March 27, 2006
Building Moral Values
-- Martin E. Marty
Right-wing talk shows are not part of my "hearings," so they do not usually make these "sightings." Still, I found something relevant in "QT," Zay N. Smith's column of quotes in the Chicago Sun-Times (March 21). Under the heading "Is a Justice of the Peace OK?" is this: "Rush Limbaugh discussing the Iraq war: 'Any time an organization has the word "peace" in it—throw it out. It's just a bunch of long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-smoking FM-peace types that have an agenda.'" A sardonic comment from Smith follows: "It is about time someone put Christianity in its place."
Usually in such "bunchings" of quotes are professors, seen as immoralists and subverters. Higher brows than talk show hosts are editors of magazines such as the conservative and attractively formatted New Criterion, from which I learn much about literature and the arts. When our issues arrive, I always say to my wife, "Let's look at the opening pages," because for every issue the co-editors find and comment on some truly outrageous example from academia. 450,000 professors may have behaved well that month, but these editors always manage to find something that is "something else." Academe, in my book, no more deserves wholesale defense than it merits wholesale dumping-on. But close-ups can help produce balanced views.
My sample this week is from Amy Rainey's cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 10): "Professors Favor Building Moral Values in Students," with a subhead, "8 out of 10 academics say they are spiritual, and 64 percent call themselves religious." Knowing how sticky some implications are, it is not surprising to learn that only 30 percent "think colleges should concern themselves with students' spiritual development," according to a national survey.
The surveyor is the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, directed by Alexander W. Astin. Professors from 421 institutions—40,670 faculty members in all—responded. More women than men considered themselves spiritual, but 78 percent of the men wanted to be counted in the self-named spiritual camp. The survey roughly matches what was learned from 112,000 freshmen, more than two-thirds of whom considered it "essential" or "very important" that their college experience enhance their self-understanding. Still, 62 percent of college juniors don't hear their professors encouraging discussions of spirituality or religion. Maybe they slash away with Occam's razor and don't add burdening or irrelevant entities to the subjects at hand? There are often good reasons to be embarrassed when people feel they have to spiritualize or "religiosify" everything mechanical, every meshing of gears, every measurement of substances, and more.
Mr. Astin thinks that some professors are wary of spirituality because it's too close to religion, which is too close to sectarianism, which is too close to proselytizing. Spirituality, as always, gets defined very broadly. But if this study of "Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors" reveals anything at all, it suggests that the professoriate is not as wild and weird as New Criterion sorts suggest—and one doubts whether Mr. Limbaugh would find many of them "maggot-infested."
But one might hope that they do listen to FM, and that at least some of them have "peace" as part of their agendas—as Christians do.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.