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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Part I. Where did we come from?

Newman, theology and the contemporary university

George M. Marsden

Texte intégral

  • 1 This essay is adapted from a longer essay published by Yale University Press in its 1996 edition o (...)

1It is now nearly a century and a half since John Henry Newman delivered his famous lectures on The Idea of a University.1 So it is worth asking how his "idea" is doing. Let us suppose that Newman were somehow able to return to survey the state of modern universities. Let us say, for instance, that he had an opportunity to tour the universities of North America, which today may lay claim to providing the prototypical idea for the university being exported around the world. What would he think?

2The most striking first impression would be the way in which higher education had become a mass enterprise. Modern universities, he would soon realize, were not shaped by any unifying “idea.” They were products of the market.

3A resourceful guide, say a minister of education, might point out to Newman, however, that even where mass education is most rampant, a considerable elite among university and college students still seeks a substantial liberal arts education. This humane elite is probably larger, relative to the whole population, than those of the fortunate few white males who attended the tiny universities and colleges of Newman’s time. For all the laments about the state of higher education today, proportionately more people today, it might be argued, are receiving a first-rate humane education than ever in history.

4Newman, however, would be far from satisfied with this line of reassurance. Rather, he would have to point out to his guide that his idea of a university was not simply about the maintenance of the humane educational ideals of the Western heritage. His educational ideal must be viewed as a unified whole. In fact, the survival of something like this or that of his secondary ideals would in his view be worse than useless in a system that so systematically excluded one of the most essential components of his educational design.

5What would alarm Newman most (although it would surprise him least) about current higher education is the missing place of theology. In most major universities today theological study is rarely even an option in undergraduate curricula. Catholic universities are the exception, but are in that respect usually regarded as behind the times. In fact, most academics today take it for granted that to invoke a normative theological concern would be to contaminate one’s scholarship. Even some of Newman’s most ardent admirers part with him on this crucial point. A striking example is Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: AReexamination (Yale University Press, 1991). Pelikan, himself a distinguished historian of theology, presents his book as a dialogue with Newman. Yet when Pelikan describes his supposedly Newman-ian ideal for the contemporary university, he leaves theology in a minor position, entirely on the periphery.

  • 2 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated in Nine Discourses Delivered (...)
  • 3 Ibid., 103.

6For Newman, by contrast, theology is pivotal to the idea of a university. After his introductory discourse, theology is his first topic. “A University,” he argues, “ its very name professes to teach universal knowledge: Theology is surely a branch of knowledge: how then is it possible for a university to profess to encompass all branches of knowledge and yet to exclude from the subjects of its teaching one which, to say the least, is as important and as large as any of them?”2 Newman is not arguing that theology should merely be included among the sciences studied in the university, but something much more basic. Theology’s presence provides a necessary context for the proper conduct of the other disciplines. Essential to Newman’s outlook is that all knowledge is connected. Truths about any part of the universe are qualified by their relationship to truths about other parts of the universe. This interrelatedness of all truth is essential to his ideal of an educated person. “That only is true enlargement of the mind,” he writes, “which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.”3 If a university is to foster such integrated learning, then each of the arts and the sciences needs to reckon with the insights of all others if it is going to be pursued correctly. Since relationships to God are the most important of human relationships, no university can be said to be fulfilling its task of pursuing universal knowledge if knowledge about God is not part of the context for all other knowledge.

7Newman correctly identified one of the major afflictions that has indeed plagued academic thought since his time. Each discipline tends to aggrandize its way of looking at reality and to ignore the other ways. Economists see economics as basic for understanding human experience. Psychologists see psychological factors as basic. Sociologists may reduce everything to social forces and class. Biologists may see it as all in the genes. Literary students see human problems as reducible to linguistic constructions. And so forth. Communication among disciplines becomes almost impossible. Today specialists even in closely related subdisciplines sometimes cannot understand each other. Or, even if they can communicate, they cannot begin to keep up with each others’ fields. Thus, although we have accumulated incredibly more information and expertise of many topics in the past century and a half, we have far less sense than our ancestors did of the relationships of one part of our experience to the rest.

8Even apart from the question of the place of theology, this fragmentation of knowledge undermines the possibility of any coherent ideal for a university. “The idea of a multiversity” seems like a contradiction in terms. Universities today have no central point of reference. They have no overarching philosophy. Rather they are clearing houses for a multiplicity of special interests in the production of information and opinion. Students become educated in parcels of this or that specialized knowledge, but they are poorly equipped to evaluate the interrelationships of these parcels or to weigh their relative importance.

9Newman, seeing the beginnings of modern academic specialization and the tendency of each discipline to absolutize itself, argued that for a university to survive as a coherent entity the discipline of philosophy would have to play a central role as the “science of sciences.” Philosophers, who should look at human knowledge as a whole, could balance the claims of the various specialized disciplines, including, of course, theology. In today’s multiversity, philosophy is just one small marginal and specialized discipline. Theology is absent from the mainstream intellectual enterprises altogether.

10Newman saw this trend developing already at the Anglican universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These universities were still formally religious, but religion was becoming irrelevant to the principal intellectual enterprise. That trend would, as Newman foresaw, accelerate as the modern universities emerged. Speaking for his opponents, Newman declared:

  • 4 Ibid., 298.

The proper procedure, then, is not to oppose Theology, but to rival it... [and] aim at the introduction of other studies, which, while they have the accidental charm of novelty, possess a surpassing interest, richness, and practical value of their own... Take it for granted, and protest, for the future, that Religion has nothing to do with the studies to which I am alluding, nor those studies with Religion.4

11Newman’s emphasis on theology as essential to a true university was, as he makes clear, not to turn a university into a theological seminary. Rather it was based on the larger ideal that universal knowledge must involve the interrelations of what humans know. So theology must be included as a most important dimension of human inquiry. If other sciences hope to understand the most significant truths about human experience, they cannot do so without taking the truths of theology into account. Without consideration of these truths, they are engaged in a futile attempt to understand essential questions about the universe without considering one of the most essential dimensions of the universe as a whole. They are attempting to understand the creation without any knowledge of the creator.


  • 5 Carolyn J. Mooney, “Devout Professors on the Offensive,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, (...)

12Today Newman’s ideal that theology must play a crucial role if we are to have true universities seems to many people like something from the Dark Ages. Not only is theology not a point of reference for other disciplines, it is not even a discipline at most universities. Moreover, if a young sociologist or psychologist, let us say, announced that he was going to be guided by a theological insight in setting a research agenda, his chances of a successful academic career would probably be greatly diminished. Even though the project of relating one’s faith to the rest of one’s thought has a distinguished intellectual heritage, most academics today regard it as unprofessional and entirely out of place. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article on this topic, summarized one prominent historian as responding that “the notion that scholars’ personal beliefs are compatible with their academic interests is ‘loony’ and reflects ‘a self-indulgent professoriate.”’5 According to this view, religious beliefs are purely “personal” and hence it would be “self-indulgent” to introduce them into one’s professional thought.

  • 6 “God Is Alive,” Maclean’s, April 12, 1993, 32-50.

13Given such prejudices in the academy, most religious academics, especially younger ones, soon learn to keep quiet about their faith. In North America the anomaly this creates is particularly striking. Most of the population professes rather traditional Christian beliefs about some very fundamental dimensions of reality and many such believers study in universities. According to the survey conducted by the Angus Reid Group and historian George Rawlyk, approximately two-thirds of Canadians profess to believe in something like traditional Christian doctrines.6 Such a figure, of course, must be taken with a large grain of salt. But even if we cut them in half, it is still striking that within the universities of such a culture almost nobody makes an explict effort to relate Christian faith to other dimensions of human experience. There are not, for instance, schools of Christian thought recognized in the mainstream of most disciplines in which scholars might wrestle with the relationships of their faith to their learning. There is nothing, for instance, comparable to feminist studies in which women explore the implications of gender for other fields of study. Or contrast the role of Christians in academia to that of Marxists. Marxists seem threatened with extinction in the rest of the population, but have prominent representatives in many academic fields.

14One common reaction to the near absence of theological reference in modern mainstream university education is nonetheless to insist that this is just the way it should be. Particularly if Newman is being invoked, it is easy to understand such negative reactions. Newman’s ideal in its pure form would be out of place in the multiversities of today. Newman was speaking as the rector of a small Catholic institution in which everyone could be expected to subscribe to the same theological tradition. In the diverse universities of today, such expectations would seem wildly inappropriate.

15Yet the broader points that Newman raises should not be so easily dismissed, even in the setting of today’s universities. Questions remain even for such institutions. If contemporary universities are to be truly diverse and inclusive, should they not include room for scholars who are explicitly relating the theological implications of their faith to the rest of their learning? All the major traditions of faith, after all, include some intellectually rigorous traditions informed by the insights of that faith. Should those intellectual traditions be out of bounds, except as objects of study, in contemporary universities?

16The suggestion that today’s universities be open to such efforts to integrate various religious traditions with learning needs to be qualified by a number of ground rules. Many people in every religious tradition use their faith as a substitute for learning. They profess to rely simply on religious authority for all their answers. They are accordingly dogmatic and see the academic arena as principally another place to proselytize. However appropriate such attitudes may be when speaking within the religious traditions themselves, they are not appropriate to the diverse modern academy. Most of modern education is funded by governments and committed to serving a broad constituency of people of all traditional faiths or of none. In order for such people to get along and to have any fruitful intellectual interchange, they must agree to play by some common rules. These are the rules of modem scholarly discourse that make it possible for people to weigh and evaluate each others’ evidence and arguments. They are analogous to the rules of the court of law that allow more or less disinterested third parties to adjudicate disputes as objectively as possible. For an academic community to function effectively, it must allow some room for relatively dispassionate analysis in which all parties are open to some correction of their views. Pre-empting all discussion by simple appeals to religious authority, to evidence that is not accessible to others or by one-sided preaching or proselytizing, undercuts the possibility for fruitful exchanges in diverse academic settings.

  • 7 The exception often was theological study itself, which was usually isolated from the rest of the (...)

17In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as modern higher education was being defined, the logic of these considerations helped lead toward the construction of a much stronger rule regarding the place of religion in the academy. Many academics came to believe that the best rule should be that any religion that appealed to authority higher than the human mind should be banished from the best education, as much as possible.7

18This sentiment was not generated by intellectual considerations alone. It was also a strong reaction against the dominant role that Christianity had long held in higher education. As late as the time of Newman’s university lectures in the mid-nineteenth century, it was still standard practice for universities and colleges to be governed by one Christian denomination or tradition, which controlled the selection of administrators and faculties. In the Anglican universities of Oxford and Cambridge, there were still religious tests for admission of students. University reformers of the next generation understandably wished to end this clerical control. In that setting, some progressive thinkers developed strong antagonisms to traditional Christianity. Actual or de facto establishment of Protestant Christian teaching at state-sponsored universities understandably seemed unfair to people of other faiths. As twentieth-century universities made increasing efforts to serve more diverse communities, the virtual exclusion of religious concerns in scholarship seemed all the more a good way of preserving equity and of helping to keep the peace.

  • 8 I have explored this history in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment (...)

19All these considerations converged toward promoting what has become a very strong rule regarding the place of religion in mainstream intellectual life—any religious expression is widely thought to be unscientific, unprofessional and inappropriate.8


20The question remains, however, whether this strong rule, as understandable as its origins are, is a good one. Is it not perhaps an overcorrection for what were real problems? Is there not a way to reopen a university intellectual life to explicit religious concerns, while continuing to guard against religious excesses? Is there not, in other words, a middle way? Is there not room within a genuinely pluralistic academy for the perspectives of various religious faiths along with other responsible perspectives that are accepted in the academy?

21Religiously based commitments are not unique in any of these influences. Feminist scholars recently have effectively emphasized the degree to which social location is likely to shape scholarly agendas and evaluations of materials. A feminist scholar is more likely than is a non-feminist male to be concerned with women’s activities, to be inclined toward theories that emphasize gender construction and roles, and to see the subordination of women as a primary moral concern. Marxist scholars likewise have typical sets of agendas, interpretive emphases and moral judgments. So do neoconservatives and old-style liberals, and so forth. Whatever social or ideological locations are most determinative of one’s identity are likely to be refracted throughout one’s scholarship as well.

22This observation about the inevitable influences of social and ideological location does not amount to a licence for partisan scholarship that ignores standards of evidence and argument essential to a discipline. As some representatives of each of the positions mentioned above have demonstrated, one can be bound by strong social or ideological commitments and still follow the highest scholarly standards. In the more technical parts of one’s scholarship, or in fields that are largely technical or scientific, one’s prior commitments are likely to have little appreciable impact, although they still may be helping to set one’s agenda. As scholarship moves into interpretation, especially in matters that involve human relationships, epistemology and metaphysics, prior commitments come more into play. The best scholars, however, will still defend their viewpoints with evidence and arguments that are accessible to people of other outlooks. They will also treat their opponents and counterevidence fairly and with respect. Scholars who base their interpretations largely on appeals to the prejudices of their own social or ideological groups may have an impact on those groups, but will likely fail to communicate with, let alone persuade, scholars of the wide variety of persuasions who make up the modern academy.

23People often ask, however, what difference religious perspectives might make in more responsible scholarship. An example from the major theological traditions can illustrate this point. A very fruitful academic inquiry would be the question of what are the scholarly implications of the belief of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that God is “the Creator of the heavens and the earth?” Such an affirmation does not settle the question of how God may have created, whether by immediate fiat or by means of natural evolutionary processes. Even with the question of how God created left wholly open, the belief that the universe is ultimately the product of an intelligence should put an importantly different spin on many issues. Particularly when natural science is pushed to its limits and moves into metaphysical speculation about the structures of reality (such as, what had to happen before the big bang or whether the universe must be a self-contained entity), this theological affirmation might have a legitimate bearing on one’s theorizing. Belief in the divine should not limit inquiry into the natural order, but it may provide a caution against regarding the best current natural explanation as ultimately the best explanation.

24It is outside of natural science, however, that the belief in a creator may have the strongest impact. If religious scholars reflect the implications of their belief in a creator, it can have an important bearing on what sorts of theories they accept or reject. They might, for instance, be disinclined to view the development of human moral ideals purely functionally, as nothing more than constructions necessary to meet the needs in the evolution of particular cultures. Rather, while recognizing the functional dimensions of moral constructions, they might also be inclined to view humans, as creations of God, as embodying, however imperfectly, some moral sense that deals with a right and wrong created into the scheme of things. Morality, then, would be in part a social construction, but more as well. The study of human history, or of anthropology, might thus be seen as part of the often flawed human quest to find the good. Such a viewpoint would differ in tone from that of so much current scholarship that assumes that “the good” is defined simply by what works best for one’s social group in a particular cultural setting.

25Or in approaching the epistemological questions raised by postmodernism, the scholar who was committed to a belief that God created our minds and the reality that we encounter might be less inclined than are her peers to see human knowing as purely relative to one’s community or as simply controlled by the constructions of those who hold cultural power. We cannot immediately determine exactly what differences it would make to take into account a belief in divine creation in one’s reflections on such questions, but it should be clear that the theological issue would provide an intriguing agenda for scholarly reflection.

26Religious people come in many varieties and might take widely differing positions regarding the implications of their beliefs for the rest of their scholarship. So saying that their theological beliefs will bear on their scholarship is not at all to say that they will be introducing pat answers drawn simply from authority. They will be bringing with them, as do other scholars, some important assumptions into their scholarships. In most fields these assumptions should lead to challenging some of the reigning unproven assumptions of most of contemporary scholarship. They thus introduce new agendas for inquiry and the sorts of critical perspectives that can lead to creativity.

  • 9 For example, see Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapid (...)

27Some of the most fruitful areas for inquiry for religious scholars can arise if they self-consciously use their religious perspectives as a basis for questioning some of the most taken-for-granted assumptions of our own time. For instance, scholars whose views of human nature are shaped by traditional religious accounts might launch very effective critiques of the contemporary cult of the self that is so pervasive, not only in popular culture, but in academic culture as well.9 Since religious people often differ among themselves on such questions, such cultural critiques may lead to critiques of their own religious traditions as well. During the cold war, for instance, Christian scholars sometimes spoke out strongly against their own churches’ easy identifications of Christianity with American patriotism.

28Today many of the intellectual forces associated with the attacks on established Christianity and with the rise of materialistic world views associated with natural scientific definitions of intellectual life have spent their force. Visions that the twentieth century would be a time of progress and unity based on the spread of a universal science have proven illusory. Many people today wonder how, without the contributions of religious traditions, our cultures can get beyond the moral impasse of moral relativism that we see both in our highest academic life and in our mass media. Perhaps the time has come, then, to recognize that it is perfectly legitimate for some scholars to take up once again Newman’s academic agenda that includes theological as well as other perspectives. Not everything that Newman proposed seems viable as we approach the twenty-first century and Newman himself might not be happy with the rather modest proposals presented here to save something of his essential agenda. Newman was working in an era when established churches were taken for granted and he had a high regard for the theological authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the essence of his theologically oriented agenda should challenge people of the twenty-first century to reconsider seriously some of their assumptions about education and theology.


1 This essay is adapted from a longer essay published by Yale University Press in its 1996 edition of The Idea of the University, Frank M. Turner, ed., and is published here with the permission of Yale University Press.

2 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated in Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin in Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University, edited with an introduction and notes by Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 14-15.

3 Ibid., 103.

4 Ibid., 298.

5 Carolyn J. Mooney, “Devout Professors on the Offensive,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 1994, A 18, quoting Bruce Kuklick.

6 “God Is Alive,” Maclean’s, April 12, 1993, 32-50.

7 The exception often was theological study itself, which was usually isolated from the rest of the universities, as in divinity schools.

8 I have explored this history in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford, 1994).

9 For example, see Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).


The author of numerous acclaimed studies in the history of higher education, including Religion and American Culture (1990), The Secularization of the Academy (1992), The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief 1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997). He is Francis McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1998

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