American Secular Higher Education:
The Experience Evaluated
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
So much has been written and said about secular higher education in North America
that it seems almost arrogant to try to add anything new or different to a mounting
library of information on the subject.
Yet perhaps I have a message and what I have to say will be of more than academic
value, since it is born of experience with the secular university over the past
sixteen years. In order to say as much as I can in a relatively short time,
let me propose the following format for my presentation.
First a brief record about my experience: some places, names and dates as
a kind of backlog on which I am drawing.
Then an evaluation of the North American system of secular higher education,
in the light of this experience.
Experience with Secular Higher Education
My relationship with secular higher education has been
going on since 1957, when I was asked to cooperate with the American Association
of Colleges for Teacher Education.
The Association was conducting a five year research study into the possibility
of preparing college graduates to teach moral and spiritual values in public
schools. I was one of a board of three theologians, along with a Protestant
and a Jew, to help the Association formulate its findings and make recommendations
to the schools and departments of education in the country.
This work brought me into contact with the American Council on Education, with
which I actively cooperated in the same capacity.
My concern to bring some semblance of values teaching into state-supported institutions
of learning brought me the invitation to teach Catholic theology and comparative
religion at a mid-western state university.
When I started there in 1962, I was the first Catholic priest directly hired
by the State, to teach Roman Catholicism on the regular faculty, paid by the
State. When I finished therein 1967, I was the last priest so employed. It
was also an experiment of the Society of Jesus to test the prospects of Jesuits
shifting their educational apostolate from their own colleges to working full
time at secular universities.
Before, during, and since the state university experiment I have been very
close to the American Association of University Professors, of which I am an
Since leaving the state university and while on the faculty of Bellarmine School
of Theology, I have for the past five years spent one semester each on the faculty
of St. Paul and Ottawa Universities in Canada. The University of Ottawa is
a secular institution of the Province of Ontario.
Finally during the past three years, the Jesuit theologate in Chicago (where
I teach) has been part of a cluster of divinity schools surrounding the campus
of the University of Chicago. Proximity to Chicago University and association
with that institution was one of the principal motives for transferring the
Jesuit presence there.
All along with those professional involvements with secular institutions and
agencies of higher learning, I have lectured at some score universities that
are professedly nonsectarian, including seven of the ten schools belonging to
the Big Ten.
Some of these lectures have been published as monographs. Others have appeared
in regional and national reports. And among my books is one, The Hungry
Generation, which tells for three hundred pages what I had learned while
teaching some two thousand students at a state university.
Evaluating Secular Higher Education
Out of this rich experience, which I believe is in
many ways unique, have developed some fairly definite judgments. I consider
them objectively valid, if for no other reason than the fact that they recognize
and respect what secular colleges and universities are trying to do. There
is no doubt in my mind that through a variety of circumstances not of their
own making what we call secular institutions of higher learning are properly
But my thesis is more specific. I believe these schools have become not merely
secular but secularist; and not merely by default but by design.
Meaning of Secularist
Immediately this calls for some clarification of terms.
By secular I mean the opposite of sacred. Where the sacred has to do with
the absolute, the secular deals with the relative. Where the sacred concerns
itself with the things of God, the secular is centered on the things of man.
Where the sacred is focuses on the celestial and eternal, the secular concentrates
on the earthly and ephemeral.
But how does secularist differ from secular? It differs as the whole differs
from its parts. A secularist mentality is an exclusively secular mentality.
The secular is an adjective, whereas secularism is a substantive. Secularism,
as distinct from mere secularity, so concentrates on this-worldly values and
this-worldly objects of space and time that the things of Godor of mans seeking
to please God now and reach God in eternityare ignored or considered irrelevant
to the task at hand. At best, religious values are humored as a concession
to human weakness and the issues of faith are treated as interesting but frankly
unimportant by comparison with the real values of life which are accessible
to human reason and do not depend on some supposed communication from the gods.
By implication, the secularist outlook on life is an essentially rationalist
understanding of life. This is not to say that reason is credited with a full
understanding of lifes mysteries. But reason is considered the final judge
of what the mind is expected to accept. Faith as a believers response to Gods
revelation, on Gods word and not on mans ability to comprehend, is considered
dogmatic. Those who opt for such dogmatism have a closed mind. They pretend,
or fondly suppose, they are already in possession of the truthas though education
were not a perpetual quest without ever attaining the truth.
At its center, then, secularism is that form of epistemology which not only
concerns itself with this-worldly values exclusively, but which looks only to
this-worldly reality to explain the meaning of existence. Where this explanation
is not available, or where the mind is told to believe what it cannot on its
own terms explain, secularism is agnostic.
Secularism in Higher Education
I wish to be very plain that I intend no indictment of what we call secular
higher education when I call it secularist. My intention is not judgmental
bus simply descriptive. For reasons that are partly historical, partly economic,
partly the result of planned effort, colleges and universities that make no
claim to any church affiliation have become, as a matter of record, secularist.
Even the fact that a fair number of them may offer courses in what are labeled
Religion or Religious Experience does not deny my basic premise. It only
confirms it: that under suasion of outside forces, courses outside the realm
of the secular are minimally available, not on principle but as a temporary
or stop-gap or (as I know) indefinable melange that pressure from a generation
of youth, desperately looking for things of the spirit, has reluctantly exacted
from the custodians of the citadel of secularist ideology in North America.
What also deserves to be mentioned is that here, more than anywhere, there
is no substitute for experience. You must actively participate in the life
of a state or nondenominational universitythe very term, negatively stated
nondenominational, was coined by pejorative contrast with church related.
Your participation must be more than as a student, and it must be prolonged,
in order to be convinced thatall the catalogue descriptions notwithstanding,
these schools are really and not just nominally secularist. The climate which
prevails is with this world, and emphatically not with the next, with human
matters and certainly not with the things of Godor at most, with a god who
(for some people) is part of the phenomenon of man.
Analysis of this Secularism
We now come to the heart of our presentation. I shall try to answer the question:
How in concrete, existential terms does the secularism of a secular school of
higher learning manifest itself? What are its features, and how can they be
In my opinion, a secular college or university reveals its secularism on three
levels of its existence and operation, namely:
- In its philosophy and practice of education as an institution:
- In the attitudes and function of its academic faculty as teachers, and
- In its curriculum and the learning opportunities it offers to the students.
On each of these three levels, the schools are consciously, and dominantly,
and persuasively secularist. I say this while readily admitting that the administrators
and teachers may be, as individuals, personally otherwise. They can, with varying
degrees of success, maintain a split-personality existenceone private, with
their families, and the other public, with the college or university. But the
colleges and universities, as corporate entities are, and they make no apologies,
committed as the goal of their corporate being to the earthly welfare of man
and of human society.
Suppose we briefly look at each of those three dimensions in some detail and
see more closely what they mean.
In each case, let us remember, we say the college is secularly committed; which
is the same as saying secularly bound, or secularly tied down.
Institutional commitment to secularism varies in proportion to the variety
of outside pressures that operate on the school administration. The more diverse
(and divergent) the persons and agencies with a right to dictate a schools
policies, the less liberty the administrators have to set standards, choose
teachers, arrange the curriculum and determine conditions of admission and graduation
except in the direction of the prevailing ethos in a country like the United
States. This ethos, as we look at two datathe highest affluence in the history
of the human race and the legalized murder of unborn childrenis secularist.
I said earlier that a secular colleges philosophy of education comes not by
default but by design. True, but by design as a result of conviction born of
Let me clarify this comparison with church-related schools of higher education.
Church related schools may suffer from what I call institutional license.
When they are not responsible to regional or school boards and the hard competition
of satisfying political or caucus demands of vested interests, they are liable
to slacken in their efforts at maintaining excellence. Yet, these are external
limitations compared with the internal freedom they enjoy to determine the philosophy
of their existence and pursue the goal for which they were founded.
Secular institutions, on the other hand, are not free to predetermine their
philosophy of education for the basic reason that they are not founded in response
to the faith commitment of a believing community, but in answer to the ever-changing
expectations of a heterogeneous and politicized citizenry.
In this connection, I recall the conversation I had in Chicago some time ago
with an official of the American Association of University Professors. It was
during the peak of the crisis then facing St. Johns University in New York.
This official told me that We at the AAUP do not believe that a Catholic University
can practice the freedom to which our association is dedicated. It is necessarily
restrained in this freedom by its Church affiliation. Needless to say, the
freedom he was talking about is the freedom to conform to the dominant mores
of the culture without the limitation of commitment to a set of values that
might stand at variance with, or in judgment on, what has been correctly labeled
the will of the people,
As Academic Faculty
The academic pursuit of secularist goals by the faculty follows logically on
the institutional conformity just described. One of the ironies of our age
is the strange shift in the meaning of words that we now see all around us.
Most of the literature on the subject, and certainly the target of college teachers
organizations is academic freedom. But in my estimate of the situation, I
would rename it academic conformity. As commonly described in professors
manuals, academic freedom is the right to explore and communicate ideas in the
classroom and in writing, without being subject to interference or penalization
because these ideas are unacceptable to someone within or beyond the institution.
So it is, in theory. But in practice this much vaunted academic
freedom is, at best, freedom from external constraint formally imposed by some
organized body, like a church hierarchy or a political party. It is not the
internal freedom to be oneself, to give full expression to ones deepest convictions
that derive from a faith based on revelation from God.
To illustrate what I mean, let me briefly describe my experience when I was
first invited to teach at the state university.
As a result of the invitation, I visited the university in April of that year
during which time I had conferences with members of the faculty, the dean and
the academic vice president of the institution. One problem seemed insurmountable,
the dilemma between sectarian teachingwhich the university feared was inevitable
for a Catholicand academic freedom to which I appealed in my conferences with
the administration. During the conferences, I was told that I would be hired
if I taught Catholicism as I would teach Confucianism, by standing apart from
my subject and not giving the impression of Catholic commitment. My reply was
that if I could not be trusted to avoid proselytizing or was denied the freedom
given others to teach what I believed and as I believed it, I was not interested.
So I left the university after three days of interviews with no intention of
returning. By the time I reached Detroit to tell the Jesuit provincial of my
negative decision, the administration of the university had changed its mind.
They had phoned the provincial residence to say that I would be offered the
teaching position on his terms.
When I began teaching that fall, the freedom of which I was given verbal (never
written) guarantee was at first respected, although from the beginning certain
limitations were placed on me, e.g., the universitys insistence that I pay
income tax from which, as a man vowed to poverty, I am legally exempt. So concerned
was the administration that by the end of my first week of class I was warned
either to ignore the Internal Revenue statutes and sign the tax-waiver, or leave
the university. Similarly I was told to avoid any public ministrations as a
priest. From then on, through five unforgettable years of experience I came
to learnas no one else could have taught mewhat academic freedom for the faculty
on a secular campus means.
The conflict that arises in a teacher who has religious principles, and who
sees the spiritual hunger of the students, and who is forced to suppress himself
when everything in him cries for communication, must be gone through to be believed.
As Learning Opportunities to Students
By now it must be fairly plain what the secularism of a secular
institution of higher learning implies in the curricular and learning opportunities
it offers to students.
A good way to bring out what I wish to explain is to note that
a new concept has entered the vocabulary of pedagogy. Out of the welter of
student riots at Berkeley, and Chicago where I teach, it is clear that students
want to extend the idea of academic freedom from Lehrfreiheit (freedom
of professors to teach according to their lights) to include Lernfreiheit
(freedom of students to ask for what they want to be taught). This freedom
to learn touches on the heart of higher education. It is also the one freedom
which secular colleges and universities are least able, on their own premises,
to satisfy. Here is the way I read the situation. By and large the students
who enter college come with some semblance of a religious background. It may
be minimal and it may be confused, but it is (with rare exception) not simply
absent. It is therefore part of their mental equipment and no more separable
from their mentality than the language they speak or the knowledge they have
of American history. It is disastrous academically, and may be psychologically,
to treat the students during their questing years of college as something which
they are not. More than anywhere else, in matters of faith a clear distinction
should be made between belief as a component of the human person and the reflective
understanding of belief that belongs to the critical mind.
A young freshman may have a deep faith and yet be irritatingly
unable t give a cogent explanation of what or hwy he believes. But his ineptitude
is no more reason for denying that he really believes than ignorance of how
to define patriotism is a sign of not loving ones country.
Religious belief, therefore, is not the same as religious literacy.
Colleges are not asked to produce the commitment of faith. They are
not, as colleges, institutes for evangelization. But they are responsible to
make intelligible the faith that however dim already exists. Moreover, the
purpose should be not only to raise the religious literacy of the people they
teach or help them understand religious pluralism in society and the world at
In a rare statement of the Association of American Colleges,
we are told that Colleges and universities share with the Church, the synagogue
and the home responsibility for the moral and spiritual development of the students.
The sooner our institutions of higher learning, whether those we call secular
or those they call church-related, act on this conviction the better for our
nation, for education, and for the generation of youth who se hunger of spirit
will revolt against American civilization unless it is given the only food that
can satisfy the human mind and heart.
Why Should the Catholic University Survive?
Editor - Msgr. George A. Kelly © 1973
St. John's University Press, pp. 31-38
Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica