Balkanized Bureaucracy or Utopian Sanctuary? The Crisis in the Modern University - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Balkanized Bureaucracy or Utopian Sanctuary? The Crisis in the Modern University


The following is the feature essay from the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. Subscribe now.



What an empire is in political history,” declared John Henry Cardinal Newman, “such is a university in the sphere of philosophy and science. . . . It maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected. . . . It acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order and precedence.”1 A rare and far-seeing wisdom inheres in these words, written in 1854 while Newman was serving as rector of the Catholic University at Dublin. It is, tragically, a wisdom largely ignored rather than honored in most twenty-first-century American institutions of higher learning, institutions that are fast forfeiting any claim to the lofty title of university.

On campus after campus, professors and administrators act not as umpires between truth and truth but rather as gladiators in often-bitter fights over resources and policy, fights in which truth counts for far less than sheer bureaucratic power. At many schools these fights have grown particularly heated as traditional academic disciplines—lacking all sense of order and precedence—have fissioned and mutated into new specialties and subspecialties, each with its own academic agenda, none with a unifying vision grounded in philosophical universals. Women’s studies, ethnic studies, business ethics, sports management, leisure studies . . . the list of accredited disciplines just keeps growing while the shared philosophical understandings uniting the academic congeries of the modern polyversity dwindle.

The beginning of the cultural and intellectual fracturing of the modern university was evident to physicist-novelist C. P. Snow when he lamented in his famous “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959 that the literary humanist and the technical scientist inhabited cultural worlds separated by a gap of “incomprehension” that had grown “destructive” and even “dangerous.”2 But the balkanization of the twenty-first-century American university has grown far worse than Snow could ever have dreamed.

Before his death in 1988, the prominent American physicist I. I. Rabi complained pointedly about the effects of increasing specialization. “In a university,” he insisted, “you should live an intellectual life, your interests should go beyond your research specialty.” But as Rabi surveyed changes in American universities in the decades after World War II, he confronted an overspecialization that killed catholic and inclusive interests. During the period in question, Rabi acknowledged that “physicists became narrower,” resulting in “a drop-off of interest in physics among physicists other than for their own particular specialty.” It is hardly surprising that Rabi consequently saw “collegiality on the campus and within departments . . . diminished to the point that it was no longer a vital factor in the life of [the] institution.”3

Lacking even the shared rigor of mathematical logic, professors in the humanities have seen their part of the university lose its intellectual integrity much more dramatically than have the physics departments Rabi rightly criticized. Longtime professor of English at Stanford William M. Chace has candidly acknowledged that during his university career “disrupted continuity and an emphasis on the very recent past” had opened the door of the English department to “sociologists of literature [and] commentators about popular culture or film, and TV critics.” Such developments, Chace admits, along with the incursion of “queer studies [and] post-colonial seminars,” had inevitably “weakened the notion that the study of English and American literature is a ‘discipline.’ ” Chace thus cannot seriously challenge those who now look at his own once-integrative sphere and see something that “looks less like a coherent field of study and more like the result of political and social compromises arising from political quarrels which themselves have little to do with English and American literature.” Such a situation leaves Chace convinced that by the time he left the classroom for administration, “the plight of the humanities was disturbingly real.”

Nor does Chace offer much hope for improvement as he contemplates the pedagogical effects of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that “question[s] the structure and meaning of all known entities and structures” as well as English professors who pour out upon their vulnerable students a toxic mix of “epistemic relativism, pop-cultural leveling, radical proselytizing, and the tunnel vision of ‘subject positions.’ ” Nor can an academic quarantine keep intellectual disease in the English departments. After all, as Chace observes, “as English departments go, so go many other departments in the humanities,” and “at the heart of what many people want to find in the university is the human wisdom once believed to reside within the humanities.”4 The phrasing and verb tense are both apt and telling: “once believed to reside.”

The cultural disintegration of the university is increasingly evident not only in the way professors teach and students now study literature on campus but also in the way that campus-based writers now produce literature. Poet Dana Gioia marvels at the “proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs” in recent years—mostly on university campuses—a proliferation that is “astounding by any historical measure.” Yet Gioia admits that, “at the same time this explosion of publications and readings and creative writing programs [has taken place], the audience [for poetry] continues to diminish.”5 For those who see poetry as a unifying and integrative cultural force that can and should transcend social and political divisions, it is indeed deeply ironic that Pushkin—writing in tsarist Russia with very few universities—could count on railway workers knowing his poems, while poets in a democratic America with hundreds of universities can now count on only a few other university-affiliated poets knowing their work.6

Because American poets now typically have no readers except those academic conscripts enrolled in their own campus-based writing programs, Gioia acknowledges that poetry in modern America is increasingly the possession of a distinctive “subculture” that must depend heavily on a “complex network of public subvention, funded by federal, state, and local agencies” to maintain its insular, artificial, and campus-centered existence. “The more [poetry readings] I attend,” Gioia frankly remarks, “the more I begin to feel like I’m living on an asteroid.”7 It is hardly surprising, then, that informed observers, in fact, now openly speak of poetry as “dying, dead, or in decay.”8

The fracturing of today’s university and its loss of cultural and pedagogical health would hardly have surprised Newman. After all, he recognized more than 150 years ago that the increasing secularization of the university could only lead to intellectual confusion. Theology, he argued, and theology alone could give the university an integrative and unifying center. “How,” he asked, “can we investigate any part of any order of knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the first and the last.” For Newman the conclusion was inescapable: “University education without theology is simply unphilosophical.” For an institution even to call itself a university without making provision for the study of theology could only be “an intellectual absurdity.”9

That absurdity is all too palpable at a time when American universities—including a number initially founded to educate clergymen—have become so hostile to religion that historian George Marsden sees in them “the virtual establishment of nonbelief, or the near exclusion of religious perspectives from dominant academic life.”10 Endorsing Marsden’s perspective, Louisiana State political scientist James R. Stoner Jr. has decried a “secularization of the university” so complete that “on campus, or at least on the faculty, the theological voice is absent or barely audible.”11 It is to a large extent this university-based secularism that historian James Turner has in view when he assesses the emergence of unbelief in late-nineteenth-century America and its growth in the twentieth century. This unbelief, Turner argues, has “dis-integrated” our national culture by denying religious belief its traditional function as a “unifying and defining element of that culture.”12

Yet, even as secularizing professors drive traditional religion and theology from campus, a goodly number of them are converting the university into a sanctuary for a surrogate faith, a faith of ideological politics. What is happening on the university campus is clarified in perceptive remarks by critic J. Hillis Miller: “When God is annihilated, at the same time man annihilates himself and annihilates also the world around him. He annihilates them in the sense of hollowing them of any substantial presence.” “The disappearance of God” from modern thought, Miller explains, translates into the disappearance of an “extrahuman foundation for man, nature, or society.” This radical shift in the perceived foundation of meaning—a shift that Miller discerns among Victorian skeptics of the very sort Newman had in view when he complained about the secularizing of the nineteenth-century university—“bring[s] into existence a society which generates its own immanent basis for meaning.”13

If society has replaced the transcendent God of Scripture as the ground of meaning, in the way Miller perceives, then Society has become a type of surrogate deity. And for many of those who regard Society as the new deity, the university serves as the new Sanctuary, the new Secular Cathedral. The prominent academic Wayne Booth—who abandoned the Mormon faith of his boyhood without embracing any other scriptural or transcendent credo—is only too typical in professing belief in “a God who is the totality of Reason in Action in the World,” with Society clearly constituting the World in which Reason in Action makes itself felt. And since the university is the repository of the Reason guiding human Action in the social world, Booth and others like him can only be expected to regard the university as “the last true church” where the surrogate deity can be worshipped.14

Let it be understood, however, that when secular-minded university professors begin to worship Society, they rarely worship Society as it is. No, usually they reserve their devotion and reverence for Society as it might be if perfected along utopian lines. The dream of making a perfect Society has, of course, beguiled intellectuals at least since Plato wrote the Republic more than two millennia ago. But as Nobel laureate Peter Medawar has pointed out, the utopian impulse has manifest itself as a strongly “audacious and irreverent” cultural force since the fifteenth century, as Renaissance thinking and modern science have enlarged the scope of human powers and as secular regimes have displaced ecclesiastical authority.15

Though his sixteenth-century Utopia lent its name to the entire genre of works about perfect societies, Thomas More actually depicts an imaginary society that differs markedly from those hoped for by most other utopian writers. As translator Clarence Miller has pointed out, because More creates a society with “both good and bad features,” his Utopia “does not fit the ordinary meaning of the word as it came down in modern languages, where it signifies an unreservedly ‘good place.’ ”16 Zealously intent on depicting a society that—from their perspective—is flawlessly ideal, the utopian prophets that now receive the most favorable attention in “the last true church” of the modern university offer a vision strikingly different from More’s. As a committed Catholic, More would probably have regarded as a strength the religiously informed family life in his flawed utopia, where “matrymoneie is . . . never broken but by death” and “husbandes chastise theire wyfes, and the parents their children.”17

In contrast, the utopian prophets that now receive the most favorable attention in “the last true church” of the modern university are those who call for decidedly secular societies in which religion, marriage, and family life are all weak or absent. In works such as Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Dom Léger-Marie Deschamps’s Le Vrai Système (1761), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1891), H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Moving the Mountain (1911), and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), utopian theorists have laid out blueprints for an ideal Society in which religion and family count for very little.

When professors strive, as many now do, to convert the university into a sphere where faculty and students can defy all the traditional restraints of religion and family, they appear to be creating a small model of the utopian Society they crave—a sacred sanctuary of sorts—that can then inspire a much broader utopian transformation. All of Society—not just the campus sanctuary—may then be united within “the last true church.” Thus, the “Reason in Action” that Booth and his university-based cosecularists have been worshipping in their campus sanctuaries inevitably turns out to be not merely political but relentlessly ideological and utopian.

Of course, the fragmentation of the university can make the ecclesiology of the “last true church” a bit unwieldy. At times, ordinary Americans might even give thanks when bureaucratic gridlock prevents campus ideologues from pressing their quasi-religious utopian crusade as zealously as they might wish. Some physics and math departments, for instance, are simply too absorbed in the study of quasars and group symmetries to devote their energies to compliance with the latest dogmas on ethnic diversity in faculty hiring. On the other hand, the hyper-specialization of the fragmented university often allows campus zealots to pursue their utopian goals without the embarrassment that might result if all their colleagues subjected those goals to critical scrutiny.

Still, it does happen, from time to time, that an honest professor challenges the ideological fantasies that his Society-worshipping colleagues are investing with quasi-religious significance. Defying considerable opposition within his discipline, Chace, for instance, has dared to assert that the “waters of ideology” have so washed away the integrity of the typical English department that only a “resurgence of toughmindedness” will ever allow it “to find its right place again in the academy.”18 And it is greatly to Booth’s credit that he worried about “the rising warfare of fanatical sects and schisms” within academe,”19 and that he expressed deep dismay at some of the “simply appalling” and “strange and destructive” forms of scholarship that had emerged even in his lifetime in theory-mad English departments.20 But then he was hopelessly naive not to have expected all kinds of wild quasi-religious enthusiasm to break loose in his “last true church.”

At times, the challenge to campus ideologues comes from scientists willing to bring empirical research to bear on their utopian claims. In 2000, for instance, an intrepid biologist intruded into the ideologically charged pages of the American Sociological Review long enough to adduce evidence that “the underlying sex-dimorphism of biological predispositions” would always block utopian gender engineering.21 For his temerity, this interloper was exposed the following year to the fury of not one, not two, but three hostile professorial inquisitors, defenders of the true faith, a faith that teaches that Society can make of men and women whatever it wishes to make of them.22

But whether facing a maverick English professor or a skeptical scientist, the inquisitors for the new campus-based faith in Society can deploy a powerful new theology to suppress the heresy. Bearing the name “social constructivism,” this new surrogate theology endows Society with almost limitless powers. Now widely accepted in university English, humanities, philosophy, and social science departments, social constructivism defines all of “reality” as whatever “we bring forth in a community of observers” as the “praxis of living” enmeshes us in “the happening of being human, in the languaging of language.”23 Social-constructivist “truth” rests on nothing more than “consensus among [those] who find [a] proposition credible.”24 

What happens in social constructivism is that—in the words of cultural historian Ernst Gellner—“objective truth is . . . replaced by hermeneutic truth.”25 In place of an Incarnate God who embodies the truth (cf. John 14:6), social constructivists see in Society itself the only ground for “truth.” Social constructivists thus ascribe to Society—their surrogate deity—something of the omnipotence and omniscience that inheres in God in Christian orthodoxy. But this new deity of social constructivism can prove very capricious. For among social constructivists, “truth” (usually in quotation marks among the theoretically sophisticated) shifts whenever social attitudes shift. Objective truth simply dissolves in a restless sea of social interpretation. Indeed, to a large degree it is the prevalence of social constructivism within the university community that prompts historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto to complain of the “modern disenchantment with truth, which—in the academic disciplines traditionally most reverent of it—is now generally seen as relative, vacuous or not worth pursuing.”26

To be sure, university-based scientists still do pursue truth, still even pursue it in ways that put them in open conflict with social constructivists. Commitment to scientific truth even prompts some academic observers to ridicule social-constructivist colleagues who suppose, for instance, that “a social construction lurks in the labors of Kepler (who put the [Copernican] theory on a solid footing with his discovery of elliptical orbits)”27 or that “a tribe which believes that the moon is an old calabash tossed just above the treetops . . . [holds a view] just as true as our scientific belief that the moon is a large Earth satellite about a quarter of a million miles away.”28

University-based social constructivists do not welcome such ridicule, but they are hardly cowed by it. They understand that although scientists may claim a truth that resists social constructivist dogma, such scientific truth is too narrow, too philosophically sterile, to threaten seriously their own social constructivist gospel. After all, scientific truth can never unify the university within a meaningful non-social-constructivist philosophy. Though not one of their number, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski identifies just why social constructivists have little to fear from scientists when he explains that “[science] does not deal with reality at all, its meaning being utilitarian rather than cognitive.”29 Consequently, social constructivist theologians can attack heretics who have offended against their jealous god, confident that scientists will never seriously challenge the authority of their surrogate faith.

In the name of their dubious deity, university-based social constructivists even go on the offensive against scientists, attacking as hopelessly naive their belief that science can establish “the truth of any proposition” by “testing it empirically in the natural world” and the concomitant belief that “facts can be uncovered and arrayed independently of the values that may later be brought to bear to interpret and give meaning to them.”30 The metaphysical innocence of many empirically minded scientists—long obvious to serious philosophers31—finally makes them no match for the social constructivist theologians on today’s university campuses.

The social constructivists face a real threat, however, if professors of literature, philosophy, or humanities challenge their pretensions by invoking noumenal or theological truths that transcend science and defy social constructivism. These are truths that do lead to abiding truth and wisdom that are beyond the reach of social constructivist theologians; these are truths that could utterly frustrate the quasi-religious attempt to transform Society into Utopia. These are the very truths Newman had in view when he emphasized the role of theology in giving a university its intellectual coherence and integrity. But then Newman’s God is hardly the god of the social constructivist theologians. Indeed, a faith in Newman’s God undermines faith in Society as the ground of all truth and meaning. Consequently, if mavericks in the English or humanities department start to voice views grounded in traditional theo-centric metaphysics, the social constructivists must deal with them severely and peremptorily.

Thus, despite their astonishing nonchalance about the shattering of their disciplines’ intellectual and pedagogical integrity, social constructivist professors in the humanities are increasingly zealous about political and ideological conformity within their carefully policed “hermeneutic community.” Because their thinking is rooted in veridically oriented religious traditions, conservative professors can be no more than an obstruction to social constructivist theologians. These theologians resent any campus presence that shifts attention away from their pursuit of power—the untrammeled political power needed to build a Utopian Society. (Somehow those left-leaning professors who preach endless homilies on “the hermeneutics of suspicion” never cast a skeptical eye on their own quasi-religious political agenda.)

Consequently, when many university departments look for new assistant professors, they make their selections on the basis of ideological principles. As Professor Mark Bauerlein, a beleaguered conservative at Emory University, has explained, many university departments now “take [social] constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle.” The entirely predictable outcome is that university communities now largely exclude those whose thinking is rooted in truth- and wisdom-seeking philosophical traditions, with particularly harsh academic animus manifest when those traditions are religious. Professors of English, as Bauerlein has explained, can now assume that “at professional gatherings, all the strangers in the room are liberals.”32 If, now and then, a few conservatives do somehow make it past the ideological gatekeepers into university teaching positions, they enter an academic world in which—as George A. Panichas has pointed out—“opponents of liberal ideas are increasingly treated as outlaws.”33

Utopia-seeking university professors may occasionally resent the burdens of acting as ideological inquisitors, gatekeepers, and policemen. But more often, they are more than willing to bear these burdens because of the great benefits they enjoy when their surrogate faith in Society prevails. Those benefits may not include sober contemplation of, or rigorous inquiry into, their cultural heritage. Those benefits may not even include the kind of coherent philosophical vision that Newman once saw theology giving the entire university. But then those were never benefits these would-be Utopia builders ever sought in the first place.

Having completed their “long march through the institutions,” former New Left radicals are now free to convert one of the most powerful of these institutions—namely, the university—into a sanctuary devoted to their quasi-religious faith in political power as a means of forging a perfect Society. Safe in their tenured sinecures, they can then proceed to use their captured sanctuary as a basis from which to promulgate their surrogate credo through the community at large. In this sanctuary—now converted into a “last true church”—these political activists enjoy the heady privilege of acting as theologians, priests, and even prophets.

The sacerdotal privileges that are now open to the new university priesthood were anticipated in a remarkable way by the great Victorian unbeliever Thomas Carlyle. Dismissing traditional Christianity as merely “the dead Letter of Religion,” Carlyle hailed as the central new religious reality “that wonder of wonders, Society,” declaring that “every conceivable Society, past and present,” constituted “properly and wholly a Church.” But Carlyle recognized a Church within the Church, and within this inner Church, writers exercise special prerogatives. “The true Church,” Carlyle remarked, “is the Guild of Authors.” And this Guild—a guild that today populates the university—does now what prophets and apostles once did. “Every man that writes,” Carlyle explained, “is writing a new Bible; or a new Apocrypha; to last for a week, or for a thousand years.”34 

Writing a new Bible allows the priest-writers in the “last true church” to elide the old biblical texts that define what they perceive as restrictive social roles (e.g., Gen. 1:28, 2:18–25, 3:16–19; Eph. 5:28–33, 6:1–4) and replace them with expansive new texts. Abandonment of the truths of the old Bible greatly distressed Fyodor Dostoevsky, who famously expressed his fears through his character Ivan Karamazov: “Without God and immortal life . . . all things are lawful.”35 But many university priest-prophets welcome the wide-open permissiveness of a utopian Society answerable only to itself, a permissiveness that permits them to write old moral and philosophic truths out of existence as they enshrine new ones in their Socio-centric New Bible. Consider, for instance, the prominence of university prophet-priests in writing a New Bible that—unlike the old Bible relied on by Newman and countless other traditional academics—legitimates same-sex marriage.36

So exhilarating are the joys of serving Society by writing a utopian New Bible that the university priest-prophets writing this new surrogate Scripture may not even notice how slovenly, vacuous, and shallow intellectual life has grown on the university campus. Concerns about a neglected cultural heritage will never trouble priest-prophets carried away in transports of quasi-religious ecstasy as they contemplate the utopian Society that they are making possible by writing a New Bible filled with feminist, queer, environmentalist, and Marxist texts. Endowed with the power to write new Sacred Writ in the name of Society, why should the university’s new priest-prophets fret over the disappearance of Newman’s sapiential insight, a wisdom that “maps out the territory of the intellect” and “acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order and precedence”?

But the very boundlessness of the authorial privileges claimed by the university’s priest-prophets finally constitutes their greatest danger. Nowhere in the New Bibles that these new theologian-apostles proffer does the reader encounter much needed warnings against “the mystery of iniquity” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). Nowhere does the reader even encounter anything like the moral “inner check” so important to the courageous cultural critic Irving Babbitt. Without such a warning, without such an “inner check,” the university-based priest-prophets can hardly hope to avoid what Panichas aptly called “a modern dreamworld with its unchecked ideologies, chimeras, fantasies, reveries, [and] utopias that plunge us deeper in a vacuum of disinheritance.”37 Unfortunately, this “modern dreamworld”—now at least as pervasive on the modern campus as Newman’s theological metaphysics once was—inevitably turns into a modern nightmare. Let it be remembered that despite all the high hopes with which the priest-prophet Carlyle began serving Society by writing a New Bible, his lack of moral and theological grounding finally betrayed him, as he ended his literary career writing a dehumanizing biography of Frederick the Great that became Hitler’s favorite book.38

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