Review: George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 462pp. $35.00.

George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University traces the development of American universities “from Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.” Marsden demonstrates this advance by presenting a concise history of ideas and events that have driven the philosophy of higher education in America. Writing as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Marsden brings his own Christian religious perspective to his interpretation of this history. The following review will summarize Marden’s argument and critically evaluate a few of his outstanding points.

Marsden’s purpose in this book is to set forth how “established non-belief” emerged out of Universities that were founded upon explicit religious commitments. Marsden traces three distinct movements in this history of the American university. In part one he briefly outlines the “Establishment of Protestant Nonsectariansism” (29-96). In this period, the early colonial universities were largely shaped by a certain kind of Protestantism. The Protestantism that was advocated in the universities was mainly orthodox, though increasingly nonsectarian. In part two, Marsden observes the defining role that naturalistic science had in shaping the American University (97-262). In this period, “nonsectarian” became more and more defined as “non-doctrinal.” The scientific age and the ideals of democracy had reduced Protestantism to a broad set of ethical and moral ideals that could be discovered through science. It was believed that this “universal” religion could ground the new nation in a common set of democratic values. In part three, Marsden explores the driving forces behind the disestablishment of all religious perspectives from American higher education (263-444). As the premises of Enlightenment science gave way to Skepticism and Postmodernisim, the nonsectarian Protestant ideal also ceased to be a defining force in American Higher education. The onset of the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century severed the ties that bound American higher education to religion. The “evaluative question” that Marsden wants to bring to his analysis is why religious perspectives are still excluded from higher education when the original reasons for excluding them no longer exist (7-8)?

Evaluation & Critique
One does well to take note of Marsden’s account of how the field of knowledge became fragmented with the rise of the American university. He connects this fragmentation to the loss of theology from the university curriculum. Marsden summarizes what John Henry Newman said of the removal of theology from higher education.

“The banishment of theology, [Newman] argued, was symptomatic of losing a unified vision of knowledge as all part of one integrated whole. In place of unity . . . each of the special sciences would emerge with its particular angle of vision for which it would claim universality. Each science, having declared theoretical sovereignty, would demand total autonomy. Under Protestant auspices universities were likely to emerge as a conglomeration of special sciences, united most by their common resolve to be free from each other and any external authority” (143).

What is important to note here is that the “banishment” of theology did not cause the loss of “a unified vision of knowledge.” In fact, it was the loss of “a unified vision of knowledge” that caused the “banishment” of theology from the university. The Enlightenment and Modern Science had already set the stage for an increasing specialization of knowledge and had dethroned Theology from its privileged position in higher education. This Scientific Naturalism had caused the “Queen of the Sciences” to lose ground as an integrating influence and had pushed Theology more and more to the periphery of university life. The result was a “methodological secularization” that “almost inevitably meant that there would be vast realms [of knowledge] separated from direct religious influences” (156). Thus one of the hallmarks of “modern societies arises from the principle that many tasks are done most efficiently by isolating and objectifying them” (156). By the twentieth century American universities had become, “conglomerations of loosely related practical concerns without any particular center. They were ‘a collection of disparate interests held together by a common plumbing system’” (339-340). In this respect, Marsden keenly observes one of the major secularizing forces that led to the “established non-belief” of modern universities across America.

Another important development that Marsden notes emerges from the democratic notion of being “non-sectarian” with respect to religion. Marsden astutely observes how democratic non-sectarianism along with Enlightenment moral philosophy[1] effectively reduced Christianity to a set of moral ideals.[2] The result was that non-sectarianism became not a synonym for non-denominational, but for non-doctrinal. The theological distinctives of the various churches of Protestantism increasingly gave way to the idea that morality was the essence of universal religion. Therefore, it was not a great leap for educators like Daniel Coit Gilman to claim that “Religion has nothing to fear from science” (157). For Gilman, the aim of Christianity and the aim of science were one, “[the] truths [of science and religion] are immutable, eternal, and never in conflict” (157). Moreover, “the ultimate end of all educational and scientific effort, as well as of all legislation and statesmanship—is identical with that at which Christianity aims . . . , ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’” (157). Such assumptions about the ultimate compatibility of science and religion cleared the way for the methodological secularism of the emerging sciences to take root in the culture of the American university.[3] This too is another key development in the secularization of American higher education.

One may plausibly criticize Marsden for allowing his own religious commitments to shape his conclusions concerning the place of faith in American higher education. One could reasonably charge that Marsden’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” betrays a religious perspective that undermines his entire analysis. After all, how could one who retains such strong religious obligations be expected to comment dispassionately about the place of religion in university life? Of course, this kind of criticism gets at the heart of the “evaluative question” that Marsden set forth at the beginning of the book: why are religious perspectives still excluded from higher education when the original reasons for excluding them no longer exist (7-8)?

Marsden’s burden in the final pages of this book is to demonstrate that there no longer remains any credible reason for excluding explicitly religious perspectives from the marketplace of ideas. The intellectual crisis of the last century has witnessed the fall of the Enlightenment and the emergence of a Postmodern[4] ethos. If the Postmodernists who dominate higher education were epistemologically consistent, they would have to admit explicitly religious (yea even sectarian!) perspectives into the realm of academic debate. Unfortunately, as Marsden well points out, “The postmodernist intellectual crisis may thus be understood as a crisis within the naturalistic community” (430). In other words, even though postmodernists for the most part reject the dogmatism of the Enlightenment, they nevertheless retain the dogma of excluding supernaturalistic viewpoints. This exclusion is profoundly misplaced. As Marsden so aptly concludes, “exclusivist naturalism is unsubstantiated and unfalsifiable” (431). One is persuaded to agree with Marsden that religious opinions continue to be excluded because Postmodernism continues to be naturalistic.

Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is an impressive survey of the history of the university in America. He has capably brought together an enormous amount of material into one compelling analysis. This book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the development of higher education in America from Colonial times to the present.
[1]“Moral philosophy was now firmly established as the capstone of the program, providing without apparent sectarian bias a moral base for Christian civilization building” (81).
[2]According to Marsden, liberal Protestantism had redefined “Christianity as broad ethical ideals or even as just the highest principles of civilization. In such form explicit Christianity could linger in the curriculum, especially in the humane and social scientific disciplines that were the successors to moral philosophy” (158).
[3]“Thus the emphasis on the broadly Christian uses of science ironically contributed to establishing the sanctity of the scientific method and hence its autonomy” (158).
[4]I realize that this is a slippery term, but for the sake of brevity I resort to this shorthand.


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