Few would disagree that the institutional history of higher education in the United States is characterised by secularisation (Burtchaell 1998; Smith 2003). From the founding of Harvard in 1636 to the period before the American Civil War, higher education in the United States was largely Christian in form and purpose (Marsden 1996). Harvard College’s seventeenth-century ‘Rules and Precepts’ instructed that every student should ‘be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, that the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3)’ (Morison 1935: 333). With the turn toward the German research university model in the late nineteenth century, and the professionalisation and balkanisation of various academic disciplines, institutions began to divorce themselves from both their
sponsoring religious denominations and the religious ends of university education (Reuben 1996). This institutional exile of religion is often assumed to have been accompanied by an emptying of religious faith and piety from the student population. The opening quotations of this chapter illustrate the common belief that higher education corrodes religious faith. Whether it is the critical reasoning Philip Wentworth points to in his 1932 essay in The Atlantic, or the immorality of student life emphasized by Dan Gilbert in his diatribe against secular education, it was assumed that a secular institution will beget a secular individual. The purpose of this chapter is to critically interrogate this assumption. Does higher education in the United States secularise students?