Serving in This Secular Church

Overemphasis on numbers undermines the search for “middle sized” truths that higher education, at its spiritual best, pursues, writes Robert B. Young.


June 23, 2009

Different types of buzzard have circled above my campus for many years, but they seem to be flying lower these days, searching for any dollars they can peck off the carcass of our institution. Some of these birds were beckoned by the notion that higher education is a corporation. They are eager to get a consulting fee, and oblivious to industry’s general failure to demonstrate excellence in anything. Others roost in state buildings. They like to poke holes in our budgets and throw a few dollars back to taxpayers. It keeps their own nest eggs safe from angry voters.

Buzzards have screeched for decades that we need to downsize and economize our operations. These birds always promise to restore “public confidence” about higher education, but none of them seems to care about restoring confidence within higher education. That requires a transfusion of spirit instead of surgery with shears. More than just new hows and whats for coping with hard times, we need to reaffirm the whys of our existence. I believe we need to re-sacrilize at least as much as we need to re-size our efforts and expectations.

Higher education is a secular church of science and service, and I have been a minor pastor in it for 30 years. The term, pastor, feels right to me, but I know that this claim is heresy to religious conservatives who believe that higher education is more Satanic than sacred. Some of my colleagues go along with them, because sacred references undermine their material instincts or their faith in values neutrality. Yet the notion of a secular church puts some high back into higher education. Sure, most of our colleges are secular these days. What about their soul?

We forget the soul of our work. Numbers run our lives. They tell us when we win, like when enrollment managers post messages that we went up four spots in this year’s U.S. News ratings. Now we’re the top liberal arts college in the northwest corner of Montana! Post that on the Web site, and applicants will flock to our gates.

Numbers tell us when we lose, too: just read yesterday’s market reports, or ask any professor why he didn’t get tenure. The numbers weren’t good enough.

Numbers are the boss of the secular institution and the bane of any holy one, because they turn unique phenomena into profane comparisons. Which tragedy was worse: NIU, Virginia Tech, Kent State, or Texas A&M? Let’s look at the numbers: “Well, how many students died at each place?” How many died? Every one of us died a little or a lot when our sacred space was violated by gunfire or flames. After that answer percolates, then bring on the PowerPoint presentations about crisis management techniques and systems. Those things are necessary, but they will not heal us.

We need some right brain mythology to balance our left brain obsessions with numbers. Karen Armstrong wrote that myth leads us beyond our experience and tells us how to behave. It gives us the right spiritual posture for action whether it’s in this world or the next. Jonathon Haidt wrote that people need mythology in order to think, and higher education needs the mythology of a secular church to tie it together while numbers pull it apart.

I am old enough to throw out complaints about newfangled things, and get words like “outdated” and “over the hill” tossed back at me, but I do not see myself as a nostalgist. A nostalgist wants the present to be the past, rather than the past to be present. I’m not claiming to be a historian, either. Our secular church is a metaphor borne by history more than any construction of bricks and mortar. Marcus Borg believes that metaphor is the truth that never was and always is. The spirit of the sacred has always guided our practice, and it can heal some of our despair today.

I don’t want to shout out the following ideas, because they might be measured by a number of decibels instead of merit, but I am happy to whisper that our operations are infused with the virtues of faith, hope and love, just like the operations in any holy enterprise that’s worth its salt. Scientists trudge through countless failures with high hope but low expectations that their next experiments will work. Faith drives the teacher who wants to make a student’s life better but never knows if she has, and love is, I would like to believe, the reason why any person becomes a professor. Good professors love learning; they love their discipline, and they want to be in a community that is built on this love. We call it collegiality. It’s the invisible factor in tenure decisions: good teaching, good research, good service, and good fit.

But our secular church isn’t identical to a sacred one, any more than it is identical to profane enterprise. It includes both and is beholding to neither. This secular church has its own affirmations of faith, fulfills them through good works, and uses ritual to support decision making.

Here is a basic affirmation:

Higher education is about the discovery, conservation and transmittal of middle sized truths that we do not presume to be ultimate, approach with honest doubt, convey with enlightened tentativeness, and connect to larger conversations for the improvement of society broadly writ.

The spirit behind this affirmation is Orthopraxy, not Orthodoxy, but the bishops and novitiates of higher education rarely utter, much less act upon, such stuff. They protect the theology that’s in their professional gospels. They determine which novitiates earn ordination, and convention dictates their decisions. An assistant professor’s output of publications is important, but where they are placed is equally important. The manuscripts must be reviewed by other clerics and appear in journals that have been stamped “approved.” If assistant professors write enough of these articles, say nothing that lowers their student evaluations, and serve on a few committees, then they get tenure, their license to be heretical now that the church has boiled enough original ideas out of their scholarship.

This description is overdrawn in order to contrast indoctrination activities with the activities of many faculty who are more concerned with the activities at their institution than the theology of the Church of any discipline. These professors of the parish teach undergraduate courses, advise student groups, work on committees, uphold the last remnants of shared governance, and otherwise fulfill duties that were given to student affairs and academic affairs administrators years ago, when research faculty complained about doing them. Nobody gets merit pay or promotions for doing this work, just as nobody pays attention to the mortar in walls, only the bricks. The bricks can’t imagine their need for glue, but the priests of numbers need to understand their need for parish professors in our secular church. Any ethical enterprise attends to its structural soundness. It is consistent and coherent, or else it crumbles into moral pretense.

Each year, I spend some time teaching graduate students about “mission,” “vision,” “transformational leadership,” and other ways to build value-rich and effective enterprises. In economically stressed times, the steps of good planning are ignored as much as its higher purposes. The budget might receive a dusting of protocol but administrative and academic activities are sundered and patched together without orderly and broad based scrutiny. Haphazard decisions are made and rituals are discarded.

However, a congregation usually comes together during a crisis and its ritual practices, from teaching through reorganization, can be used to promote order, community, and transcendence. Order without community is tyranny. Community without transcendence yields mutual despair.

Some critics would charge that affirmations, activities and rituals are not enough to support any organization’s claim to sacredness, whether the claim is made by higher education or officially religious institutions. To illustrate, a critic for the Christian Chronicle lamented the secular temperament in many Christian churches. They were working hard “to resemble surrounding technological and bureaucratic organizations” by relying on committee meetings, questionnaires, self-studies, and related paraphernalia. The author concluded that these secular churches needed to recover “transcendence, which means a recovery of faith. For it is only within a recovery of the perspective of faith that we may recognize and redirect false needs and identify secondary needs idolatrously masquerading as ultimate ones.”

T.V. Smith wrote that higher education is busy with mid-sized moral truths instead of Ultimate Truth. That is lofty enough for me. It does not dismiss empiricism, even if many fundamentalist faiths do, and it lets me work within a context of morality and myths as well as materials and measurements. Those myths support the notion that our work is vocational, a calling, and not just fodder for buzzards to pick over.

Those birds will always be up there, and they look pretty serene in the sky. I have to accept that. It’s just as true that I don’t have enough capacity or courage to change how our work is measured on the ground. So what am I left with? Not just the “serenity to accept the things we cannot change.” The mythical perspective of higher education contains some wisdom about what should be kept and what should be changed. Marcus Borg might call the secular church a “science-plus” perspective instead of one that is restricted to science minus everything that cannot be measured. Great colleges, great churches, and great art are never created when Rembrandts just paint by the numbers.


Bob Young is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education and senior associate with the Center for Higher Education at Ohio University.


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