Jonathon Kahn et al.’s recent post, “Reconceiving the secular and the practice of the liberal arts,” points to the problem of religious students whose commitments are not allowed expression in the “secular space” of the liberal arts campus. As I see it, though, the problem of the religious and the secular lies elsewhere.
I assume that the students referred to are predominantly Christian. If that is the case, because American culture remains to a large extent Christian, in many tangible and intangible ways, and, since there are other institutions on campus in which students can gather to express and probe their confessional beliefs, I fail to see the great harm done to them if they feel they must keep their confessional identity out of the classroom, or, at the very least, that that identity needs to be channeled into a common language. It might in fact be a very good thing for Christian students to understand, à la Kierkegaard, that having a passionate commitment is not the same as being part of a mainstream or even of a minority, but requires honing the ability to resist cultural trends and to stand on one’s own. One might retort that they are young and impressionable and may not have that ability yet. But they are not blank slates, and they have already, to a large degree, been formed.
The problem as I see it is not that students in the liberal arts are somehow forbidden to argue their religious views but that, whether they are religious or secular, they do not get sufficient exposure to religious texts. These texts contain many strange and interesting things—often surprising to religious and unreligious students alike. They uncover possibilities of being human. But in order for these possibilities to emerge, they need to be approached in a secular spirit. That is, their specifically theological language needs to be translated into a conceptual language through which people can imagine a given possibility without a prior or subsequent adherence to it as the absolute truth. This act of translating is, in fact, what great philosophers of religion in every tradition have done. Pascal, for instance, manages to paint a picture of sin and grace in many Pensées without using these words, except in choice places. All he has to do is point to the infinite ways in which we are wretched. Only in a second movement does he explain this wretchedness as a consequence of original sin. Original sin becomes a possibility for understanding the human condition, one not necessitating adherence to dogma. Similarly, if one reads Franz Rosenzweig on Messianic hope, it ceases, in his language, to be “belief” and becomes an urge to insert one’s own activity into the flow of time in a way that brings about the transformation of the world. The problem for him becomes not believing or lack of believing but how one can do this without causing more harm than good. We who study these texts, students and teachers alike, need to find our own language when speaking about theirs. So the secular, the process of bringing into the times, and into a world that is not already divided along the religious/secular lines we know, has religious resonances. The commitment of the humanities, “nothing human is foreign to me,” should lead to a kind of transcendence of time and space. It is fleeting, but it is one way of making concrete the oneness of the world, which somewhere in our religious traditions remains a central hope.
This sounds awkwardly old-fashioned, and maybe even dangerously religious, I know. If it does, it might be because to be secular in the academy has come to mean looking through religious claims as if they were transparent, in order to reach underlying causes. The latest such explanation seems to be biology, but political and economic forces or psychological motivations will do just as well. This way of engaging with the documents also envisages one world, since these forces presumably operate on everyone without exception, but there is often an exception—an important exception, since the adherent of this view has seen through and presumably been freed of the illusions of the people depicted in the religious documents. It is this attitude of seeing through religion rather than taking religious claims as possibilities that, I assume, prompts the question “what would campus life look like if these secularists assumptions were dropped?” The problem is that these secularist assumptions are passionate commitments. They cannot be discarded at will. If the secularization thesis really is on its way out, professors should have already started to train students in a way of entering into texts that makes much more central the art of sympathetic understanding, including understanding the great theorists of causes. Sympathetic understanding is not just passively accepting what is being said. It is straining to bring something to life, by finding the right language, situating this something in a larger context and, having done so, asking questions about its merits. A whole metaphysic undergirds sympathetic understanding, and my claim is that it does more to break down the religious/secular divide than arguments from first principles, which can never be decided, and which create, at best, a window dressing for tolerance.
If our first task, as I see it, is to recover this metaphysic, then closely allied with it is finding a way of articulating opposition to a pervasive current trend. Rather than naming it, I will toss out three examples. The first involves a candidate for a job in another department who reported that in teaching a course in ethics, she was taught to stop before the end of every class so that students could evaluate in written form what had been clear and what unclear in her presentation. She reported great success, as she was able to clarify in a subsequent session the concepts that had not come across the first time. This seems a model of efficiency, and yet it gives one pause, especially when it is seen in the context of the pervasive culture of measuring everything in sight. Recently, The New York Times reported an increase across the country in clickers that students are obligated to use every fifteen minutes, as described in one class, in response to a question the professor is asking. The answers are tallied and then a conversation begins, once the student knows he or she is not an outlier. Again, what should be wrong with this? In large classes, it seems a way to keep students attentive and engaged. Yet the whole experience of time changes. Homogeneous clock time is imposed as the only time. Clock time might be inevitable on an assembly line, but teaching and learning depend on a notion of time in which one moment does not resemble the next. The desire to learn awakens at one moment for one and at another for someone else; connections are made at one moment for one and at another for someone else; and internalization and appropriation happen over many uneven moments in the course of a lifetime. Of course, we expect students to write papers and take exams on our schedule and not theirs, but usually there are swaths of time in between, in which something uncontrolled has a chance to happen. The mania for immediate results makes of learning something that has lost its secret. How do we articulate that secret, or at least not forget that it is there?
The appointment of Cathleen P. Black as the next Chancellor of the New York City public school system echoes the same fascination for measurement on another level. She is well known as an efficient manager at Hearst Magazines. The appointee neither went to public schools herself nor has any experience in the classroom or in school administration at any level. The latest news is that a compromise was worked out so that her immediate subordinate would have such experience. Her qualifications for the job appear to be her success in making various magazines profitable and her tough-minded attitude toward staff. She made her goals clear and got results. In the early 1970s, Ivan Illich published a book, Deschooling Society, in which he claimed that the school in the West was a kind of church, whose hidden curriculum reenacted the rituals and myths of capitalism, not through actively preaching it but in its striving for measurable results. He no doubt wrote it expecting people to vehemently deny it. Now, forty years later, who needs to hide it? If someone protests, surely she is a socialist.
It seems in bad taste to sound a moralistic note like this. One is always reminded at this point that no educational institution can survive without financial investment and that one’s own salary depends on it. But isn’t the task of the liberal arts, while remaining aware of the economic realities that are the conditions of its own practice, also to strive to articulate a human world in which certain kinds of profits, whether measured in rising test scores or in their eventual use in competing with China, are shown to be inadequate to educational efficiency itself? It appears, for instance, that the government of Iran has imposed a ban on the Western humanities in its universities. This would indicate that the humanities are efficient in quite a different way from the measured results currently prescribed. Is not the true secular mission of the liberal arts to remain alien to what Alisdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, called the “metaphysical belief in managerial expertise,” and to remain wedded instead to that other efficiency, recognized by the government of Iran in its very act of banning? In this mission, both “secular” and religious” need to join forces against the religion of our times.