Living with the Dilemma: Religion and Higher Education
Hello there, world: I’m the other new guy. Allow me to introduce myself.
I graduated in June from Northwestern University, where I studied English and Classics, and am more or less jealous that Rufus thought to blog the canon before I did. I’m a Kentuckian transplanted (for the moment) to Chicago, and while you can pick on the Cubs around me all you want (I do it too — it’s really the only way they’re bearable sometimes), beware of attacking anything University of Kentucky sports related around me. A few of you may already know me from my blog, phaidimoi logoi, or my time co-blogging with John Schwenkler at Upturned Earth. Now, if you please, I’m going to continue this tradition of using first posts to criticize other publications.
I happened onto a copy of the First Things “Education Issue.” I was curious and a little excited — most of it is currently behind a paywall online. Unfortunately, it’s quite a disappointment — in fact, it’s essentially a how-not-to guide for any journal of ideas (as opposed to a U.S. News) interested in discussing higher education. They’re just as obsessed with LISTS LISTS LISTS as every other “College Issue” published in this country — that’s fine. Everyone wants to look at education rankings — even me, even though I put no stock in them at all.
The problem lies in the articles. Rather than critique or analyze religion and higher education, two of the three are sex-obsessed: one, a mock-letter to an incoming Christian student, attempts to explain why they shouldn’t give in to the hedonistic culture; the other is essentially a review of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons — six years after it was published. The third, a discussion of graduate theology programs, had potential — but was basically a ranking in long-form prose format.
So why care? Because there is a tension between the knowledge of the university classroom and the knowledge offered by religion, and while that behavioral tension/challenge/what-have-you exists, too, it isn’t lacking in discussion, intelligent and otherwise. (Besides, any incoming student who’s persuaded by First Things to stay a Christian — well, he or she is already an exception: how many high school seniors read First Things?) This tension, however, is not inherently a challenge. In fact, I’d argue it’s only a challenge if one is too lazy to address, work with, and live through the tension it creates.
If you want to critique the university’s attitude toward religion, begin with whether or not it teaches students what they’ll need to know in order to do this — because those skills aren’t purely for the religious. How, after all, do we read one of the Homeric poems knowing that they might, in fact, be hodgepodges compiled into writing by a dozen authors over the course of two centuries? Do we let this affect our belief in its literary value or poetic truth? Classicists as well as Bible scholars and religious believers have to deal with documentary hypotheses. For me, learning to grapple with this tension as a reader of Homer — this possibility that seems capable of undermining the whole work — was essential to my ability to know that Abraham et al. were almost certainly not historical figures as portrayed in Genesis, shrug my shoulders, say, “So what?” and get back to kashering my kitchen.
I came out of college as a much more traditionally religious person than I entered it, and in part because of my course of study — but I’ve seen others take the opposite path. I don’t know what the difference was, or is, but that distinction is certainly more worthy of 20 pages in First Things than another Jeremiad about collegiate debauchery. How are schools addressing matters of value, the Big Questions in life, as touched on by academic matters? What is meant when we throw around terms like “quantitative” and “qualitative” value when speaking of education? Does the non-religious defender of a “traditional” liberal education, like Allan Bloom, mean the same thing as the believing Christian when entering that discussion? And in what ways are Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims able to agree on what it might mean?
I’m just throwing out questions without answering them — I know. It’s cheating, in a way. (Some of these are matters I’ll come back to — some day — in other posts.) But First Things failed because it didn’t ask questions. It made lists and lamented the good old days of tamer parties and more staid mores. (And Ross Douthat reviewed Freedom, which was nice, but not ground-breaking. Everyone’s reviewing Freedom these days.) And, having met my share of young people who have moved away from religion in college, this is part of the problem. They wanted an aid in addressing the questions they faced in life, and the questions raised by what they studied; what they got instead was the sense that sexual mores were the primary, if not sole, focus of institutional religion. This isn’t always the case, and religion has a right — and a need — to be concerned with sexual ethics. First Things isn’t likely to hurt their cause by falling into this pattern — how many college students read First Things? (I’m excluding their blogs, which double it, as I once sat next to a friend who was reading PomoCo during class.) — but they’re doing nothing to seriously address religion and higher education as an issue. Except, perhaps, as an issue that will sell.
Drunken debauchery is not a good. In fact, it’s an ill. There: I’ve said it. But the people who break with religion during college because they were unable to resist cheap beer, cheaper vodka, and scantily clad peers are not all of those who fall away — and, frankly, should probably be less a concern than those who fall away because they can’t see a way to reconcile two (or three! or four!) seemingly irreconcilable truths. At the very least, the former don’t necessarily have an intellectual break, which may be harder to repair. And, if someone is concerned with the goals and purpose of a university, the break because they couldn’t see a way to reconcile truths ought to be a nearer and dearer subject. First Things — and too many others — makes no attempt to understand what goes on in the religious lives of college students who can’t, like Joe Carter, believe the Bible contains a self-authenticating truth. If they had been serious, they would have shut up about Charlotte Simmons and tried to figure out what made Franz Rosenzweig different from Baruch Spinoza — or even from his own student, Leo Strauss.
There’s a way in which Emil Fackenheim’s essay, “The Dilemma of Liberal Judaism” addresses not just self-described adherents of liberal Judaism, but also every religious believer who also seeks any sort of liberal education. There’s the meat. Leave the rankings for U.S. News.