Review: After the Ivory Tower Falls

After the Ivory Tower Falls, Will Bunch. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

Summary: How the culture wars, costs, and inaccessibility of college have contributed to our political divides and what may be done.

I graduated from college in 1976. Because of personal savings, scholarships, and work, I finished college without debt. Our family did not have much in the way of financial resources at that time and did not contribute financially except for providing a roof over my head. Low, state-subsidized tuitions helped make that possible. Reading this book, I realized that this could not have happened in 2022. If I went to college, I likely would have ended with five or six figured debt. I even might not have gone to college.

Will Bunch argues that there are two Americas–one that manages to afford a college education, and one that does not and either finishes or drops out with massive debts, or doesn’t even try. He proposes that our political divides map onto those two Americas. He opens the book by using Knox County, Ohio as an object lesson of this division. Knox County is the home of the elite, liberal arts college, Kenyon College in Gambier, as well as Mount Vernon, six miles to the west, the county seat and a town struggling to get by after its largest factories were shuttered. Kenyon costs in excess of $76,000 a year and attracts a national student body, many from households that can afford these costs. In 2020, the median household income in Mount Vernon was $46,656. In terms of politics, Gambier is an island of blue surrounded by an ocean of red, and Bunch, who spent time embedded in the area as a journalist, maps how those differences played out.

He then zooms out to a time when public education got as close to being universally accessible, following World War 2 and the G.I. Bill, the building boom that accompanied the Baby Boom, and the low or no tuitions (in the case of California) for in-state institutions at public institutions. He traces the increasing disaffection toward public support for colleges to the political radicalism of the Vietnam era and the rise of the culture wars and conservative talk radio in the 1980’s and 1990’s, particularly in the Clinton era. During this time, state support for higher education began to decrease and costs rose. And so began the efforts of colleges to recruit from out of state or even internationally those who would pay premium prices. By the 2020’s, student debt had climbed to $1.7 trillion and scandals like the Varsity Blues scandal exposed the pay to play admissions policies with vast inequities, particularly at the most elite schools.

Bunch then zooms in again, describing four groups, illustrated by four individuals that he argues comprise the two Americas. First are the Left Perplexed, boomers and Gen-Xers who are baffled by the rise of both Trumpism and youth drawn to socialism. Second are the Left Broke, the children of the Left Perplexed, saddled with high debts and drawn to socialist solutions and concerns for racial justice. Third are the Left Behind, the Boomers and Xers who went to work out of high school in factory jobs, many of which went away or were off-shored, people often drawn to Donald Trump as one who affirms their value, their work ethic, and their concerns. Finally, there are the Left Out, the young growing up in the former factory towns who don’t have access to the college track, who work in warehouse and service industries while struggling with alcohol or opioid addiction and higher rates of suicide.

He then chronicles both the increased resentments of foreclosed opportunities in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the rejection of the knowledge associated with college from science to social analysis, particularly among the Left Behind, who often felt themselves belittled and marginalized by the progressive elites associated with higher education.

Bunch then turns to Truman-era solutions as the beginnings of a way out, arguing for the public good of subsidized post-secondary education, whether college or skilled trades. He also looks at the possible benefits of a National Service program for 18 year-olds, bringing people from a variety of backgrounds together for the good of the country as well as mentoring that prepares them for further educational options. In addition to advancing the common good, such a program would help close the divides and forging new bonds of commonality.

I found Bunch’s survey of the higher education and cultural landscape both persuasive in the broad strokes and flawed in the nuances. I wonder if the portrayal of an college vs. high school educated divide, while working as a broad generalization, especially among white Americans, neither explains the support of Trump politics among the educated, nor the more progressive policies supported by some communities with less access to higher education.

What is more compelling is the account of rising college costs, the burdens of college debt, and the urgency for a new policy that recognizes the public good of education beyond high school. To fail to act on this perpetuates not only economic inequities but also political divides. The best way to avoid divides is to include those who might be alienated. It is actually in the common interest of all of us to provide education beyond high school at the public expense as opposed to that education being available only to those who can pay. But that will require a shift in understanding of “us versus them” to “we” and from competing interests to the common good. The question this leaves me with is where the leadership will come from to forge that new understanding.

Ten Challenges Facing Higher Education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m going to depart from my reviews today to talk about a different part of my life. I’ve spent my working life in collegiate ministry on college and university campuses. My current position involves leading an effort to support emerging scholars who are followers of Christ in navigating the pathway of their calling. I cannot think of a more challenging time for colleges and universities and for those who would pursue their calling in these institutions. I wanted to write today particularly for those who don’t work in higher education to foster understanding of the challenges the campus is facing. Here are ten that come to mind. Each has merited whole books. I’ll give them at most a few sentences.

  1. Mission. Despite the myriad of verbiage you may hear in public pronouncements and on websites and admissions materials, there is a crisis in understanding what a university is for. I hear everything from educating for citizenship to training people for the high tech jobs of the future. Businesses, governmental entities and social advocacy groups all are trying to shape that mission to their own ends.
  2. A Crisis of Epistemology. The irony is that the relativism of the post-modernism of the 1980’s and 1990’s, with its suspicion of truth and how it may be known and its analysis that truth is defined by whoever is in power, has spread to our whole society. Truth is whatever my tribal group says and the facts be damned! Scholarly work is now on the receiving end where peer-reviewed research is scorned in preference to the latest internet post with any tone of authority.
  3. Cancel Culture rather than Scholarship that Pursues Truth Where it Leads. This flows from the previous point. In recent years, speakers with points of view (usually conservative) were shouted down or prevented from speaking. Research that questioned accepted norms of a discipline would often be refused publication or the researcher denounced. Now conservatives are having their day, passing laws in state legislatures about what must be taught and not taught, often in response to university administrations who issued similar dictates to their faculty. None of it fosters a spirit of fearless inquiry.
  4. The Exodus of Faculty and the Crisis of Adjunctification. The COVID pandemic has facilitated the departure of faculty who find their lifestyle unsustainable with increased demands of in-person and online instruction and the increased presence of alienated or emotionally struggling students. Faculty of color are leaving at higher rates. Colleges continue to ask faculty to do more and replace tenure track positions with adjunct faculty or contracted lecturers. Increasingly, I recommend that most graduate students ought to have some other work aspiration than academic work in a university. But this leaves serious questions to be asked about the quality of education, the future of academic research, and what will happen when enough people decide to withhold their labor.
  5. College Costs. I think as a society we ought to be moving toward the support of some form of post-secondary education for all of our citizens. But this means getting a handle on the costs of education. What I will argue is that university faculty are not the problem. Many have invested at least a dozen years beyond secondary education in their training. Many could earn far more in industry. And the cost of their salaries is not the big issue. On many campuses, if one studies the directories of non-academic units, one will be surprised at the number of people employed in these positions and how bloated many administrations are with very high salaried people. Some of these positions exist because of unfunded government mandates.
  6. Equity in Admissions. Addressing college costs and funding is significant and under our current system, many of lower and medium income families will either conclude that it is not worth it, or carry debts that often take the first half of their working careers to liquidate and often delay home purchases and other major financial commitments. I don’t think everyone should go to college but one’s race or socioeconomic background should not be the deciding factor but rather aptitudes, gifts, and passions.
  7. The Demographic Cliff. After 2026, high school graduations will drop by ten percent due to declining birth rates. The pandemic has sped up that curve for many institutions where enrollments have already dropped significantly, especially at two-year institutions. This may actually be an opportunity for some institutions to streamline themselves and also to work on recruiting and retaining and offering financial aid for students who might not otherwise attend.
  8. The Student Mental Health Crisis. One university counseling center director told me they anticipated they would need to increase their staff by 50 percent to respond to student mental health needs. He discovered that they should have increased their staff by 100 percent and said that he had received similar reports from university mental health professionals across the country. The major concerns are anxiety and depression. This has been a growing crisis, even before the pandemic, which has made it much worse. Often university faculty are the first to encounter a student with these struggles.
  9. The Sexualized Campus. Beyond the sexual politics around orientation and sexual identity and the outcry about abortion rights lies the reality of a campus that is a highly sexualized place. The abuse scandals with student athletes is the most visible tip of the iceberg. Colleges are deeply conflicted around the question of consent and what constitutes it and how, in an atmosphere that normalizes both recreational sex and alcohol and substance use, consent is supposed to work.
  10. Fostering Robust Diversity with Civility. Campuses are incredibly diverse places with people of color and internationals from throughout the world. You have every political party and faith and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is our society in microcosm. Often it is a weak or brittle diversity as is true in most of our country–comfortable only with one’s own tribe. The challenge is to foster a climate, not of guarded and careful niceness that mutes distinctiveness, nor one of belligerence, but rather of both forthrightness about one’s own ideas and values and curiosity rather than judgment about those of others. Actually, I’ve often witnessed students rise admirably to this, often better than faculty and administration. Learning, and where it is needed, enforcing the practices of a principled civility, would seem vital for the development of future leaders.

It is a challenging time in higher education. Challenges can call out not only the worst but the best in human beings. I hope those outside the university will not use this as a chance to rail at higher education. The problems here mirror those in our society. If you are a person of faith, pray for those who lead universities, perhaps using this as a list of things to pray for. There are many Christians working in these universities in positions on faculty, in administration, on staff, or in support services. Two of my friends are presidents of major universities. They love God, they love the campus, they love what they teach and research, they love and seek the common good and they do this amid these challenges.

Review: A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning

A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning  (ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines), James V. Schall, S.J. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2019. (Link is to free e-book download from publisher).

Summary: A pithy little guide on pursuing the liberty that comes in the pursuit of truth and how one might devote oneself to liberal learning.

In this pithy booklet, James V. Schall, S.J. makes the case for the classic ideal of liberal learning that he believes lost in the post-modern setting of contemporary higher education. Liberal education believed that the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty freed one (liberated one) to pursue the well-lived life. He writes this booklet to the student who has the sense that there is something more that might be pursued in her education that what is on offer. He also observes, with Augustine and Aristotle, that our actions more than our words reveal what is true, and that our moral failings may prevent us from seeing truth, something rarely, if ever, heard in the classroom.

Where then does one begin. For Schall, he urges two things. One is self-discipline, that is self-control of our passions, fears, dreams, and thoughts, and honesty about our failings in these areas. He writes: “The person who was most free was the one who had the most control over himself.” It is this that allows us to focus on the things of greatest importance.

The second thing is to build a good personal library. Schall doesn’t believe this requires many books–early pioneers often had only Shakespeare and the Bible, and much of what was important in life could be found here. I loved Schall’s commitment to not assigning books that he did not think worth keeping. And this leads to a guiding standard–our libraries should consist of the books we would read again (a standard I use more and more as I cull books from my shelves).

Schall also advocates that we need good guides, holding up Samuel Johnson as an example. A good guide is one who helps the student test ideas by reality. One of the most beautiful lines about teaching is this:

We begin our intellectual lives not with need, nor less with desire, but with wonder and enchantment. A student and teacher read together many books they otherwise might have missed. Both need to make efforts to know the truth of things, the ordinary things and the highest things, that the one and the other might have overlooked had they not had time, serious time, together.

And so Schall concludes by discussing the matter of time, invoking the unusual authority of Louis L’Amour whose The Education of a Wandering Man makes the case for finding the time to read in a busy life. Schall urges students to take time beyond their classes to read, to find great works that aren’t taught in the used bookstores. What books, you may ask? One of the delights of this book are Schall’s recommendations interspersed in the text as well as an Appendix of “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By,” a list of twenty titles–only half of which I’ve read. While some are found on “Great Books” lists, many are not.

My only objection is that they are all by white Euro-Americans. I think we may also grow in liberal learning by reading W.E,B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes as well as African, South American, and Asian writers. One of the most profound works I’ve read is Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

That said, this is a delightful little work. For many students, the idea of “liberal learning” has no room in the curriculum. Schall proposes that, sad as this is, the perceptive student will find the room on his or her own and find good guides and books along the way. And this “Guide” is a good beginning.

Review: Versions of Academic Freedom

Versions of Academic Freedom, Stanley Fish. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Summary: An analysis of the idea of academic freedom, identifying five schools of thought, arguing for limiting this to the core professional duties of an academic in one’s institution and disciplinary field.

The relevance of this work is clearly evident in the presence of regular stories of how academic freedom in our universities is threatened or complaints about particular actions of faculty that are rationalized as “academic freedom.” What can or cannot be taught in a classroom? Can a faculty member email her students about the need to protest in favor of Palestinian rights against Israel? Is it an infringement on academic freedom to prohibit wearing political clothing and buttons in a class one is teaching? Is it proper for a faculty member to disclose one’s political or religious beliefs as they bear on the course material at the beginning of a course? Should a faculty member be punished for publishing research findings arrived at according to the standards for research in one’s field if those findings challenge accepted social norms and the paradigms of one’s discipline?

At least part of the answer, Stanley Fish maintains, is how one defines “academic freedom.” For him, it hinges both on what we understand to be the scope of the duties of an academic and how expansive our idea of freedom is. In this work, drawn from the Campbell Lectures sponsored by Rice University, Fish delineates five schools of thought from a very narrow definition of academic freedom to a very expansive one and argues that only the narrowest reflects what can really be called “academic freedom.”

The five schools of thought are:

  1. The “It’s a job” school. Educators provide a service of advancing through research and instruction a particular body of knowledge in one’s discipline as specified by the course catalog and syllabus. Within the scope of their professional duties they should enjoy freedom to do their job. They are not inculcating moral values, mobilizing social justice warriors, or training citizens to uphold some vision of democracy. Such things, while commendable in their role as citizens and enjoying First Amendment protection do not fall under the scope of academic freedom.
  2. The “For the common good” school. Those in this school, going back to the 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles would go beyond the protection of scholarly work done within the scope of one’s professional duties to emphasize the academy’s role in upholding democratic values and principles of justice against the “tyranny of public opinion.”
  3. The “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school. This argues that by virtue of training, gifts, and character, academics are exceptional persons who not only correct popular opinion but are not subject to the same laws and restrictions of ordinary citizens. One example is the Virginia state law prohibiting access of state employees to pornography on state-owned computers without supervisory permission. Professors argued “academic freedom” rights to warrant declaring the law invalid for them.
  4. The “Academic freedom as critique” school. This school, with Judith Butler as a leading representative, argues that the norms and standards of the academy and one’s discipline are inherently conservative, and academic freedom protects dissent from or critique of those norms. The work of a scholar is to interrogate those norms.
  5. The “Academic freedom as revolution” school. This school invokes academic freedom to protect the scholar whose critique challenges and seeks the overthrow of corruption in the academy and society for the sake of social justice. This has been used to justify “academic squatting” in which professors, instead of teaching the advertised course, use the classroom to advance their critique and to advocate revolutionary activity.

Fish places himself in the “It’s a job” school, contending that this is the only context in which the protections of academic freedom apply. Academic freedom exists to further scholarship. Period. While other aims may be laudable, they do not fall under the rubric of academic freedom. Fish observes both the hubris and the dislocation of the focus of academic work in the “common good” school. This places academic work in the service of something else. Against both the critique and revolution schools, Fish does not dispute the conservative character of disciplines but emphasizes that new disciplines do emerge from old as “existing norms preside over their own alteration,” citing as an example the rise of women’s studies. This approach is a safeguard against the unraveling of the university, which he believes would be the consequence if these approaches prevail.

Finally, he returns to the idea of exceptionalism–the idea that academic freedom protects individuals from legal requirements with which ordinary citizens must comply. Much of this is a discussion of public employment law and specific legal cases. The basic message here is that academic freedom is a professional norm and not a legal right. Much of one’s professional duties are contractually established. Speech in the course of one’s employment is different than the exercise of First Amendment rights, with which academic freedom is often confused. One can’t depart from the subject matter of a course to talk about whatever one wants. On the other hand, the results of research undertaken as part of one’s duties, when conducted according to disciplinary practice, cannot be “directed or scripted, by the government.”

Fish’s analysis did two things for me. One was to bring greater clarity to the terminology of “academic freedom.” Instead of an umbrella term to cover many kinds of activity, Fish argues for a focused used, referring to the professional duties of an academic as well as the core function of a university as Fish understands it:

“The academy is the place where knowledge is advanced, where the truth about matters physical, conceptual, and social is sought. That’s the job, and that’s also the aspirational norm: the advancement of knowledge and the search for truth. The values of advancing knowledge and discovering truth are not extrinsic to academic activity; they constitute it.”

The other thing Fish did was make clear that academic freedom has no legal basis, but rather a shared consensus that protects professors, not in anything they do, but in the performance of their scholarly work. In particular, it seems that disciplines, college administrations and boards, and the state ideally ought to share a consensus that it is vital to protect the freedom of academics to pursue scholarly work without dictating the results of that work, including teaching that reflects the current state of learning in a discipline.

I would like to see Fish update this work, written in 2014, addressing the actions of state legislatures to dictate what may and may not be taught in courses. Traditionally, these are decisions made by departments and colleges in establishing a course of study, including the content of courses according to the current body of learning relevant to the course subject. The “it’s a job approach” in this context makes faculty the mouthpiece of a state ideology in the guise of complying with specified course context. Often this means excluding material that constitutes a significant part of the body of knowledge in a discipline. More troubling, it implies that only certain lines of inquiry with state-approved results will be supported. While Fish rightly, I believe, rejects more expansive schools of academic freedom, he fails to answer how to protect the more circumscribed idea of academic freedom he upholds.

Review: The House of the Intellect

The House of the Intellect, Jacques Barzun. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Summary: A discussion of the decline of the intellect and its causes.

It is fashionable in higher educational circles these days to decry the decline of intellectual life. Jacques Barzun, a patrician educator, professor of history and Dean at Columbia was doing that in 1959. What was striking to me was the continuity between what he wrote and our situation over sixty years later.

Barzun would define intellect as the basics of communication from the alphabet to the conventions of the clear articulation and argumentation of idea, disciplinary ideas and habits and more. He explains his idea of intellect as follows:

“That part of the world I call the House of the Intellect embraces at least three groups of subjects: the persons who consciously and methodically employ the mind; the forms and habits governing the activities in which the mind is so employed; and the conditions under which these people and activities exist. “

He goes on to explain the “house” metaphor:

“I would speak of the realm of the mind–limited and untamed–but I say the House of the Intellect, because it is an establishment, requiring appurtenances and prescribing conventions.”

He begins by contending that there are three enemies facing the intellect. When artistic sensibilities intrude into intellectual life, aesthetic sense obscures the discursive character of intellectual articulation. When the language of science intrudes, its precision and specificity intrudes into the unity of knowledge. Philanthropy as he uses it is opens education to a wide audience, regardless of fitness (which comes off as elitist, one of my problems with this part of his argument).

He describes the pseudo-intellectualism of public discourse and our polite, cultured conventions of conversation that prevent serious discussions of ideas (although some polite conventions and manners might be needed in our own day). He describes education as without instruction, observing the use of television for instruction (if only he knew) and instruction without authority. He is one of the earliest to recognize the conversion of education into business and college leadership into bureaucracies. And he points out how intellectual pedantry has influenced every discipline, and far beyond–even President Eisenhower declaims, “Marshal Zhukov and I operated together very closely” rather than saying “worked.”

Barzun makes an argument for power and pretension intruding into the work of the intellect. What is concerning is that he also sweeps up the broadening of American education into his critique. I was one of those who benefited by that “broadening,” or as he would call it, “philanthropy.” I would not naturally have enjoyed access to these opportunities, growing up in a lower middle, working class neighborhood. In another era, I might have been excluded from “the house of the Intellect.”

Nevertheless, Barzun poses some important questions. Today, it is the hegemony of STEM fields over those disciplines that classically taught clarity of thought and expression. He guts the jargon-laden discourse of many academic disciplines. He questions the academic fads that often substitute for the instruction that cultivates the intellect. He exposes the conventions of public and personal conversation that thwart intellectual life (I’d love to see what he would do with social media).

Barzun is an educator from another era, and while I cannot endorse some of his ideas, he also holds up a mirror to contemporary educational practice, asking, “why are we doing this?” He was a kind of educational prophet. If you can find a used copy of this online, and care about education, I think you will find this a thought-provoking read.

Review: The Vocation of the Christian Scholar

The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Richard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Summary: An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship.

Richard T. Hughes is concerned less with the idea of “Christian scholarship” and more concerned with how one is to live out one’s calling as a Christian scholar. For him this involves two elements. One is having “an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated.” The other is learning to embrace paradox, as we hold both to an faith informed by our tradition and others, and the perspectives of our discipline.

He describes his own journey of growing up in Restorationist churches, complemented subsequently by studies of Lutheranism and Anabaptism, learning to hold the paradox of grace and discipleship together. He turns his attention to the life of the mind and its requirements of a disciplined search for truth, genuine conversation with diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and intellectual creativity. He contends that this applies to thinking theologically as well as thinking about one’s discipline, so that one’s work is grounded in one’s faith.

Drawing upon the work of Sidney E. Mead, he outlines how both the political leaders and college leaders of the American republic modelled this approach of embracing paradox, holding both to theistic or deistic ideas as well as engaging the Enlightenment thought of the time. They recognized human finitude and the rule of God over human institutions. He moves on the advocate both for understanding the particularities of one’s faith tradition and why we ought move beyond them: the nature of God, the nature of the Bible, the core of the gospel that must not be displaced by particularities, our neighbors in faith who must not be excluded by particularities, and dying to our egos, acknowledging our finitude.

This does not mean denying the power of the traditions we call our own. Hughes goes on to describe appreciatively the contribution of Roman Catholicism, the Reformed Tradition, the Anabaptist Model, and the Lutheran traditions, showing the substantial spiritual and intellectual resources these offer for the life of the mind. Drawing on these ideas, he considers how one may teach from a Christian perspective. I would have liked to hear some discussion of church traditions outside the dominant white culture. He observes that because of the paradoxes within our faith, we are uniquely positioned to foster an atmosphere of comfort with paradox and ambiguity essential to good inquiry. He contends that his work is not to give students “pre-digested answers” but rather to “inspire wonder, to awaken imagination, to stimulate creativity….” It is also to help them explore ultimate questions. Drawing on Paul Tillich, he identifies three:

  1. How do I cope with the inevitability of death?
  2. Am I an acceptable human being?
  3. Is there any meaning in life, and if there is, what is it?

He believes that the values of the upside down kingdom ought shape our choices of what to teach, and how he recognized these values in Howard Zinn’s work, even though Zinn is not a Christian. He addresses the concern about the distinctiveness of his scholarship as a Christian. He contends that the depth of his commitment to Christ cannot help but shape his scholarship, just as Madeleine L’Engle answered a young writer who wanted to become a “Christian writer.” L’Engle told her that if she was a thorough-going Christian, her writing would be Christian.

He follows with a chapter on the vocation of a Christian college. His argument is that Christian colleges ought be shaped by a shared theological vision, all pragmatic considerations aside. He also proposes a theological vision combining Lutheran and Anabaptist perspectives, one both of radical grace and radical discipleship. This is a vision of both radical Christian engagement in society and radical dependence on God. He then ends the book with a postscript of how tragedy can uniquely shape the Christian mind, including a personal narrative of his own near-death encounter.

While this work is grounded in the Christian college setting, I think it is also useful to Christians called to scholarship in the secular setting. The essence of his argument is the importance of a life deeply grounded in a theological tradition and an embrace of paradox. While this may not enjoy institutional support outside the Christian college setting, one may find community with other Christian scholars. I also appreciate the focus on the calling of the scholar rather than “Christian scholarship.” Rather than forced expressions of faith, these are allowed to develop organically as one both deeply cultivates one’s faith, understanding one’s own niche in the great story, and pursues one’s research and teaching. I loved the focus on wonder and ultimate questions, although I’d be curious how he might work out the latter in STEM fields. This is a worthwhile work for any Christian wanting to integrate their scholarly calling into their faith.

Review: A Sacred Journey

A Sacred Journey, Paul Nicholas Wilson. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2021.

Summary: A practical description the journey toward faithful Christian presence in secular institutions.

Many Christians do not enjoy the privilege of working for Christian employers. Working in a secular context, they neither want to ignore the rules and expectations of their workplace, nor leave their faith at the front door. The world of higher education is no exception.

Paul Nicholas Wilson has lived in that world for over 40 years and believes that a kind of “muscular” faithful presence is the proper approach to walking the line between living out a Christian life in the workplace and respecting that workplace. Before taking us on a journey into the practicalities, he offers a narrative of his own journey from his conversion through his academic career at the University of Arizona. He touches on his self-disclosures on the first day of class, his office decor, his association with Christian ministries on campus, his service in classroom and curriculum design, and support of public outreach efforts. He concludes that most important are personal acts of public faithfulness, community with other Christ followers, and a seamless integration between his faith and vocation on campus.

He then uses a travel analogy to offer practical insights on the journey of faithful presence. He discusses the roadway of higher education, both the common grace of God coming through various cultural goods as well as “road hazards” like apatheism, idolatries, tribalism, and the quest for money. He warns of the danger of dualism, the strategy of separating one’s personal faith from one’s work altogether. Sometimes, this is motivated by a misperception that any form of faith expression is illegal. Wilson offers a helpful chart and discussion of what one can, probably should not, and definitely should not, do.

Instead of dualism, Wilson advocates for integration of faith and discipline, marshalling the support of a number of Reformed thinkers. Then, over several chapters, he takes us through a “Gospel Positioning System” for the journey centered on the Triune God and a core of basic beliefs about creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. He then elaborates the journey of faithful presence first by commending the character of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, all of this worked out in our vocations.

He offers trenchant warnings about speech in a setting rife with speech. His honesty about the challenges he faced in dealing with professional gossip was refreshing. He challenges scholars to excellence in their work and in all of life. He offers a simple rubric for evaluating research efforts:

  • Why now?
  • So what?
  • Who cares?
  • Done well?
  • Well done?

He advocates for collaboration, especially with graduate TA’s, helping them develop their skills as well as enhancing the classroom experience for students. Finally, all this creates a platform in which a faculty member can pursue “public goods and positive externalities”–serving the common good through advising, departmental service, and sharing resources, including funding. All of these offer the context in which respectful personal and public witness can be shared respectfully and forthrightly.

Wilson concludes with a word for churches and seminaries. He contends that these rarely recognize and affirm the sacredness of secular vocations, and center ministry around the congregation itself rather than the work on congregants in the world.

James Davison Hunter’s ideas of “faithful presence” hold a strong attraction for many academics I know. Yet sometimes, I feel this becomes little more than “niceness.” What Wilson does is flesh out faithfulness in character and the specific deeds of professors in teaching, research, and service. He makes a strong appeal that one cannot do this alone but only in community. And he challenges the dualism often unwittingly supported by churches that confines a Christian’s ministry to personal and church contexts rather than affirming workplaces as worship places.

This is a valuable resource that I’d love to see get into the hands of every Christian faculty member, staff person, and administrator on campus. It would make a great book for discussion in groups, offering mutual encouragement to put into practice the precepts found here.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Power Women

Power Women, Edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Foreword by Shirley Hoogstra. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Fourteen women who are both mothers and academics write about how they navigate these callings as women of faith.

Women in the academic world face a unique challenge. The biological clock and the tenure clock are synchronized. The critical years for child-bearing and for career advancement coincide. One’s faith community and cultural background further complicates this challenge with sometimes conflicting values around parenting and career advancement. Many women choose one over the other. Others, like the women in this volume, believe both callings to be important for them, and write about the ways they have cared for their families and continued to pursue their academic callings. Through all of this runs an underlying theme of continue to nourish their own souls and to practice good self-care.

The contributions are organized into four parts: navigating academia, navigating motherhood, navigating multiple callings, and navigating support. In the first part Maria Su Wang describes how she carves out time for research with young children, sharing some of the scriptural reflections that have shaped her choices. Stephanie Chan offered a unique perspective on the synergy of parenting and work (lullaby and syllabi) and how each may enrich the other. Teri Clemons talks about the misperceptions that exist about maternity leave and its importance, including how much time bonding with a child and recovery can take. She urges women (and men) to avail themselves of all the leave institutional and state policies allow. Yiesha L. Thompson closes out the section discussing the unique situation of adjunct professor moms. the special pressures and choices they must make, and ways administrators may offer appropriate support. .

The second section on navigating motherhood begins by asking just what is meant by being a “good” mother. Christine Lee Kim discusses the mixed messages mothers must negotiate and identifies good questions to identify those messages and describes her own process of working through these. Ji Y. Son identifies the double whammy working moms face of being disadvantaged both at work and home and suggests a recategorization that gives women grace by considering herself a “female dad.” Jean Neely describes her struggle with the imposter syndrome and how thinking of God as loving mother as well as father has transformed her spiritual life and how being a mother has deepened those insights.

Part three could be intimidating in its discussion of navigating multiple callings. Jenny Pak describes the juggling acts of the multiple callings of pastor’s wife, mother, and professor. Jennifer McNutt takes it a step further. She is a pastor, professor and mom of three. Yvana Uranga-Hernandez describes taking on homeschooling as a professor mom. For all, these are only possible as they reflect the singular pursuit of Christ and have the support of spouses, extended family, and the wider community.

That sets up the discussions in part four, navigating support. Deshonna Collier-Goubil speaks of her experience as a young widow of assembling a support network. Joy Qualls describes the choice she and her husband made for her to be the primary breadwinner while he managed the household as a stay-at-home dad. Doretha O’Quinn draws on her mentoring expertise to discuss how professor moms may mentor each other and also gets very practical about her own practices of self-care.

The chapters mix personal narrative and academic research. They are honest and practical. Their experiences demonstrate a variety of ways women have approached navigating the callings of mom and professor. While they are amazing in how much they accomplish, worthy of the “power women” label, their stories also reflect the importance of good institutional policies, including leave and tenure policies that do not disadvantage women, and the value of support from spouses, extended family, and a wider community, and lots of grace! This is a valuable work for men to read, to understand how they may be appropriate allies.

The women in this volume represented significant diversity of ethnicity, academic discipline, and life experience. What is missing are women in STEM fields and more women from secular universities (only one contributor is). That said, there is so much wisdom that may be extrapolated into these situations. I’ve worked with many graduate women who wonder whether it is possible to honor God as they pursue both motherhood and academic callings. These narratives offer a resounding “yes” as well as honest and practical models of how that is possible.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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The ministry with which I serve recently hosted a conversation with four of the contributors to this work that may be viewed on YouTube.

Review: The End of College

The End of College, Robert Wilson-Black. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of the creation and development of religion departments between 1930 and 1960 as a shift occurred from church affiliated colleges to research universities on the German model, with different aims serving a wider constituency.

Others, including George Marsden and Julie A. Reuben have chronicled the history of the modern university, including the shift from religiously based colleges to the modern secularized, research-oriented university. What makes this work by Robert Wilson-Black distinct is its account of how institutions that had their roots in the college model handled this shift with its decentering of religion, and in particular, Christianity from its role in university life. In particular, a solution resorted to was the creation of religion or religious studies departments. And yet these lived in a tension between encouraging the religious life and offering an academically rigorous program of study.

This shift represented an effort to preserve something of the college model in a much-changed environment. The college model existed to form mostly Protestants of an upper- or upper-middle class origin in the outlooks and moral character that would prepare them for useful participation in both the church and civil society. Both in terms of chapels and curricular content, religious ideas permeated the curriculum. The shift in higher education from colleges to universities represented a broadening of the constituency served to a much more diverse body in terms of class, gender, race, and religious background–a shift from college for the elite to university for the masses, especially after World War 2. Also the shift was from subjective belief and moral formation to scientific “objectivity.”

Wilson-Black’s treatment focuses on the Ivy League schools like Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and the U of Pennsylvania as well as other nationally recognized education leaders from Oberlin to University of Chicago to Stanford dealt with these changes. Each chapter focuses in on a particular school and key figure during a particular period in the thirty years or so covered by this work.

He explores the variety of challenges that were faced. These included the relation between departments and any kind of chaplaincy that remained. A tension that arose in this relationship was advocacy versus instruction. While religion departments certainly affirmed the importance of religious faith in life, they steadily moved away from advocacy, even where their curriculum was still heavily shaped by Christian subjects and themes. There was also the pressure to develop religious studies into an intellectually respectable discipline, “objectively” dealing with the phenomena and role of religion in life. The formation of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) reflected this trend.

The question arose of whether one must be religious, or alternatively not religious to teach this subject well. With the increasing diversity of religious backgrounds of students as well as students who would self describe as humanist or atheist, religious studies began to morph into comparative religion. Some places, like University of Chicago affirmed the exploration of ultimate questions, but did not wish to confine this to a single department. Also, many of these schools offered divinity school programs at the graduate level, and questions arose about how religion departments, that may also develop graduate programs but served undergraduate educational aims would relate to the divinity schools.

The approach of focusing on particular developments at a particular school which reflected broader issues and trends helped make this book very concrete and up close in its history, while also reflected the ways the teaching of religion were differentiated in various contexts and time periods. The work also helps me understand my encounters with religious studies as a fervent young Christian at a state university in the 1970’s. In retrospect, I see it reflected instruction in mainstream scholarship, whether it be the histories of major religious bodies in the U.S. or the critical theories about authorship and composition of the New Testament of the time (I don’t recall that we ever actually were assigned to read the New Testament). At the time I found it disappointing and found far more encouragement to my faith from my campus Christian community and publications of college-oriented Christian publishers like InterVarsity Press and Christianity Today, which had intellectual heft to many of its articles.

Now I understand it better, recognizing both the remnants of the idea that religious understanding is important in one’s education and the effort to be academically rigorous rather than advocating for a faith. There is a critical value of both understanding one’s own faith well (a matter often sadly neglected by our churches in the catechesis of younger members) and understanding and respecting other faiths. Sadly, in many places religious studies seemed to be taken over by the skeptics or even cynics, where advocacy for a belief system or even the encouragement of the formation of one’s own beliefs was replaced by deconstruction of belief systems. I suspect many programs consequently dug their own graves with this approach.

These reflections suggest to me that a good follow up project for this work is what has happened with regard to the teaching of religion as an academic subject in universities in the time since the 1960’s. I note that one of those who endorses this work is Eboo Patel whose work in fostering interfaith understanding and collaboration through the Interfaith Youth Core reflects a continuing interest in religious belief, both the clarifying of one’s own beliefs and the building of mutual understanding and respect with those of others. I like how this author has approached the telling of this story and would love to see it carried forward.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Identity in Action

Identity in Action, Perry L. Glanzer. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2021.

Summary: Addresses the various different identities college students must negotiate and proposes a model of Christian excellence in these various identities.

College students must negotiate a variety of identities in their campus experience. Race, sexual orientation, and gender identity are the object of much public focus. But there are also a number of other identities one engages in everyday life that are no less real–academic work, friends and family, romantic relationships, one’s stewardship of time, talents and resources including one’s own body, and one’s civic identity. With all this, the question comes of how to juggle or prioritize these identities–all are important to who we are as persons.

One of the assertions the author makes is that colleges and universities offer little help in figuring this stuff out. For the author, Christ is central to this matter of identity, and this work assumes people who are Christ followers. He contends that Christ followers are new creations, restored from the sin and brokenness of human rebellion. He beautifully uses Fantine’s words to Cosette about her and her prostitute mother from Les Miserables: “She has the Lord. He is her Father….In his eyes you have never been anything but an innocent and beautiful woman.” But our identity is more than a “me and Jesus” thing. We are part of Christ’s body, and Glanzer considers this our most important human identity, and a place that forms us in loving virtue.

All of this lays the basis for what he advocates as “identity excellence” in our various roles. Subsequent chapters of the book work this out in our various identities with neighbors, our work as students, as friends, with enemies, as men or women, in romantic relationships, in stewarding our bodies and time, in the use of God’s gifts of money and possessions, in our race and ethnicity, and our loyalties to family and country. From work in collegiate ministry, I would agree that these are among the top student concerns.

The chapter on being a good neighbor helps ground other chapters on dealing with friends and enemies and focuses on how one may be excellent, regardless of the behavior of others. I did find it surprising that he would take on the matter of enemies. Yet this seems important because there is an idealism that denies the possibility of having enemies and leaves one ill-prepared when this arises. The counsel on stewardship, beginning with one’s body and his words about alcohol abuse on campuses and its connection with sexual assault is worth heeding.

I was more mixed in reading the chapters about “ladies” and “gentleman” and about romantic relationships. While I would affirm the emphasis on character and Christ-likeness, and challenging campus hook-up culture with chaste behavior toward one another and old-fashioned “dating,” I was concerned about the focus I saw on lingering gender stereotypes, for example “the strength, ambition, and character of men” versus “feminine beauty and the splendor of God’s glory.” This was more evident in the chapter on romance:

A real man on campus must have the courage to be counter-cultural. He must use his strength wisely and pursue a woman with patience, self-control, and agape love. The true woman scandalously withholds her love for the man noble and faithful enough to win it. She must demonstrate confidence in God’s love to sustain her in the midst of the desire to be loved, and she must demonstrate patience and self-control as she develops a romantic friendship” (p. 140).

I’m thankful that the author calls for patience and self-control on the part of both. At the same time the man is described as one who “pursues” who has “strength” and “courage” while the woman “withholds” as she is being pursued, she needs to be sustained by God’s love in her “desire to be loved.” I think many women who have struggled with patriarchy in the church would be fearful that this counsel is setting them up for a patriarchal marriage.

I’m also surprised that these chapters seem to act as if LGBTQ+ students do not exist when approximately 20 percent of Harvard and Yale students identify as LGBTQ+ and 11 percent of students at Christian colleges identify as non-heterosexual. Needless to say, for the Christian student who does not identify as heterosexual or cisgender, the silence of this book speaks loudly. Granted, almost anything that might be said may be contentious, but some word for these students seems necessary in a book on identity.

There are a number of good things in the chapter on race. In particular, the author traces his own growing racial awareness, the way both the country and the church are implicated in race. He cites his own institution of Baylor as an example of systemic racism in its historic discrimination against black students. However in moving so quickly to the avoidance of bitterness, the practice of forgiveness, and holding up the example of a black man who joins and serves in a white church, I suspect many students of color will be put off. Where is there room for godly anger at four hundred years of oppression, where is the unqualified repentance by the white church for the ways we are implicated in that oppression, and where is the counter example of whites submitting to black leadership?

The work concludes with the question of how we deal with conflicting priorities between our identities. I appreciate that the author didn’t offer a formula but urged the pursuit of faithfulness to Christ, attention to his words, and being yielded to the leading of the Holy Spirit, in community with other Christians. While we would like a GPS or a formula, what Glanzer describes rings true with experience. There is much wisdom like this throughout this work, my critique of several chapters notwithstanding. It may save the student who wants to follow Christ much grief and position that student for great growth and delight in the person he or she is discovering themselves to be through the critical years of college.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.