As we mentioned in the first email of our series, the secular worldview was not native to America. American secular activists imported their founding ideas from Europe, from the centuries-long secular revolution that had already transformed the Old World. In regard to higher education, our particular circumstance provided a conduit for European ideas. America had very few graduate schools at the end of the 19th century, and so American college graduates who desired advanced degrees went to Europe, and in particular to Germany.
In Germany, American graduate students were immersed in the latest and most thorough version of European Enlightenment thought—“enlightenment” generally meaning, “having left behind the darkness of Christian superstition, for the light of science, reason, and endless human progress.” In Europe, they studied Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, D. F. Strauss, Charles Darwin, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and others, who either despised Christianity or radically reconstructed it according to secular purposes. Awash with European intellectual life, which seemed manifestly superior to anything on their own shores, they returned to America, degree in hand, and ready to start a revolution.
But revolutionaries need money. Prior to the 20th century, most American colleges were denominationally based, and hence denominationally funded. Being tied to its particular Christian heritage, such an institution was an ill-fitted receptacle for the new wave of secular academics. The answer to this dilemma was simply to start new universities from scratch or take over existing universities via generous endowments. These universities would be direct imitations of European universities.
This educational revolution was made possible, interestingly enough, by the enormous wealth of the most prominent American industrialists. Some of these industrialists were quite eager to advance secular agendas. But others, who were personally very religious, were in an important sense “duped.” They were persuaded by secular activists that bankrolling these new secular universities was a worthy public goal, even while the activists remained silent about the underlying secular agenda.
Either way, new secular universities sprung up, financed by America’s most successful businessmen, and gained almost instant prestige: Johns Hopkins University started by Johns Hopkins, Cornell University by Ezra Cornell, the University of Chicago by John Rockefeller, Stanford University by Leland Stanford, Vanderbilt University by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Duke University by James Duke, to name a few.
Starting from scratch with endowments beyond the wildest dreams of any denominational college meant that these new secular universities would dominate America’s intellectual landscape, for the most part eclipsing the denominational colleges, and providing a top-down secular, intellectual revolution. Since these new universities had graduate schools, the next generation of Ph.D.’s would repeat, on American soil, the German experience of the first generation of expatriated intellectuals.
In addition to beginning new universities from scratch, money flowed into secular universities through educational funds. In 1902, Rockefeller’s General Education Board was founded with unimaginably large assets of $46 million. Less than ten years later, the Carnegie Corporation was founded with even larger assets of $151 million. This seemingly endless supply of money was poured into the coffers of new universities and existing institutions willing to model themselves on the German research institutions and German intellectual life.
Interestingly enough, as Smith notes, sometimes endowments were not just pro-secular, but anti-religious. In 1905 Andrew Carnegie gave ten million dollars to establish a professor’s pension fund. But “all denominational colleges and universities were categorically excluded from the plan; only schools with no formal ties to religious denominations could participate” (75). Mr. Carnegie’s carrot had just the secularizing effect he desired. Fifteen colleges immediately cut ties to their denominational sponsors, including the prestigious Wesleyan, Dickinson, Swarthmore, Brown, Bowdoin, and Rutgers.
And so, it is not the addled imagination of fading religious reactionaries who place the secular revolution in colleges and universities. It is a matter of historical fact that, in great part, the new secular American universities were designed from the very beginning as centers of secularist intellectual and cultural revolution.
It is then, in one sense, quite accurate to locate the source of the 1960s cultural revolution in the universities, as many conservatives do. But in another sense, it is inaccurate. The college students of the 1960s did not start that revolution. They were third generation revolutionaries. It was their teachers’ teachers, who had been to Europe in the early 20th century who really firmly planted the secular revolution on our soil.
In upcoming emails of this series, we’ll explore both how the secular revolution occurred in education (focusing, in particular, on Christian Smith’s discipline, sociology), and some of the secular philosophers of Europe whose ideas were especially influential imports to our shore.