Academic Values and Prophetic Discernment

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 20, 1976, pp. 889-894. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Our culture faces a spiritual crisis:. Faculty and students continue to operate in a spiritual climate where even the best are filling merely the outward requirements of their roles and suffering the malaise of aimlessness and false consciousness. The "worst," having no such tender sensibilities of mind or spirit, are zealous to fulfill whatever careerist goals are set for higher education by our technetronic and industrial society.

In 1965 I wrote a book called The Crisis of Cultural Change. While it was not news then that pervasive change was afoot, it has taken the traumas of the past ten years -- an immoral and lost war, racial and sexual conflict, the imminence of economic and ecologic collapse -- to persuade us of just how deep that crisis is. Not so long ago it was thought that the problems of higher education were merely methodological -- that, while complex, they could be solved in time the way you would solve a giant crossword puzzle. But unfortunately that technical, rational approach simply hasn’t worked: while many logistic problems of one kind or another on the nation’s campuses have been solved, both faculty and students continue to operate in that spiritual climate where, as Yeats prophetically put it, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

It is sadly true that the "best" are slowly withdrawing their commitment to an increasingly philistine academic culture and its institutional forms, filling merely the outward requirements of their roles and suffering the malaise of aimlessness and false consciousness. The "worst," having no such tender sensibilities of mind or spirit, are zealous to fulfill whatever careerist goals are set for higher education by our technetronic and industrial society. Thus, the deepening cynicism of some and the frenetic activity of others are symptoms of that deeper crisis in the meaning and purpose of higher education which we are just beginning to face.

Fortunately, more and more persons in higher education have begun to face up to this situation. People like Henry David Aiken in The Predicament of the University and Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed pursue the kind of fundamental query about the ends of higher education which John Henry Newman, Matthew Arnold and Robert Hutchins did in earlier generations. Furthermore, the growing concern among academicians about "values" in higher education is an attempt to come to grips with that deeper crisis. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Change have been much concerned about values recently, as have the American Association of Higher Education and the other Washington-based educational agencies; the Danforth Foundation recently held a workshop on values in liberal arts education, and the whole issue has been given academic credibility by programs in moral development and in value analysis at several universities. However effective such approaches turn out to be as instruments of inquiry and change (and I will explain my doubts about them later), their current vogue is a sign that the crisis in higher education is at least being joined at the level of meaning and purpose rather than merely at the level of methodology. I want here to sketch out how this growing concern might be deepened and, especially, how Jews and Christians -- the biblical people of God -- can contribute to its deepening and its potential for beneficent change in academic culture.

Dynamics of Institutional Values

Value in institutions is not, as the individualist would have it, simply the sum of the values of the individuals within it. If that were true, the appropriate strategy for change would be to affect each separate individual, one after the other. Rather, value in institutions is systemic, assuming a variety of forms, and it is this coherent and focused system of values which socializes every living person in any institution, overtly and covertly. Thus, in order to affect those individuals’ values in any fundamental, lasting way, the existing system of values must be changed.

Further, value in institutions is not, as the ideologues of rationalism would have it, inert and abstract -- lying there before our manipulating minds as the world is presumed to lie before the natural scientist. No, value in its systemic forms is pulsing with power, possessing capacities for concealment, beguilement and the like, achieving a kind of spiritual hegemony over institutions and persons. In fact, St. Paul defined our real situation much more clearly than most contemporary social scientists, bemused as they are by positivist dogma, when he observed: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).

Let me briefly define three aspects in which value socializes all of us who live, move and have our being in an institution of higher education. First and most concretely, institutions incarnate value in the way they order space and time. As James Ackerman, writing in the Harvard Educational Review, reminds us, "Architecture is the physical form of social institutions"; and it is generally the economic establishment that determines the values incarnated in the buildings of a place and period:

"In the Middle Ages, colleges like those at Oxford looked like monasteries because the Establishment was theocratic; today, our high schools look like factories and regiment students like the labor force because the Establishment is commercial and industrial" ("Listening to Architecture," 1969, pp. 4-5). I recall two huge, cylindrical high-rise dormitories at Ohio State University sitting in the midst of a bare and windy plain. They are considered an engineering tour de force because their only source of energy is natural gas -- conveyed by a single steel umbilical cord -- which is then generated into heat and power. O brave new world! It does not take much imagination to see the doctrine of humankind which is incarnated in these twin monster beehives, to realize which establishment that doctrine serves, and to guess the effect in self-image and world view on its compacted, droning students who spend four years there. It is heartening that some people are sane enough to go mad in them and, hence, to establish themselves in more human precincts. Students call these buildings, with rueful affection, Sodom and Gomorrah!

But even the less bizarre versions of the beehive, rabbit warren or factory have similar socializing powers. Immaculate and extensive greensward, hedgerows, and neocolonial buildings carefully separating the college from its surrounding world -- these bespeak an elitist, dualistic and static notion of truth, and they insinuate that notion into the lives of those who live there. The numbering, rather than naming, of buildings at MIT and their severe geometricity create a positivist ambience. Similarly, the segmenting of academic time into stiff, interchangeable units molds the psyches of the inhabitants according to the very precise values and needs of a technetronic establishment. Clearly, too, there are arrangements here and there in the academic world which carry more humane assumptions that enlarge and vivify their inhabitants. But because, as Ackerman says, the economic establishment usually calls the shots, these places are not very numerous.

Hidden Curricula and Sentient Ideology

Taking a slightly deeper cut, we can also see systemic and sentient value in the formal patterns of institutional behavior, in the bureaucracy of education. After years of research on several campuses, Benson Snyder in The Hidden Curriculum (MIT Press, 1973) found that every student must master a mass of unstated norms which have enormous socializing effect, often exactly the opposite of the stated goals. Every college catalogue, for example, declares that this institution is to be a community of scholars, all working together -- albeit in differing roles -- to discover truth, to advance knowledge, to serve humankind, and so on. In fact, however, the word the academy has for such cooperative engagement (when it actually comes to pass) is "cheating." No, what the hidden curriculum teaches is competition, not communality.

Snyder says that it is this "hidden curriculum" which determines the sense of worth and self-esteem held by people within the academy. Grading on a curve is the main instrumentality for sharpening the competitive spirit at MIT, and while this institution holds up the communal ideal and explicitly tries to foster it through student activities and the like, it is the skills of the solitary predator that count for survival -- for faculty as well as students. The predator’s skills and attitudes are also those cherished by the economic establishment, and successfully learning them is the way value is most profoundly appropriated at MIT and at other institutions of higher education as well.

But value -- systemic and sentient, as "principalities and powers" -- finds its fundamental expression as ideology. Henry David Aiken in The Predicament of the University (Indiana University Press, 1973) argues that the "ideology of rationalism" is the ruling principality of higher education, subtly subjugating every other capacity of the self and every other version of the world in the name of its puritanical dualism. The arrogant elite it creates, structured into academic life, is especially vulnerable to tyrannical political power. The rationalist ideology denies the full development of the "constructive imagination,"

whose aim is not to inform us about what is or ought to be but to offer envisagements of what might be and to fashion symbolic forms to which questions of literal fact are not determining. . . . Their loss, or worse their repudiation among literal-minded "cognitivists," concerned exclusively to describe or explain what is the case, entails not only for themselves but for societies and educational systems which view them as exemplary, a terrible constriction of the whole life of the human spirit and a ghastly depletion of man’s capacity for refreshment and self-renewal [p. 370].

Christopher Jencks and David Riesman in The Academic Revolution (Doubleday, 1968) argue that the meritocratic world view is the basic determinant of academic life and "an inevitable feature of highly organized societies with a very specialized division of labor." They say that "meritocracy brings with it what we will call the national upper-middle class style: cosmopolitan, moderate, universalistic, somewhat legalistic, concerned with equity and fair play, aspiring to neutrality between regions, religions, and ethnic groups" (p.12). What Jencks and Riesman seem to be describing is a welding of the ideology of rationalism with the bourgeois, individualistic spirit of capitalism. The style they describe -- and which, I expect, we all recognize -- is, at first blush, blandly unexceptionable; but it is also absolutely intolerant of moral passion, of strong affective expression, or of spiritual vision. Such a style is meant to cool us out sufficiently, to make us tractable enough, in order to fit the manpower needs of the aforesaid "highly organized societies with a very specialized division of labor."

Changing Academic Values

I am less interested here to press my description of the particular values that inhere in academic life than I am to insist that, whatever their identity, they are built into the institution’s spatial and temporal forms, its patterns of behavior, and its ideological set; and that value, both systemic and sentient, has a profound socializing effect. If we are serious about value reform in higher education, we must certainly reckon with this situation. Let me now sketch out several necessary, if not sufficient, requirements for a strategy that could transform the academic establishment.

In the first place, the description of how value functions in the academy must be pressed as deeply as possible because the problem of value socialization is yet widely unrecognized. The still prevalent notion of the academy as a value-free marketplace for the free exchange of ideas -- or for the neutral impartation of data and skills to the young -- must be exposed for the delusion it is. Needless to say, the ideology of rationalism is one of the main supports of this delusion of neutrality. One could argue further that value has special socializing potency in the academy because of what sociologist Everett Hughes calls "the cloistering effect," the powerful socializing impact on persons who live almost totally immersed for a period of time within one institutional setting.

A second part of the strategy is to help colleges and universities become more up-front about their real operative values. It is possible for people to achieve a measure of freedom, from the socializing power of institutionalized values if they can see them and their workings with some clarity. A few years ago, teaching a course on religion in Western civilization at MIT, I struggled to screen out my own religious bias from my presentation of the materials. Not only did that effort take all the juice out of teaching, making the course a dull business for all of us, but I could never quite allay the students’ suspicion (and mine) that I was still covertly an apologist for Christianity. In the second year that I taught the course, I spent the whole first session laying out that dilemma and spelling out what I understood my own bias to be. That cleared the air. The students were able to establish as much distance from my values -- or closeness to them -- as they wished.

A third element in the strategy would be to encourage an open clash of commitments in academic communities. It will be argued that educational institutions are already at pains to entertain a wide world of ideas, but this is not exactly the case. For one thing, faculty have themselves -- in the cloistered process of graduate education and the struggle for tenure -- been through a profound socialization process. For another, outside speakers and the like, appearing briefly on campus, are inevitably treated as entertainers rather than purveyors of serious challenges to the life of the institution. In order to provide the necessary foils to our essentially homogenous academic culture, we must find ways of introducing into the academic world sustained confrontation with persons whose basic life-commitments and institutional contexts -- not just their cognitive positions -- are decisively different from ours.

Fourth, we must also encourage the development of ongoing cadres of persons within the academic community whose own deepest commitments are decisively other than its meritocratic and rationalistic ideology. I mean here not just cadres which hold differing ideologies, although that is part of what I mean; more, I mean those who have perceived a world which is prior to any ideology, one which calls all ideologies to account -- people who have consciously chosen to live the life of faithful citizens of that "real" world.

Calling Ideology to Account

Ignazio Silone worked as an underground agent in the communist cause for years in fascist Italy. In Emergency Exit (Harper & Row, 1968) he describes his compulsion to leave the Communist Party when it became clear to him that the party was more interested in institutional and ideological aggrandizement than in alleviating the suffering of the oppressed. He writes:

My faith in Socialism (I suppose my subsequent conduct bears witness to it) has remained more alive than ever. In its essentials it has returned to what it was when I first rebelled against the old social order: an extension of the ethical requirements of the restricted individual and family sphere to the entire realm of human activity; a need for effective brotherhood; an affirmation of the priority of the human person above all the economic and social mechanisms which oppress him. With the passage of years there has been added a reverence for that which incessantly drives mankind to surpass itself and which is at the root of his unallayable anxiety. But I do not mean to press for my own brand of Socialism. The "insane truths" I mentioned are far older than Marxism. . . . I cannot conceive of Socialism tied to any particular theory, only to a faith. The more Socialist theories claim to be "scientific," the more transitory they are. But Socialist values are permanent. The distinction between theories and values is still not clearly enough understood by those who ponder these problems, but it is fundamental. A school of a system of propaganda may be founded on a collection of theories. But only on a system of values can one construct a culture, a civilization, a new way of living together as men [pp. 98-99].

Always, in every place and every time, those who provide the energy and insight for real change in the human condition are those for whom values are not just ethical generalizations or moral ideals but, rather, life lived in faithfulness to apparently "insane truths" which define a real world as they have been given eyes to see it. Without such spiritual grounding and commitment, we are inevitably defeated by the world. This conclusion is St. Paul’s, after describing the awesome strength of the principalities and powers to diminish human life: "Therefore," he advises, "take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." After specifying that armor in some detail, he concludes: "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication" (Eph 6:13, 18).

Only such a serious, sustained, communally supported life in an alternate spiritual identity can provide the discriminating vision and the energy for bringing about real value change in higher education. It is because of their lack of such alternate grounding that most of the current efforts in "value analysis" and "moral development" seem so frail. The problem is that the leading practitioners of these voguish arts operate precisely within that same ideology of rationalism which possesses academic culture. While Sidney B. Simon at the University of Massachusetts and his colleagues claim that their values-clarification approach "does not aim to instill any particular set of values," they certainly reveal their ideological bias toward the autonomous, bourgeois, rationalistic self when they talk about "learning a process for selecting the best and rejecting the worst elements contained in the various value systems. And the six-stage theory of value formation, from lowest to highest value, which Harvard’s Laurence Kohlberg claims has universal validity both descriptively and normatively reveals that same rationalistic hubris. In short, these analytical instruments and others like them are not very likely to expose the pervasive ideology by which we in the academic world shape our life together, for they are rooted in that very ideology.

God’s People in the Process of Change

One might expect that biblical people in the academy would be grounded in an alternative spiritual identity which would stimulate continuous, creative challenge to the academic ideology. Generally speaking, however, the new spiritual enthusiasts -- Pentecostals and the like -- are so individualistic and world-escaping that they avoid cultural analysis and encounter; and many of us of mainline persuasion, seeming to have lost all clarity about our spiritual identity, are captive to the academic principalities. Daniel Bell defined this latter dilemma for Protestants and Catholics a couple of years ago. About the Protestants he says:

In its liberal theology, Modernism had preached a moralistic humanism in which the doctrine of the redemption of man had been equated with a view of a future society in which men would be freed from institutional constraints and achieve moral perfection. . . . The more serious effort to concern itself primarily with ethical rather than theological problems, as the followers of Bonhoeffer have done, has led them outside the framework of biblical language and judgment, and has tended to dissolve their religious answers either into personal morality or social activism which, while serious in its intention, has made them weathercocks turning freely in the cultural winds. In matters of doctrine, liberal clergy has lost its moorings. All that remains is the impulse of social idealism in politics ["Religion in the Sixties," Social Research (Autumn 1971), pp. 459-60].

Then Bell goes on to summarize the situation for Roman Catholics in the 1970s:

. . . if one looks at the new liturgies and celebrations, one can see that they are primarily cultural experiences expressed in religious language. That is, they involve no new code of beliefs, or an articulated view of a general order of existence, but rely entirely on rituals, on an acting out of feelings in a permissive group setting. And this is why they, too, will become quickly exhausted, to be replaced within the decade by some new kind of search, psychological, cultural, or religious [p. 485].

Bell’s brushstrokes are broad, but I fear (being one of those "liberal clergy") that the picture he paints is all too real, at least as it obtains in the academic world.

Kenneth Underwood’s book The Church, the University, and Social Policy was a splendid analysis, providing campus Protestants (at least) with a useful typology for self-understanding. But Underwood found his spiritual authority more in the academic ideology of rationalism than in the dark mystery of a crucified Messiah; his final vision is a rather flat social idealism in which the academic world is adulated. More recent versions of the Underwoodian vision picture Jerusalem and Athens going hand in hand into the sunset of service to humankind, though one suspects that Athens really has Jerusalem in an armlock. What has happened in these latter days is that in the academic world, the biblical people -- especially Protestants -- whose usefulness to that world is predicated on their being in but not of it, and on their having a certain beneficent spiritual leverage to bring to bear on it, have by and large succumbed to it. The salt has lost its savor.

‘Behold, I Am Doing a New Thing’

In this situation as in others, the vocation of the biblical people of God, Jewish and Christian, is prophetic discernment. What we need to engage in are acts of imagination that penetrate the apparent opacity and aimlessness of the historical present, and reveal how persons and institutions are accomplishing their destinies in relation to the sovereign God of history. Yahweh in Second Isaiah impatiently enjoins the people to such discernment:

Remember not the former things,

nor consider the things of old.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

[Isa. 43:18-19]

The university, like every human institution, is subject to the sovereignty of God. Its authenticity depends finally on how well it discerns and responds to God’s initiatives, his "new thing" springing forth in the soil of the present.

The landscape of the present, however, becomes illuminated only for those whose sight has been trained by the great illuminating events of the past. While the people of God are not to be bemused by the "things of old," their capacity to discern the real in the present moment must derive from a profound understanding of how God’s action and the people’s response have interacted to shape the past. Israel’s prophets were able to foresee the wrath of God descending upon the people when they oppressed the weak because God had demonstrated his love for the oppressed and his anger against the oppressor repeatedly in time past -- most notably in the Exodus. The whole priestly apparatus of cult, ritual and ceremonial -- which helps people to recognize their historical vocation and trains them in the means and "manners" of relating to God -- is necessary for the creation of that prophetic imagination which sees God’s shaping presence in this moment. In short, if the people of God today do not have a lively knowledge of how God acted in the past, they will not recognize him in the present; they are likely to be overcome by that blindness which the prophets called hardness of heart, and in fact they may lose their identity altogether. The biblical people in the academic world -- at least those of the Protestant dispensation -- have, I believe, nearly fallen into this latter condition.

If Christians are to contribute prophetically to the struggle for new meaning and purpose in academic life, they must attend with quickened imagination to "the teaching of the apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers." Since the first Christian communities these "priestly" activities have nourished the spiritual identity of Christians as a peculiar people. Thus possessed of their identity, knowing themselves to be in but definitely not of the academy, these biblical people might then become one community of ongoing spiritual energy and moral insight for all those who are working to expose the academy’s covert operative values and searching for new academic purpose. Even though they may be few in number on the campus, biblical Christians engaging in acts of prophetic discernment can be crucial in the movement for transforming the university.

Prophetic Vision and Values Analysis

The "values" movement is ‘one area in which Christians can be prophetic in academia. The prophetic disposition sees all reality in terms of historical eventfulness -- it weighs every event by its tendency to conspire with or against God’s drive to shape history toward his kingdom of love and justice, and it understands that the human vocation is to participate in this struggle. This prophetic vision will clearly be uncomfortable with the bourgeois individualism of "value analysis" and the bland determinism of "moral development." In fact, it will be uncomfortable with the tendency of the whole "values" approach, both as description and as prescription, to impose an abstracting ideology of rationalism on the dynamic, sentient character of human existence. Just as Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling protested against Hegel’s moral universalism with the concept of "the teleological suspension of the ethical," and just as Buber in the Eclipse of God spoke out against the reduction of God to a concept, so the people of God today will raise a protest against the universalism and reductionism of the values approach. Academia’s addiction to the abstract is one of the reasons why higher education has trouble understanding and responding to its own malaise. Perhaps the biblical people of God, by pointing out the really real within the historical present, could help academic leaders to break out of this impacted perspective, as the university struggles for its soul.

One cannot be certain that cadres of Jews and Christians will be able so to possess their own souls that they can bring biblical perspectives to bear upon this struggle. But fortunately, something seems to be stirring in the land. Under the pressure of these times -- groaning with the sense of impending crisis which will change our life decisively -- increasing numbers of us are realizing that secular, technocratic liberalism can hardly name the malaise, much less respond to it. The world has begun to take on biblical lineaments again for more and more people, and the prophetic vision of reality, painful to assume though it is, again takes hold of their imaginations. At the very least, the dilemma of our historical moment -- in the academy and elsewhere -- is increasingly recognized for what it is, a spiritual crisis. The challenge to biblical people to exercise a critical ministry in the academic realm has never been clearer. Only time will tell if we will have the faith and the imagination to respond to a moment that seems weighted with the specific calling of God.