The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives



Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Education Index

American Secular Higher Education:
The Experience Evaluated

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

So much has been written and said about secular higher education in North America that it seems almost arrogant to try to add anything new or different to a mounting library of information on the subject.

Yet perhaps I have a message and what I have to say will be of more than academic value, since it is born of experience with the secular university over the past sixteen years. In order to say as much as I can in a relatively short time, let me propose the following format for my presentation.

First a brief record about my experience: some places, names and dates as a kind of backlog on which I am drawing.

Then an evaluation of the North American system of secular higher education, in the light of this experience.

Experience with Secular Higher Education

My relationship with secular higher education has been going on since 1957, when I was asked to cooperate with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

The Association was conducting a five year research study into the possibility of preparing college graduates to teach moral and spiritual values in public schools. I was one of a board of three theologians, along with a Protestant and a Jew, to help the Association formulate its findings and make recommendations to the schools and departments of education in the country.

This work brought me into contact with the American Council on Education, with which I actively cooperated in the same capacity.

My concern to bring some semblance of values teaching into state-supported institutions of learning brought me the invitation to teach Catholic theology and comparative religion at a mid-western state university.

When I started there in 1962, I was the first Catholic priest directly hired by the State, to teach Roman Catholicism on the regular faculty, paid by the State. When I finished therein 1967, I was the last priest so employed. It was also an experiment of the Society of Jesus to test the prospects of Jesuits shifting their educational apostolate from their own colleges to working full time at secular universities.

Before, during, and since the state university experiment I have been very close to the American Association of University Professors, of which I am an active member.

Since leaving the state university and while on the faculty of Bellarmine School of Theology, I have for the past five years spent one semester each on the faculty of St. Paul and Ottawa Universities in Canada. The University of Ottawa is a secular institution of the Province of Ontario.

Finally during the past three years, the Jesuit theologate in Chicago (where I teach) has been part of a cluster of divinity schools surrounding the campus of the University of Chicago. Proximity to Chicago University and association with that institution was one of the principal motives for transferring the Jesuit presence there.

All along with those professional involvements with secular institutions and agencies of higher learning, I have lectured at some score universities that are professedly nonsectarian, including seven of the ten schools belonging to the Big Ten.

Some of these lectures have been published as monographs. Others have appeared in regional and national reports. And among my books is one, The Hungry Generation, which tells for three hundred pages what I had learned while teaching some two thousand students at a state university.

Evaluating Secular Higher Education

Out of this rich experience, which I believe is in many ways unique, have developed some fairly definite judgments. I consider them objectively valid, if for no other reason than the fact that they recognize and respect what secular colleges and universities are trying to do. There is no doubt in my mind that through a variety of circumstances not of their own making what we call secular institutions of higher learning are properly named.

But my thesis is more specific. I believe these schools have become not merely secular but secularist; and not merely by default but by design.

Meaning of Secularist

Immediately this calls for some clarification of terms.

By secular I mean the opposite of sacred. Where the sacred has to do with the absolute, the secular deals with the relative. Where the sacred concerns itself with the things of God, the secular is centered on the things of man. Where the sacred is focuses on the celestial and eternal, the secular concentrates on the earthly and ephemeral.

But how does secularist differ from secular? It differs as the whole differs from its parts. A secularist mentality is an exclusively secular mentality. The secular is an adjective, whereas secularism is a substantive. Secularism, as distinct from mere secularity, so concentrates on this-worldly values and this-worldly objects of space and time that the things of God—or of man’s seeking to please God now and reach God in eternity—are ignored or considered irrelevant to the task at hand. At best, religious values are humored as a concession to human weakness and the issues of faith are treated as interesting but frankly unimportant by comparison with the real values of life which are accessible to human reason and do not depend on some supposed communication from the gods.

By implication, the secularist outlook on life is an essentially rationalist understanding of life. This is not to say that reason is credited with a full understanding of life’s mysteries. But reason is considered the final judge of what the mind is expected to accept. Faith as a believer’s response to God’s revelation, on God’s word and not on man’s ability to comprehend, is considered dogmatic. Those who opt for such dogmatism have a closed mind. They pretend, or fondly suppose, they are already in possession of the truth—as though education were not a perpetual quest without ever attaining the truth.

At its center, then, secularism is that form of epistemology which not only concerns itself with this-worldly values exclusively, but which looks only to this-worldly reality to explain the meaning of existence. Where this explanation is not available, or where the mind is told to believe what it cannot on its own terms explain, secularism is agnostic.

Secularism in Higher Education

I wish to be very plain that I intend no indictment of what we call secular higher education when I call it secularist. My intention is not judgmental bus simply descriptive. For reasons that are partly historical, partly economic, partly the result of planned effort, colleges and universities that make no claim to any church affiliation have become, as a matter of record, secularist.

Even the fact that a fair number of them may offer courses in what are labeled “Religion” or “Religious Experience” does not deny my basic premise. It only confirms it: that under suasion of outside forces, courses outside the realm of the secular are minimally available, not on principle but as a temporary or stop-gap or (as I know) indefinable melange that pressure from a generation of youth, desperately looking for things of the spirit, has reluctantly exacted from the custodians of the citadel of secularist ideology in North America.

What also deserves to be mentioned is that here, more than anywhere, there is no substitute for experience. You must actively participate in the life of a state or nondenominational university—the very term, negatively stated “nondenominational,” was coined by pejorative contrast with “church related.” Your participation must be more than as a student, and it must be prolonged, in order to be convinced that—all the catalogue descriptions notwithstanding, these schools are really and not just nominally secularist. The climate which prevails is with this world, and emphatically not with the next, with human matters and certainly not with the things of God—or at most, with a god who (for some people) is part of the phenomenon of man.

Analysis of this Secularism

We now come to the heart of our presentation. I shall try to answer the question: How in concrete, existential terms does the secularism of a secular school of higher learning manifest itself? What are its features, and how can they be identified?

In my opinion, a secular college or university reveals its secularism on three levels of its existence and operation, namely:

  • In its philosophy and practice of education as an institution:

  • In the attitudes and function of its academic faculty as teachers, and

  • In its curriculum and the learning opportunities it offers to the students.

On each of these three levels, the schools are consciously, and dominantly, and persuasively secularist. I say this while readily admitting that the administrators and teachers may be, as individuals, personally otherwise. They can, with varying degrees of success, maintain a split-personality existence—one private, with their families, and the other public, with the college or university. But the colleges and universities, as corporate entities are, and they make no apologies, committed as the goal of their corporate being to the earthly welfare of man and of human society.

Suppose we briefly look at each of those three dimensions in some detail and see more closely what they mean.

In each case, let us remember, we say the college is secularly committed; which is the same as saying secularly bound, or secularly tied down.

An Institution

Institutional commitment to secularism varies in proportion to the variety of outside pressures that operate on the school administration. The more diverse (and divergent) the persons and agencies with a right to dictate a school’s policies, the less liberty the administrators have to set standards, choose teachers, arrange the curriculum and determine conditions of admission and graduation except in the direction of the prevailing ethos in a country like the United States. This ethos, as we look at two data—the highest affluence in the history of the human race and the legalized murder of unborn children—is secularist.

I said earlier that a secular college’s philosophy of education comes not by default but by design. True, but by design as a result of conviction born of conformity.

Let me clarify this comparison with church-related schools of higher education. Church related schools may suffer from what I call “institutional license.” When they are not responsible to regional or school boards and the hard competition of satisfying political or caucus demands of vested interests, they are liable to slacken in their efforts at maintaining excellence. Yet, these are external limitations compared with the internal freedom they enjoy to determine the philosophy of their existence and pursue the goal for which they were founded.

Secular institutions, on the other hand, are not free to predetermine their philosophy of education for the basic reason that they are not founded in response to the faith commitment of a believing community, but in answer to the ever-changing expectations of a heterogeneous and politicized citizenry.

In this connection, I recall the conversation I had in Chicago some time ago with an official of the American Association of University Professors. It was during the peak of the crisis then facing St. John’s University in New York. This official told me that “We at the AAUP do not believe that a Catholic University can practice the freedom to which our association is dedicated. It is necessarily restrained in this freedom by its Church affiliation.” Needless to say, the freedom he was talking about is the freedom to conform to the dominant mores of the culture without the “limitation” of commitment to a set of values that might stand at variance with, or in judgment on, what has been correctly labeled “the will of the people,”

As Academic Faculty

The academic pursuit of secularist goals by the faculty follows logically on the institutional conformity just described. One of the ironies of our age is the strange shift in the meaning of words that we now see all around us. Most of the literature on the subject, and certainly the target of college teachers’ organizations is “academic freedom.” But in my estimate of the situation, I would rename it “academic conformity.” As commonly described in professors’ manuals, academic freedom is the right to explore and communicate ideas in the classroom and in writing, without being subject to interference or penalization because these ideas are unacceptable to someone within or beyond the institution.

So it is, in theory. But in practice this much vaunted academic freedom is, at best, freedom from external constraint formally imposed by some organized body, like a church hierarchy or a political party. It is not the internal freedom to be oneself, to give full expression to one’s deepest convictions that derive from a faith based on revelation from God.

To illustrate what I mean, let me briefly describe my experience when I was first invited to teach at the state university.

As a result of the invitation, I visited the university in April of that year during which time I had conferences with members of the faculty, the dean and the academic vice president of the institution. One problem seemed insurmountable, the dilemma between sectarian teaching—which the university feared was inevitable for a Catholic—and academic freedom to which I appealed in my conferences with the administration. During the conferences, I was told that I would be hired if I taught Catholicism as I would teach Confucianism, by standing apart from my subject and not giving the impression of Catholic commitment. My reply was that if I could not be trusted to avoid proselytizing or was denied the freedom given others to teach what I believed and as I believed it, I was not interested. So I left the university after three days of interviews with no intention of returning. By the time I reached Detroit to tell the Jesuit provincial of my negative decision, the administration of the university had changed its mind. They had phoned the provincial residence to say that I would be offered the teaching position on “his terms.”

When I began teaching that fall, the freedom of which I was given verbal (never written) guarantee was at first respected, although from the beginning certain limitations were placed on me, e.g., the university’s insistence that I pay income tax from which, as a man vowed to poverty, I am legally exempt. So concerned was the administration that by the end of my first week of class I was warned either to ignore the Internal Revenue statutes and sign the tax-waiver, or leave the university. Similarly I was told to avoid any public ministrations as a priest. From then on, through five unforgettable years of experience I came to learn—as no one else could have taught me—what academic freedom for the faculty on a secular campus means.

The conflict that arises in a teacher who has religious principles, and who sees the spiritual hunger of the students, and who is forced to suppress himself when everything in him cries for communication, must be gone through to be believed.

As Learning Opportunities to Students

By now it must be fairly plain what the secularism of a secular institution of higher learning implies in the curricular and learning opportunities it offers to students.

A good way to bring out what I wish to explain is to note that a new concept has entered the vocabulary of pedagogy. Out of the welter of student riots at Berkeley, and Chicago where I teach, it is clear that students want to extend the idea of academic freedom from Lehrfreiheit (freedom of professors to teach according to their lights) to include Lernfreiheit (freedom of students to ask for what they want to be taught). This freedom to learn touches on the heart of higher education. It is also the one freedom which secular colleges and universities are least able, on their own premises, to satisfy. Here is the way I read the situation. By and large the students who enter college come with some semblance of a religious background. It may be minimal and it may be confused, but it is (with rare exception) not simply absent. It is therefore part of their mental equipment and no more separable from their mentality than the language they speak or the knowledge they have of American history. It is disastrous academically, and may be psychologically, to treat the students during their questing years of college as something which they are not. More than anywhere else, in matters of faith a clear distinction should be made between belief as a component of the human person and the reflective understanding of belief that belongs to the critical mind.

A young freshman may have a deep faith and yet be irritatingly unable t give a cogent explanation of what or hwy he believes. But his ineptitude is no more reason for denying that he really believes than ignorance of how to define patriotism is a sign of not loving one’s country.

Religious belief, therefore, is not the same as religious literacy. Colleges are not asked to produce the commitment of faith. They are not, as colleges, institutes for evangelization. But they are responsible to make intelligible the faith that however dim already exists. Moreover, the purpose should be not only to raise the religious literacy of the people they teach or help them understand religious pluralism in society and the world at large.

In a rare statement of the Association of American Colleges, we are told that “Colleges and universities share with the Church, the synagogue and the home responsibility for the moral and spiritual development of the students.” The sooner our institutions of higher learning, whether those we call secular or those they call church-related, act on this conviction the better for our nation, for education, and for the generation of youth who se hunger of spirit will revolt against American civilization unless it is given the only food that can satisfy the human mind and heart.

Why Should the Catholic University Survive?
Editor - Msgr. George A. Kelly © 1973
St. John's University Press, pp. 31-38

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of