What’s the University For?   /   Fall 2000   /    Articles

The Incoherent University

George Marsden

THE THESIS THAT AMERICAN SECULAR RESEARCH universities are intellectually and morally incoherent may seem, at least in some circles, so much a self-evident truism as to require no defense. Yet, as much as has been written on this theme, it does not seem that the universities themselves, the public who support them, nor the students who attend them take seriously the implications of this thesis, if it is indeed true. Particularly, they seldom face the implication that such universities are not usually the best places to go to get an education, if education is to involve a constructive moral dimension.

This thesis is, of course, open to a number of objections. First is the practical matter that such statements are liable to be abused by anti-intellectual populist legislators, who use such sentiments to undermine support for the university education generally. Critics of higher education need to recognize the many values of universities, including moral value, and to preserve the ideal of free inquiry. By the same token, friends of universities should not consider arguments that universities are morally incoherent as off limits simply because such arguments may be abused. Rather universities are the very places within which to make such arguments and to face their implications.

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