American Higher Education And American Culture, 2021

Oct 9th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events


Colonial America saw the founding of important institutions of higher education, all of which stressed preparing men for leadership in the colonies, especially spiritual leadership:  Harvard (1636), Yale (1701), the College of William and Mary (1693), the College of New Jersey [later known as Princeton University] (1746), and  the Academy of Philadelphia [later known as the University of Pennsylvania] (1755).  As each developed a unique intellectual identity, each wrestled with Puritan theology or Anglican theology, as well as the 18th century Enlightenment, which by the 1740s was penetrating all facets of American intellectual life.  Each produced the key leaders of the American movement towards independence from Great Britain (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison).  These educational institutions were centers of both Protestant Reformation thinking and Enlightenment thinking.  The tension that arose between these two intellectual and theological revolutions shaped the development of America.  One cannot understand the development of the American mind if one does not grapple with the residue of the Reformation and the piercing rationalism and doubt of the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both reflect the influence of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  The tension between these two intellectual revolutions shaped the colonial colleges and shaped America.

What about educational institutions of higher education today?  Today, obviously, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania bear no resemblance to their founding in colonial America. Today, each is a bastion of secularism.  As was true in colonial America, colleges and universities today reflect and mirror their culture.  Since 1988, 70% of the Silent Generation [born between 1920 and 1945] has affirmed that they “know God really exists” and “have no doubts about it.”  That same sentiment was shared by 63% of baby boomers and Generation Xers.  But in 2018, millennials expressed less certainty.  Only 44% had no doubts about the existence of God.  Even more doubtful were GenZ members in which only 33% claimed a belief in God.  As Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University concludes, “by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents.  In responses to survey questions, over 40% of the younger Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.”  Clearly, larger shares of Americans are jettisoning Christianity and either aligning with other religions or are leaving religion behind entirely and joining the ranks of the “Nones.”

How has this new normal of secularism affected the political parties?

  • Although the share of Americans who identify themselves as white Christians has rapidly declined over the past several decades, evangelical white Christians are the staple of the Republican Party.  But as America becomes more and more secular, a serious challenge looms on the political horizon for the Republican Party.
  • The Democratic Party has close to 90% of support from Black Protestants.  Although Black Protestants often support more liberal public policy issues, they do not support liberal cultural war positions.  For example, over 60% of Black Protestants believe that homosexual acts are morally wrong, the same percentage as white evangelicals.  Secular atheists today are other major support base for the Democratic Party.  In a 2018 survey, Burge reports, atheists were twice as likely to donate money or work for a political candidate as white evangelicals.  The future of this Party rests with two groups that are diametrically opposed on key cultural issues.

Since colleges and universities mirror what is occurring within the broader culture, what observations can we make about higher education in 2021 America?  Nate Cohn summarizes something quite profound in 21st century American culture:  “a realignment of American politics along cultural and educational lines . . . away from the class and income divisions that defined the two parties for much of the 20th century.” He also contends that having a college degree is actually a powerful symbol of political polarization in American political culture.  Consider these pieces of evidence:

  • College graduates have instilled increasingly liberal cultural norms while gaining the power to nudge the Democratic Party to the left.  Thus, large portions of the party’s traditional working-class have defected to the Republican Party.  President Biden won about 60% of college-educated voters in 2020, including an outright majority of white college graduates.  This has become a significant voting bloc, because 41% of people who cast ballots in 2020 were four-year college graduates.  “Rising Democratic strength among college graduates and voters of color has been counteracted by a nearly equal and opposite reaction among white voters without a degree.”
  • According to a recent Pew Research study, about 27 % of Biden supporters were white voters without a college degree, down from 60% of Bill Clinton’s supporters 28 years earlier.
  • The Democratic advantage among college graduates may be a new phenomenon but the relative liberalism of college graduates is not.  “College graduates attribute racial inequality, crime and poverty to complex structural and systemic problems, while voters without a degree tend to focus on individualistic and parochial explanations . . . College graduates . . . are likelier to have high levels of social trust and to be open to new experiences.  They are less likely to believe in God.”
  • It seems reasonable to conclude that higher education has contributed to the rise of cultural liberalism over the last few decades.  College graduates make up a disproportionate number of the journalists, politicians, activists and poll respondents who directly influence the political process.  At the same time, the old industrial working class base has been in decline.  Therefore, issues of race, religion, war, environmentalism, guns, trade, immigration, sexuality, crime, and social welfare programs have become extremely divisive issues:  For example, “Environmentalists demanded regulations on the coal industry; coal miners bolted from the Democratic Party.  Suburban voters supported an assault gun ban; gun owners shifted to the Republicans.  Business interests supported free trade agreements; old manufacturing towns broke for the [Republican Party].”

There is little doubt that the rising liberalism of the Democratic Party and among college graduates will continue.  College graduates are now the majority of voters in Massachusetts, New York, Colorado and Maryland.  Close behind these states are Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Within a few years, “four-year college graduates might represent a majority of voters” in the US.  What are the implications of this?  Within the political culture?  Within the church?  The social and political  radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s was replaced by the social and political conservatism of Reagan in the 1980s.  Will that occur in the 21st century?  We shall see.

But permit me a parting comment about the role of higher education in American culture.  Whether you describe it as a decadent society or a decaying culture or a democracy dying in darkness, [we have] a taste for what Cormac McCarthy once described as “the frailty of everything revealed at last.” “We have been frail for a very long time, but what we could deny before has been made glaringly manifest through a pandemic, racial injustice, social unrest, mass unemployment, and a highly contentious presidential election that earnest folks on both sides have described in existential terms.” The foundations of our society are not quite destroyed, but they are cracking, and those cracks raise the psalmist’s question, “What can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).  Part of the answer, I believe, is to support and rely upon Christian colleges and universities to serve as institutional anchors—spaces of transformation and education, discipleship and scholarship, cultural edification, and exhortation. When evangelicals have abandoned the possibility of truth and the common good for identity politics, it is not surprising that the world does not take our moral authority seriously. The work of shoring up the ruins must be primarily done in local churches and within families and communities. However, Christian colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to be a major institutional framework for “shoring up the ruins.” They can and do equip and assist local churches, families, and communities in their work. O. Allen Noble of Oklahoma Baptist University pleads, “Even if you never went to a Christian college or university, you are currently benefiting from the work of these institutions. Your pastor benefits from the theological work produced by scholars at Christian schools. Your church benefits from the cultural criticism done at these schools. Christian businesses and professionals benefit from learning how to integrate faith into their professions. Christian artists and musicians benefit from apprenticeship. Our politicians and community leaders benefit from theories of government and justice handed down and built upon in Christian schools.” The crises that face us cannot be overcome by politicians (although they can be made much worse by them) or by culture-war skirmishes. They can be addressed only by grounding ourselves in the truth. That work will be done primarily in the local church, but our Christian colleges and universities have a tremendous role to play by providing resources, mentorship, and scholarship.

See Ryan Burge in the New York Times (29 August 2021); Nate Cohn in the New York Times (9 September 2021); and O. Allen Noble, “Christian Colleges Are in Crisis. Here’s What That Means for the Church” (10 September 2020).

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One Comment to “American Higher Education And American Culture, 2021”

  1. Arlie Rauch says:

    I would like to agree with you, but I do not have the optimistic trust in Christian colleges and universities that you have. Maybe this is due to my experience versus yours. Virtually no college is today in terms of its values what it was when I was college-age. Many have shifted to acommodate educationally respectable values which are not always Biblical. If the home and church fails in its God-given assignment, then almost everything is lost. The home and church are God’s program, the university only indirectly at best. My life-long most basic values are due to a church more than to Bible college and seminary, though they did play a useful role.