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Religion, Higher Education, and the Public Sphere, Week One: Brad Gregory on the Secularization of Knowledge

This summer, we’re reading through a number of essays and excerpts of books related to the relationship between religion, higher education, and the public sphere. Take a look at the overview of our readings.

We enjoyed a great conversation last week to kick off this summer’s reading group. We discussed chapter 6 of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which is a broad survey of the secularization of knowledge since the late middle ages. Here some of the main points we discussed:

  • We questioned the degree to which late medieval Catholicism provided a unified “institutionalized worldview.” On the one hand, Gregory seems overly optimistic about the amount of consensus that existed in late medieval Christendom. On the other hand, it seems reasonable that shared Christian practices may have unified diverse intellectual viewpoints in a way that became impossible once those Christian practices were no longer held in common.
  • We found convincing Gregory’s claim that religious pluralism was a significant driver of secularization: when people disagree on religious matters, there’s an incentive to bracket those areas of disagreement from the other areas (e.g., science) where you pursue a common cause.
  • We were skeptical of the broad claims Gregory made for “the Reformation” as an agent driving history. Consider the following sentence: “By rejecting the authority of the Roman church, the Reformation eliminated any shared framework for the integration of knowledge.” What does it mean to make such overarching claims about the agency of a historical movement as broad as the Reformation? A movement that stands in for such a diverse range of human agents, human institutions (religious, political, both, neither), and other diverse historical forces? Are claims like “the Reformation rejected” and “the Reformation eliminated” helpful in condensing and clarifying such a broad movement, or do they obscure the history?
  • What would a synthetic, integrative approach to higher education—one that resists extreme specialization and fragmentation—look like at a place as large and specialized as the U of M? We thought it would start with having administrators who are concerned for the integration of knowledge, and would likely involve revising requirements for undergraduates so that they all are required to think synthetically across a variety of fields. One idea was for the first year of studies for all students to be focused on moral questions—introduce different ideas about what it means to be human and how knowledge should be used in the world.

Next week we’re continuing the historical section of our reading group by focusing on the changing place of morality within the modern university. We’ll read essays by Julie Reuben and George Marsden from The Hedgehog Review, as well as one exchange among these authors and philosopher Richard Rorty from the same issue.

Also consider reading Max Weber’s classic address, “Science as a Vocation,” which has been a touchstone for later discussions of the purposes of academic knowledge and its relation to morality. (“Science” here is a translation of the German Wissenschaft, which includes all academic knowledge, not just the natural sciences.)

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