- Science, Jews, and Secular Culture
David Hollinger has written an arresting and subtle book on American academic life between the end of World War II and the mid 1960s. Within that period, he pays particular attention to the 1962–1965 interlude, a short, intense time in which secular culture blossomed in the university. Much of this, the author contends, occurred as the result of the wholesale entry of Jews into the academy. Their arrival heralded a lowering of traditional discriminatory barriers, and a substantial reconstruction of higher learning on the basis of a more cosmopolitan, scientific, and multi-cultural basis. It marked a decisive weakening of the Protestant establishment and the decline of overt religious commitments within such institutions. It also marks the heyday of social science both inside and without the academy.
Although all of these essays have appeared elsewhere, they retain a [End Page 281] clear coherence, and they restate and elaborate upon the theme of the development and institutionalization of cosmopolitanism in American culture. Here and elsewhere, Hollinger has identified cosmopolitanism with scientific culture, secularization, and the role of Jewish intellectuals in American life. All of this is part of a larger interest the author takes in considering the nature of American exceptionalism. Rather than ask why socialism failed in the United States, he wonders why secularism has been so weak, why Christianity (largely Protestantism) has maintained its hegemony in American culture. This book does not begin to answer such large, complex questions, but it does place the problem of (relative) secularization within their larger context.
Chapters of the book range from a general inquiry into the decline of Protestant authority in American culture, to such specific and interesting essays as the discussion of the reputation of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr as a friend of Jewish assimilation into American life, the scientific ethos of Robert K. Merton, and two particularly fascinating assessments of the University of Michigan and New York University as barometers of the decline of anti-semitism and the rise of a scientifically-oriented academic culture. During the remarkable period of transformation Hollinger identifies, the demography of the university shifted dramatically and the cultures of these institutions more overtly reflected the universalism and secularity of the scientific enterprise.
As a short collection of unrevised essays, this book neither claims nor accomplishes more than an initial inquiry into a number of crucial, larger questions, a few of which I would like to raise explicitly. The first has to do with the actual transformation of institutions. What practical differences did diversity and secularity make inside the American university? Where, besides science and social science did Jews congregate, or were they fairly evenly spread throughout all disciplines? How did institutions change to accommodate their presence, and who were the inside groups who pushed for secularization?
It would also be important to examine more closely the growing importance of science and science culture, to weigh its crucial role in transforming academic life. After all, Hollinger’s period exactly coincides with the most optimistic era of American science and science culture. Finally, there is the problem of the cosmopolitan ideal and the scientific, pragmatic model of truth-seeking. Inherent in this designation is a kind of elitism based in academic self-discipline with its specialized communities of knowledge and self-governance. While I see no plausible alternative to this, it is still important to assess the meaning and potential validity of the populist, democratic challenge to this ideal—a critique [End Page 282] that has always limited the reach of cosmopolitan intellectuals and the scientific establishment. But Hollinger is clearly onto something important by defining these years as the most important. My guess is that their dynamism came from the dialectic of change, the challenge to old hegemonies, and the heady optimism that new ideas and new people were bringing to an old enterprise.