All Coherence Gone

The Sacred and the Secular Universityby Jon H. Roberts and James TurnerPrinceton University Press. 184 p $24.95

Academic authors occasionally write with verve and color (there’s no law against it), but when their subject is academe itself, caveat lector. The historians Jon Roberts (U. of Wisconsin, Stevens Point) and James Turner (Notre Dame) devote a full third of their text to notes and glosses. They, or their editors, drag in Presidents William Bowen (of the Mellon Foundation) and Harold Shapiro (of Princeton) to provide a Foreword, and Prof. John Wilson (Dean of the Princeton Graduate School) to do an Introduction, neither of which adds anything to their case but length. They strenuously avoid vivid scenes and quotable quotes (though they do let slip the curious fact that Chapel Hill, N.C., has the only airport in America named after a philosopher, Henry Horace Williams). Their whole presentation is as plodding and cautious as any faculty committee report. And yet, despite all this, their book is worth reading.

Roberts and Turner chart a crucial phaseroughly from the end of the Civil War to World War Iin the history of American higher education, a time when the curriculum underwent a sort of continental drift. With Roberts (Part One) dealing with the sciences and Turner (Part Two) discussing the humanities, they offer a lucid analysis of the gradual but triumphant secularization that is still with us today. They neither hail nor openly lament this process, nor do they point to an alternative. But they can’t conceal twinges of regret over the fading of "the assumption that nature and society alike could best be understood through the prism of Christian theology."

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There are a number of ironies here. One, which might come as a surprise, is that "prior to about 1870 academic scientists had often been the most ardent proponents of and spokespersons for natural theology." But the sciences became specialized and fragmented (the key to their spectacular success). The culture of science was at once more modest (because of its methodical profession of ignorance) and ambitious (because it kept invading new territory) than natural theology; and it eventually declared complete independence. This method of self-divide and conquer sometimes proceeded slowly (Harvard did not get a separate department of sociology until 1931), but its momentum was irresistible.

During this same fateful half-century the humanities were transformed by philology, which argued that "cultural context shaped every text," and historicism, which led to courses in "civilization" (as opposed to the "moral philosophy" of the old Scottish common sense school). Here too specialization won the day and begot the elective system. (These familiar features of the university landscape turn out to be unexpectedly recent: The first professor to teach modern history and nothing but, Andrew Dickson White at Michigan, was not appointed until 1857). Once again, our authors are politely disgruntled with the momentous evolution they describe: "Whatever else the humanities may have done for academic knowledge, they certainly did not save the unity of knowledge when moral philosophy decayed but, by disguising the collapse, only made it easier to accept." This new version of the humanities, even at its most pious (Matthew Arnold’s "culture," say), was fatally relativistic and centrifugal.

Roberts and Turner trace many of these changes to the German universities, to which Americans flocked in the early 19th century and from which they brought back the germs (in all senses) of modern Wissenschaft to both the old liberal Protestant bastions of the Ivy League and to newly founded institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Chicago and Stanford. In the end it seems clear that the authors’ quarrelhowever mutedis with modernity itself. And perhaps the very hopelessness of that quarrel is what gives this book its note of urbane resignation.

By way of farewell, Turner makes the irenic-sounding observation that if 150 years ago "colleges aimed to make good Christians," nowadays they at least "hope to sensitize students to ethical values," which is more than European universities ever tried to do. Even worldly Harvard (not for nothing do this book’s publishers count Jonathan Edwards among their ancestors), after raising up the idol of "corrosive" philological historicism in the 19th century, still lists "moral reasoning" as one of its general education requirements. So perhaps the Protestant legacy (the authors largely ignore Catholicism) is actually not "all in pieces"despite the humanists.

Polemics aside, Roberts and Turner have produced a handy historical overview of an issue that cannot be dismissed as "academic," because it is just too important for understanding who we are and where we are going. Even those pedantic-looking notes (which are, in fact, splendidly thorough) will prove valuable to serious students (is there any other kind?) of academe. And for the heirs of John Henry Newman and conservative Christian intellectuals generally, The Sacred and the Secular University documents a state of affairs that is bound to serve up a lot of troublesome food for thought.

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