Thursday, February 19, 2015

George Thomas's "The Founders and the Idea of a National University"

George Thomas teaches Government at Claremont McKenna College and is the author of The Madisonian Constitution.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind, and reported the following:
I must begin by bending the rules a little bit. As it happens, Page 99 captures a central contention of my book. But the key part of the argument begins on page 98. And it is that a constitution is not simply about the institutions of government: a constitution is also an effort to shape how citizens understand the world. As I put it earlier in the book, with apologies to Woody Allen, “a constitution creates its own moral universe.” That sounds pretty grand. Page 99 brings this down to earth by looking at the relationship between politics and religion.

Page 99 illustrates how political figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to ameliorate the tension between religion and politics by creating a political order rooted in civic principles—principles such as religious liberty—that required a separation of theology from politics. Yet religious liberty could only flourish if citizens accepted certain civic principles, such as religion is the private choice of individuals. We may take this for granted—indeed, we might think this is the natural way the world is ordered—but fostering such a mindset was part of altering how people understood the world. Consider Puritan New England—a political theocracy with a profoundly different understanding of theological and political authority—to understand the shift in thinking this required.

Advocates of a national university, like Madison and Jefferson, saw it as fostering the ideas and habits of mind necessary to sustain America’s constitutional experiment. Crucial to this task was removing theology from the center of public education. As Madison put it, “there seems to be no alternative but between a public University without a theological professorship, and sectarian Seminaries without a University.” The separation of church from state should include the separation of church from college.

The national university would be a secular institution—in contrast to “church-state” colleges such as Harvard and Yale—and would help frame a mindset necessary to sustain the new constitutional order. It would seek to teach a certain understanding of how the world was put together. That’s the story this book seeks to tell. And it’s a story that remains relevant in thinking about how our educational institutions aid in sustaining American democracy.
Learn more about The Founders and the Idea of a National University at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue