As the work of the Austin Institute develops, we would like to remember Robert Bellah, whom the New York Times described as “the sociologist of religion who mapped the American soul.” Having taught at the University of California-Berkeley for decades, he is one of the towering figures of the social sciences, and coined the term, “civil religion.” He is perhaps most recognized for his 1986 bestseller, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.
Throughout his vast intellectual career, one of his enduring concerns was the increasing individualism in American society and how it affects our greater social allegiances within democratic, social, and communal spaces, for example, in declining participation in churches, certain volunteer organizations, and civic associations. For Bellah, the American experiment always valued individualism in self-governance due to the historical struggle against monarchical and aristocratic authority of a previous age. He writes: “individualism lies at the very core of American Culture.” Yet he also understood that individuals do not create their own reality but inherit language, ideas, and even their identities from the social groups of which they form a part.
Bellah wrote widely on religion, culture, individualism, the nation, and even marriage and family. For example, within his work on love and marriage, Bellah captured the modern quest to “find oneself” through another: “if love and marriage are seen primarily in terms of psychological gratification, they may fail to fulfill their older social functions of providing people with stable, committed relationships that tie them into a larger society.”
The Transformation of Higher Education
He also wrote extensively on the purpose of higher education and how it has changed. He notes that prior to the late 19th century, colleges aimed at producing “a man of learning” who would have an “uplifting and unifying influence on society.” With the rise of the modern research university, the focus shifted to producing the specialized “scientist” particular to each discipline. As the unified consensus of education faded and the advent of academic disciplines became more specialized, disciplines in turn became more fragmented from each other: social sciences were separated from history and philosophy, which was itself pulled away from religion and literature.
Though Bellah thought that within this new paradigm the professional sciences were still rightly motivated to provide useful knowledge about an increasingly complex society, he also saw that they were less and less able to speak to each other and, perhaps even more tragically, to speak to the general public about major ethical questions of the society as a whole.
Nowhere was the effect of specialization more evident than on students. While he acknowledged that college students sought professional training suited to the job market, he was troubled by their lack of concern with understanding their place in the world and their responsibilities to others. In other words, the purpose of education in the mind of students was not to help them enrich their understanding of the complex world, but to merely find a narrow professional space, to secure a better shot at individual success.
As a remedy, Bellah argued that what was needed was to recover social science as public philosophy.
Social Science as Public Philosophy
For Bellah, professional social scientists cannot merely be specialists, but must understand their work—that is, their vocation—as essentially in service to the public, thereby bridging the gap between the academy and the community. In order to accomplish this, Bellah hoped for a reintegration of the social sciences within the humanities in order to form a whole, becoming
a form of social self-understanding or self-interpretation. It brings the traditions, ideals, and aspirations of society into juxtaposition with its present reality. It holds up a mirror to society....We conceived of our research form the beginning as a dialogue or conversation with fellow citizens about matters of common interest.
In that same spirit, the Austin Institute hopes to encourage a more intelligent, informed, and respectful conversation about important and complex social phenomena that involve the deepest and most significant connections we make—our interpersonal relationships. Towards that end, the Institute’s social science research will make connections that are not obvious, tread in empirical territory that others fears to visit, and ask difficult questions that many avoid. The Austin Institute is about ideas and evidence. For this reason, the Austin Institute is building a network of scholars across disciplines to contribute to the project of “social self-understanding,” while doing so with intellectual integrity and a sense of responsibility toward others.