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.

Review: From Research to Teaching

From Research to Teaching: A Guide to Beginning Your Classroom Career, Michael Kibbe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A practical guide for those transitioning from graduate research to teaching, focusing on what teachers must do and must know.

One of the basic premises about going to graduate school is that you learn a lot about a little. This is especially so with the Ph.D. in which one delves deeply into a mere sliver of knowledge no one has really studied before. It is absolutely intriguing–the ultimate detective story. It is also utterly humbling, because you realize the limits of human knowledge. Every sliver is like this. One of the things you likely will not learn a lot about is teaching. Universities often have special departments designed just to help faculty learn how to teach. For most faculty, that is a big part of what they do.

Michael Kibbe has given us a very practical guide to making the transition from graduate researcher to teacher. And I mean practical. This is one of the clearest and most concise books I’ve seen on this subject. This is the simplicity on the other side of complexity. One recognizes that there is a lot of thought, theory, and practice packed into these pages on a very simple framework.

First, Kibbe addresses what teachers must do. He begins with their preparation before setting foot in the classroom. You wouldn’t think this comes first, but he urges people to “finish the job” and publish the dissertation while it is fresh. He urges the reading of books on pedagogy, applying one’s research skills to this new world. He stresses the importance of mentors who know how to train teachers and will push you. Finally, there is the work of class prep. He suggests each term to expand a session or group of sessions into a whole course.

Then there is the work in the classroom. He suggests thinking of sessions in terms of parts of a story you are telling. You also have to plan a good ending, or as he calls it, “land the plane.” He thinks that every great teacher has a signature–something that makes them memorable. My high school math teacher’s signature was Harvey, the invisible rabbit who he would engage during lectures. You see, I still remember forty-five years later! Another way of emphasizing story is to know the center, and keep moving toward it. The work isn’t done when the class is though. The work is done with reflection after the class in which one writes down immediately one’s observations, particularly what didn’t go well and follows up on it and then takes sabbaths, because you are not God.

The second part of the book addresses what teachers must know. They have to know their mission, the center, and how they will get there, or method. He unpacks what this looks like for him. Good teachers know their students–their names, the places they eat and live, and what we learn about them, written down after meetings so we remember. Without getting weird, he urges pursuing them, especially if they are not getting taught, challenging them, and helping them set realistic expectations. In the same chapter, he urges knowing our families, and offers very wise counsel for relating with one’s spouse. We must also know our limitations and have peers, people not in our discipline, and others who won’t let us dominate the room. We also must know our power, that the most effective teachers can also do the greatest damage. He warns about the dangers of social media: slander, the gullibility even of the educated for clickbait, and self-promotion.

Besides what you know and what you do, he includes appendices for how to use you dissertation in the classroom (one class, where you help people see how deep the rabbit hole can go), for graduate schools to incorporate training in pedagogy, and finally one on great teaching resources our students need us to read, our admins need us to read, and ourselves need us to read.

In lively, even imperative terms, Kibbe lays out the work in which teachers must be engaged for a lifetime. He suggests that aside from publishing the dissertation, we are never done with the other things (and woe to us if we think we are or become indifferent to them). Contrary to the subtitle, this is not just for beginning one’s classroom career. Rather, Kibbe offers us core practices for a lifetime that will enrich both us and our students. This book is a little gem!

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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.

Review: Dreaming Dreams for Christian Higher Education

Dreaming Dreams of Christian Higher Education, David S. Guthrie (Foreword by Bradshaw Fry; Afterword by Eric Miller). Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of presentations given over a twenty year period on realizing the dream of Christian higher education by a leader in Christian higher ed.

I’ve worked for more than four decades in collegiate ministry in public university settings. My colleagues and I have wrestled with the task of seeing students formed in Christ: in character, formational practices, witness and service, in intellect, and the pursuit of their callings. Often, one has the sense of working across the grain of the social, institutional, and intellectual context of the public university. I’ve sometimes dreamed of what it might be like to attempt this work in the Christian college context, one that I think would embrace our aspirations with a context aligned with those aspirations.

David S. Guthrie has dreamed similar dreams over several decades of ministry and academic leadership in the Christian college context. He’s served as a professor, student life director, and an academic dean. This book collects presentations given over this period in which he sets forth his own thinking articulating both what is mean by “Christian higher education” and how that might be pursued as an academic institution. Many of these were given during Guthrie’s time at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a small college in the Reformed tradition located northwest of Pittsburgh.

The opening presentation is on the idea of a Christian college, acknowledging the disenchantment with efforts at student transformation, at intellectual integration, and the shortcomings of the ideals of a liberal arts education as a vehicle for this student transformation. Guthrie explores the barriers of the wider academic context, the institutional structures of a school including departments and majors, and the wider context of anti-intellectualism in evangelicalism.

The second presentation articulates critical tasks for the project of Christian higher education. He puts forth three:

  1. Helping students to see more and see more clearly, more clearly. This is about Christian perspective and the continuities and discontinuities of that perspective with wider cultural perspectives.
  2. Helping students discern the times and know what to do. In another presentation, Guthrie writes about educating for godly wisdom.
  3. Helping students to understand calling and vocation. In contrasts to societal careerism, Christian education grounds students in a vision of their own lives and service in the light of God’s kingdom.

These two presentations ground the remaining essays in this volume. He argues for a much more integrated curriculum than simply a collection of gen-ed requirements connecting Christian thought with the different academic disciplines. Elsewhere he leans into the issue of student context and argues for grounding codes of conduct with a priority on student learning and on the Christian convictions at the core of the institution. He addresses student life and the need for those working in this area to prioritize their own professional development.

Perhaps one of his most prophetic talks was on academic leadership, particularly amid the pandemic. Drawing on the work of Ernest Boyer, he articulates the crises of presidential succession, wrong-headed leadership, lack of leadership, and confusion about the goals of higher education. He commends prioritizing good communication, keeping problems in perspective, staying well-informed, taking time to be creative, and having an inspired vision. For institutions he calls for curricular coherence, educating for the common good, teaching excellence, strong campus community, and equality of opportunity.

I found myself wondering as I came to the close of the book, what progress Guthrie had seen from his own efforts. I wish there had been an essay on his Geneva years, what they accomplished or failed to accomplish, what they learned. Perhaps that time is still too close. While he does not explicitly answer that question, he contends that he keeps dreaming, while also lamenting the lack of a theology of culture among many faculty, the embrace of silver bullets rather than substantive curricular change, the persistence of standard disciplinary and departmental structures, among others. He concludes with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s description moving beyond the historic isolation from culture in the early Christian college movement and more recent emphasis on Christian scholarship to a focus on what it means to be Christians in society.

Guthrie’s presentation offers an overview of the writing on and discussion of higher ed issues of the last thirty years. Reading between the lines, I suspect that Guthrie has seen the vision of higher education realized among many students and colleagues while the wider institutions of Christian higher education remain relatively unchanged or even in greater peril. I think that is both why Guthrie has not stopped dreaming and why he laments. Institutions need to look at the results they are achieving and ask how those reflect their structures, and as Guthrie discusses in one essay, the lack of a compelling institutional “saga.” This is an important book for all of us who dream of a new day of Christian scholarship and recovery of faithful Christian presence in the world of higher education.

Why Returning to University Campuses Now is a Bad Idea

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I write as someone who has worked around universities all my adult life. In the last week some high profile campuses like the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have suspended in-person classes after welcoming students back to campus. Last spring and early summer, administrations on these and other campuses made plans to open up. Many spent the summer creating elaborate testing, social distancing, living, dining, and classroom protocols to lessen the risk of infections. It seemed to me then, and now, that these were plans with holes in them.

  1. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infections in the towns students were living in over summer, or the behavior of students in those places. This is different from primary and secondary schools, where everyone is local and decisions can be shaped by local infection rates. Some students from areas with high rates of infections, or who engaged in higher risk behaviors may bring infection to campus. These students come from all over. Some campuses test students before they move in, but all tests are a “moment in time” measure.
  2. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control infection rates and policies in the city, town, or state where they are located. The city where our flagship state university is located currently has a high, though falling, infection rate. Students have returned amid this. They are in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses all over our city.
  3. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, they don’t control student behavior off campus. Students are just like the rest of us in this pandemic. What have adults been doing all summer? Having large, non-socially distanced, non-masked parties. And students are already following suit as reports from many campuses are bearing out. Just like the general population, most students are trying follow safety protocols. But enough are putting themselves at risk of infection, and in turn risk infecting others.
  4. Even if campus plans control infection risk on-campus, not all students live on campus. In fact, more students may be living off-campus because of reduced density resident housing. The number of students in apartments, the ventilation of buildings, what steps are taken in social distancing, masking, and in gatherings likely will be left to students. And these students will be mixing with students living on campus.
  5. Finally, I question the premise that campus protocols will minimize infection risk making in-person classes feasible. At this time rapid-tests have higher false-negative and false positive rates. The better tests often take two days to a week. Students without symptoms could spread infection to others throughout that time. Even with reduced class sizes and masking, I wonder if these will be sufficient to prevent infections when people share this space for an hour or longer. Will residence halls be safe when senior facilities, which are basically dorms for seniors, have had significant outbreaks?

Students are at an age where many may be asymptomatic, though contagious, or contract mild illnesses and recover (although we are continuing to learn about long-term effects on even some healthy young adults. And some will get very sick. What is more concerning are other university personnel, some with more significant risk factors. Where these are known, some have been able to work out remote work arrangements. But those who provide food, sanitation, and maintenance services and many support staff cannot work remotely.

What drove these decisions as in so many of our “open-up” decisions were two things: economic realities and the difficulty all of us have had sheltering in home. The former raises questions about our economics. The latter raises questions about the health of our souls. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this decision will result in greater losses with all the extra costs of starting up only to suspend classes and send students home. What will this do to student morale? It will be interesting to see how campuses that planned for remote learning in the fall from the start do in comparison to those who tried to open up.

The situation on universities is dependent on what is happening in our larger society. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, says that if we do not get the virus under control now, colder weather will likely make things worse, with up to 150,000 new cases daily nationally. We cannot reasonably hope either to bring back the national economy, nor students to our campuses without rigorous control measures. Given our apparent lack of will, consensus, and leadership, I think universities need to start planning now to extend remote instruction through the spring. Either that, or plan for a lot of sick students and campus personnel.

Higher Education Books I Would Re-Read

red building with clock tower

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I work in collegiate ministry, particularly relating to grad students, faculty and administrators. That has resulted in a passion to understand the place where I and these people work. What is the history of these institutions? Why do they exist and toward what end? How do they work? And as a Christian engaged in ministry in this setting, what does religious faith have to do with the enterprise of higher education. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful that I turn to again and again.

Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts. One of the early defenses of the classic idea of the liberal arts in the face of increasing questions about both their usefulness, and attacks on political correctness. He addresses “liberal bias” and discusses what’s right about the liberal arts.

Robert Boyers, The Tyranny of Virtue. A more recent book also holding up the classic view of the liberal arts against the virtue signalling, cancel culture becoming more prominent in university life. This book addresses what’s wrong with the liberal arts and why the death of these programs is at least in part, self-inflicted.

Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This is a concisely present history of universities, an overview of what they are today, and Delbanco’s idea of what they should be as places that educate for citizenship and prepare people for useful work and a life of meaning.

Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul. Since 2008 when this book came out, Donna Freitas has been writing about campus sexuality, and the connection between sexuality and spirituality. In this book she studied four kinds of campuses including conservative evangelical campuses and how religious beliefs shaped sexual ethics and practices of students.

Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of the Universities. I read this in college, and it is a good basic account of the rise of colleges out the cathedral schools of Europe.

Anthony T. Kronmen, Education’s End. The title is something of a play on words, dealing both with the purpose and the demise of higher education. Kronmen provocatively questions why universities have given up on the big questions, like the meaning of life.

George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University. More than just a study of the history of the American university, he looks at how the place of religious faith shifted from the center to the margins as universities moved from church-centered schools to public and pluralistic research universities.

Paul H. Mattingly, American Academic Cultures. Covers similar ground to Marsden but looks at the history as one of seven overlapping academic cultures, featuring a prominent campus example of each.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. A classic, from his lectures as Rector of the University of Ireland, in which he discusses the unity of knowledge, the relation of faith to free inquiry, and the relationship between the church and the academy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom. A collection of essays relating faith and the educational enterprise where the author’s concerns for shalom, justice, academic freedom, and how a Christian world and life view works itself out in various academic disciplines.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University. Unlike the earlier book, written in the context of a Christian college, this work was written during the author’s tenure at Yale. He makes a compelling argument for the rightful place of religious voices in academic discourse.

As with other installments in this”books I would re-read” series, these are not the only books worthy of such a list. There are others on my shelves I haven’t read once that probably should be here. Universities are vitally important cultural institutions, both in educating the next generation and in conducting cutting edge research to enhance in various ways our flourishing as human beings. These are some of the books that have helped me understand that world.

 

 

Review: Opening the Red Door

opening the red door

Opening the Red DoorJohn A. Bernbaum. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An inside account by a founder and President of the Russian-American Christian University, from the surprise invitation received from Russian leadership to its closing.

The period of 1989-1990 was a heady time as the Iron Curtain fell and country after country overturned Communist leadership and talked of embracing democracy. Then the changes came to the Soviet Union itself under Gorbachev and Yeltsin as glasnost and perestroika gave way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the spinning off of republics as autonomous nations, leaving Russia, a large, but much diminished country, struggling to convert from a command to some version of a capitalist economy, and failing miserably in the effort.

This book originates in that era. A group of Christian college leaders with the Christian College Coalition (now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) who had ties with evangelical mission efforts to Eastern Europe sought to discern what opportunities this might present to build ties of understanding and opportunities for Christian influence in a country that had been officially atheist since 1917. They determined to explore possibilities for student study and cultural exchanges during a 1990 visit when a more daring proposal came from a Russian governmental official. Please come and set up a faith-based university in Russia!

John Bernbaum, then a vice president with the Christian College Coalition, was part of this delegation and was tasked to follow up this proposal, a task that eventually led to his presidency of the Russian-American Christian University (later the Russian-American Institute). In this work, he offers a first-person account of the history of this initiative from the initial proposal to the decision to close the doors years later.

Bernbaum traces this history from working groups to a joint Russian-American and the first classes in 1994-1995. He recounts the beginnings from agreements and charters, setting up tax exempt status in the US and gaining licenses in Russia. He describes the expansion of the program from initial English Language programs to a full program of undergraduate courses and the first graduation in 2001 (of 19 students). He traces the various moves to different temporary facilities and the nearly ten year process from 2001 to 2010 in securing land, gaining permits, building, and gaining occupancy permits for their own academic facility and the “perfect storm” that led to the closure of the Russian American Institute in 2011 and the sale of its building in 2014. It is a narrative of a both extraordinary and less than perfect Russian-American partnership.

The external events in Russia were critical to this history, as the initially open and supportive relationship with the Yeltsin government gave way to the Putin era, and an increasing chilling of American-Russian relations, coupled with increasing suspicion of any American effort in Russia. At first this manifested in community opposition and bureaucratic delays culminating in a reclassification of their tax status increasing annunal taxes from $2,000 to $500,000 coupled with a refusal of reaccreditation.

The brightest spot in the narratives are the descriptions of the students and their eager welcome and embrace of instruction by a joint American and Russian faculty. We also see how forming deep relationships of integrity with Russian officials overcame many barriers until political pressure became too great. This was matched by the generosity of Bernbaum’s American partners.

The deep regret of course was that international relations finally made it impossible to continue this effort. The narrative offers evidence that the students who came through the program, the many faculty from both countries who taught in the program, and the student exchanges and programs in English and Russian that were formed, built bridges of understanding and equipped a cohort of students with a Christian vision for their work in Russia. One hopes this is a kind of “mustard seed conspiracy” that will one day bear great fruit in Russia, and in American relations with that great country. One also hopes and prays that the spiritual hunger that originated this initiative will be sustained and grow.

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

Review: Yale Needs Women

Yale Needs Women

Yale Needs Women, Anne Gardiner Perkins. Naperville, Il: Sourcebooks, 2019.

Summary: The history of Yale’s first women’s class, entering in 1969, and the challenges of transitioning an all-male institution to co-education.

Before the fall of 1969, Yale had been an all-male institution for 268 years. They had a stated goal of admitting 1000 men each year, the future leaders of the country. In 1968, pressure built upon Kingman Brewster, popular president of Yale, to open Yale to women. Male students declared “Yale needs women.” Up until then women were bussed in on weekends from nearby schools to provide a social life. Hardly a satisfactory solution. Other schools like Harvard were co-ed. Faculty and many alumni pressed for this change. Reluctantly, Brewster, and the Yale Board yielded.

The decision was made to admit 230 women in 1969. Elga Wasserman, former Chemistry professor and assistant dean was tasked to handle the transition to coeducation. She recognized they would need “strong” women to enter this all-male domain. This book suggests that the women who were admitted admirably met that criteria, but that it would take more than that. It traces these first four years through the experiences of several of those women. We see how each carved out their own niche while contending with the male-dominated structure of Yale.

To begin with, there was an eight to one imbalance with men. There were heavy pressures to date, and sexual assault and harassment before it was named. Women were distributed among the eight colleges and so isolated from each other. There were no varsity women’s sports. It was an uphill battle to get locks on the bathrooms. Most women had only male faculty.

Elga Wasserman, along with the women, had to fight against the structures that resisted change. Students joined, creating some of the early feminist organizations like the Sisterhood. A couple on faculty, Philip and Lorna Sarrel, led some of the early sexual education work as pioneers in the field. Eventually, Morey’s dropped its male-only dining policy. Wasserman herself struggled, being designated “special assistant” rather than dean or VP.

Eventually advocacy focused on gender blind admissions. Many superior women applicants were rejected in favor of inferior male applicants in the skewed ratio of 1000 to 230. Things would not change until after the first class graduated. Elga Wasserman was one of the casualties. She vigorously advocated and achieved a number of changes, but lost her job after this class graduated.

Today, it is hard to believe some of this went on. The book shows how far more is needed than a change in admissions policy. Structures, policies, and traditions need to change as well. What the book highlights are the pioneers, and some enlightened allies, who persisted, who were the “edge of the wedge” of change.

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

 

Review: The Tyranny of Virtue

Tyranny of Virtue

The Tyranny of Virtue, Robert Boyers. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A distinguished liberal scholar critiques the new academic orthodoxy, one that defines virtue through the excoriating of privilege, identity, safety, microaggression, ableism, and appropriation, creating an academic tyranny in which people fear to speak their minds under threat of denunciation.

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Robert Boyers

Perhaps the most stunning thing about this book is who wrote it. This is not one more conservative diatribe against political correctness and speech codes in the university. Robert Boyers is a liberal arts professor teaching English at Skidmore as well as editing the literary quarterly, Salmagundi, which he has done for fifty years. He directs the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He does not have kind words to say about religious and political conservatives.

He also writes trenchantly against a new liberal academic orthodoxy of enforced virtue. He shows how constructs like privilege, microaggression, ableism, safety, identity, and appropriation, that may have a legitimate place in social critique, have become part of a surveillance culture on campuses where fellow scholars of good will can find themselves facing universal denunciation for the smallest, often inadvertent speech infractions, while the denouncers assert their own political virtues. It creates a culture in which faculty fear to say what they think, and students are taught all the things against which they should take offense.

Boyers is concerned with how this shuts down real inquiry and discourse, and often does little, if anything, to advance real efforts toward justice and equity with persons of color, or of other identities that these enforced virtues are meant to protect. He also is concerned with the lack of real intellectual underpinnings to the slogans used in the denunciation of transgressions, using Susan Jacoby’s phrase “junk thought.” One example comes in his discussion of cultural appropriation. As with other matters in the book, he recognizes legitimate instances of appropriation but then shows how all writers, including writers of color appropriate. He challenges the idea that those who are not of a particular culture have no right to write about it and cites examples of those who do so with real sympathy, with the intent to honor and honestly present that culture and who get it right in the eyes of persons from that culture.

Boyers in his epilogue soberly assesses the scene:

In many quarters we are now haunted by the specter of a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression. Academic liberals who would have laughed thirty or forty years ago at the prospect of speech codes and draconian punishments for verbal indecorum or “presumption” are now not only compliant but enthusiastic about efforts to enforce standards many of them know to be intellectually indefensible. Those of us who are determined to call what is happening by its rightful name are astonished again and again, by the virulence of efforts to deny what is now unmistakable.

Boyers is describing the shift from the liberal value of honest, fearless exploration of ideas that allowed for difference and debate and discomfort. He decries the loss of a generosity of spirit that assumed good will of one’s intellectual adversaries, replaced by a climate of suspicion, an “us versus them” mentality whose resting state is one of hostility and grievance.

What it seems to me Boyers is calling for is perspective and rigorous mental reflection. Privilege does exist. Microaggressions do occur. Sexual violence on campuses and #MeToo make it clear that campuses are often not safe places for women. “Black face” episodes remind us that cultural appropriation is all too real. It seems, though, that to find instances of this everywhere, even among those with the most impeccable liberal credentials, begs the question of whether we diminish the seriousness of flagrant instances by lumping inadvertent or even non-existent slights with these. To put all the onus of offense on the act also seems to take away the agency of being able to choose to be offended, or to choose other, perhaps more conciliatory responses that mend rather than rend the social fabric.

What Boyers doesn’t address, perhaps in a desire to preserve the work he loves, is the connection between such toxic discourse and the eclipse of the humanities within the university. Yet might it not be contended that instances of the kind of speech codes and public shaming Boyers writes about occur most often with the context of the disciplines that fall within the humanities and social sciences? Might it be that the apparent dying of the humanities at many institutions is assisted by those within these disciplines digging each other’s graves? What I think Boyers gets right is that these things are “not to be done” but rather vigorously resisted. Hopefully his fellow scholars will wake to this realization in time.

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

Review: Fundamentalist U

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time.

Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture.

The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise.

He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their “own” schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations.

Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one’s mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence.

Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as “soft” by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of “softness.” There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time.

Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called “progressive creation.”

On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change.

These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents.

Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love “nothing short of a ‘revelation!’ ” Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling.

Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible “fishbowl” within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as “our” schools and looked for signs of “softness” — deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was “biblical” but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this “sanctified” form of gossip (you can see that I’m probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard.

The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member.

These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape–in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture.

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

 

 

Review: Walking with Jesus on Campus

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Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.

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