Ninth in a series on why U.S. Universities are great
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” — C.S. Lewis
U.S. universities, until the time of the Morrill Act of 1862, were typically isolated from political interference and conceived as sectarian. In the mid 19th century, boards at Michigan and Berkeley discontinued church appointments. The transformation evolved and public universities are secular, eschewing any form of religious influence. Trading church influence for challenging and oftentimes coercive political forces, and the Orwellian idea of governmental order as righteous objectivity, has proven risky. Thoughtful free expression, not political correctness in any form, must rule.
People of diverse religious and spiritual backgrounds on university campuses create complexities unknown to most American universities only 50 years ago. Jessica Buterbaugh, commenting on the diversity of faith perspectives at Penn State confirms this truth while recognizing the educational potential. Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims represent four of the 60 religious and spiritual groups on campus. They are engaged, meaningful, and present a moral and ethical code that is larger than self.
Protestantism in the United States had a significant impact on universities both public and private. History is clear. The calculus of encouraging students to reflect and operate on their faith, and the moral perspectives embedded in it, is powerful. Institutionally not endorsing one faith system over another is a Rube Goldberg contraption of moving parts, interdependencies and treacherous complexity. However, it is essential. Postmodernism’s deep university roots since the mid 20th century purged campuses of faith outlooks structured around moral absolutes. This view diminishes educational opportunity and is the antithesis of university purpose.
I have seen middle-aged parents, in distance education programs, engage in discussions regarding faith and values as part of the educational process. Just like freshmen.
The assumption that college students are not interested in their spiritual lives is inaccurate. The Spiritual Life of College Students, a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, confirms this: Half of the respondents said faith is very important and they believe it to be a critical part of the university experience.
Michael Beaty’s “Paideia: Moral Education in the University” examines Derek Bok’s views on the issue. Bok speaks with authority. Harvard University, where he served as president, came to life as a marriage between the campus and First Church in Cambridge in 1636, the same year both were born. Bok expresses justifiable chagrin: Private and public schools alike have thrown in the towel on moral education. Compartmentalization of ethics, morality, and faith into hermetic courses, safe zones regrettably does not support integrated study. People do not become moral by studying comparative ethics.
The overly simplified notion that science and ethics cannot be mixed is the genesis of the divorce. In the mid-19th century, some of the “best” universities in America began to shun the exercise of faith on campus fearing it would diminish their standing as bastions of reason and scientific pursuits.
Lapses in ethical decision-making by University leadership provide copious negative examples for students. Reverend James Keenan, a professor at a Boston college, presents this view in his book, University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics.
David Brooks in a New York Times Op Ed writes, “Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for.” My experience confirms this disarming and unpleasant reality. Brooks writes that moral underpinnings of societies, transcendent experiences, the concept of love, and its exercise in life circumstances and vocational settings, and the power of the humanities all have value.
Patrick Beretta presents the idea that there is a passion for science and religion on campus. The contrived conflicts are a chimera constructed to further personal agendas. Moreover, the ill begotten perspective creates the flimsy facade that considerations of faith have no place in the laboratory or the lecture halls of a “real” university. Efforts to sever the relationship of faith and reason create an institutional abyss that stretches the social fabric to the ripping point.
The Veritas Forum instituted at Harvard by students and faculty in 1992 has grown from a small group of interested participants to include 200 universities in the U.S and Europe. Their mission is about university purpose: “The Veritas Forum is committed to courageous conversations. We place the historic Christian faith in dialogue with other beliefs and invite participants from all backgrounds to pursue Truth together.”
U.S. universities will retain world leadership by recognizing that science, ethics, and discussions of faith coexist and are inseparable. In addition, this stew strengthens not weakens, cross-cultural understanding — currently more necessary than at any time in modern history.
Photo Credit: ubcgcu.org