"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The State of (Catholic) Higher Education

Every few years we are subjected to a slate of books about the state of higher education, including Christian higher education, in this country. 

This year we have two about to be released, both from (appropriately enough) the leading and most prestigious academic publisher in the world, Oxford University Press: The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular, 2nd. ed. by George M. Marsden (OUP, 2021), 488pp. About this well-known book, the publisher tells us this:

The Soul of the American University is a classic and much discussed account of the changing roles of Christianity in shaping American higher education, presented here in a newly revised edition to offer insights for a modern era. As late as the World War II era, it was not unusual even for state schools to offer chapel services or for leading universities to refer to themselves as “Christian” institutions. From the 1630s through the 1950s, when Protestantism provided an informal religious establishment, colleges were expected to offer religious and moral guidance. Following reactions in the 1960s against the WASP establishment and concerns for diversity, this specifically religious heritage quickly disappeared and various secular viewpoints predominated. In this updated edition of a landmark volume, George Marsden explores the history of the changing roles of Protestantism in relation to other cultural and intellectual factors shaping American higher education.

Far from a lament for a lost golden age, Marsden offers a penetrating analysis of the changing ways in which Protestantism intersected with collegiate life, intellectual inquiry, and broader cultural developments. He tells the stories of many of the nation's pace-setting universities at defining moments in their histories. By the late nineteenth-century when modern universities emerged, debates over Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible were reshaping conceptions of Protestantism; in the twentieth century important concerns regarding diversity and inclusion were leading toward ever-broader conceptions of Christianity; then followed attacks on the traditional WASP establishment which brought dramatic disestablishment of earlier religious privilege. By the late twentieth century, exclusive secular viewpoints had become the gold standard in higher education, while our current era is arguably “post-secular”. The Soul of the American University Revisited deftly examines American higher education as it exists in the twenty-first century.

The second book, set for release next month, is James L. Heft, The Future of Catholic Higher Education (OUP, June 2021), 296pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Catholic Church has gone through more change in the last sixty years than in the previous six hundred. These changes have caused a significant shift in the future outlook of Catholic higher education as the United States has developed a culture that has grown less receptive to religious traditions and practices. Drawing upon his extensive experience, James Heft lays out the current state of Catholic higher education and what needs to be done to ensure that Catholicism isn't fazed out of the educational system. Heft analyzes the foundational intellectual principles of Catholic Higher Education, and both the strengths and weaknesses of the present day system in order to look at possibilities for its future.

Drawing upon both history and current cultural trends, The Future of Catholic Higher Education critiques the secularization thesis, explores the role of bishops, theologians, dissent, the sensus fidelium, the role of women and freedom of conscience, the relationship between theology and religious studies, hiring practices and curricular designs. Using the image of the "open circle," Heft advances a vision of the catholic university that is neither a "closed circle" of only Catholics nor a "market place of ideas with no distinctive mission." His "open circle" is one that fosters the Catholic intellectual tradition by including scholars of many religions, rooting Catholic social thought in Catholic doctrine, defending academic freedom and the mandatum.

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