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God and Man at Harvard

Our anti-God Ivy League universities leave our elites utterly unprepared for the real world.

By Will Offensicht  |  July 19, 2010

Harvard University, which was founded 130 years before the United States, has always had a fundamental influence on American educational practice.  With its ancient and storied history combined with by far the richest endowment of any educational institution on earth, it's not at all surprising that Harvard's pronouncements on education generate considerable discussion.

Time Magazine reports that back in 1978, for example, Harvard re-established a "core curriculum" of courses which all undergraduates would have to take.

The easiest way to start an academic brawl is to ask what an educated person should know. The last time Harvard University tackled that question was in 1978, when it established its Core Curriculum, which focused less on content than on mastering ways of thinking.

Despite their long tradition of welcoming graduates into the "company of educated persons," which assumes that someone has decided what educated people ought to know, Harvard had largely discarded their traditional core curriculum and let undergraduates take pretty much any courses they chose.  Reinstating the core curriculum in 1978 was controversial, to say the least.

Having established the required core, Harvard has had to update it.  Each revision of the Harvard curriculum is seen by most parties as the latest salvo in the culture wars, so each change is surveyed with deep interest.  The Time article was written in 2006 as Harvard was debating the latest edition of their curriculum:

There were, however, some contemporary concerns that didn't make the final cut. In October, before finalizing its recommendations, the committee proposed mandating the study of "reason and faith." That drew sharp criticism from faculty members like psychology professor Steven Pinker. "The juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like 'faith' and 'reason' are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing," he wrote in the Harvard Crimson. "But universities are about reason, pure and simple." Though 71% of incoming students say they attend religious services and many already elect to study religion, the committee gave in, ultimately substituting a "culture and belief" requirement. It turned out to be more practical.  [emphasis added]

The Boston Globe reported on the debates within the university curriculum committee:

Harvard made waves in October when the task force released a preliminary redesign for general education -- the requirements imposed on students outside their major -- that included a category called "reason and faith."

The original proposal said students often struggle to make sense of the relationship between their own religious beliefs and the secular and intellectual world they encounter in college.

It also noted that wars are fought in the name of religion and that the topic is central to some of the most contentious contemporary debates, over evolution, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. It said "reason and faith" courses were not meant to be "religious apologetics," but examinations of cultural and social context.  [emphasis added]

Decisions Have Consequences

It's quite understandable why a Harvard academic would prefer that religion be excluded from the core curriculum.  Like all academics, Prof. Pinker gains considerable stature and prestige from occupying a position at the pinnacle of the "reason" part of Harvard University.  If religion were to gain stature, his position would diminish by comparison; instead of a human being such as himself being regarded by all as the epitome of wisdom, some students or, worse, colleagues might look to a Higher Power as the ultimate source of knowledge.

We see the same sort of academic politics in the Climategate emails.  Professors whose government research grants depended on convincing everyone that human activity was destroying the earth tried to suppress publication of papers which did not support their ideas.  In the case of climate change, it's possible that the public has become wary enough of government pronouncements not to accept major tax increases in the name of global warming, but that remains to be seen.

The damage done to our nation from Harvard's decision is more subtle, but no less obvious in hindsight.  An op-ed in the Washington Post written by a professor who is also a Roman Catholic priest pointed out that our leadership elites tend to have no real understanding of faith, which is the basis of any religion:

It's not that we don't know about religion; it's that we don't understand faith and its life-shaping power.

This lack of understanding of faith on the part of our future leadership elites is a serious problem, particularly in the light of polls which show that around a tenth of all Muslims support the idea of suicide bombing.  There are roughly a billion Muslims worldwide; 10% is 100 million persons in favor of the most barbaric sort of terrorism known today.

Killing even a small fraction of that many people without going nuclear would be impractical; in order to be rid of the menace of terrorism, we'll have to persuade them to stop.  How can we persuade them of anything when our leaders have no idea how their minds function?  How can we bring up a new generation of leaders who will understand people of faith when our educational elites don't want to even mention faith at all?

What about Harvard students, most of whom seem to enter the university claiming faith but far fewer of which leave in that same state of grace?  According to the Pew Research Organization, most Americans claim to believe in God in one way or another; this decision would seem to put Harvard graduates out of touch with most Americans.  Perhaps Harvard wants it that way?

The Signs of Ignorance

President Obama is the most prominent Harvard graduate today.  His actions show plainly that he has a tin ear when it comes to dealing with religion:

Given that most of the rest of the world is far more motivated by religious faith than our leaders, it's no surprise that the Obama administration has not been particularly successful when it comes to foreign affairs.  Even the mainstream media are beginning to report that, despite Mr. Obama's extreme niceness and deference to the rest of the world, our enemies aren't any friendlier to us and our friends are less likely to help us than they were.

Sun Tzu, the author of the world's first and greatest military treatise The Art of War, advises the warrior to "Know Your Enemy."  If the enemy is motivated primarily by religious faith, how are our leaders who have no clue what faith is all about going to build relationships that can lead to agreement?

In arguing that universities ought to be solely about reason when a significant part of the world's population operates by faith, Harvard has done our nation a major disservice.  Harvard urgently needs to invite God back to campus, if only so that its graduates can gain experience in seeing Him as others do.