Ralph Hancock has a provocative article in the March edition of First Things in which he raises concerns about the specialization/secularization he sees occurring at Brigham Young University:
“For some decades, BYU had managed a compromise between the academic mainstream and its own aspiration to a distinctive mission. [While encouraging excellence in the scholarly communities in which we participate, leaders have also] urged the faculty to resist hyper-specialization, by which we seek merely to ‘imitate others or win their approval,’ and instead to assume the responsibility of ‘those educated and spiritual and wise [to] sort, sift, prioritize, integrate, and give some sense of wholeness… to great eternal truths.’ But the machinery of specialization was already in place, and it has only accelerated.
“While the mainstream academic suppression of all questions of transcendent purpose and of associated moral limits was taken as a given across the disciplines, and while most researchers and teachers deferred intellectually, in their specialized professional capacities, to the authority of a rationalist and reductionist framework of understanding, they were not for the most part concerned to draw the moral, political, and religious implications. The authority of a reductionist scientism and an ethic of limitless personal freedom grew steadily in the human sciences and humanities, but most BYU professors were happy to consider their scientific or scholarly work as ‘value-neutral’ and to compartmentalize their religious and moral beliefs in a ‘private’ domain supposedly exempt from the ordering paradigm of their discipline. Even the relatively few professors knowingly committed to the moral and political implications of the secular–progressive paradigm often felt no urgent need to convert less enlightened students.”
This trend toward specialization/secularization, he argues, has left professors and students at BYU less capable of countering “liberationist or reductionist arguments by critiquing fundamental ideas”:
“One student remarked to me: ‘I have noticed in my classes that it is almost taboo to defend a conservative position on issues that align with church doctrine. I feel like I am being bold by stating my opinion on issues that are supported by the doctrine. I wonder if other students feel similarly.’ Without engaging the ideas underlying the moral and political forces of secular progressivism, BYU can only cooperate by default with the dominant movement. To acquiesce to the authority of the secular academic establishment is effectively to endorse it and to bolster it, even if most do not intend this effect.”
The stakes, he argues, are crucial:
“The tragic result of BYU’s movement from its distinctive, countercultural mission is that many good young Latter-day Saints feel that they have to choose between being thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed and being loyal to fundamental moral and religious principles. Happily, many faculty provide living counterexamples to this generalization, but few take up the task of providing an intellectual alternative. The secular culture intimidates some of the best of the rising generation by presenting them with this alternative: You can be counted among the smart people, or you can cling to your groundless and cruel prejudices. BYU shows little interest in articulating a third choice: an intellectual defense of openness to unfashionable truths.”
He predicts that a breaking point is on the horizon, concluding that “[t]o preserve what remains of BYU’s legacy and to build a truly distinctive and enduring university on this foundation of openness to Truth will require much of BYU’s faculty and administration in the very near future.”
As a philosophical matter, I think Hancock is right to point to the passivity of contemporary academics in the face of a technological culture in which a naive empiricism has fostered an increasingly specialized and reductive intellectual order. Assuming a “value neutral” method, many scholars today–particularly those bent on reducing all aspects of academic life to one form of quantitative research or another–reject out of hand as uninteresting and irrelevant most fundamental questions of purpose, meaning and ethics. This development is exacerbated by the growing specialization that continues to narrow the focus of professional researchers, further limiting these scholars’ areas of expertise. Moreover, by ignoring the limits of the kinds of claims that can be made on the basis of their methodological findings, many scholars have become increasingly oblivious to the actual need to ground their claims at all. To foster the broader range of discussion that BYU desires, I think it is key to keep these limits at the center of the conversation and to highlight the enormous significance that religious, moral and ethical understanding provide to the foundation of spiritual and intellectual life.
That said, I think the portrait that Hancock paints at times feels somewhat reductionist. I’m often left wondering what exactly he means when he uses the terms “liberal,” “secular,” and “progressive,” and I believe there is a danger in asserting that the appropriate political and social response to the ungrounded aspects of contemporary academics is expressed in the confrontation of impoverished versions of today’s conservative and liberal ideologies. I think it actually behooves us to avoid holding the restored gospel hostage to these or any other transient ideological constructs.
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