- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Much ink has been spilled in recent years over the soullessness of the secular university. In 2004, novelist Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” depicted the modern university as a place where moral conviction comes to die, thanks to materialist professors who fail to address life’s big questions and abandon students to licentiousness and despair.

In 2005, Ross Douthat’s “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” argued that America’s premier secular university has become a credential factory where the transmission of scattershot knowledge has replaced the search for genuine wisdom.

Now comes C. John Sommerville, a historian at the University of Florida, with a provocative explanation for the malaise described by Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Douthat, and others. In “The Decline of the Secular University,” Mr. Sommerville argues that the university’s refusal to engage religious arguments and tolerate religious discourse has resulted in its increasing marginalization in American society.

If university leaders want to see their institutions restored to greatness, Mr. Sommerville says, they must tackle the ultimate questions they have ignored for so long — questions about meaning and morals that are essentially religious in character.

Though the author is clearly sympathetic to the Judeo-Christian worldview, he does not base his argument on the merits of religious doctrine or the injustice of the academy’s anti-religious bias. Instead, he appeals to the self-interest of academic leaders by showing how their strident secularism, moral relativism and religious ignorance have consigned them to the sidelines of the day’s most pressing debates.

Mr. Sommerville finds one example in the academic response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. The Islamic fundamentalists behind the attacks had made it clear that they were motivated by religious beliefs. Yet many academics insisted on ignoring those religious motives in their public commentary after the attacks, because their prior commitment to relativism had convinced them that all religions are essentially the same and no moral distinctions can be made between beliefs.

This “doctrine of moral equivalency,” as the author calls it, appears absurd to a nation battling Islamic terrorists: “If this is going to be the shape of the world in our lifetimes, keeping a silence on the subject [of religion] emphasizes the irrelevance of the secular university.”

From the confusion over the fictitious claims of “The Da Vinci Code” that so few historians bothered to correct to the academic uproar over “The Passion of the Christ,” a film that hewed closely to the most reliable historical accounts about Jesus only to be condemned for its political incorrectness, Mr. Sommerville offers numerous indictments of a professoriate that has allowed its relativism and secular bias to trump its teaching responsibilities, both on and off campus.

The problem extends beyond the academic treatment — or dismissal — of religious subjects. In the humanities, Mr. Sommerville finds professors preoccupied by obscure specialties that matter little to their students or the larger culture.

In the professional schools, he sees scholars imparting technical knowledge divorced from larger questions of morality and metaphysics — even when their subject matter and their students demand both. In the sciences, he argues that success in unraveling nature’s secrets has led to a new epoch in which the search for meaning will eclipse the search for information.

“When the focus of the university was on the discovery of physical reality, the burden of proof was on religious thinkers to show how they were relevant,” he writes. Now “our questions are about human needs and aspirations … Religion has always provided us the language appropriate to these concerns, at least at their ultimate limits.”

But just what sort of religion does Mr. Sommerville envision in the secular academy? How would institutions founded on a commitment to secular rationalism handle the infusion of the many religious views competing for prominence today? And how would university leaders respond to charges of government-funded proselytizing? The author’s answers to these questions are less detailed and impressive than his critique of the status quo.

He dispatches with the proselytizing problem by noting that the materialist and naturalist beliefs of the secular professoriate constitute a subjective viewpoint like any other, and students exposed to secularist ideology deserve equal exposure to religious views as they relate to questions of meaning and morals.

Mr. Sommerville does not advocate teaching religious doctrine for its own sake, but he does believe scholars influenced by that doctrine should be free to make their arguments without first stripping away all traces of theism and transcendence.

So a natural law theorist could argue for the reality of a fixed human nature based on his belief in a creator God against a scientific naturalist who considers humans to be just another animal species. The outcome of their debate would not be guaranteed, Mr. Sommerville says, but at least they would be openly grappling with what it means to be human — a question too often ignored in today’s secular universities.

These debates already happen routinely in many religious schools, but their tenor depends largely on how closely a religious school hews to its founding theological principles. Many historically religious schools now ape public universities in their uncritical embrace of secularism.

Others cling more fiercely to their sectarian identity and hire professors who share their religious worldview. Still others, such as the University of Notre Dame and Wheaton College, have publicly wrestled with the challenge of balancing diversity and secular status with the duty to maintain religious identity.

Though the most prestigious religious universities are often those that have drifted farthest from their roots, schools that strive to keep the faith — including the evangelical schools that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities — have enjoyed an enrollment spike in the past 15 years that far outpaces the growth of public and private schools.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sommerville’s book does not take America’s religious schools into account, so it is difficult to know how well, if at all, they fulfill his vision of a more comprehensive and humane education. Nor is it clear how secular universities that welcome religious perspectives would differ from religious universities that entertain those perspectives while remaining overwhelmingly secular.

The author may not offer a complete picture of the rehabilitated secular university, but he poses a powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom about what makes a university great.

Academic elites tempted to dismiss his arguments should think twice: A recent survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that while 76 percent of today’s college students are “searching for meaning and purpose in life,” more than half say their professors never provide opportunities to discuss life’s meaning or purpose. That disconnect signals trouble for schools that depend on public funding and popular esteem to prosper.

As “The Decline of the Secular University” so forcefully reminds us, America’s universities may soon be forced to choose between their commitment to dogmatic secularism and their survival.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.”

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