock prevents campus ideologues from pressing their quasi-religious utopian crusade as zealously as they might wish. Some physics and math departments, for instance, are simply too absorbed in the study of quasars and group symmetries to devote their energies to compliance with the latest dogmas on ethnic diversity in faculty hiring. On the other hand, the hyper-specialization of the fragmented university often allows campus zealots to pursue their utopian goals without the embarrassment that might result if all their colleagues subjected those goals to critical scrutiny.
Still, it does happen, from time to time, that an honest professor challenges the ideological fantasies that his Society-worshipping colleagues are investing with quasi-religious significance. Defying considerable opposition within his discipline, Chace, for instance, has dared to assert that the “waters of ideology” have so washed away the integrity of the typical English department that only a “resurgence of toughmindedness” will ever allow it “to find its right place again in the academy.” And it is greatly to Booth’s credit that he worried about “the rising warfare of fanatical sects and schisms” within academe,” and that he expressed deep dismay at some of the “simply appalling” and “strange and destructive” forms of scholarship that had emerged even in his lifetime in theory-mad English departments. But then he was hopelessly naive not to have expected all kinds of wild quasi-religious enthusiasm to break loose in his “last true church.”
This is the first half of this article; the rest will post on Wednesday.
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