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Volume 17, Issue 1: Cultura

The Academic Civil War

Roy Atwood

And Jesus said, "Seek first vocational-technical training and all that Kingdom of God and righteousness stuff can be added later." Matthew 6:35

Parents today expect colleges and universities to train their kids for careers and professions. But this vocational turn in higher education stems from the secularist victory in America's academic civil war against classical Christian colleges. That victory resulted in a total redefinition of the purpose of higher education on explicitly anti-Christian terms.
Abandonment of the classical Christian model in higher education and the ascent of vocational-technical college training began with the 1862 Morrill Act, Congress's opening of a higher education front during the Civil War. It was no accident that the federal government passed this direct attack on classical Christian higher education in the midst of the War Between the States, because that conflict was not fundamentally about slavery or national unity, but about the relationship of Christ's Kingdom to the new Republic. The predominantly Unitarian North opened this academic front with the mission of undermining America's historically Trinitarian colleges and universities. Their classical Christian curricula had mentored virtually every major leader of the New Nation since devout Puritans founded Harvard in 1636. The Morrill Act was the North's long-term strategic move to displace the academy's classical Christian tradition and to reconstruct the nation on purely economic, technological, scientific, democratic, rationalistic, and secular (i.e., anything-but-Christian) foundations.
The leaders of the federal academic assault were devoted secularists who understood far better than most Christians the deep religious implications of this academic war for subsequent generations. For example, Horace Greeley, the prolific abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune (publisher of Karl Marx's essays in America), wrote in 1858, "We want a seminary which provides as fitly and thoroughly for the education of the Captains of Industry as Yale or Harvard does for those who are dedicated to either of the Professions." Horace Mann, the father of the American government school system and a Calvinist-turned-Unitarian, encouraged "daily reading of the Bible, devotional exercises, and the constant inculcation of the precepts of Christian morality in all the Public schools" so it would disarm critics who knew where his secular vision for education would lead. Using the rhetoric of religion, Mann outflanked pious evangelicals with god-words while establishing a new educational system at war with God's Word.1
Prior to 1862, education was almost universally understood as the shaping of a person's life and character through personal, covenantal nurturing and rigorous study of the classical liberal arts from a biblical perspective. Prior to the Morrill Act, the "useful arts" had no place within the Christian liberal arts curriculum. A young man would pursue his vocation through an apprenticeship with an experienced mentor only after completing his Christian liberal arts education. But technical training, which ignored or minimized a Christian worldview foundation, took a giant leap forward when the Morrill Act granted direct federal aid to the states for the establishment of colleges of agriculture and the mechanical trades. Cash-strapped, war-weary state legislatures that had earlier ignored appeals for technical education quickly accepted the new federal grants and approved the new type of school. The new federally funded land-grant universities redefined education as egalitarian training to serve the American National Will, not "sectarian" interests like serving Christ and His kingdom. Their federally bankrolled success soon pressured even staunchly traditional Christian liberal arts colleges to add new departments of technical education and engineering to compete for fewer students and funds.2
There are many reasons for the church's drift away from the classical Christian liberal arts college education, but the Morrill Act-inspired belief that practical skills can be taught without religious assumptions was—and still is—chief among them. What was practical and useful and productive was soon more important than what was true, beautiful, or good. "What's your major?" was a new idea in 1878 and was soon the second most important question facing college students. Sadly, the most important question for many Christian parents became and remains, "What kind of job can my kid get when he graduates?" Thus, the priorities of Matthew 6:33 have been overturned even among well meaning Christians, just as the strategists behind the Morrill Act had hoped for one hundred and forty years ago.

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