“Only Collect[ing] the Fragments”: The Inadequacy of an Entirely Secular Approach to the Liberal Arts

HomeArticles“Only Collect[ing] the Fragments”: The Inadequacy of an Entirely Secular Approach to the Liberal Arts

Commenting in 1940 about the perspective that had given modern education its fundamentally secular character, the sociologist Florian Znankecki spoke of “the deeply stimulating conviction that man, the individual man, this ephemeral being dependent on his natural milieu for his bodily life and on his social milieu for his spiritual life, can alone and unaided by any divine grace or revelation reach in thought the Absolute, discover the ultimate nature of the world and his own nature.”[1]  This secularist perspective may lay open to philosophical challenge (Znankecki himself conceded that it might be “a noble illusion”), but it continues to dominate higher education in almost all settings, including especially those in which university students study the liberal arts.

Historian George Marsden indeed sees in 21st-century American universities “the virtual establishment of nonbelief, or the near exclusion of religious perspectives from dominant academic life.”[2]  As a self-identified “secular liberal” teaching literature at Pennsylvania State University, Michael Bérubé acknowledges that in the United States “campuses are relatively secular places” that are “will very likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.”[3]  James R. Stoner, Jr., professor of political science at Louisiana State University, believes that the “secularization of the university” has been complete for some time.  “In America,” Stoner writes, “it seems to have been around the beginning of the twentieth century when theology was eclipsed in the curriculum of the nation’s leading universities, as they transformed themselves from Protestant seminaries into research institutions influenced by the German model.” “On campus, or at least on the faculty,” Stoner remarks, “the theological voice is absent or barely audible.”[4]

The absence of the theological voice on the university campus will hardly seem like a problem to scientific researchers who share “the deeply stimulating conviction” that human scholarship unaided by divine grace or revelation can “discover the ultimate nature” of the problems they have in view.  In this context, Princeton microbiologist Lee M. Silver is entirely typical when he writes, “If asked about the role played by God or sprits in the lives of organisms, nearly every molecular biologist I know, from institutions around the world, would respond in the same way the mathematician Laplace did to a similar query from Napoleon Bonaparte about the works of the universe, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.”[5]

The absence of theology matters perhaps even less for many in the liberal arts who would now scoff at the very notion of being able to “discover the ultimate nature” of the natural or human universes.  The radically skeptical premises of many modern and post-modern theories of literary and cultural criticism have long since leached out any hope of reaching any ultimate nature, any ultimate truth, from the liberal-arts classrooms in which these theories prevail.  As an exponent of post-modernism, critic Harland G. Bloland has highlighted the profound skepticism suffusing post-modernist through in this catalogue of key themes informing post-modernism”: “the indeterminacy of language, the primacy of discourse, the decentering and fragmentation of the concept of the self, the significance of the ‘other,’ a recognition of the . . . unbreakable power/knowledge nexus, the attenuation of a belief in metanarratives, and the decline of dependence on rationalism.” Bottomless theoretical unbelief runs through the very lexicon of post modernism, as becomes evident when Bloland notes that “terms associated with postmodernity include: spectacle, pastiche, ambiguity, doubt, contradiction, novelty, reflexivity, otherness, different, identity, heterogeneity, upheaval, carnival, turbulence, instability, discontinuity, limitless choice, and flux.” [6]  Liberal-arts students catechized in such a vocabulary of doubt, upheaval, turbulence, and flux would see little reason to rely on divine grace or revelation.

Even when they resist the radically anti-veridical and anti-rationalist premises of much modern and post-modern critical theory, teachers of the liberal arts often dismiss theological perspectives as irrelevant.  In explaining why he keeps it out of his classroom, poet-pedagogue John Ciardi identifies religion as a “topic that makes dispassionate comment unacceptable.”  “Reason may hope to speak to reason on many topics,” Ciardi elaborates, “but I have seldom found religion to be one of them.”[7]  It is not surprising, then, that some liberal-arts teachers even regard the fading of religion as an academic presence as a positive good.  “If I were writing a history of the American university,” philosopher Richard Rorty remarks, “I would tell an upbeat story about the gradual replacement of the churches by the universities as the conscience of the nation.”[8]

However, not all observers are willing to join Ciardi and Rorty in their sanguine assessment of higher education without religion.  Some worry in particular about just how the liberal arts are faring in a thoroughly secularized university. Such worries are hardly new. Few selections from Victorian literature are more widely anthologized than John Henry Cardinal Newman’s discussion of “’liberal knowledge, ’the liberal arts and studies,’ and . . . a ‘liberal education,’ as the especial characteristic or property of a university”in his landmark work The Idea of a University.[9] But the anthologies typically only include the passages in which Newman insists, rightly, that “liberal education” is not utilitarian: such education means “cultivation of the mind . . . for its own sake” and focuses on a type of “Knowledge, which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being in itself a treasure.”[10] Somehow the anthologists neglect to include the sections of Newman’s Victorian classic which articulate its central thesis: namely, that only theology can provide a university education with its integrative center and that any university that expels theology will over time lose its intellectual integrity and coherence.

No doubt conscious of the winds of secularism already blowing in the 19th century, Newman termed it “an intellectual absurdity” for a school “to call itself a university, and to exclude theology from the number of its studies.”  “University education without theology,” he insisted, “is simply unphilosophical.”[11] Newman can see no way that the university can maintain any intellectual order or consistency once it has jettisoned theology.  Theology, he argued, and theology alone could give the university an integrative and unifying center.  “Admit a God,” reasons Newman, “and you introduce among the subjects of your knowledge a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing every other fact conceivable.”  “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.”[12] Thus, it is theology that enables the university:

“to assign to each study which it receives its own proper place and its just boundaries; to define the rights, to establish the mutual relations, and to effect the intercommunion of one and all; to keep in check the ambitious and encroaching. . . ; to keep the peace between them all, and to convert their mutual contrarieties into the common good.”  Only with the guidance of theology can the university proceed as it “maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected” and as 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.”[13]

Newman’s concerns about the baleful consequences of driving religion out of university education rarely receive attention in the 21st-century university.  But perhaps they should.  Newman asserted that theology could illuminate—and help to integrate—all aspects of the university curriculum.  And recent scholarship has, in fact, demonstrated how powerfully theological concepts can illuminate diverse branches of university study, including history, visual art, music, psychology, and even the empirical sciences. Consider, for instance, how political historian Jean Bethke Elshtain has explained how political thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes first endowed the nation-state with absolute sovereignty over society by politicizing the innovative theology of nominalist philosophers such as William of Ockham, who elevated God’s sovereign will above His discernible reason.[14]  No merely secular historian could deliver the potent insights Elshtain gives her readers.

Similarly, no secular scholar could offer the acute analysis of the paintings of Lucas Cranach that art historian Joseph Leo Koerner develops by examining how the painter responded to Reformation theology, particularly “Lutheran eschatology.”  With good reason, critic Peter Parshall praises Koerner for having “taken [his readers] to epistemological and ontological depths that are not only original but also provocative and revealing.”[15]  Likewise impressive is the scholarship of musicologist John Butt, whose study of Bach’s vocal music stresses how “Bach and his librettists seem to have gone out of their way . . . to drive home theological points.”  In recognizing the theological import of Bach’s music, Butt is opening a valuable perspective, one often ignored by the “many performers and scholars [who] are squeamish when it comes to the fundamentally religious function of Bach’s church music” and who therefore “have sought refuge in examining literistically the technical fundamentals of notation and performance practice.”[16]  Unfortunately, the squeamishness of which Butt speaks is sufficiently widespread in the American university that many students never benefit from the kind of theological analysis Butt offers.

Such squeamishness within university psychology departments may explain the difficulties psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University faces when he advances his argument that Freud that was deeply influenced by Catholic Christianity—that, in fact, his thought evinced “a Christian unconscious”—albeit an unconscious he often strongly resisted.  To advance this hypothesis—one that psychologist Frederick A. Drobrin finds “convincing and gripping” in explaining at least some aspects of the great psychoanalyst’s life and work–Vitz must challenge “the official picture put forth by the psychoanalytic establishment, namely that Freud was a hard-core atheist, whose anti-religious writings were intended to free humanity from illusion.”[17] Only professors like Vitz—professors willing to bring theological insights into their psychological research—will, however, be able to challenge “official pictures” when they mislead students.

Manifesting a similarly exceptional willingness to challenge the “official pictures” that pervade a secularized university, University of Delaware astronomer Stephen M. Barr brings theological insight into the world of astrophysics.  As he surveys the history of the Big Bang theory, Barr concludes that “this modern discovery of a beginning of time was a vindication for Jewish and Christian thought,” identifying St. Augustine as a theologian who was particularly acute in anticipating the temporal implications of modern cosmological theory.  What is more, Barr indicts secularist bias among 20th-century scientists as a prime reason that some physicists were slow to embrace this important conceptual breakthrough: “There can be no question,” Barr writes, “that the aversion that some scientists felt for the Big Bang theory stemmed largely from philosophical prejudices, and in particular to the fact that the reality of a beginning seemed to sit much better with religious views than with their own materialism.”[18]

Clearly, Newman had good reason to believe that theology could enrich intellectual life throughout the university.  At a minimum, 21st-century observers should acknowledge the justice of Stoner’s assertion that the disappearance of theology from the university curriculum has left some educational blind spots:  “From Renaissance art to Enlightenment political theory, every text is opaque to a reader who does not know at least the basics of Christianity. In the study of English literature, no overdose of critical literary theory can compensate for ignorance of the Bible.”[19] Scholars in fields as different as political history and musicology, visual aesthetics and astrophysics, could all find new illumination by consulting theology.  But the need for theological engagement is especially acute in the humanities and the liberal arts.  For it is in investigating distinctively human pursuits that theological inquiry proves especially fruitful.  Nor should this surprise anyone.  After all, as the acute French observer Alexis de Tocqueville observed, the effects of religious belief—or unbelief—upon human thought and action are ubiquitous:  “There is hardly any human action,” he wrote, “however private it may be, which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their follows.  Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates.”[20]

Because religious impulses so often affect human thought and conduct, any approach to the humanities and the liberal arts which does not attend to these impulses will deliver a very partial and distorted interpretation of their meaning.  That meaning, of course, comes through contemplation and individual reflection, as does the meaning of the liberal arts more generally, and not through the empirical verification characteristic of scientific disciplines.  But that should be no reason for embarrassment on the part of the liberal arts teacher who wants to include religion in his or her teaching.  For as philosopher Stephen Clarke remarks: “If enjoyment as well as contemplation is a mode of knowledge, and the powers of the world are to be known by inward means, by sharing in their life, the way is open for a mode of divine knowledge that reveals a truth in the popular error that religion is a matter merely of emotion.”[21]

Hardly a “mere” emotion, religion defines to a large extent what we see in the human being.  As the Christian philosopher Romano Guardini has affirmed:

“Personality is essential to man.  This truth becomes clear, however, and can be affirmed only under the guidance of Revelation, which related man a living, personal God, which makes him a son of God, which teaches the ordering of His Providence. . . . The knowledge of what it means to be a person is inextricably bound up with the Faith of Christianity.  An affirmation and a cultivation of the personal can endure for a time perhaps after Faith has been extinguished, but gradually they too will be lost. Because of the gradual disappearance of religious faith as the ultimate ground of a true understanding of human identity, Guardini asserts that the “autonomous secular order” of modern times has surrendered to ‘a kind of dishonesty which, as anyone who takes a clear-eyed view can see, is integral to the contemporary world.”[22]

When secularism causes the loss of a true and honest understanding of the human identity, the intellectual health of the university suffers, perhaps most of all in the study of literature, particularly in the English department.  After all, as William Chace, longtime professor of English at Stanford University, has observed, “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.”[23]  In the same vein, Rorty sees “literature at the center” of modern intellectual life, ascendant over “both science and philosophy.”[24]  Yale professor of English Robert Scholes goes so far as to assert, “In our culture literature has been positioned in much the same place as scripture. . . . When we say we ‘teach literature’ . . . we are saying . . . that we are in fact priests and priestesses in the service of a secular scripture.”[25]

Despite Scholes’ view of literature as secular scripture, theology can still prove very valuable in illuminating particularly important in illuminating the study of literature.  And its absence can prove particularly perilous for those studying literature as secular scripture. It is for this reason that Newman especially feared the consequences when the university bans religious knowledge from the liberal arts.  Recognizing that “all literatures are . . . the voices of the natural man,” he warned that students can become vulnerable to “moral evil” in “literature . . . [that] is multiform and versatile: . . . it seduces, it carries captive; it appeals . . . to the imagination, or to the stimulus of curiosity; it makes its way by means of gaiety, satire, romance, the beautiful, the pleasurable.”[26]  More fundamentally, he warns that a liberal education from which theology has been systematically excluded makes “a perception of the beautiful becomes the substitute for faith,” with the consequence that students make “their own minds their sanctuary, their own ideas their oracle,” and end up becoming “victims of an intense self-contemplation.”[27]

Those who teach the liberal arts may also find it worth remembering that the great novelist Leo Tolstoy affirmed a deep connection between religion and literary art: “The estimation of the value of art (i.e., of the feeling it transmits),” he wrote, “depends on men’s perception of the meaning of life, depends on what they consider to be the good and the evil of life.  And what is good and what is evil is defined by what are termed religions.”[28] Nearer our own time, the poet and critic T.S. Eliot has affirmed that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.” Eliot indeed presses the point, arguing that “in ages like our own, in which there is no common agreement, it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading . . . with explicit ethical and theological standards.”[29]

Teachers of the liberal arts may feel nervous about incorporating theological principles in their classroom instruction.  But without engaging such principles, they must either avoid some of the greatest works of Western literature—including Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dryden’s Hind and the Panther—or they must disserve their students by giving them a hopelessly superficial treatment of such works.  Even many modern works—such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Auden’s Horae Canonicae, or Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop—will yield only a very partial reading to the liberal-arts teacher or student who is unwilling to engage theological issues.  Even when dealing with literary works that do not articulate explicitly religious themes (e.g., Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby or Melville’s Billy Budd) or works that actually attack religion (e.g., Hardy’s Return of the Native or Thomson’s City of the Dreadful Night), teachers and students are likely to find that their discussions are more meaningful if they open onto theological matters.  Consequently, critic Cassandra Falke stands on very firm ground when pressing the current relevance of Newman’s advocacy of a liberal-arts education that includes theology.  “The search,” Falke writes, “for a meaningful philosophy of life entails, if not reaching theological conclusions, at least not shrinking from theological questions.”[30]

As a specific example of how theological resources can help guide liberal-arts students who are studying literature as part of their “search for a meaningful philosophy of life,” we might consider these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “Sin is Behovely,but/All shall be well, and/And all manner of thing shall be well.”[31]  To clarify the significance of these lines, critic Ruth Caspar identifies these lines as “the communication of hope within the context of religious faith.”  Caspar then spells out the theological significance of that context in defining the hope so communicated: “Such hope is rooted in time but cognizant of eternity; it is a hope that extends beyond the moment into the eschaton and beyond the limits of anyone’s world of experience to the cosmos as a whole.  It is, therefore, cosmic and eschatological.”[32]  This kind of commentary will certainly prove enlightening to many students of the liberal arts, enlightening in a way that no strictly secular commentary ever could be.

As another specific example of how theology may fruitfully inform literary study in the liberal arts, we might consider the interpretive challenges posed by a passage from Spenser’s Faerie Queene in which we hear a knight transformed into a tree explain how long he must endure this sad transformation: “We may not chaunge,” (quoth he) “this evill plight,/Till we be bathed in a living well;/That is the terme prescribed by the spell.”[33] Critic Virgil K. Whitaker makes effective use of theology to clarify these lines, noting that the speaker “has become so habituated to sin that he has lost the reason which made him man, reason being for Spenser, as for [theologians] St. Thomas [Aquinas] and [Richard] Hooker, the power to make value judgments or moral choice.  [The speaker in this passage] can be saved only by baptism or a similar gift of God’s grace.”  Whitaker amplifies the meaning of this gloss by explaining that in The Faerie Queene, Spenser is drawing on late-16th-century “Anglican teaching, which was coming to combine the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith the traditional concepts of right reason and free will, as in Hooker.”[34] Though the exegesis Whitaker provides is very helpful and could not have come from a thoroughly secular-minded critic, it is symptomatic of the secular bias in the academy that Whitaker anticipates resistance to his line of literary analysis.  “Theology,” he acknowledges is a subject which the student of English literature is likely to view from afar, with indifference if not actual hostility.” Yet Whitaker is right to insist upon the relevance of theology for readers of Spenser and other writers of his period, given that “no subject was better known, at least in its fundamentals, to Elizabethan writers.”[35]

Of course, in ignoring—or deliberately rejecting—theology, students of the liberal arts are missing out on more than a solid understanding of Elizabethan writers.  They are, as Newman could have explained, forfeiting the most promising foundation for intellectual integrity and coherence.  Of course, liberal-arts scholars such as Bérubé repudiate every idea that smacks of “foundationalism,” asserting that no meaning is metaphysically fundational and that all meaning requires the perpetual social renegotiation, even if that does mean (as he admits it does) that he must abandon the belief that “fascism is intrinsically wrong” and his belief that “[his Down Syndrome] child has intrinsic value whatever the world may think.”[36]  As Bérubé explains, in the course he teaches on postmodernism, students set aside traditional, theologically-grounded understandings of human identity as they learn that:

“it is more useful, more pragmatic to speak and behave as if there are no ahistorical, intrinsic grounds for the most capacious possible definition of the human, and to promote our understanding of that definition nonetheless,” even though we are “aware . . . [of this definition’s] fictionality” and that we cannot answer the question “Where did this idea come from?”[37]

But those surveying the status of the liberal arts in the postmodern university may wonder just how “pragmatic” this repudiation of foundationalism—particularly theological foundationalism—truly is.  Has secular postmodern anti-foundationalism really—in the language of pragmatism—worked out?  More than a few observers have expressed grave doubts.

As pedagogical theorist John Tomlinson surveys the academic era of postmodernist ascendance, he sees “a period of nihilistic and self-serving moral confusion.”  He consequently warns of the spread within academe of “a nihilism which, if it became the pervasive intellectual mood of the next generation of teachers, could do a great deal of damage to the next generation of people.”[38] Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers a similar perspective, lamenting that as prominent intellectuals have fallen into “the trap of post-modernist incredulity,” we  have experienced “a crisis of values undermined, certainties discarded and fears excited.”[39]

The greatest casualty in this crisis, Fernández-Armesto asserts is truth.  “Modern disenchantment with truth,” he marvels, has been most pronounced “in the academic disciples traditionally most reverent of it,” disciplines which now regard truth as “relative, vacuous or not work pursuing.”  Fernández-Armesto sees very malign consequences of this postmodern academic abandonment of truth “because truth is fundamental to everything else.  Everyone’s attempt to be good—every attempt to construct happy relationships and thriving societies—starts with two questions: How do I tell write from wrong?  And how do I tell truth from falsehood? . . . There is no social order without trust and no trust without truth or, at least, without agreed truth-finding procedures.”  A generation that cannot give “children ways of distinguishing truth from falsehood in which they can have confidence,” he informs his readers, must ultimately “abandon them to be the victims of delusions or doubt.”[40]

“Veriphobia”—that is, the fear of truth–now so infects the academy that educational theorist Richard Bailey is very much worried for its future. Blaming the spread of this fear of truth on “postmodernists, social constructivists, pragmatists, and a host of others,” Bailey identifies “the social sciences and the humanities” as academic fields in which this fear first took hold as they “welcomed the new skepticism” preached by radical theorists.  Unfortunately, Bailey sees this perilous veriphobia spreading beyond the social sciences and the humanities to “all areas of the academy” in ways that could prove “fatal for serious and meaningful research and inquiry,” as “the goals of objectivity and truth-seeking” yield to “political whim and fancy.”[41]

Bailey’s assessment coincides in many respects with that of cultural commentator Allan Bloom.  Stressing in particular, “the gravity of the problem faced by the humanities,” Bloom limns the consequences of the liberal arts’ abandonment of questions of truth.  As the humanities have been “buffeted . . . severely by historicism and relativism,” they have lost their power to address “the kinds of questions children ask: Is there a God?  Is there freedom?  Is there punishment for evil deeds?  Is there certain knowledge? What is a good society?”  And the loss of this power, Bloom argues, has greatly diminished the ability of liberal-arts professors to summon their students to the reading of classic literature.  “The claim of ‘the classic,” he explains, loses all legitimacy when the classic cannot be believed to tell the truth.  The truth question is most pressing and acutely embarrassing for those who deal with the philosophic texts, but also creates problems for those treating purely literary texts.”[42]

Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn underscores Bloom’s point when he insists on the importance of truth in literary art in a way that secular and anti-veridical postmodern theories simply cannot accommodate.  In his 1972 Nobel lecture, Solzhenitsyn argues that perhaps contemporary thinkers have dismissed “the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” too quickly as a “dressed-up, worn out formula.”   Solzhenitsyn asserts in particular that Truth (the first element in the old trinity) is essential to the most important literary art: “Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them.”[43]

The loss of truth in the humanities may have become particularly acute since the advent of postmodernism.  But it was probably inevitable as soon as the university banished theology.   For as philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has declared:

“Human dignity is not to be validated within a naturalistic concept of man. . . . [T]he absence of God, when, consistently upheld and thoroughly examined, spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we have been used to think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim of dignity, the claim to creating something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time.”[44]

Nor should it surprise any reader of Newman that secular theories that undermine truth end up unraveling the institutional coherence of the university, beginning with the English department, the part of the university that Chace plausibly identifies as the heart of the humanities, the disciplines that should give higher education an integrative center.  Recalling the unfortunate metamorphosis of the English department in recent decades, Chace chronicles a history of “disrupted continuity” and bewildering mutation as English departments have surrendered 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,” have inevitably “weakened the notion that the study of English and American literature is a ‘discipline.’”[45]

Chace thus cannot seriously challenge those who now look at his own once-integrative but thoroughly secularized field of study 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.”[46]  (In a terse comment on the politicization of the humanities in the university, Bloom remarks, “Humanists ran like lemmings into the sea, thinking they would refresh and revitalize themselves in it.  They drowned.”[47])  Such a situation leaves Chace convinced that by the time he had left the classroom for administration “the plight of the humanities was [already] 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” and as English professors pour out upon their vulnerable students a perplexing mix of “epistemic relativism, pop-cultural leveling, radical proselytizing, and the tunnel vision of ‘subject positions.’”[48]  William Butler Yeats may not have had a university English department in view when he wrote “The Second Coming,” but two lines from that famous poem are nonetheless apropos: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”[49]

And if “the centre cannot hold” in the English department, it is vain to look for coherence or institutional integrity in the liberal arts as a whole within the secularized university.  As educational theorist M. Garrett Bauman acknowledges, “Liberal arts today resemble a farm of scattered fields.  After students nibble dozens of disconnected courses, we tell them: ‘now use your critical abilities to synthesize all that.’  We don’t . . . teach them the integrative skills we say are a graduate’s prime attribute.”[50]  But then how can liberal-arts professors hope to teach integrative skills successfully in a secular postmodern university?  Even as a strong exponent of post-modern theory, Bloland must admit that it is“not possible to define post-modernism as a coherent theory.”[51]  And Fernández-Armesto finds it entirely predictable that in “a world of demolished orthodoxies . . . anything goes.”[52]

Bloom is brutally blunt in his assessment of the disarray in the liberal arts and of the consequent intellectual confusion among students.  Surveying “the problem of the humanities, and therefore of the unity of knowledge,” Bloom beholds chaos.   He looks out over:

“. . . the almost submerged old Atlantis, the humanities.  In it there is no semblance of order, no serious account of what should and should not belong, or of what its disciplines are trying to accomplish or how.  It is somehow the repair of man or of humanity, the place to go to find ourselves now that everyone else has given up.  But where to look in this heap or jumble?  . . . The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found castaway  treasures that made them rich.  Or they are like a refugee camp where all the geniuses driven out of their jobs and countries by unfriendly regimes are idling, either unemployed or performing menial tasks.”[53]

It is no wonder, then, that Bloom concludes that “the university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person” in a university in which “anarchy” prevails among “a bewildering variety of departments and a bewildering variety of courses,” with “no official guidance, no university-wide agreement, about what [the student] should study.”  Now that the various disciplines have been “entirely emancipated from the old structure of the university, which at least helped to indicate that they are incomplete,” no one say “how . . . [these disciplines] relate to one another.”  “The fact is,” Bloom writes “they do not address one another.  They are competing and contradictory, without being aware of it.  The problem of the whole is urgently indicated by the very existence of the specialties, but it is never systematically posed.”  In this chaos, Bloom sees students succumbing to an understandable “dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice.  Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career.”[54]

Though he speaks from an intellectual vantage point that differs in significant ways from Bloom’s, the 21st-century Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre seems to have in view the same kind of academic disorder when he expresses the fear that “universities have become, perhaps irremediably, fragmented and partitioned institutions, better renamed ‘multiversitities.’”   The problem, as MacIntyre sees it, is that intellectual life cannot possibly cohere in a university where “neither philosophy nor theology can find their due place.  Theology has for the most part been expelled altogether from the research university.  Philosophy has been marginalized . . . [I]t is at best treated as no more than one discipline among all others, a discipline with no more claim to the attention of students and their teachers than any other discipline has.”  As a consequence, the university has lost both “any large sense of and concern for enquiry into the relationships between the disciplines and . . . any conception of the disciplines as each contributing to a single shared enterprise, one whose principle aim is . . . to achieve for teachers and students alike a certain kind of shared understanding.”  No longer informed by theology or by philosophy, the modern university. MacIntyre notes, is so far from the fulfillment of Newman’s integrative educational vision that it fosters the belief that “there is no such thing as the universe, no whole of which the subject matters studied by the various disciplines are all parts or aspects, but instead just a multifarious set of assorted subject matters.”[55]

Postmodernists like to boast that they have helped bring diversity to the university campus and to the liberal arts in particular.  But without a meaningful integrative center to hold the new arrivals in sustained dialogue, this diversity may not translate into an enrichment of intellectual life.  The bare and as yet unfulfilled possibility of such enrichment is all that Cornell West can hold out when he says, “I hope that we can overcome the virtual de facto segregation in the life of the mind in this country, for we have yet actually to create contexts in which black intellectuals, red intellectuals, white intellectuals, feminist intellectuals, genuinely struggle with each other.”[56]

The intellectual confusion and institution disarray described by West, Bloom, Fernández-Armesto, Chace, Bailey, and others should stir deep concern.  This confusion and disarray should also prompt a reassessment of Newman’s prescient predictions about the consequences of banishing theology from liberal-arts education.  For this confusion and disarray also answers all too well to poet-novelist G.K. Chesterton’s argument that when unbelievers rejected “the Divine Reason” of religious faith, they let loose “thought-destroying forces” that dismembered the “huge and heroic sanity” of Christian faith, leaving behind intellectually impoverished skeptics who “can only collect the fragments.”[57]  That professors and students alike have been reduced to collecting fragments—bare intellectual shards–in the secular university is a sad reality confronted by historian James Turner when he assesses the emergence of unbelief in late-19th America and its growth in the 20th-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”[58]  Newman would understand Turner’s point entirely.

If those who teach the liberal arts on 21st-century campuses begin to understand that point, then a real revival of higher education might begin.  Students and professors might finally begin to see the broadly based dialogues West hopes for; they might see the intellectual and institutional coherence that Chace and Bloom crave; they might see a renascence of the truth-seeking ambitions that Bailey and Fernández-Armesto wish to inculcate.  All of these good things might be possible if the university were to welcome rather than banish a discipline “encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing every other [discipline], a discipline which “enters into every order,” a discipline that enables university administrators “to assign to each study . . . its own proper place and its just boundaries; to define the rights, to establish the mutual relations, and to effect the intercommunion of one and all; to keep in check the ambitious and encroaching. . . ; to keep the peace between them all, and to convert their mutual contrarieties into the common good,”  a discipline that “maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected” and as 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?”[59]  That is, the university might to a long way toward renewing its intellectual health by de-secularizing the curriculum and welcoming theology back onto the campus.



[1] Florian Znankecki, The Social Role of the Man of Knowledge (1940; rpt. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1986), 161.

[2] Qtd. in Francis Oakley, Rev. of The Soul of the American University: From Protestant University to Established Nonbelief by George Marsden, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34 (1995): 276.

[3] Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 65.

[4] James R. Stoner et al., “Theology as Knowledge: A Symposium,” First Things May 2006: 21-22.

[5] Lee. M. Silver, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 17.

[6] Harland G. Bloland, “Whatever Happened to Postmodernism in Higher Education? No Requiem in the New Millennium,” The Journal of Higher Education 76.2 (2005): 122-123.

[7] Ciardi qtd. in Troy Organ, “A Defense of Religion in Liberal Arts Education,” Journal of Bible and Religion 31.3 (1963): 235.

[8] Rorty qtd. in “The Morally Perplexed Academy,” The Wilson Quarterly 25.2 (2001): 82.

[9] John Henry Newman, On the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1965), 86-87.

[10] John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (1852), The Norton Anthology Of English Literature, 8th ed., Vol. E: The Victorian Age, ed. Carol T. Christ and Catherine Robson (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 1036.

[11] Newman, On the Scope, op cit., 9,29.

[12] Ibid, 15.

[13] Ibid., 210-212.

[14] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self  (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[15] Peter Parshall, Rev. of The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, by Joseph Leo Koerner, The Art Bulletin 76.3 (1994): 538.

[16] John Butt, “Bach’s Vocal Scoring: What Can It Mean?” Early Music 26.1 (1998): 104.

[17] Frederick A. Drobin, Rev. of Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, by Paul Vitz, Journal of Religion and Health 33.2 (1994): 193-194.

[18] Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2003), 43, 47-48.

[19] Stoner, op. cit.

[20] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer (1850; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 442.

[21] Stephen R.L. Clark, The Love of Wisdom and the Love of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 195.

[22] Guardini Romano, The End of the Modern World: A Search for Orientation, trans. Joseph Theman and Herbert Burke, ed. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (London: Sheed & Ward, 1957), 116, 121.

[23] Ibid., 332.

[24] Rorty qtd. in Bruce Robbins, “Professionalism and Politics: Toward Productively Divided Loyalties,” Profession 85 (New York: Modern Language Association, 1985), 8.

[25] Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 12.

[26] Ibid., 199, 203-204.

[27] Ibid, 189-166-167.

[28] Leo N. Tolstoy, What is Art?, trans. Almyer Maude (1896; rpt. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960), 54.

[29] Eliot qtd. in S. Bruce Kauffman, Rev. of Christian Criticism in the Twentieth Century: Theological Approaches to Literature, by Norman R. Cary, The Journal of Religion 57.2 (1977): 199.

[30] Cassandra Falke, “John Henry Newman and Today’s Liberal Arts Community,” Modern Language Studies 36.1 (2006): 56.

[31] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950.  (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), III, lines 17-19.

[32] Ruth Caspar, “’All Shall Be Well’: Prototypical Symbols of Hope,” Journal of the History of Ideas 42.1 (1981): 140.

[33] Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene (1590), Major British Writers, Enlarged E., Ed. G.B. Harrison et al. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959),  I, ii, 43, lines 3-5.

[34] Virgil K. Whitaker, “The Theological Structure of The Faerie Queene, Book I,” ELH 19.3 (1952): 156, 159.

[35] Ibid., 151.

[36] Bérubé, op. cit., 247-248.

[37] Ibid., 251.

[38] John Tomlinson, “Teachers and Values: Courage Mes Braves,” British Journal of Educational Studies 43.3 (1995): 308.

[39] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Truth: A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 2, 8.

[40] Ibid., 3,7.

[41] Richard Bailey, “Overcoming Veriphobia—Learning to Love Truth Again.”  British Journal of Educational Studies  49 (2001): 159-172.

[42] Harold Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 372-374.

[43] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972), 7.

[44] Leszek Kolakawski,  Religion: If There Is No God . . . On God, the Devil, Sin and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion.  (New York: Oxford UP, 1982), 214.

[45] Chace, op cit., 168-171.

[46] Ibid., 173, 175n.

[47] Bloom, op. cit., 353.

[48] Chace, op. cit. 170-173.

[49] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Definitive Ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), lines 3-4.    

[50] M. Garrett Bauman, “Liberal Arts for the Twenty-First Century,” The Journal of Higher Education 58.1 (1987):39-40.

[51] Bloland, “Whatever Happened,” op cit., 210.

[52] Fernández-Armesto, op cit, 205.

[53] Bloom, op cit., 371.

[54] Ibid., 337-339.

[55] Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophic Tradition (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 174-175.

[56] West qtd. in Harland G. Bloland, “Postmodernism and Higher Education,” The Journal of Higher Education 66.5 (1995): 552.

[57] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 1, ed. David Dooley (1908; rpt. San Francisco: Ignatius), 248.

[58] James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), 263.

[59] Newman, op cit., 210-212.


This excerpt is from The Liberal Arts in America, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Southern Utah University Press, 2012).

Bryce Christensen

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Bryce Christensen is a Professor of English at Southern Utah University. He is the author of the non-fiction books Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius, 1990) and Divided We Fall (Transaction, 2006); the novel Winning (Whiskey Creek, 2007); and The Portals of Sheol’ and Other Poems (White Violet, 2012).