Some weeks ago I woke up to Twitter going crazy. I opened the video that was getting so much attention, and there was my friend and former colleague, now president of Evergreen State College in Washington State, facing an assault by a wildly angry group of students. You could hear some of the exchange: “F*** you, George. You talk so f***ing much. Just shut up, George.” These comments were directed at the president of the university! It made my heart sick, and not only for my friend. Here was yet another signal that something is deeply broken on our campuses.
The university is one of the great institutions in the history of Western civilization. And yet it feels like something is slipping away. Watching this video and witnessing so many other scenes like it, I feel the aching need for our nation to regroup on where our universities are headed. We need to get back to a bedrock question: What exactly is the university for? These scenes cry out for a wholly revised vision for higher education in our day.
The moment is ripe, then, for a book like Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in A Fragmented Age. The authors are three professors, Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream (the first two from Baylor University, the third from Taylor University). As I pondered this stimulating book, I began to glimpse the outlines of a renewed vision for the future of the broken university. This book is sweeping in concept, grounded in historical research, utterly relevant to contemporary concerns. The focus is ultimately on the Christian university. And the animating question can be put like this: What if the unifying center of the university, its soul, were reclaimed by a winsome faith in Jesus Christ? There is plenty of warning here for the Christian university, with all of its success, not to become complacent. But there is even a suggestion that the secular university might benefit as it examines the consequences of hollowing out its own soul.
Loss of Unity
The authors have an ambitious goal: to mine the rich history of the Christian university, going all the way back to the 12th century, in order to propose an overarching narrative that will address the fracturing of our fragmented age. They tap into a rich tradition of reflection on the purpose of the Christian university, emanating from thinkers like John Henry Newman, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark Schwehn, Mark Noll, George Marsden, Stanley Hauerwas, Jaroslav Pelikan, Arthur Holmes, Duane Litfin, and many others. Restoring the Soul of the University draws on this heritage. But it also steps forward with fresh energy about how we might move beyond our own moment of fragmentation.
The book begins with the likes of Hugh of St. Victor, who in the 12th century was master of the School of St. Victor. The authors lift up this surprising resource as one key historical touchpoint for shaping the soul of the university. Hugh believed his students were created in God’s image, a foundational presupposition. He believed, then, that the curriculum should seek to restore that image, through “instruction, meditation, prayer, performance, and contemplation.” These were the practices, of course, of the medieval monastery. The authors say Hugh wanted to “combine the best of the monastery with the best of contemporary learning to transform the world.” “Instead of deconstructing truth,” a popular practice of our own day, Hugh believed the academy should build up the truth, so that its students might discover “joy instead of emptiness or cynicism.” In this fascinating story of Hugh of St. Victor, we find a reminder of how the Christian university began with a strong and compelling unified purpose.