Universities really are coming up for more discussion in the media for all sorts of reasons, not so much in Canada, but especially in the U.K. because of governement funding cutbacks which will have an impact that will affect most members of a generation.
The recent decision by SUNY Albany to chop some of its humanities programmes, notably in the languages, has also made waves. It strikes many as the latest alarm bell over what is wrong in both universities that want to ape corporations and in a culture that strives for utility and mammon over the good life, including the good of intellectual fulfilment.
But there has yet to take place a more wide-ranging discussion as to what universities are for. This is in fact the issue that needs to be addressed. And as part of that discussion, albeit in the context of a faculty colloquium on religious pluralism and diversity, held at the Université de Montréal, I presented a paper, the abstract of which appears below...
But also, and in that very light, I also noticed a recent post by James K.Smith, philosopher and emergent church-er from Calvin College, who has a post on Secular or Secularist Liberal Arts education here.
This post from Smith is a very valuable contribution to the theme of what a liberal arts education in a post-secularist context would look like. In other words, how does a liberal arts college provide a secular education without being secular-ist? But, Smith has smelled a rat in this cauldron of otherwise fresh thinking and he summarizes it thus:
"while I would applaud the move to this sort of "secular" liberal arts education, such a model still refuses to think about education as formation.... even the new "secular" liberal arts college will remain committed to a persistent aspect of liberal Enlightenment orthodoxy: an allergy to paideia, to the thick task of formation that constitutes inculcation in a tradition..."
Ah-ha! Yes, because if the students are not clients, after all, then they are persons who by their very presence seek to be formed in some intellectual richness - that will be for them good, true and beautiful.
Well, I have a proposal for Smith that might suit his interests here: how about programmes and departments in theology that complement Religious Studies departments, since Theology is a humanities discipline par excellence, and Religious Studies nowadays is deeply influenced by the heuristics of the sociology of religion. Now admittedly, this is an idea that would not survive the legal jurisprudence in American contexts, because American laws prohibit public money from reaching theology programmes in any publicly funded college or university.
But for all the rest, it would be another nail in the coffin of secularism and a hand up to the beleaguered liberal arts tradition in colleges and universities because theology would allow colleges to handle the God question in a much more open and conceptually clear way than is the case in many Religious Studies programmes.
So anyway, here's that proposal - that I mentioned off the top of this post:
Curricular Heresy: God and the University Amidst the Triumph of ReasonPublic policy debates involving religion in the public sphere have thus far ignored the critical role religion and especially theology play in the academy and society, beyond being sources of commentary and analysis. This paper draws on an informal survey of theology and religious studies in Canada, with some comparative remarks regarding the U.S.A.,Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K., in order to introduce the claim that the retention of theological programmes in universities is not merely a remnant of historic affiliations with Christian churches. Rather, theological curricula consist of being a proactive, dissenting heresy to the consensus triumph of empirical reason with benefits for science and the liberal arts. With reference to MacIntyre and in nuanced sympathy with Gavin D’Costa’s diagnosis of theology's Babylonian captivity in public universities, this paper advocates theological education as a counterpoint to hardening empiricist orthodoxies in the university and society.