Why Universities Must Teach What is True
Most American universities are anything but centers of free inquiry and truth-seeking. Cancel culture has imposed an orthodoxy of progressive social causes on such institutions which lashes out with academic furor at the slightest dissent. Activism on behalf of identity politics has even broken the purist meritocratic concern for vocationalism and professional success.
In response to these pressures, many conservatives and other non-ideologues have taken up the cause of academic freedom, asserting that the purpose of a university is the search for truth through free speech and independent inquiry. Just as the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to pursue truth in accordance with his or her conscience wherever it may lead, they assert that universities should give the same freedoms to faculty and students. Keith Whittington’s 2018 book Speak Freely and the recent announcement of the founding of the University of Austin have expressed this position well.
Compared to repressive toleration, academic freedom is a breath of fresh air to right-leaning Americans who have been ridiculed and unwelcome in the highest sectors of academia for generations. It is understandable that they would seek any method through which truth can enter into the predominantly secular colleges and universities which have formed our nation from its beginning. Nonetheless, the assertion that the fundamental purposes of the university are knowledge production and open inquiry is incomplete and incapable of providing a sufficient positive vision for higher education.
The Nature of Freedom
A proper understanding of academic freedom requires an understanding of freedom itself as more than liberty of choice. Pope John Paul II spoke rightly when he insisted that, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” He is hardly alone in asserting that freedom from restraint is not a good in itself. Exercised well, it entails a responsibility before God to pursue the good life. In the context of academic freedom, the seeking of truth must entail attention to first principles, particularly those received by divine revelation.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides helpful categories for this distinction. In Book I (1096b-1097b), he distinguishes between two types of goods. Intrinsic goods are those which have no other end; they may be pursued for their own sakes. Most fundamentally, this is happiness/flourishing. Instrumental goods are those acts which we perform for some other end. Intrinsic goods are inherently “more complete” than those which are instrumental.
In his recent book Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, Andrew Walker applies the categories of intrinsic and instrumental goods to the issue of religious liberty. In Christian theology, ordered liberty is fulfilled through the pursuit of righteousness and excellence. Quite simply, “Liberty assumes a particular telos. If God is removed, all that is left of liberty is choice.” In the context of the nation, religious disestablishment allows for a temporary age of truth-seeking with an eschatological posture of hope for the return of Christ.
Whether in matters of religion or education, claims to freedom must always be accompanied by a focus on ultimate aims, that is, a submission to teleology. Those who advocate for absolute academic freedom are, unintentionally, mistaking an instrumental good—the right to exercise right reason and conscience to pursue truth—as the final goal of the learning process. To combat the contemporary Left’s advocacy for education based in social activism, conservatives should seek higher aims for teaching and learning.
The Telos of the University
The claim that theology serves as the unifying and organizing principle of education is hardly new. It is most famously asserted by Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of the University where he advocated for both the overarching role of theological truth in every discipline and the helpful supervision of the university by the Church, the teacher of natural and revealed religion. The tradition of theologically-informed liberal education is further served well by Josef Pieper, who notes in Leisure: The Basis of Culture that education and the arts form a category of activities separate from menial and material work, and which find their ultimate justification in the contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty—attributes of God himself.
Through the Protestant principle of confessionalism, the theological identity of Christian universities was refined and strengthened. From the very beginning, leaders in the Reformation understood the danger of private theological judgement apart from a commitment to the apostolic teachings of Scripture informed by the tradition of Christian interpretation. Consequently, all historic Protestant churches have affirmed confessions of faith, creedal documents which summarize Biblical doctrine.
As Protestant denominations grew and established parachurch institutions of their own, including schools and colleges, they insisted that doctrine was fundamental to what their faculty would believe and teach. Understanding the unity of all knowledge as a part of God’s creation, educational institutions did not separate the beliefs of their ecclesial communities from their teaching. Confessional documents served to unite the university community around shared convictions about God’s revelation in nature and Scripture. In the second half of the 16th century, both Protestant and Catholic institutions perceived themselves as centers of “confessionalization” which would educate the people of their respective regions in the true faith, which was adherence to whatever confession the secular prince chose. For example, by 1620, members of the faculty at 30 French Reformed colleges were required to affirm the Rochelle Confession of Faith. These institutions were not merely theological training centers; students were educated in classical languages, history, dialectic, rhetoric, and theology.
Colleges founded by Protestants in the New World were generally affiliated with particular church traditions, even when they allowed theological freedom within orthodox Christianity, Princeton University being an example. Other institutions adopted the confession of faith of the denomination itself as a basis for instruction. For example, in its 1858 charter, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary requires its faculty members “to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles hereinafter laid down, a departure from which principles on his part shall be considered grounds for his resignation or removal by the Trustees.” This policy remains in effect.
Nonetheless, the history of American higher education is one of colleges and universities adopting these theological guidelines and later rejecting them. (The story is excellently told in George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University.) Over time, as religious pluralism grew, the academic community lost any sense of cohesion around the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. The most common justification for this shift was academic freedom; doctrinal statements were seen as too limiting and inappropriate for the modern university. The research-based focus of German universities was imported during the 19th century, and soon any notion of a liberal arts education forming students in the truth fell out of fashion.
By the mid 20th century, the process of pluralism and secularization was complete at most American universities. One illustrative anecdote is the controversy surrounding William F. Buckley’s landmark book God and Man at Yale. In short, Buckley charged his alma mater with failing to uphold Christian doctrines as central to its education in a variety of departments. As Marsden details, the more interesting part of the story was Yale’s response. Rather than upholding secularization, the university affirmed that it remained a Christian institution. However, it was apparent that the Ivy League understanding of Christianity had changed from a Protestant faith undergirded by confessions of faith to general moral commitments which could be affirmed by all people of good will. The almost-universal acceptance of radical ideologies by nearly all of these institutions is an indication of the inevitability of some kind of orthodoxy guiding the process of learning.
The Orthodox Inevitability
No university can hope to remain neutral on fundamental questions of metaphysics and ethics. While individual professors with widely variant opinions of matters of religion, philosophy, gender, et. al. may form strong camaraderie on a faculty, institutional mission is another matter. A mere community of scholars can exist with great diversity on first principles, but it is not the only necessary prerequisite for a formative institution.
Advocates of absolute academic freedom assert that the pursuit of truth is an end in itself, but a university’s theological and moral imagination, embodied in cultural liturgies, will both be formed by and form the souls of members of the campus community. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill famously asserts that free speech creates a moral ecology in which the truth will emerge through rational debate. While his arguments are useful when considering the role of freedom of conscience in the public square, the one-to-one application of his thesis to educational institutions is a category error. Not simply creating a space for the pursuit of truth, as is the case with a democratic forum, universities have the responsibility to unite around and communicate revealed truth.
A university with stated theological commitments is also not an ideological factory of groupthink. Intellectual diversity and conversation of many kinds should be welcome in the classroom; seminars and class discussions are important methods of seeking truth. A confessional document on historiographical methodology, for example, would be inappropriate. However, as the queen of the sciences, theology is the guiding light of all other disciplines. Unity on revealed truth provides an ontological and epistemological basis for all of the liberal arts and sciences. In contrast to progressive institutions which “cancel” any who express disagreement with an absolutizing ideology, confessional Christian schools turn out to be the most truth-seeking of all.
Whether they be theological seminaries, liberal arts colleges, or research universities, institutions of higher education have a telos apart from the public square which involves recognizing revealed truth, not merely pursuing it. Academic institutions which seek to promote excellent scholarship and formative teaching yet avoid confessional restraints should not imagine that they can successfully do so as a unifying mission apart from theological fidelity. It is in the context of the unity of truth that the pursuit of truth can be found.
 “Homily of His Holiness John Paul II” (speech, Baltimore, MD, October 8, 1995), The Holy See.
 Andrew T. Walker, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021), 96-97.
 Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Newman’s University Today,” First Things, September 23, 2019.
 Susan Spruell Mobley, “Confessionalizing the curriculum: The faculties of arts and theology at the universities of Tübingen and Ingolstadt in the second half of the sixteenth century” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1998), 2-8.
 “Protestant education in the 17th century,” Musée virtuel du protestantisme.
 “Abstract of Principles,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.