Stephen Carter reviews C. John Sommerville's Decline of the Secular University at Christianity Today:
A few years ago, while visiting an explicitly Christian university, I met two students who said they had been ridiculed for raising a biblical perspective in the classroom. Their travails remind us how diligently most contemporary scholars struggle to separate their pedagogy from their religious faith. American universities are famously in love with the ideology of secularism. On the flip side, they are notoriously skeptical or even hostile toward religion. In his masterful Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, John Milbank defended the primacy of theology for the Christian scholar.
Since Milbank's call, unfortunately, the situation on campuses has worsened. C. John Sommerville, in The Decline of the Secular University, warns that campus life is swiftly bypassing secularism in favor of post-secularism. That is, the appeal to reason is being replaced by the appeal to fashion. The secular university, says Sommerville, "was a flawed concept from the beginning," because it focused on the education of young people without any sense of why they were being educated.
Worse still, to the extent that the university becomes post-secular, it will hopelessly flounder at preparing students to use the knowledge they gain. The modern campus, Sommerville says, does nothing to help students ponder the most significant questions in life-that is, the categories that religions believe they can address. Religious studies departments at most major universities do nothing to improve matters. He says professors prefer not to do theology and thus study religion from the outside rather than the inside. As for scientists, Sommerville is troubled by their refusal to take up the questions he finds truly interesting-for example, the ability of some part of the universe (us) to become "aware of itself."
Although Sommerville's concerns might be exaggerated, most of his criticism hits the target. We are questioning, wondering creatures, and Sommerville wants universities to help us question and wonder better. Because the secular project demanded "destroying traditions," it kicked away the props on which might rest answers to the great questions. As the university now becomes post-secular, it replaces those props with a celebration of feeling and "fashionable moralizing."
My date book contains cartoons first published in the New Yorker. One shows a young boy in front of his class, doing arithmetic at the blackboard. He has just written "7 x 5 = 75" and says to his astonished teacher, "It may be wrong, but it's how I feel." There, in a nutshell, is the problem with the post-secular university. Faith is dead, reason is dying, but "how I feel" is going strong. Should we ignore warnings like Sommerville's, "how I feel" will be all there is.
Indeed, in a secular setting nothing students study has any real meaning or significance. All that matters, in many cases, is having the right attitude about things, holding fashionable opinions, achieving status among one's peers, projecting a proper image, having sex. The knowledge content students are tested on in their classes is so much background static in their lives. It means nothing to them in any life-enriching sense. It's just a hoop they have to jump through in order to get a degree and get a job. This is certainly not true of all students, but it's true of many, maybe even most, and the secular university offers nothing that can help fill a student's emptiness except the opportunity to participate in weekend bacchanalia with other similarly emotionally and intellectually deracinated young people. It's all quite sad.
Tom Wolfe captures, perhaps unintentionally, the hollowness of campus secularism and the spiritual impoverishment which results with especial skill in his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. It's a book every parent should read before sending a son or daughter off to a secular college.