Chapter 1, “The Marginalization of Our Universities” pp. 3-22.
Sommerville begins his book with a very interesting question. He asks in what way Universities are marginalized. He goes on to consider that in many aspects they are not leading forces. For instance, while the academy leans politically to the left, society is moving to the right. The interests of the academy are increasingly separate from those of the culture as a whole. It appears that universities are becoming isolated from the world, rather than leading the world (Sommerville 2006, 3). While in Europe the academy has a secular worldview which is reflected in the society, in the United States the secular academy is often countered by a religious culture which wins elections. Sommerville suggests that the university is “increasingly marginal to American society” as “a result of its secularism” (Sommerville 2006, 4). The questions our society has may be too religious for the secular academy. Sommerville goes on to list numerous sample questions which the academy appears poorly equipped to answer (Sommerville 2006, 4-5). Sommerville further observes that he is thinking of not only the elite colleges, which many see as out of touch. Most students attend average colleges, which he thinks are also detached from the world of normalcy (Sommerville 2006, 6).
Sommerville associates the decline of the unviersity with what he calls a “postsecular” worldview, “in which cultural fashion has replaced intellectual argument” (Sommerville 2006, 6). This cultural fashion is able to change quickly and cannot be argued for or against using the methods of rationalism. He compares the climate to that of the early twentieth century and finds significant differences. A hundred years ago the emphasis was placed on an information and technical base needed to participate in the current world. Now, however, the degree is intended to enable people to participate in society. However, in the early 20th century there was an assumption that civic character was based on an understanding of certain cultural values. Sommerville thinks this element of philosophy is now absent. The reason he gives is that the secular university of the 1900s sought to replace religious thought with liberal arts and humanities. The professors would replace religious experts. However, the liberal arts education has become less robust and the faculty have not been able to guide students using the methods imagined (Sommerville 2006, 8).
Sommerville considers the arcane topics of academic seminars, noting that the average person, whose tax dollars fund higher education, would find incomprehensible and useless. He also notes the increasing specialization of departments and academic units. The growth of subspecialties means that a broad education is less and less available (Sommerville 2006, 9). Further, with the explosion of information there has been a decreasing emphasis on wisdom and context. Because academics can’t or won’t pursue wise decisions, the public increasingly ignores them. Worst of all, Sommerville says, is that the increasing secularization hs removed some of the important moral and philosophical reference points needed to have a reasoned discussion (Sommerville 2006, 10). Despite Sommerville’s recognition that secularization has pushed religion to the side in culture, politics, and academics, his book will focus on the negative effect of secularization on academia, not on religion (Sommerville 2006, 11).
Sommerville makes it clear that the term “secularization” merely indicates “the separation of religion from various aspects of life and of thought” (Sommerville 2006, 11). For this reason, secularization can be carried on by a highly religious person who keeps those religious views out of sight in certain contexts. Counter to this, “secularism” seeks “to complete and enforce secularization” (Sommerville 2006, 11). This would attempt to force religion out of life entirely.
As the academy tended to move toward secularism, particiularly in the sciences, it found itself unable to answer questions of values, interests, or of the importance of cultures (Sommerville 2006, 13). It may be important to step back out of secularism, though still allowing for secularization on some levels. The secularism may hve deprived us of language and thought patterns needed to express and analyze worldviews (Sommerville 2006, 14). At the same time, Sommerville thinks secularism is becoming more muddled and difficult to defend. This may well be because it is also an ideology (Sommerville 2006, 15).
Sommerville observes that the 19th century saw a move in academia from a fairly ingrained assumption of religious value to more of an interest in religion as an academic point of view (Sommerville 2006, 15-16). At the same time, science took the position of greatest authority. During the 20th century, the idea of a religious morality was gradually turned into a study of ethics, then eventually it lost its religious tone altogether (Sommerville 2006, 17). The academic world became more distant from questions of religion, even during times of religious revival. It became more entrenched in secularism.
The idea of intellectual discourse also endured change, especially in the 20th century. Sommerville observes that a “marketplace of ideas” means something very different today than it did around 1900 (Sommerville 2006, 19). In 1900 the work of scholarship was routinely published in a few journals. It used proofs and logical argumentation. It was possible to interact with scholarly work from various disciplines. With the explosion of publishing it became more difficult to sort through the many arguments. As a result, Sommerville finds a greater emphasis on tolerance and diversity as opposed to proofs based on logical use of data (Sommerville 2006, 19). Sommerville does not show clearly how this outcome would occur. He does speak of a democratization of ideas and opinions (Sommerville 2006, 19) which may be the source of the shift. If all opinions are of equal value, regardless of the evidence, the majority gets to decide what truth is. If they agree that truth is different for different people, then suddenly everyone is right, regardless of data and logical analysis.
He does make a connection between postmodernism and the move from fact to fashion. This could easily lead to an academic culture in which any opinion is authoritative (Sommerville 2006, 20). In the end, students are left to themselves when it is time to work with the most difficult questions of values and morality. The modern view of scholarship does not have the tools to do so. Sommerville says this is due to the constraints of secularism (Sommerville 2006, 21).