At its worst, scholarship on religion and American higher education has a tendency to diverge into a diatribe against secularization and the waning influence of Christianity in 20th and 21st century colleges and universities. At its best, scholarship on religion and American higher education produces fascinating studies about the ways in which religion engages in a unique and complex network of educational institutions that, in many ways, is unparalleled in any other country. Adam Laats’s book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher Education, falls within the latter category. In this work, Laats analyzes the history and development of interdenominational evangelical and fundamentalist institutions of higher learning typified by schools like Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, and Wheaton University. He suggests that these institutions of higher learning are fruitful referents for distinguishing between the slippery categories of fundamentalist and evangelical, potentially more fruitful than trying to isolate doctrinal or aesthetic markers.
Fundamentalist U argues that since the creation of interdenominational colleges and universities in the late 19th and early 20th century, these institutions have been committed to modern conceptions of higher education. From curricular development, to research, to pedagogical style, these institutions have sought parity on some level with their more “secular” counterparts. At the same time, however, these schools have been fervent defenders of what Laats refers to as “imprecise spiritual and cultural imperatives that set them apart” from either denominational or mainstream higher education (7). For Laats, the interplay between their commitment to the highest modern academic standards and their commitment to a particular form of Christian bona fides characterizes the uniqueness of fundamentalist institutions of higher education.
Following a loose chronology, Laats’s work begins with the creation of these interdenominational colleges and universities in the late 19th and early 20th century. Chapters 1 and 2 recount how early fundamentalist universities were not looking to restore an older model of higher education; rather, they sought to create decidedly modern institutions of higher learning with a rigid commitment to a particular form of Christianity. Schools, however, were unsure what that meant. Institutions like Wheaton initially believed this meant things like prohibiting theatrical productions on campus, while Bob Jones University had little problem with these. Deciding what a fundamentalist institution looked like was a moving target for many of these schools. Institutional authority, discussed in chapter 3, was sometimes held by multiple school administrators as in the case of Wheaton or in one charismatic leader as in the case of Bob Jones. Oftentimes, school administrators would also look outside of the institution for supporters who might vouch for their fundamentalist credentials, while at the same time providing fundamentalist credentials for their graduates.
Chapter 4 functions in many ways as a bridge between the discussions of institutional beginnings and Laats’s attention to growth and change in the latter half of the book. Here Laats addresses student life, and the ways in which campus rules were enforced and/or bent by administrators and faculty. He explains that every school had its own unique system of rules, and that the regulations surrounding courtship, dating, and sexuality were often the most rigidly enforced and policed across various institutions. Even so, students managed to subvert rules and misbehave with some regularity, providing their actions remained within certain boundaries.
The three following chapters address the growth and development of fundamentalist institutions of higher learning as schools began distinguishing themselves from one another in the 1950s and 60s. Laats addresses the ways in which schools like Bob Jones University criticized others like Wheaton for not being fundamentalist enough. Many schools began seeking forms of accreditation as students pushed for more credible degrees, while others, like Bob Jones, resisted seeking accreditation in order to maintain their fundamentalist bona fides. Issues of racism and sexism, fuelled by the 1960s, caused many institutions to reevaluate campus rules and polices in addition to curriculum. Each school dealt with change and growth differently, but Laats contends that they all continued to balance modern academic standards with their commitment to Christianity.
The final two chapters address the politicization of these fundamentalist university campuses in the late 1970s and 1980s. These two chapters center upon the institutions of Liberty University and Bob Jones University, and culminate in an analysis of Bob Jones University’s legal battle against the IRS, which revoked the tax-exempt status of the school on the basis of eradicating racial discrimination. While Laats acknowledges that politics has always influenced fundamentalist institutions of the higher learning, these two chapters are more explicit about this than any others in his work.
Fundamentalist U provides a compelling examination of a segment of academia that is often overlooked. The work raises further questions regarding how these institutions interacted with denominational colleges and universities as well as more secular schools. Likewise, Laats could have further analyzed the ways in which a school like Fuller Theological Seminary engaged with these undergraduate colleges and universities as a graduate, professional school. While the work seeks to provide clarity regarding the categories of fundamentalist and evangelical, it sometimes drifts afield from this question. Despite this, Laats presents scholars with an important study in an area of religion and American higher education that brings evangelical and fundamentalist institutions into the field of study.
Andrew Gardner is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University.
Date Of Review:
August 7, 2018
Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University. He is the author of several books, including The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (2015), winner of the History of Education Society's Outstanding Book Award, 2016.
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