“With the same cement, ever sure to bind, We bring to one dead level ev’ry mind.”

-Alexander Pope


John Dewey: Types of Thinking; Philosophical Library; New York.


William C. Ringenberg: The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America; Christian University Press/William B. Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, ML


As easy as it is to find a college graduate in modern America, it is hard to find a true university. Any university worthy of the name must be both universal in scope, attending to all important fields of knowledge, and unified in thought, bound together into a single coherent philosophical framework. Most contemporary “universities” are neither; very few are both.



The retreat from universality was well underway in 1852 when John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote On the Scope and Nature of University Education, still perhaps the best analysis of the premises, promises, and problems of modern higher education. Cardinal Newman was particularly disturbed that increasingly universities were excluding religion from their curricula. “Is it,” Newman asked, “logically consistent in a seat of learning to call itself a university, and to exclude theology from the number of its studies?” Since theology “meets us with a profession and a proffer of the highest truths of which the human mind is capable,” and since Christian premises inform virtually all of Western culture, Newman believed only a superficial approach to education can ignore religion.


Simply to ignore theology — the current practice in most American universities — is therefore, Newman reasons, to distort our perception of philosophy, history, literature, and natural science. It is “to impair the completeness and to invalidate the trustworthiness of all that is actually taught.”


America’s first centers of higher learning were initially only colleges. Still, their founders well understood that all studies should be unified with- in a shared religious conviction. As William C.  Ringenberg observes in The Christian College, the founders of America’s oldest universities sought to “create an environment in which the Christian faith and Christian morality influenced every aspect of the collegiate experience.” Harvard’s founders, for example, sought “to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” Yale’s originators (who founded the school in the early l 700’s when they saw Harvard drifting into Unitarian heresy) similarly declared: “Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly, sober life.”


Even when the states took the lead in founding colleges in the 1800’s, it was assumed (until late in the century) that those schools would be “Protestant in nature and emphasis.” Student attendance at chapel services was re­ quired, on penalty of expulsion, and professors could be dismissed if they “openly advocated a doctrine which is unauthorized by the Bible.”


But as Mark Noll remarks in his excellent introduction to The Christian College, a “new university” had emerged by 1900 which “in almost every way imaginable . . . undercut the traditional values of Christian higher education in America.” Not only was this the case in state schools, but also in most of the older Protestant universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Rutgers, and Brown. Once more Christian in their convictions than was society, America’s major universities have become “considerably more secular than is the populace in general,” Ringenberg contends. As a consequence, though higher education was often accompanied by a  religious  conversion  in the l 700’s and early 1800’s, it is now more likely to weaken students’ faith. (One is almost tempted to say that America’s religious commitment is declining by degrees.) Since most universities are supported by the taxes of millions of devout Christians and Jews, this anti­religious bias constitutes a serious cultural injustice.


The reasons America’s universities have become secularized are diverse. In the case of the state schools, the arrival of large Jewish and Catholic immigrant communities in the mid-1800’s made necessary a new understanding of the separation of church and state. Protestant Christianity “ceased to be the integrating center of the educational process,” Ringenberg notes. But to account for the almost simultaneous secularization of the major Protestant universities, other causes must be sought.


Part of the problem is simply that “knowledge puffeth up.” As Newman sagely remarked, “Knowledge viewed as knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own centre, and our minds the measure of all things.” This, Newman conceded, was a natural “tendency of that liberal education of which a university is the school” and must be held in check by the authority and dogma of the Church. If the proposition that dogma is essential for a proper education seems puzzling, then perhaps it is necessary to recall with G. K. Chesterton that for Newman, dogma implies not “the absence of thought, but the end of thought.”


While the teaching status of Newman’s Catholic Church was fairly well defined, the usual Protestant reliance upon individual judgment and the deemphasis of institutional discipline make it especially hard for Protestant schools to stand against the winds of secularism. It comes as no surprise that Ringenberg finds that those few Protestant colleges that have best resisted secularization are those under the close control of some particular denomination. Certainly, most Catholic universities have become markedly more secular in pursuing post­ Vatican II ecumenism.


Perhaps the most fundamental challenge confronting a Christian college, though, is that the gospel has often appeared to be “foolishness” to the learned, as the Apostle Paul early observed. Its origins are not with man, nor can it be explained in terms of “the wisdom of the world.” Christians may become scholars without surrendering their convictions, but the temptation to intellectual respectability is strong. Just as the ancient Israel wanted to “be like all the other nations,” despite prophetic counsel against conformity, even so the modern Christian university often yearns to be like all the other universities in academic orientation.


The desire for intellectual credibility may have been a motivation among those Scholastics who integrated Scripture   and   Ptolemaic  astronomy — with disastrous long-term consequences. Similarly, Noll notes that the willingness of Protestants to accept fashionable Enlightenment arguments for Christian conclusions led to disaster when evolution and pragmatism repudiated not only Christianity but also Newtonian science and the whole “didactic Enlightenment” paradigm. Like Galileo’s opponents in the 17th century, most “theologically conservative” Christians in the late 1800’s and early l 900’s were defending not the fundamental doctrines of revelation but instead an outmoded synthesis. The defeat of conservative Christian apologists in the educational and cultural battles of this century was inevitable. Protestant schools that did not quickly secularize were soon swept into obscure backwaters, where most remain today. “In an age when the thinking which shapes world views comes regularly from research universities,” Noll writes, “evangelicals [i.e., doctrinally committed Protestants] do not have a single research university or the serious prospect of one.”


But in the absence of a theological superstructure, America’s research universities can offer only very incoherent and fragmented world views. America’s universities have degenerated, as Ringenberg suggests, into “polyversities,” with no meaningful relationship between their competing disciplines. Only ubiquitous concern for the success of the football program unites the life of most major universities. The decision to ignore religious truth has resulted, as Newman predict­ ed, in “nothing short … of  unraveling the web of the university.”


Scattered and tangled, the threads of higher (and lower) education fell in this century into the hands of irreligious woolgatherers like John Dewey. Part of the first generation of scholars to take a Ph.D. from an American university (Johns Hopkins, 1884), Dewey exercised a tremendous influence over American pedagogy on all levels during his career as a professor at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Columbia. The destructiveness of his influence is evident in the sloppy and myopic commentary Dewey offers in Types of Thinking, a translation of lectures Dewey gave in China in 1919-21 and previously unavailable except in the Chinese transcriptions.


The false assumptions, non sequiturs, and evasions in which Dewey indulges in this survey of ancient and modern philosophy are legion. Not surprisingly, Dewey defends the ancient sophists as a misunderstood and unfairly maligned group who deserve praise for their “new approaches” in education. (Dewey even includes Sophocles among the sophists.) Such absurdities would be amusing if they were not characteristic of much of what passes for education in America.


Looking at the efforts of the ancient Greeks to overcome social turmoil, Dewey concluded that “Philosophy. . . is born of confusion.” Dewey’s philosophy, however, is different: it begets rather than resolves confusion. For Dewey, there is not much worth salvaging in Plato or Aristotle, since these thinkers believed in absolute truth, eternal principles and-worst of all-hierarchal societies. He laments the lack of empirical observation -in Cartesian thought, but is glad for Descartes’s weakening of religion through the repudiation of final causes. With Locke, Dewey begins to warm. Locke’s reverence for the individual, he finds valuable, and Locke’s repudiation of transcendence is essential. And once Locke’s empiricism is modified so that it is active and experimental rather than merely passive and receptive, Dewey has the premises for his own philosophy: pragmatism.


But experimental pragmatism, even as expounded by Dewey’s more talent­ ed and intelligent mentor William James, can never provide a basis for good education, or even for consistent, moral thought. In replacing “Is it true?” with “Does it work?” pragmatism leaves unanswered the question “Work to what end?” Pragmatism can never set its own agenda, but must forever be a captive to those who, for pre-experimental reasons, have some work to do. Increasingly, the agenda has been set by political radicals and moral revolutionaries. Dewey might not have endorsed any of these efforts. But it was merely because, shaped in a still largely Christian culture, he was a man of the sort Coleridge described as “better than their principles.” And while the gentlemanly agnostic Dewey has been dead for over 30 years, his pedagogical principles are still regnant.


In a feeble attempt to adduce some purpose for the ongoing activity of pragmatic experimentation, Dewey invokes the Darwinian concept of survival. But as an organizing principle for education, survival does not commend itself. Besides, men taught to regard survival as the highest good will surely become immoral in a crisis. In the Gulag, for instance, Solzhenitsyn relates that every prisoner had to decide whether to honor his conscience  or to survive by becoming an informant for the camp authorities. Anyone schooled in Deweyian pragmatism could only have become a stooge.


But it is not only in extremis that pragmatism fails. Meaningful day-to­day life requires goals beyond mere survival, goals that may guide experimentation, but cannot derive from it. When Dewey sings the praises of individual “creativity” and “invention,” when he affirms a radical “pluralism” in which each person is invited “to create his own future world,” he is vainly trying to paper over pragmatism’s cognitive nihilism. Dewey’s students have to create their own worlds, for pragmatism can tell them nothing about communal or normative reality.

The failure to instruct-rather than pander to-individual caprice manifests itself throughout American education today. This failure accounts for the simultaneous rise in grades and decline in student performance. It is the reason, too, for the replacement of mandatory courses by electives. As Flannery O’Connor once wryly observed, “Ours is the first age in history which has asked [the student] what he would tolerate learning.” Predictably, subjects such as mathematics, physics, and Latin — where “creativity” cannot mask ignorance — are less tolerable than classes in “social problems” or creative writing. Students must be protected from disciplines which provide a rigorous pattern for development rather than a flattering mirror. (Educational theorists prattle endlessly about “improving the student’s self-image” through “positive feedback.”) The result is high school graduates very proud of themselves and their diploma — which incidentally they can’t read. But again Newman anticipated the trouble. When education is torn loose from religion, he observed, students invariably become “victims of an in­ tense self-contemplation.”


Attacking Plato’s hopelessly elitist and prescriptive approach to education, Dewey insisted that “education must undertake to meet a person’s individual needs, and to develop to the fullest possible measure whatever potentials the individual may possess.” And what if the individual’s needs, as he himself perceives them, incline toward, say, extortion or child pornog­ raphy? What then? Most extortionists and child pornographers, after all, do have a strong self-image (and a shamelessly weak others-image).


The perfectly decent Dewey would have strongly objected to such debased individual preferences, but his philosophy would have provided him with no grounds for his objections except his own personal preference. Fortunately, most students do not use the license contemporary schooling often gives them to become extortionists or pornographers. But despite the cease­ less efforts to prop up their self-image, many young people discover-as any Christian could have told them-that the self is radically flawed and insufficient. Informed by bankrupt pedagogues that their only option is to “Believe in yourselves,” they become self-loathers and fall into despair. And though implementation of Dewey’s educational program may have helped to fuel a skyrocketing teenage suicide rate, the predictable response of some groups has been to agitate for Federally mandated high school courses to deal with the problem. If such courses are ever set up, both their dismal subject and their self-defeating survivalist orientation will bear the mark of John Dewey.