Higher Education and the Periodization of History

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu..

The following paper was delivered at Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas in October, 1998


The author portrays three periods in Western history — Christianism, nationalism and economism — and examines the implications for higher education. He proposes Earthism as a viable next step in our cultural development.

There is no one correct way to divide Western history into periods. But periodizing can nevertheless be illuminating. My proposal is to periodize in terms of what people are most devoted to, individually, but also, and especially, collectively. I will briefly explain the periodization that results and then discuss its relation to higher education, and in particular to the American liberal arts college.


For more than a thousand years the ideals and commitments of the West were shaped by Christianity. Most people identified themselves primarily as Christians. Ideally, the ultimate commitment was to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and for some people this was the reality. But as a mass phenomenon, and in relation to the major institutions of the period, this ideal was never realized. Practically, the object of devotion was Christianity, not God. Hence I call the real religion of this period "Christianism".

Christianism was without doubt a positive force in the lives of many of its adherents. It created a society with many admirable traits. It showed considerable concern for the poor. It established educational institutions that still survive. Its art and architecture match the achievements of any culture.

That it was Christianism and not truly devotion to God that reigned was shown in its treatment of Jews and in the crusades waged against the Muslim rulers of Palestine. That it was devotion to particular beliefs and institutions was clear in the viciousness of the treatment of heretics.

The crisis of Christianism came finally through the division of Western Christendom by the Reformation and the wars that followed upon that. In the first half of the seventeenth century religious disputes plunged Europe into the most destructive wars that had ravaged it at least since the fall of the Roman Empire.

At last Christians came to the conviction that civic peace was more important than the victory of one Christian community over others. They supported the shift of authority from church to state. Nations arose with the power to enforce peace among conflicting religious groups. Europeans began to identify themselves primarily, not as Christians, but as Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Germans. Supreme loyalty shifted from church to nation. The epoch of nationalism was born.

Nations gradually took over many of the functions of the churches. Eventually they became responsible for the poor. National laws replaced ecclesiastical regulations as the primary determinants of behavior. More and more education was state supported and operated.

Nations did much to earn the loyalty of their subjects. But they used this loyalty in competition with other nations. Wars among nations replaced religious wars as the primary cause of violence and destruction. Finally, in the first half of the twentieth century, extreme nationalism plunged the world into the immensely destructive conflict that was World War II. This War, together with the Holocaust against the Jews that accompanied it, discredited nationalism as the religious wars had discredited Christianism three hundred years earlier.

This was most apparent in Western Europe itself. After World War II, Europe could not go back to the nationalist system that had proved itself so destructive. It had to organize around the common interests of all Europeans, rather than around conflicting ones. These interests could most easily and clearly be defined as economic ones. Accordingly, it reorganized itself as the European Economic Community. The era of economism was born.

The same concern led to the establishment during the same period of global economistic institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the public view their creation at Bretton Woods was overshadowed by the creation of the United Nations in San Francisco. The latter could have meant that the era that would succeed the nationalist one would be an internationalist one. But the forces of economism were too strong. Power has progressively shifted from the United Nations, especially the General Assembly, to the global economic institutions. The primacy of the economy is expressed also in the fact that the annual meetings of the heads of the great powers are named economic summits.

Just as nationalism brought peace among religions, so economism has brought peace among the major nations. We no longer fear that conflicts between France and Germany will plunge the world into war. This is a great gain. Furthermore, the Western nations have achieved unprecedented prosperity. Economic developments have brought people from many nations into close contact that has overcome much of the ignorance, suspicion, and contempt that long dominated the Western imagination with respect to people of other races and places. Much more could be said in its favor.

On the other hand, the dark side of economism has manifested itself rapidly and clearly. The economic growth at which it aims is at the cost of the natural resources of the planet. Renewable resources are being used at rates far greater than they can be replaced. Nonrenewable resources are being exhausted even faster. Forests are disappearing; soils are being degraded; waters are being polluted; the atmosphere is being heated; species are becoming extinct. Meanwhile the human population of the planet continues to increase. The economistically-driven world is on a collision course with disaster.

Meanwhile, for hundreds of millions of people, the disaster has already happened. The globalization of the economy has caused a race to the bottom. That is, each corporation must seek to obtain goods at least as cheaply as its competitors. It can do so only by using the cheapest labor possible. Since the same economic system has separated hundreds of millions of people from their traditional means of sustenance, there is a vast underutilized labor supply. Nations must compete with one another to attract capital investments and thereby employment for their people.

The result is a downward pressure on wages and working conditions everywhere. In the United States, while there has been great economic growth, wages have been stagnant or worse. Sweatshops have reappeared in large numbers.

Internationally, conditions are far worse. To take just one example, according to David Korten, "The carpet industry in India exports $300 million worth of carpets a year, mainly to the United states and Germany. The carpets are produced by more than 300,000 child laborers working fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Many are bonded laborers, paying off the debts of their parents; they have been sold into bondage or kidnapped from low-caste parents. . . . The carpet manufacturers argue that the industry must have child laborers to be able to survive in competition with the carpet industries of Pakistan, Nepal, Morocco, and elsewhere that also use child laborers." (p. 232)

In my opinion the condition of these and hundreds of millions of other workers around the world is worse than that of slaves. Slave owners have a financial investment in their workers which leads to concern for their health. Today employers have no such investment and can readily replace workers who are injured or worn out.

No doubt there are still some who are persuaded by the vision of a global economy as the salvation of the world. But whereas this economistic idealism once fueled the move to this global economy, today the economistic system is sustained chiefly by the economic and political power of those who benefit from it. Those who know its effects around the world at first hand can no longer be true believers.

But is there an option. We can hardly go back to nationalism or Christianism. We must go forward. Where will that lead?

I believe that the answer to this question became clear at the time of the Rio Earth Summit. The official gathering achieved little more than a reaffirmation of international allegiance to economism modified by the notion that the economic growth it seeks should be sustainable. But a few miles away there was a gathering of representatives of nongovernmental organizations. These came from all over the world and represented highly diverse concerns. But at Rio they found a common voice and a common platform. David Korten played a leading role in this historic event.

They named their joint statement "The People's Earth Declaration: A Proactive Agenda for the Future". I call the position they take, and which has been elaborated at later NGO summits: Earthism. Earthism has emerged as an alternative to economism. It embodies informed idealism and elicits from many of us the kind of commitment that can lead to profound changes.

The term Earthism may suggest that a higher priority is placed on the natural systems of the planet than on its human inhabitants. Reading through the "Earth Declaration" will quickly indicate that lifting up the term "Earth" need not cut in that direction. The primary concern is with meeting the basic needs of people, enabling them to live in healthy communities and to take control over their own lives. Indeed, I am personally disappointed that more is not said about the natural environment.

But I share the conviction that, however great our concern for all the other creatures on this planet, our concern for fellow human beings is the greatest. Earthism does not mean worshipping the Earth or placing nonhuman nature above human beings. It does mean appreciating the value of the whole Earth with all the creatures that make it up and especially the human ones. It means evaluating all policies and actions according to their effect on these creatures and especially the poor and powerless of the human family.

The Earthist period of history has not arrived. Indeed, the power of economism has never been greater. Recently our rulers established the World Trade Organization involving the surrender of national sovereignty to a purely economistic organization protected from any popular influence.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the willingness of people to transfer power to global economic institutions and transnational corporations is declining. Thus far Congress has failed to pass the fast track legislation needed by Clinton to extend NAFTA to the remainder of the hemisphere. It has also balked at giving him the greenlight to complete negotiations on the Multilateral Agreement on Investments which would complete the disempowerment of nations in their relations to TNCs. The collapse of the Asian economies which were viewed with such pride by economistic thinkers has also undercut some of the idealism of economism. Such resistance and weakening of conviction is a long way from reversing basic trends, but it may indicate that the global public is ready for fresh ideas and that the tide of economism may begin to recede.


Against the background of this periodization of history, how can we view the history of higher education in the West and especially in the United States?

First, it is clear that Western higher education was the product of Christianism. The universities were creatures of the church. Theology was the queen of the sciences. They educated not only clergy but other professionals as well. Also the education was what we would call today broadly humanistic. But all of this was understood as in the service of Christendom.

Second, the rise of nationalism affected the universities less, or more slowly, than most other institutions. Well into the modern period, university education in Europe remained much what it had been in the high Middle Ages. As late as the twentieth century some dissertations were written in Latin. When I taught for a year at the University of Mainz in the 1960's, the Catholic and Protestant theological faculties retained officially, and I think even unofficially, the highest status in the university. I was struck also by the fact that the humanistic gymnasia through which students prepared for entry into the university taught them Greek and Latin and even Hebrew, just those languages most needed for a classical theological education.

Nevertheless, nationalism had played a role in shaping their interior life. Einstein expressed his disappointment that the universities offered little resistance to Nazification. One can even blame them for contributing to an intellectual climate in which the glorification of the nation and the defamation of Jewish residents and citizens could occur. To a large extent the formal Christianism of the universities had in fact been subordinated to nationalism.

Our interest, however, is primarily in the American scene. Here, too, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most higher education was initiated by the churches out of concern for a learned clergy. The institutions thus established rapidly broadened their horizons and purposes to include education for lay people as well. In the nineteenth century they evolved into what we now know as liberal arts colleges.

These colleges understood their task to be helping students to incorporate the values of Christian civilization and to be prepared to serve their society as leaders. The understanding of Christian civilization was shaped by the American experience and the society to be served was the American one. Little tension was felt between Christianism and nationalism. It was assumed that the values embodied in American society were Christian ones, and specifically American Protestant ones.

There was a gradual shift of emphasis from Christianism to nationalism. Many liberal arts colleges in the early twentieth century de-emphasized their church ties and accented their commitment to the wider society. Usually they did so with the blessing of the denominational founders. There was a strong sense of continuity between American culture, the importance of serving American society, and the values proclaimed in the Protestant churches.

The break that came with the post-World War II period was much more dramatic. The nation decided that higher education should be for all. State universities burgeoned and community colleges were introduced everywhere. Whereas prior to World War II liberal arts colleges provided the model for higher education, and universities were liberal arts colleges with graduate and professional schools attached to them, now the heart of higher education became preparation for a job.

Of course liberal arts education did not disappear from either universities or community colleges. Some requirements were retained to insure that students had an exposure to the Western tradition and some opportunity to cultivate their minds. But the weighting shifted overwhelmingly. The basic purpose for going to the community college or the university became economic. One needed to prepare for a higher paying job than could be obtained with a high school education.

Within universities there is another commitment that is in tension with the economistic one. It is to the academic disciplines. A major function, especially of doctoral studies, is to socialize students into the conceptuality and methodology of a discipline. These have come into being in considerable independence of economic or other extraneous considerations. Having become socialized into a discipline, many professors see their mission as advancing the discipline partly by their own research and partly by drawing new generations of students into it.

With regard to some disciplines there is little tension with the economistic context. The study of economics, for example, prepares one for good positions in government and business. Physicists, chemists, geologists, and biologists are in demand in various branches of industry. But this is not true of students of classics or English literature or philosophy. Their degrees qualify them only for college teaching. Since these fields do not lead to other well-paying positions, student interest wanes, and the number of teaching posts declines. The humanities are inevitably marginalized by economism.

Liberal arts colleges, happily, have not disappeared. Most of them have resisted the pressure simply to provide job training or pre-professional work. Nevertheless, I assume that those of you more closely involved with such colleges than I can testify that concessions to such pressures are usually necessary for survival. Higher education as a whole has become part of the economistic system to a degree that it never became part of the nationalist one.

Economism has created a context in which the market reigns everywhere. To attract students one must compete in the market. To compete in that market requires claiming that one prepares students to compete in the job market. Liberal arts colleges cannot escape this altogether. Nevertheless, their situation is different from that of the state universities and community colleges that dominate the scene.

This difference is highlighted now that we are all challenged by the call of Earthism. It is almost impossible for the state institutions to respond. They have been created as economistic institutions. Their task is to serve the market. If concerns for the environment produce new market niches, they can prepare students for those. They provide sufficient freedom so that individual faculty can influence students in an Earthist direction, and student activists can have some effect on campus policies. But there is currently no way in which these institutions can rethink their mission in light of Earthist ideals.

The continuing power of the academic disciplines, even though it resists economism, does not help here. A few academic disciplines, such as ecology, have produced leaders who have given impressive leadership in warning us of the consequences of economistic policies. But in general academic disciplines canalize attention and thought in ways that discourage relevance to the needs of the world. Their power in the university is more an obstacle than an aid in rethinking its mission.

The situation in liberal arts colleges is different. Whatever concessions they have made to economistic pressures, they continue to define themselves in terms of broader human values. They aim to enrich the personal lives of their students and to encourage them to serve society. Some of them still have ties to Christianity that are strong enough to give more powerful leverage against the economistic order.

My observation has been that the liberal arts colleges best able to think about themselves in terms of fundamental purposes resistant to economism are those from religious groups that have not long been assimilated into the American mainstream. Some Catholic colleges have this ability as do some colleges that come from the Left Wing of the Reformation. I have less hope for colleges founded by Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. But I do not despair. There is far more hope for them than for the dominant forms of higher education.

What is involved in shifting from the current mixture of Christianism, nationalism, and economism to an Earthist orientation? It is not my task to spell that out in any detail. But in a very general sense, I do want to share my views.

I believe that an Earthist liberal arts college would involve its faculty in identifying the greatest problems humanity now faces. These would include very personal problems, others at the level of society, and still others that are global. The faculty would then ask how an education can prepare students to understand these problems and respond to them. In my judgment this would require courses that do not correspond to those either of the liberal arts or of the university disciplines.

With respect to the global problems faced by humanity, for example, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences are all involved. Whether this means that team teaching must be the order of the day, or whether individual faculty members can retool themselves to draw on their colleagues' expertise, is not as clear. Some day it may be possible to employ faculty skilled in this kind of teaching, but today no graduate school offers such preparation.

David Orr has done much to show us still richer dimensions of an Earthist education. Students can be involved in studying their own location and in proposing and implementing appropriate changes. There can be little doubt that such learning goes much further to reshape one's outlook and sensibility than conventional classroom study alone.

A major obstacle, in addition to economism, to reordering the life of a liberal arts college is the extent to which it has been shaped by the illiberal academic disciplines. Liberal arts colleges have drawn their faculty from the universities. To obtain a PhD from a university, one must submit to socialization in one discipline or another. By the time one obtains the doctorate, one has learned to measure one's achievement in terms of contributing to the discipline and gaining recognition within it. Socialization involves the internalization of these values, so that asking a graduate of such a program to change in an Earthist direction is typically felt as corrupting.

Even if, as individuals, teachers see the value of the change, they know the price they are paying with respect to their career. They will not gain recognition or advancement by participating in transforming a college into an Earthist institution! The teaching and research they do in an Earthist context will not help them to advance to more prestigious posts in academia. Thus to adapt their teaching to Earthist purposes requires real commitment and dedication. Those of us who would encourage such moves need to be aware of what we are asking.

Fortunately the Earthist call to colleges is not an all-or- nothing affair. In most cases a gradual evolution beginning with the introduction of special courses and programs is far more realistic than restructuring an institution. Meanwhile the few that can act more radically will test the possibilities and inspire others to follow. The time has come to join the Earthist tide and do what we can.