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Virtue Matters: The Decline of the Secular University

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 13, 2017 9:19:03 PM

“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

(This essay was originally posted on The Imaginative Conservative.)

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.”

An email from a Yale professor critical of calls for avoiding sensitive stereo-types in Halloween costumes sparked outrage among students. One example caught on video involved a female student’s profanity-laced outburst towards the professor’s husband, who was told “Be quiet!” when he tried to explain his wife’s perspective. 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.

For the last several decades, the chief end of the modern university has been vocational training in the industrial and technological professions. The purpose of the university is to provide the accrediting standards and procedures necessary for perpetuating an increasingly global social system constituted by the interaction between a capitalist economy, telecommunications, technology, and mass urbanization. Because these global dynamics involve ‘detraditionalizing’ mechanisms by which local customs and traditions are relativized to wider economic, scientific, and technocratic forces, traditional moral codes and customs become increasingly implausible to objectively sustain, and have quite literally disappeared from the vision of today’s educated person.

From this vantage point, I believe that we can discern three main permutations ensuing from this secular turn which have collectively coalesced to forge the current campus unrest. In so doing, we will see that such protests are in fact consequences of contradictions entailed in the secular university.

1. Multiculturalism. In his book, The Decline of the Secular University, C. John Sommerville argues that the commitment to secularization in the modern research university has in effect abandoned the conception of what it means to be human. Because the secular entails a materialistic reductionism, questions concerning the nature of what it means to be human have been rendered obsolete. The question itself is simply too religious in nature to be answered by a secularized institution.

The loss of human and moral formation in the modern university created a vacuum, which was filled with the rise of so-called multiculturalism, which first made its appearance on American college campuses in the 1960s with the “Third World Movement,” a coalition of black, Native American, Asian, and Latino students concerned about the disenfranchisement of racial minorities.[1] As Roger Kimball details in his 1990 study, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, the traditional literary canon central to the liberal arts vision was increasingly relativized to an expanding literature centered on gender, race, and sexuality. Instead of the masterpieces of Western culture, students at Stanford, for example, could take a class on the Navajos called “Our Bodies, Our Sheep, Our Cosmos, Ourselves.”[2]

2. Emancipatory Politics and Postcolonialism. The modern research university’s commitment to globalist market and political forces has made college campuses particularly prone to what is called emancipatory politics. We noted above that because global dynamics involve detraditionalizing mechanisms by which local customs and traditions are relativized to wider economic, scientific, and technocratic forces, traditional moral codes and customs become increasingly implausible to objectively sustain. Entailed within these detraditionalizing processes is a new politics of emancipation, which involves utilizing the power of the state to liberate people from traditional social structures and arrangements that are deemed “unjust.” The injustice involves the arbitrary impediments traditional societies impose on the individual who wants to exercise social control over his or her own life circumstances.[3] Because traditional societies tend to impose arbitrarily key identity markers such as gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation on their populations, the extent to which these impositions are overcome and corrected is the measure of what is labeled “justice,” “liberty,” and “equality.”

And so, when multiculturalism meets emancipatory politics, the result is what we might call postcolonialism. At the university, “postcolonial studies” and “postcolonial perspectives” involve analyses of colonial discourse and institutions of power and domination in such a way that reimagines culture as a binary of antithetical power distributions between a dominant colonialist power (often labeled ‘white’) that disenfranchises politically and socially minority cultures through sexist, racist, and classist exclusions.[4] Thus postcolonial activists seek to overcome the apartheid-like policies of the past by promoting public policies inclusive of the historically disenfranchised.[5]

3. Self-actualization. The eighteenth-century turn toward the empirical sciences as the sole way of knowing had the effect of reinventing the self as the source of life and authenticity. The Enlightenment project had originally relocated transcendent reality from God and the church to human reason; it was believed that rationality and empirical verifiability transcended cultural and social specificity and offered a new synthesis for transnational relations. The rise of postmodernism in the 1970s began to reject this notion of modernist objectivity, and instead relocated the transcendent inwards toward the self.

Today, it is ubiquitously believed that the self needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and in this process of turning toward the self, there has emerged a sense of entitlement to self-actualization, and an accompanying right to charge with malice anyone or anything that would seek to stifle the self. The result of this national collective self-indulgence is what researchers have called in a recent publication The Narcissism Epidemic. The authors of this study have noted “a single underlying shift in the American psychology: Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”[6]  How far self-infatuation has become a virtue in our culture was captured profoundly by Ralph Schoenstein in his article, “The Modern Mount Rushmore.” Schoenstien writes:

One day last spring I stood before 20 children of eight and nine in [a] third-grade class to see if any heroes or heroines were inspiring them. I asked each child to give me the names of the three greatest people he had ever heard about. “Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields and Boy George,” said a small blond girl, giving me one from all three sexes. “Michael Jackson, Spider-Man and God,” a boy then said, naming a new holy trinity.… When the other children recited, Michael Jackson’s name was spoken again and again, but Andrew Jackson never, nor Washington, Lincoln or any other presidential immortal. Just Ronald Reagan, who made it twice, once behind Batman and once behind Mr. T …In answer to my request for heroes, I had expected to hear such names as Michael Jackson, Mr. T, Brooke Shields and Spider-Man from the kids, but I had not expected the replies of the eight who answered “Me.” Their heroes were themselves. It is sad enough to see the faces on Mount Rushmore replaced by rock stars, brawlers and cartoons, but it is sadder still to see Mount Rushmore replaced by a mirror.[7]

This turn toward the self I think explains the bizarre appeal to so-called “safe spaces” on college campuses, where any speech deemed hurtful or offensive would be banned. This, it should be noted, stands in stark contrast to leftist icon Cornel West’s championing of “combat zones” that challenged the bourgeois humanism that supposedly stood behind the humanities as traditionally conceived.[8] No, today personal offense is considered the new blasphemy, and its offenders should be removed rather than reasoned with, dismissed not debated.

And so, I see these three permutations converging to forge the current campus unrest: the moral vacuum of American universities left by a secularizing globalist vision has been filled by a multiculturalism turned emancipatory politics made up of self-infatuated narcissists. It is therefore all the more fitting that the primary target of these self-appointed champions for social justice is the secular university itself, which activists envision as a microcosm of segregated America. With the moral vacuum created by secularism, the progenitor is being consumed by its own multicultural, emancipated, and offended offspring.

And yet, as long as these protestors embrace the very secularism from which their concerns originated, they too contract the contradictions entailed in the modern university. How is it even possible to talk about race and racial privilege when the modern university can’t even remotely explain what it means to be human? How on earth are we to know the nature of race if we don’t know the nature of our own humanity? How can “black lives matter” when we don’t even know why life matters?

Even political liberals and multiculturalists are concerned that postcolonialism is itself becoming the very absolutist racial value system, entailing universalized racial stereotypes, that it was founded originally to critique. The vision of a postcolonial society is thus little more than a ruse, in that the ethnic reasoning that was responsible for past injustices doesn’t disappear, but in fact takes on new forms. The invention of such conceptions as “affirmative action,” “racial justice,” “white privilege,” and “racial profiling” are themselves cultural constructions that privilege certain races at the expense of others. In short, the promise and practice of postcolonialism is simply a new form of state-sanctioned racism.

As to the self-absorbed cult of offense, I think we have to understand that the equivocation between personal offense and blasphemy is itself a symptom of the loss of what Augustine called the ordo amoris, or the ordering of loves. Central to classical Christian education was the ordering of our loves in accordance with the economy of goods that God has created. In such a world, there are legitimate and illegitimate offenses. It is right to be offended by evil, and it is wrong to be offended by good. Such orientations were once the mark of an educated person. We however, are living in a time when the transcendent basis for ordering our loves has been erased by a conception of knowledge defined by secular norms, which expels a moral world from the realm of what can be known. As long as universities continue with this charade that a divinely authored economy of goods no longer exists, they are going to be contending with an increasingly offended student and faculty body.

I therefore see the current campus unrest as indicative of an imploding secularism. An idealistic secular modernism dedicated to training and accrediting students for value-free professions has bred a disillusioned secular postmodernism. The moral vacuum inherent in college curriculum has been replaced with a new moral absolutism framed by racial and sexual emancipation. To the extent that current protestors and activists continue to embrace categories and distinctions specific to secularism, they are merely perpetuating the contradictions that toppled their modernist progenitor, thus securing their eventual overthrow as well.


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[1] Jenny Sharpe, “Is the United States Postcolonial? Transnationalism, Immigration, and Race,” Diaspora 4:2 (1995): 181-199, 183.

[2] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 32.

[3] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 211.

[4] Sharpe, “Is the United States Postcolonial?” 181.

[5] Barnor Hesse, “Forgotten Like a Bad Dream: Atlantic Slavery and the Ethics of Postcolonial Memory,” in David Theo Goldberg and Ato Quayson (eds.), Relocating Postcolonialism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 165.

[6] Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria, 2009), 1-2.

[7] Ralph Schoenstein, “The Modern Mount Rushmore,” Newsweek 6 August, 1984.

[8] As cited in Kimball, Tenured Radicals, 65.

Featured image credit: The Imaginative Conservative.

Topics: education, race, blog, gender, homosexuality, public education, Secular Liberalism, secularism, secularization

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