Virtue Matters: The Decline of the Secular University
by Stephen Turley
“Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.”
– Neil Postman
By now few are unaware of the campus unrest sweeping across the country’s institutions of higher learning. The chancellor and president of the University of Missouri have resigned amid student protests against their supposed insufficient attention to acts of racial insensitivity and bigotry. As part of their demands, students are calling for a ten-percent increase in “black faculty and staff members campus-wide” and an increase in “funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals, particularly those of color.”
And at Amherst College, students are calling on the president to issue a “statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”
While a number of editorials have been published critical of the perceived assault on free speech by protestors, I think something far deeper is going on here. I believe that what we are seeing on college campuses today is nothing less than the slow but very real demise of the secular university.
It is crucial to observe that our whole conception of what constitutes an educated person has changed dramatically over the last couple of centuries. Of the first 118 colleges founded in the U.S., 114 were established as Christian colleges for the propagation of the gospel. The historic liberal arts curriculum, which began with the ancient Greeks and was developed in the Christian centuries, was canonized as the primary means by which Christian virtues were inculcated within students for the furtherance of a humane society.
However, according to Julie A. Reuben’s study, The Making of the Modern University, from 1880 to 1930, there was a dramatic shift from the liberal arts college to the modern research university. At the heart of this shift was the redefinition of knowledge as specific to the empirical sciences; all other disciplines that failed the tests of empirical verifiability were excluded from the domain of what could be known. By the mid-twentieth-century, Reuben observes that most colleges had abandoned almost entirely moral education in the academic disciplines, since the kind of knowledge that undergirded the teaching of the virtues had been eclipsed by scientific and technological reasonings and concerns.