The problem of secular education, concisely stated

Current Wheaton College and former University of Washington professor Robert Tracy McKenzie:

For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

Not that any form of education is challenge-free, of course, but this is a perceptive observation.



  1. More seriously, though, interdisciplinarity is a very serious challenge. The yield is worth it, but there are too many professors fearful of their turf, and doubtful that there will be any gains worth the losses. Also, many are insecure, and afraid that their own incompetence will be exposed. Some who _are_ competent in their own domain are afraid that they will lose the ego-soothing (I write that with no judgment — pathologies often dovetail with very real human, personal needs that are otherwise unmet) recognition of their own island-mastery; venturing beyond the island to the island chain, or to the mainland, is terrifying, like opening a tenuously stapled-up wound. Then, as a culture, the goods that our liberal polity offers are often had at the expense of any language about what is universal, despite what I can only imagine as the difficulty of grounding human rights apart from universals. Having a mission statement makes this easier on some levels, but risks feeling illegitimate to all because the grounds for particular commitments shall eventually be summoned to appear in the forum of public discourse, and if they aren’t really on offer, the legitimacy of such a unifying element shall simply become one more thing in need of explanation in terms of something less than the whole of the parts. Some types of mission statement can weather such a storm better than others.

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