Cracks in the Ivory Tower


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© 2014 Robert Osburn

For at least a century, American colleges and universities have been identified with a monolithic secularism that vigorously pits academia against the church, and vice versa.  Why this is the case is brilliantly narrated by George Marsden in his 1994 classic The Soul of the American University.

One of the many implications of academic secularism has been a faculty often resolutely at odds with orthodox Christian faith.  Study after study has confirmed that faculty, especially those who are the elite within the natural and social sciences, hold very diffident (at best) and sometimes hostile (at worst) attitudes toward Christianity.  African American sociologist George Yancey has shown in his 2011 study Compromising Scholarship that self-identified evangelical Christians are sometimes the victims of anti-evangelical bias when it comes to faculty hiring.

The secular ivory tower holds firm, or so it seems.  However, there are indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the tower’s forbidding secular walls.  For three reasons (outlined below), the prospects for evangelical and other conservative Christian faculty are just now beginning to brighten. 

The first, and most important, factor is that postmodern perspectivalism has opened the door to Christian scholarship.  Admittedly, postmodernism---the view that, instead of seeking truth, the only thing we humans care about is getting power---has had tragic effects on society and the church.

However, one of its ancillary claims (which happens to be very true) has given religious believers a “foot in the door.”  One of the many implications of postmodern thought is that humans inevitably interpret reality through a worldview, or perspective that colors how they understand the data of reality.  Take human beings in all our complexity: Scientific naturalists see complex biological machines; whereas, without denying the complex biology, Christians see evidence of God who designed us in His image.  

Prior to postmodernity (which began its rise in the 60s), the scientific naturalist simply proclaimed, “Here is the data, which speaks for itself,” as if they were perfectly innocent of any interpretation of that data.   Postmodernism calls them on the carpet: You interpret the data just like everybody else, precisely because you have a perspective, a worldview.  The net effect is that academics, especially younger academics, are increasingly schooled to see the importance of perspective (worldview) in how we make sense of reality.  They are also much more comfortable with the idea that different professors have different worldviews. Thus, as Marsden showed in his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, scholarship interpreted through a Christian perspective is a viable option for academia. (He expands on this idea at the end of his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.)

The second reason for the crack in the secular ivory tower has to do with the effects of family fragmentation.  Mountains of evidence clearly point to one conclusion about family fragmentation: Children raised in fragmented families have poorer academic prospects than those raised in stable, two-opposite sex parent homes.  Not surprisingly, since Christian faith has the overall effect of stabilizing families, children raised in such homes have a higher probability of making it all the way to their PhDs and, thus careers in academia.  That means that a higher percentage of academic hires, notwithstanding anti-evangelical bias on campuses, are starting to involve young, fresh-out-of-graduate school faculty who are active Christians.  Anecdotally, there is evidence this is already happening, and so one can predict that in years to come the faculty Christian fellowships on our secular campuses will grow much larger. 

Finally, the third reason for this particular crack in academia---greater openness to and greater hiring of active orthodox Christians to faculties---is the rise of Christian study centers next to major universities.  Though not well documented, over the past decade the numbers of these study centers where Christ is honored and serious scholarship is celebrated has grown significantly.  The website for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (full disclosure: I am a founding board member of that organization, and for 12 years directed one of the study centers in the consortium) lists 15 active Christian study centers next to major universities such as Yale, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Cornell.  At least one or two handfuls are in the works.  As these centers expand and multiply across the USA, they will further legitimize the case for Christian scholarship while also providing a nurturing ground for future Christian academics.  My successor at MacLaurin Institute has launched a stipended annual fellowship program (Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program) for Christian students that engages them in the very best of Christian scholarship, the intellectual foundations of Christian faith, and provides a social context that reinforces serious Christen engagement with academic life.  This will translate into a future wave of Christian academics.

Higher education’s very secular ivory tower is covered in crises, pathologies, and injustices (such as the growing aversion to letting Christian student groups restrict their leadership to self-identified and practicing believers).  However, there is at least one crack in that secular ivory tower: The numbers of self-identified Christians who, at least in some cases openly pursue Christian scholarship, is starting to grow.  

Some cracks are bad.  This one looks to be very redemptive.