Saturday, September 05, 2009

Universities and the Pursuit of Doubt

Drew Gilpin Faust's essay, "The University's Crisis of Purpose" is worth a read. While, in typical R-1 fashion, she seems to forget that universities are also about educating people, and not just the advancement of research, she rightly "deplores the growing dominance of economic justifications for universities." There are, she emphasizes, a whole host of social goods that the university serves. Most intriguing, I thought, was this suggestion:

Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?
The university as producer of doubt (note the "also" in that first sentence), doubt for the common good.

I wonder if we could imagine Christian universities having the same role for the church's good--the Christian college as a space where, in psalm-like lament and questioning, we articulate those nagging late-night and early-dawn questions, those Abrahamic protests, those faith-full questions that can only arise for disciples ("How long, O Lord?"). Have Christian universities produced enough doubt? Have we sufficiently called into question our unquestioned assumptions--such as our automatic confidence that what's "conservative" must be right and good? Have Christian universities sufficiently resisted and questioned North American Christianity's complicity with economic greed, nationalist fervor, and possessive individualism? And in failing to do so, have we failed to serve the body, failed to love the church?

Might the production of doubt be the path to a more radical faith?