Review: The End of College

The End of College, Robert Wilson-Black. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of the creation and development of religion departments between 1930 and 1960 as a shift occurred from church affiliated colleges to research universities on the German model, with different aims serving a wider constituency.

Others, including George Marsden and Julie A. Reuben have chronicled the history of the modern university, including the shift from religiously based colleges to the modern secularized, research-oriented university. What makes this work by Robert Wilson-Black distinct is its account of how institutions that had their roots in the college model handled this shift with its decentering of religion, and in particular, Christianity from its role in university life. In particular, a solution resorted to was the creation of religion or religious studies departments. And yet these lived in a tension between encouraging the religious life and offering an academically rigorous program of study.

This shift represented an effort to preserve something of the college model in a much-changed environment. The college model existed to form mostly Protestants of an upper- or upper-middle class origin in the outlooks and moral character that would prepare them for useful participation in both the church and civil society. Both in terms of chapels and curricular content, religious ideas permeated the curriculum. The shift in higher education from colleges to universities represented a broadening of the constituency served to a much more diverse body in terms of class, gender, race, and religious background–a shift from college for the elite to university for the masses, especially after World War 2. Also the shift was from subjective belief and moral formation to scientific “objectivity.”

Wilson-Black’s treatment focuses on the Ivy League schools like Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and the U of Pennsylvania as well as other nationally recognized education leaders from Oberlin to University of Chicago to Stanford dealt with these changes. Each chapter focuses in on a particular school and key figure during a particular period in the thirty years or so covered by this work.

He explores the variety of challenges that were faced. These included the relation between departments and any kind of chaplaincy that remained. A tension that arose in this relationship was advocacy versus instruction. While religion departments certainly affirmed the importance of religious faith in life, they steadily moved away from advocacy, even where their curriculum was still heavily shaped by Christian subjects and themes. There was also the pressure to develop religious studies into an intellectually respectable discipline, “objectively” dealing with the phenomena and role of religion in life. The formation of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) reflected this trend.

The question arose of whether one must be religious, or alternatively not religious to teach this subject well. With the increasing diversity of religious backgrounds of students as well as students who would self describe as humanist or atheist, religious studies began to morph into comparative religion. Some places, like University of Chicago affirmed the exploration of ultimate questions, but did not wish to confine this to a single department. Also, many of these schools offered divinity school programs at the graduate level, and questions arose about how religion departments, that may also develop graduate programs but served undergraduate educational aims would relate to the divinity schools.

The approach of focusing on particular developments at a particular school which reflected broader issues and trends helped make this book very concrete and up close in its history, while also reflected the ways the teaching of religion were differentiated in various contexts and time periods. The work also helps me understand my encounters with religious studies as a fervent young Christian at a state university in the 1970’s. In retrospect, I see it reflected instruction in mainstream scholarship, whether it be the histories of major religious bodies in the U.S. or the critical theories about authorship and composition of the New Testament of the time (I don’t recall that we ever actually were assigned to read the New Testament). At the time I found it disappointing and found far more encouragement to my faith from my campus Christian community and publications of college-oriented Christian publishers like InterVarsity Press and Christianity Today, which had intellectual heft to many of its articles.

Now I understand it better, recognizing both the remnants of the idea that religious understanding is important in one’s education and the effort to be academically rigorous rather than advocating for a faith. There is a critical value of both understanding one’s own faith well (a matter often sadly neglected by our churches in the catechesis of younger members) and understanding and respecting other faiths. Sadly, in many places religious studies seemed to be taken over by the skeptics or even cynics, where advocacy for a belief system or even the encouragement of the formation of one’s own beliefs was replaced by deconstruction of belief systems. I suspect many programs consequently dug their own graves with this approach.

These reflections suggest to me that a good follow up project for this work is what has happened with regard to the teaching of religion as an academic subject in universities in the time since the 1960’s. I note that one of those who endorses this work is Eboo Patel whose work in fostering interfaith understanding and collaboration through the Interfaith Youth Core reflects a continuing interest in religious belief, both the clarifying of one’s own beliefs and the building of mutual understanding and respect with those of others. I like how this author has approached the telling of this story and would love to see it carried forward.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Meritocracy and the Modern University

Do you think of your life achievements as something you have deserved because of hard work, or as something that has come through accidents of birth, upbringing, social class and educational opportunity which obligated one to “pay it forward” to society for the benefits one has enjoyed? The former stance defines what is known as “meritocracy”, a term, according to Andrew Delbanco did not exist prior to 1958. The latter stance is known under the term noblesse oblige or the obligation of the nobility to use their standing for the larger good.


Delbanco, in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Beargues that we have witnessed a shift from the latter to the former in the university world. Admissions at many universities no longer favor either wealthy alumni nor minority students but look more at test scores and academic resumes. Delbanco observes that in former days, students from wealthy families like those of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy knew they weren’t at one of the elite Ivies because of their academic talents but because of their family’s wealth. What Delbanco observes is that this privilege often engendered a corresponding sense of responsibility to devote oneself to the public good. I won’t argue here whether the Roosevelts or the Kennedys achieved public goods, but it was clear that these were at least some of what motivated their public service.

In a discussion with some graduate students, I asked a question Delbanco as a Harvard grad was asked–do you deserve to be here? Many, in really being honest said “yes”. And it is true that those who were in the room had worked, and were working hard. They’d studied when others played, took AP courses, were serious undergrads. What they seemed less aware of in some (not all!) cases were the opportunities that they had no choice in–the families into which they were born, the schools they attended, the access from an early age to educational resources, the affluence of parents in many (not all) cases, the help they received from parents and school counselors in choosing good undergrad institutions, the incredible fortune to work on taxpayer funded research projects and receive taxpayer funded stipends, and on and on.

Delbanco says that while there is much to commend meritocracy with its focus on personal excellence, if it loses sight of the fact that all who enjoy such opportunities are also blessed with undeserved favor, it can lead to a dark side of an attitude that says “each one for themselves, and devil take the hindmost”–that forgets those, in our country and others who haven’t had the same opportunities and privileges.

Delbanco self-identifies as a secular Jew but makes a striking observation that should give the religious among us pause:

“The shared point here is that our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit….To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.” (pp. 138-139)

I wonder if this gets to the heart of much of the polarization in our society. How do we hold together the quest for personal excellence and the rewards that accrue thereto, and yet also recognize that our very lives, gifts, and circumstances are “graced” things that are never ours alone?