As part of his fascinating keynote address at the S-USIH conference last Saturday, David Hollinger argued that there is an inverse relationship between levels of higher education – particularly higher education at secular institutions – and beliefs in the supernatural. This secularizing effect of university education does not necessarily crudely translate into “disbelief.” Nevertheless, those religious adherents with a university education – even at a sectarian school – are less likely to insist, for example, on supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. But this broadening (or, perhaps from a religious point of view, diminishing) of epistemic horizons is not evenly distributed among various faith communities, because some are more likely to pursue a college education than others.
At one point in his lecture, Hollinger provided some statistics regarding education levels for various Christian denominations and sects. I didn’t write down the numbers, and I don’t want to rely on my memory to make specific statistical claims. But I do recall being unsurprised not just by the numbers, but also by the order in which he gave them, from most educated to least educated. Episcopalians and Unitarians were up at the top, while Baptists and Pentecostals were near the bottom. The group with the fewest college-educated members was Jehovah’s Witnesses – if I recall correctly, about ten percent of JWs have a college education.
What I found interesting, as Hollinger laid out this data, was the response of the audience in the lecture hall. As the percentages got lower, I could hear a smattering of gasps and occasional laughter. I don’t think it was the laughter of mockery; I think it was either the laughter of astonishment or the laughter of recognition. I think some folks in the room must have been genuinely surprised at the relatively low education levels of several of these groups. And I think others might have been laughing to have their own experiences in the academy confirmed by empirical data.
Much like David Hollinger, several folks in the room probably had their own version of a personal secularization story to tell. (I know I do – though don’t expect to hear it any time soon.) But it’s possible that most folks in the room were always already secular. And if some of them laughed, perhaps it was simply because this whole business of believing getting in the way of knowing was just so foreign to their own experience – though perhaps confirmed in their experience of teaching students from these backgrounds.
In any case, the laughter wasn’t extensive, or sustained. But it was noticeable – especially in response to the stat about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that JW proselytism relies so heavily upon purportedly historical and philological arguments, sophistical hermeneutics, and so forth. There is in their training and presentation a pretense to erudition of an academic kind, but it comes with the ready-made apologia that the university as an institution has been so corrupted by false teaching over the centuries that no scholarship emanating from it – scholarship that easily refutes JW arguments — can be trusted. If anyone has ever had that fruitless conversation at the front door on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning, I can understand a chuckle of wry recognition.
I don’t suppose most academics recognize themselves in the proselytizer on their doorstep. But I hope that they would at least put themselves through the mental exercise of trying to imagine what it is like to be raised to be suspicious of education. Judging from Hollinger’s larger argument about education and secularization, those suspicions on the part of the faithful of whatever sect or creed are in some sense well founded – the university will challenge and change not just what you know, but your very ways of knowing. That’s powerful stuff.
During the Q&A following the keynote, someone asked a question about what relationship there might be between higher education levels, secularization, and greater openness to social justice movements. In the course of his response, Hollinger suggested that an interest in social justice hardly requires a secular world view, and that many social justice movements are built upon Christian principles. “You know,” he added, “on Galatians 3:28, and so forth.” And on he went.
As soon as Hollinger said it, I wondered how many people in that room were saying to themselves, “What the hell is Galatians 3:28? Am I supposed to know this?” But nobody raised a hand to ask. I’m sure everybody got that it was a Bible verse, and perhaps a fair number knew it’s from the Pauline epistles. Those who had closely read Luther, or William Lloyd Garrison, had probably come across the verse or the logic behind it. But my surmise is that only a small minority of folks in that packed lecture hall immediately caught the reference and called the verse to mind.
For those of you who were wondering, here’s what it says:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
I don’t think knowing Bible verses off the top of your head is a requirement for being an intellectual historian. I suppose some might consider it a disqualification. I do think, however, that intellectual historians – and maybe just academics in general – would do well to remember how transformative a college education can be for all of our students, perhaps especially for those who bring with them some wariness about what and how they are being taught.
It’s a magnificent human and humane endeavor in which we are engaged, this shared quest for knowledge — or, if I may dare say so, this quest for wisdom. It is nothing to be feared, even when we occasionally get ferocious with each other. Chris Shannon’s review of Jewett’s book – the most read post of last week, by a wide margin – was just damn ferocious. My comment in reply – the most read comment of last week, I suppose – was pretty damn ferocious too. But in person, face to face, Chris was not fearsome at all. (I don’t think I was either, but who am I to say?) He was very pleasant, and easy to talk to, and we had a nice chat. Didn’t change any minds about our respective views of the university, but perhaps changed our views of each other, and in the process found a way to make room for difference and dissent. Just another day in the life of the university, right?
It was a pleasant conclusion to an absolutely extraordinary day for me – indeed, the whole conference was extraordinary. But what the conference — and all the many simultaneous and overlapping and cross-cutting conversations folks engaged in throughout the weekend — modeled so well really was that: just another day in the life of the university. It’s a life that, at its best, at our best, has so much to offer because it constantly reminds us that we still have so much to learn.