Cut Flowers

Michael Metzger

Florist shops.
Today’s universities are florist shops selling cut flowers. Ask any business, political science – or any science – major. Every discipline was originally rooted in Christian theology. Yet we’d be hard pressed to find a college student who appreciates this. Today’s colleges “offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life,” writes Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College.1 They’re selling cut flowers, which might eventually snip our experiment in self-government.

Capitalism, free political states and free markets owe their inception to Christian theology. We are created by God to work six days yet live in a seven-day cycle. This meant we had to use our wits to be productive and amass surplus. Capitalism is a system oriented to the human mind (the word comes from the Latin caput meaning “head”). To encourage invention, discovery and enterprise, Christianity promoted the inalienable right to personal economic initiative and fostered responsive political states that first appeared in medieval Europe. These states provided the safe havens for “the application of reason to commerce, resulting in capitalism.”2

Science is rooted in that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university. Early scientists understood that we’re to use our wits to unlock the intelligible patterns in God’s universe. It is a fact that deeply religious Christian scholars account for the rise of science. Even a religious skeptic like Alfred North Whitehead admitted during one of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard in 1925 that science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science… derivative from medieval theology.”3 The first universities rooted every discipline, including science, in the “queen” discipline: religion. This combination promoted using our wits and wisdom.

These disciplines began to be cut off from their roots in the early 1800s. In 1825, the Harvard Overseers voted to create stand alone, autonomous academic departments. Business, political science, biology – every discipline – was placed in its own vase. This “marked the moment when depth and specialized learning began to ascend over breadth and the interconnection of knowledge.”4 A college education became a passport to privilege and making a living rather than living well. As a result, Harvard “articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person, as opposed to a well person.”5

All we hear today is that the social responsibility of capitalism is to increase shareholder profit. Period. Markets are no longer seen as rooted in morality. We’re taught that science ought to be skeptical – if not downright hostile – toward religion. Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould believed science and religion occupy two different spheres and should not touch. Yet “the scholars who make the greatest contributions are those whose depth of knowledge is matched by their breadth of understanding,” and sadly this kind of education “is given scant value in today’s colleges,” says Lewis.6

It’s no wonder that most business professionals are mute on morals and scientists resent religion as repressive. It’s instructive to remember what the Roman poet Horace wrote two thousand years ago: caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt. Those who go running across the sea change their climate but not their mind. A passport to privilege only allows students to change their climate. We need to change minds. Today’s colleges ought to be greenhouses rather than florist shops. The Founding Fathers tied freedom (including free markets) to virtue that was derived from religion. Michael Polanyi, one of the twentieth century’s preeminent scientists reminded us that the tendency of science, severed from its religious roots, is to do whatever lies within its capacity, without regard for moral restraint.

When Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked to comment on the French Revolution, he said it was too early to tell. It’s too early to tell whether the American experiment in self-government, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, will continue to bloom. We all recognize that cut flowers enjoy a short shelf life. They eventually go slack. In the same way, “to ignore or cover over the moral dimension of business,” Michael Novak reminds us, “is to suck wind out of the democratic sail, and to watch the experiment in self-government go slack.”7 Let’s hope for a day when colleges, business and science are more like greenhouses than florist shops.

1 Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (New York, New York: Public Affairs, 2006), p.17
2 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p.xiii
3 Ibid, pp.14-15
4Excellence Without a Soul, p.31
5 Ibid, p.160
6 Ibid, p.8
7 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp.51-53


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