Four “Social Imaginaries” Shaping the Modern University

“The contemporary university is hollow at its core.  Not only does it lack a spiritual center, but it is also without any real alternative.”

So said George Marsden over two decades ago in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1997) and this was echoed in many ways twenty years later in 2017 through Glanzer, Alleman and Ream’s Restoring the Soul of the University. The soul of the university has been lost–its moral and spiritual centre fragmented and dissipated. But how did we get here? Its been a long historical transition, and jumping off from Marsden’s book, I suggest we can distinguish four “social imaginaries” in the modern university:  Christian establishment, established non-belief, identity politics and default commercialism.

I will elaborate on the term “social imaginary” in another post, but in short it is Charles Taylor’s term for how a group of people imagine their collective life together, and it includes much more than any one individual can consciously articulate about their worldview. James K. A. Smith’s notion of “cultural liturgies” makes this imaginary much more embodied, but for this post I’m going to write mostly about the frameworks for the imagination found in four influential cultural currents by examining university mottoes and student slogans.

Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. The library used to be the centre of academic life, but now everyone has their own set of websites, podcasts, news updates. There are more sources of information, but perhaps less shared intellectual spaces.

I. Christian Establishment

It is no secret that all universities that were started over a century ago or more were motivated by deep Christian conviction.  Most universities, in fact, began as seminaries for clergy training, and had clergymen as their first presidents. Chapels were mandatory, sometimes even twice a day. The mottoes on these universities’ crests reveal a deep purpose, set in the context of transcendence:

            “In Christ all things hold together,” from Colossians, McMaster University.

            “Teach me wisdom, discipline, and knowledge,” from the Psalms, University of Windsor.

            “Wisdom and knowledge shall the stability of thy times” (Isaiah 33:6) Queens University.

            “Under God’s power she flourishes,” Princeton University.

            “Truth for Christ and for the church” Harvard University.

These were the days of the Christian establishment–what Charles Taylor has called the porous self, open to both material and spiritual reality. But the Christian monopoly could not hold for a post-Christian culture. If these institutions were truly to be the nation’s public universities, they needed to change as the nation did. Canada, for example, became increasingly diverse, and a secular spirit was on the rise. Consensus was to be determined by what is “rational,” says Marsden. Rational consensus determined who can speak, and rational consensus became the goal of all speaking. A de-Christianizing effort began in all public institutions in the West.

II. Established Non-Belief

Harvey Cox bestseller Secular City captured this spirit in 1965 which declared on its opening page: “the rise of urban civilization and the collapse of traditional religion are the two main hallmarks of our era…” (p. 1). This shift was not just in the academy: The Beatles sang:  “Imagine there’s no heaven, its easy if you try.” Schools for medicine, law, and liberal arts soon eclipsed the original theological schools. Chapels disappeared, and the clergyman professor faded into the background. The notion of human progress through science replaced the former trust in Providence. Governments took ownership of educational institutions.

The mottoes of the universities that were founded in this era reveal the replacement of theological themes with secular humanist themes. The horizon of expectation lowered as York University’s crest says rather mundanely, “The Way Must be Tried,” Simon Fraser University’s says, “We are ready” and Brock University chose “Surgite!”– the last words of the dying General Brock at Queenston Heights in the battle of 1812, meaning “Press On!” Nationalistic sentiments mixed with the valorization of grit and hard work provide a sense of optimism, a vague notion of progress, but without a context of transcendence.

This was the 60’s–and an increasing current of established non-belief became hegemonic (as Marsden calls it). If it was hard to be anything but a Christian in the first era of the university, the tables completely turned with the flows of this next social imaginary. Marsden explains how the dominant academic culture of today has become “defined in a way that [faith-related] viewpoints, including their counterparts in other Christian or religious heritages, have been largely excluded” (7). Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, and a dogmatic scientism became gatekeepers to the academic table.

More recently, the most popular voice in this milieu would be the New Atheists, declaring religion to be fairy tales for those who apparently missed humanity coming of age through Enlightenment reason. Claiming science as their group’s property and as the sole epistemological authority, they are dismissive of both religion and the arts. Their voice is shrill but one suspects its because they realize the secularization myth—that increasing modernization will lead inevitably to increased atheism—was always only the story for a small class of academic elites. Muslim life and culture, however, has since risen in the Western consciousness since 9-11, and the taken-for-granted secularism is surprised to meet a stubborn rival. This is not to mention the flourishing of Pentecostals, Mormons, and the “spiritual but not religious” multitudes, or the ascension of zombies, vampires, and super heroes in popular culture. The soul and the spirit world cannot be silenced: it will shift to sectors of culture more welcoming to its mysteries and promise.

III.  Identity Politics

Marsden’s book was written in 1994 and academic culture has developed amnesia not only for its Christian origins, but also its classical heritage. Secular reason has been debunked by postmodern thinkers, as many say it only hides Western white male perspective, power and privilege. There is no universal truth, just a multiplicity of individual perspectives, each relative to one’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and generation. What then is left to pursue and share and hold the university together, except a power play of perspectives? The academy becomes a host of incommensurable narratives competing for space, funding, and visibility.

This makes questionable the meaning of debate and dialogue, former best practises of academic culture. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (“The Coddling of the American Mind” (Atlantic Sept. 2015) describe the university campus today as a place where over-sensitivity and offense combine to make an environment almost allergic to learning anything that challenges one’s worldview. They say its a step beyond political correctness:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

But this is not just about therapeutic psychology: its a culture in which people define themselves by some chosen sociological group identity–gender, ethnicity, sexuality—and build a worldview around it, usually one centred on an oppressor/oppressed binary. Its the Enlightenment in different guise—a cultural neo-Marxist paradigm. It is this diagnosis that has given Canadian professor Jordan Peterson his infamous stardom, as a reaction against the powerful force of this postmodern social imaginary that frames classrooms and textbooks, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Again, at worst, its not just that everyone has a different perspective: its that there is no longer any possible shared universe in which to constructively dialogue. The “uni” in university is lost as there is no longer any shared cosmos in which to research, teach and learn; what is left is the “multi-versity.”

While some university slogans make reference to diversity and inclusion (eg. University of Toronto chaplaincy centre’s slogan used to be “Celebrate Diversity”), identity politics was not as self-conscious when most universities were started. Today, such slogans would be too controversial for an official university motto, in part because they may be perceived as “political” and divisive. Instead, one needs to look at university hallways and student events to see this social imaginary put into language. For example, the protests that have happened around Jordan Peterson’s lectures include signs like “No Freedom for Hate Speech” and “More Genders Please” and “We Deserve to Feel Safe.”

To take a more generous approach to this trend, we might say this has some affiliation with the prophetic role of the university, its calling to pursue justice, and it puts debates of social ethics front and centre on campus. Often its an ethics grounded in a deeply personal social and political identity, though, and that makes critical discussion very difficult. Offense is taken very quickly, and public conversation is especially complicated. The rise of social media and the internet exacerbates the polarization, as every group has their own website and platforms, and algorithms keep people spiraling in their own sorted networks. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop elaborates on this hardening of the social categories.

A telling October 2018 article in The Literary Review of Canada by Christopher Dummitt (“We Are All Outsiders Now: The Triumph of Individual Autonomy in Politics, And Everywhere Else”) argues both left and right put self at the centre, and the collective welfare suffers. David Brooks called this the era of the Big Me.

IV. Default Commercialism

What follows is a radical fragmenting of the university into different camps, all with their own different understanding of the politics and purpose of the university. While one might call this the “disestablishment of anything,” that would give a false impression.  There are no cultural vacuums, there is never any true neutral ground, although the ground seems more constantly contested than decades ago. Jordan Peterson contends that its the cultural neo-Marxists that run the humanities departments and administrative corridors of the university. But I think there is another, more powerful force at work that is at the same time more subtle and more obvious.

The social imaginary that gives all this diversity some coherence is what I’m calling default commercialism, where a consumer ethic permeates the whole, and markets frame the consciousness of students, faculty and administration. This commercialized outlook has been documented by many: books like The Corporate Campus, University, Inc., Universities in the Marketplace, and Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education all basically say the same thing: commercial interests are the highest value on campus today. “Credentialing, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities,” prophesies Jane Jacob in last book Dark Age Ahead (2004). Identity politics may fill the pages of the student newspaper, but they are all framed by ads and opportunities for self-advancement and enhancement. The post-secondary campus has become subservient to the market.

Again, I turn to the mottoes, or in this case, slogans intended to market the university’s product.  Brock University’s slogan when I was campus chaplain there was “Your Career Begins Here.” The University of Windsor’s slogan : “The Degree that Works.” The University of Western Ontario even had a small promotion event entitled: “Major in Yourself.” The trend is the same: universities are selling themselves to the student consumer as a degree granter that is the ticket to privilege, a secure career. Its not just that God, truth and service have disappeared from the aims of university, but so have the humanistic slogans of the sixties. All many universities can promise now is a secure place in the market, and students have become customers instead of apprentices and citizens. The names of corporations on the campus buildings, the brand name restaurants and the campus monopolies for food services and vending machines make it clear: the soul of the university is for sale, and as the profits increase, our social capital ironically becomes poorer.

New mottoes for our universities are wanting. Not just mottoes, of course, but a new vision for what public education can be in these postmodern, post-Christian times. We desperately need a vision for education in our country that speaks to a wider horizon of meaning than secularism, identity politics, consumption and markets. This would not be a return to Christian establishment, but I believe that the wisdom of our great religious traditions, alongside other rigorous, academic perspectives, will bring the full richness of our cultural mix to the table of teaching and learning, and we need to come up with something better: a dialogical and plualistic educational culture not refereed by secular reason or torn apart by identity politics or debased by pragmatic private interests. There must be a way, steeped in a notion of faith, vocation, and charisma, that leads to intellect with soul, bent toward the common good. That’s what this blog is hoping for.

See my blog on Wolterstorff’s new book Religion in the University (2019). His notion of dialogical pluralism holds much promise. He doesn’t really engage the dynamics of identity politics and commercialization, but he sees promise in the postmodern turn, as a focus on “character-identities” as he calls them, may open up space for religious voices, too.


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