Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Religion and the Public University

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Religion and the Public University

Article excerpt

It seems almost commonplace now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, to bemoan the crisis facing public higher education in America. (1) Funding at the federal and state levels - sometimes in decline, sometimes on the rise - feels more tenuous than ever. (2) To entice new students, colleges and universities have been creating and revamping majors, expanding study-abroad programs and internship options, and opening new recreational and research facilities, all while increasing tuition at rates well above inflation. (3) And we have recently been witness to a disturbing set of public shamings as schools disclose a culture of statistical inflation in pursuit of higher rankings in U.S. News and World Report (Perez-Pena and Slotnik 2012). The 2008 fiscal crisis and the fraught relationship between Congress and the White House have only added urgency to this already agitated discussion.

Many reasons can explain the anxiety about the future of public higher education. This paper addresses one cause that is often unmentioned. It is my worry that millions of Americans who regard religion as central to their lives may have become disenchanted with and disenfranchised by public higher education. For one example among many, Liberty University in Virginia, founded by the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell in 1971, has doubled its student body twice since 2007 alone. It now educates more than 60,000 students each semester - far more than even some of the largest public universities (Anderson 2013). Religious Americans who attend or send their children to parochial schools of higher education do not see their moral or political views reflected in or valued by public academia, which is often seen as dominated by left-of-center voices. (4) I believe that this sense of disenfranchisement leads religious Americans to send more and more of their children to private denominationally-affiliated colleges and seminaries instead of public universities. (5)

This essay is organized into two major parts. To provide an overview of the crisis facing American higher education, I begin by discussing two representative texts, The University in Ruins by Bill Readings and The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand. These books describe different sets of problems and propose divergent (though complementary) kinds of solutions. The essay then takes up a vision of the university presented in the 1790s by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and compares his view with recent writings by the contemporary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I conclude by using these texts to suggest how public higher education could better accommodate religious Americans.

Bill Readings and the University of Economics

Two books on public education, one by the late literary scholar Bill Readings and the other by the cultural historian Louis Menand, present broad critiques of the contemporary public university. In a way, these two authors create a tension with each other. For Readings, the university functions primarily as a filter for creating and credentialing capitalist workers; for Menand, the university is structurally anachronistic and detached from the demands of contemporary life. A look at these two books provides an outline of the dominant discourses of alarm. It also suggests the reasons that words like "morality," "God," "nation," and "truth" (common tropes for religious Americans) tend to be excluded from the debate about the condition and future of public higher education.

Readings' primary contention is that, by the final decade of the twentieth century, the university had been transformed from an institution conveying what he calls "culture" to an institution promoting something he calls "excellence." By "culture," Readings means a sort of nation-state ethos, a narrative played on the accomplishments - including the history and the literature and art - of the political and geographical entity in which a university was founded and had matured. …

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