Jon H. Roberts and James Turner The Sacred and the Secular University

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)

This book, an outgrowth of a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Princeton University, works to clarify the causes of the "secularization" of the academy in America beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Like George Marsden's well-known book on the same topic, this is a story of unintended consequences—of well-meaning Protestant Christian professors whose work led to the secularization of American universities.

This account differs from Marsden's, however, in that Roberts and Turner focus especially on the intellectual, largely epistemological, developments that paved the way for the secularization of America's leading colleges and universities. As Turner (Renewal '97) puts it, it is the story of how we "cut the ties that bound knowledge to God."

Turner and Roberts divide the book into two parts: the sciences, covered by Roberts, and the humanities, covered by Turner. Both authors have worked together to see that the book forms a rather coherent whole.

The pre-civil war American college focused its energies primarily on training students in rhetoric and in disciplining their minds. Faculty "conceived of the mind as a set of powers, or 'faculties,' that could be trained and even strengthened with appropriate exercises." Mathematics and classics provided the core of the first two years' curriculum. Classics were used primarily as models of grammar and rhetoric that would help structure the mind. While the latter years' study helped "furnish" that disciplined mind, the Christian core was provided by capstone courses in moral philosophy that were intended specifically to demonstrate the unity of knowledge on a Christian foundation, and to motivate students to high moral behavior. Roberts points out that these courses were viewed not so much as speculative, but that they aimed to deal with "data derived from human experience" in order to "demonstrate that the data…became intelligible and ultimately meaningful only if they were set within the framework of the Christian worldview."

Roberts argues that the prestige of science developed in part from a Christian theological worldview, but that science helped undermine the real understanding of theology, which had been inherently connected to other forms of inquiry. Even in the hands of believers, the scientific agenda had a significant effect in limiting the domain or significance of belief. One believing scientist claimed, "it is the aim of science to narrow the domain of the supernatural, by bringing all phenomena with in the scope of natural law and secondary causes." As a result, "the very idea of what counted as an 'explanation' had changed." Scientific explanation was detached from theology, and the scientific academy, though led by Christians, was by definition as compatible with theism as with atheism. 

Even at a time when "scientific method" was ill defined, it began to exert hegemony over other ways of reasoning and knowing. Science defined speculative, non-empirical questions as outside its purview. The key to knowledge and progress lay in thinking small, not in trying to raise "big picture" questions and connections. Science shifted attention further away from preservation of a body of established truths to production of new bodies of knowledge. 

Roberts also points out that over a period when scientific research and the number of scientists grew exponentially, the number of science courses that most students took decreased. Science was for specialists. But the "scientific method," was exported to any number of other forms of inquiry, in a fashion that isolated religious ways of knowing. This was especially true, of course, in the development of the social sciences, which were carved out of the territory formerly ascribed to moral philosophy. For social scientists, as one social scientist put it, "it is no business of theirs either to reject or affirm the transcendental existence of God." By this arrangement, the academy needed not be hostile to God. Still, it created the novel situation whereby one could be regarded as highly educated and accomplished without making any attempt to understand the relationship of the world to God or a divine plan. This, he suggests, was a new idea. 

When the specific kind of moral theology courses that aimed to unify the undergraduate curriculum disappeared, scholars still saw the need for something to unite the curriculum and make it worthwhile. Roberts demonstrates how, for many scholars, that something was "science." Turner helps us see that for other scholars it was "the humanities." Turner actually suggests that the humanities are a late nineteenth century invention, different from the older notions of humanistic study from whence they draw their name. The disciplines included in our concept of the humanities only develop at that time. Humanities came to include art history, history, literature, and the old classics. They are no longer a tool for disciplining the mind, as rhetoric or study of the classics had formerly been, but rather a means of cultivating students' sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

For Turner, the loss of the unifying perspective of the old moral philosophy capstone seems to prove especially problematic. The increasingly fragmented disciplinary boundaries (even within the humanities) made the idea that any philosophy could unify the curriculum seem quaint at best. Further, as the disciplines became more specialized, they became the limited realms of experts. The possibility that anyone could master and adequately "unite" them was suspect. And historicism suggested that any attempt to do so was primarily, or even exclusively, bound to the social and temporal location of the person. The humanities could at least set standards for students to emulate, and therefore justify and "unify" collegiate education. From a religious perspective, Turner thinks, the humanities or "liberal culture" seem too mushy to really do the job, but Americans did believe the rhetoric.

As I read Turner's portion of the book, a number of ideas came to mind about the present-day conversation over the secularization of Catholic higher education. Turner notes how readily Christians downplayed the importance of the shift that was occurring in the classroom and the academy because religion was thriving in terms of extracurricular activities and associations. As a result, religion was removed from the realm of knowledge and pushed into the realm of piety and emotion. We might say the same today about feeling complacent because of good service programs or campus ministry. Prayer and charity are at the heart of discipleship, and those of us in academic life ought to have a special appreciation of what happens when faith and learning are severed.

Second, Turner shows how readily some Christian faculty regarded all kinds of intellectual endeavor as inherently religious. Since all work was treated as holy, many university leaders felt reassured that "the essence of religion could survive the loss of an explicitly Christian framework of knowledge." They thus thought of higher education as "Christian" without explicit reference to Christianity. Collegium alumni/ae will recognize parallels here to our emphasis on sacramentality, i.e., on helping faculty to see that the work they do observing and understanding creation through all disciplines can be holy work. Theologically, I have enormous confidence in the value and appropriateness of such a stance towards our work, but Turner's turn-of-the-century scholars remind me that we cannot use the idea in a facile way. 

Other dangers seem apparent in the lessons of those earlier events, including the ready possibility that the historicism that most of us have come to take for granted will, as it did in that time, too severely undermine our capacity to meaningfully speak from a religious perspective. Since that historicism does mark the human condition, I assume that we have no option to speak without reference to it. 

While covering ground already well researched, then, Turner and Roberts continue to raise important new questions and issues, and to help us to see new and important aspects of the earlier process of secularization of the academy. All this makes this short book well worth reading for persons who care about the shape of Catholic higher education today. -- Thomas M. Landy