What Went Awry in American Universities?

Why were the fledgling universities of the late 19th century,despite their founders' expressed commitments to Christianity, designed in a way that would virtually guarantee that they would become subversive of the distinctive aspects of their Christian heritage of learning?" This is the critical question that historian George Marsden investigates in his latest book, the Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; 462pp.). While the American university was established on the foundation of evangelical Protestant colleges, and even as late as 1870 the great majority of these institutions were evangelical in spirit, within 50 years the educational system "had become conspicuously inhospitable to the letter of such evangelicalism" (4).

The changes that swept the colleges and the rising universities are perhaps best reflected in a statement Harvard president Charles Eliot declared in an inaugural address: "A university cannot be built on a sect" (116).

Most 18th-century colleges were founded by and propagated the teachings of a particular denomination (predominantly Presbyterian and Congregational). Yet with the influx of Enlightenment ideals in the colonies and their influence on many prominent liberal Protestants—particularly the uncritical reverence of the scientific method—it became increasingly difficult to restrict these ideas in the classroom. And following the American Revolution and the growing college enrollment, the goal of collegiate education was no longer primarily to train ministers but to "[shape] good citizens"(62)

On this shift Marsden writes, "Though we might assume that the introduction of the new science was the major transforming factor that brought higher education into the modern era, the more immediately revolutionary force was the introduction of a new concept of moral philosophy" (50). The study of virtue replaced the study of theology as the primary locus for integrating the academic disciplines. Indeed, as one admirer of the proponents of this philosophy put it: "Religion and virtue are the same thing." Few Protestants recognized, as Jonathan Edwards did, the immensity of this subtle shift, for the idea of a reliable universal moral sense "denied the severity of original sin and affirmed the free ability of persons to choose the good simply by putting their minds to it (60).

Marsden's analysis is particularly insightful because he writes as an insider—a university professor (he teaches at Notre Dame) of an evangelical tradition. Sadly, his study reveals the Christian community's general naivete, toward the hanging culture or their inability to respond beyond erecting a fortress and banishing the invader. Writes Marsden,

"While evangelical Christians controlled much of the culture's intellectual life (preceding the early 1900s), they also confidently proclaimed that they would follow the scientific consensus wherever it would lead. Yet the Western European intellectual community was fast moving in reaction to the hegemony of Christian establishments. Once natural science took the step of operating without the implicit assumption of a creator, its findings would be as uncongenial to traditional Christianity as were its new premises. The American evangelicals' faith in the objectivity of empirical science provided no preparation for such a shift" (93).

Faith in the objectivity of science proved to be the stumbling block for liberal Protestants as well. For Marsden shows that ironically, many of the same forces that liberal Protestants set in motion to "[root] out traditional evangelicalism from university education, were eventually turned against the liberal Protestant establishment itself" (4). The university's mission was heralded as a "public trust": to serve an emerging technological and professional society. Where moral science and the acquiring of virtue served to integrate the academic disciplines in the 18th century, scientific naturalism soon eclipsed its predecessor. In such a setting, religion was simply considered irrelevant to the academic enterprise.

Marsden's final chapter, however, turns this philosophy on its head, for he contends that many scholars now dismiss science itself as being "sectarian":

"Few academics [believe] in neutral objective science anymore and most would admit that everyone's intellectual inquiry takes place in a framework of communities that shape priorities. . . . Hence there is little reason to exclude a priori all religiously based claims on the grounds that they are unscientific"(430).

The enormity of Marsden's study is difficult to summarize, for he traces several themes in American academia and its relationship with Christianity—the influence of the German university, literary criticism and the Bible, academic freedom. Hence I encourage you to read The Soul of the American University. And in his concluding postscript, he offers a prescription applicable not only to university professors but to all individuals who struggle to bring their faith into the public square of"established nonbelief."

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