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.

Review: Religion in the University

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: Defends the idea of the place of religious ideas in scholarly discussion.

In many quarters of the world of higher education, religious ideas or religiously informed perspectives are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, and for scholarly research and discourse, confining these discussions to the co-curricular part of the university. Emeritus Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lays out in compact but carefully reasoned format, an argument for the proper place of religious ideas in academic discourse.

He begins with a classic work by Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” that argued that religious ideas, not being immediately accessible facts, should not be part of academic discourse but be relegated to the private and personal sphere of life. Wolterstorff would contend that this reigning assumption still holds, although developments over the last fifty years significantly undermine this argument.

First of all, in science, the work of Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that evidence often under-determines theory, and thus other factors influence choices of theory. Likewise, Hans Georg Gadamer demonstrated in textual interpretation that questions of significance shape the conclusions made about texts and reflect the situation of the interpreter: gender, ethnicity, social class, underlying philosophical commitments. Hence, in the humanities, there arose a number of critical schools: Marxist, feminist, queer, African, and so forth. All scholars bring judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, and prejudgments to their work.

So, why then are religious commitments ruled out? One of the reasons is a criterion of rationality, and the notion that religious beliefs are non-rational. Some of this comes from the work of Locke, who proposed that a warranted belief should be based on an argument. Yet this dismisses the reality that human beings believe many things on the basis of testimony and experience without resort to argument. Many accept findings on scientific matters on testimony and come to other beliefs on the basis of immediate experience. Wolterstorff proposes that, while we should be open to the possibility of our or others’ beliefs being mistaken, “beliefs, in general, are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent” (p. 102). He allows that while there are specific cases of deficient religious beliefs, this does not warrant relegating all religious beliefs to the category of non-rational and thus excluded from academic discourse.

In his concluding chapter, he argues that universities are pluralist institutions and that religious as well as other perspectives ought to be welcome to contribute their distinctive voices to academic discussions. He believes that to exclude these contributions is to impoverish the university.

I do not feel qualified to evaluate Wolterstorff’s discussion of different philosophers and so find myself trusting his testimony(!). I would propose that in American universities, Wolterstorff offers a special challenge to Christians, who for a period enjoyed a kind of hegemony, and then experienced a displacement amounting to being exiled from academic discourse. It entails laying aside past memories either of privilege or persecution and learning the practice of participation as Christians in contributing their insights into academic discourse, along with others. In place of a posture of either entitlement or embattlement, this calls for a posture of engagement. It means the careful, respectful hearing of others, weighing the merit of ideas, and forthrightly contributing one’s own for rigorous analysis, for critique, and refinement. That is how universities work at their best. That is the opportunity for religion in the university in the early twenty-first century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are Universities in the United States Losing Their Edge?

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Princeton University, Public Domain via GoodFreePhotos

The lead story in this week’s University World News reported that universities in the United States received their worst rankings in the sixteen years the QS World University Rankings have been published. Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the United States is seeing an unprecedented rate of decline in these global rankings. While five of the top ten schools are from the United States, only 29 are in the top 100, and 72.6 percent of the schools saw a decline in their rankings.

Why is this happening? Sowter observes:

“This attrition of confidence has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

Declining federal funding

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

In the US, federally funded research funding has declined from a peak in 2011 by 13 percent by 2016. Recently, the current US administration proposed another $7.1 billion cut to Department of Education funding. However, it should be noted that funding cuts go back to the previous administration. States have also been cutting research funding during this period. Any increases in funding have come from industry and from universities themselves. Meanwhile, the research output at China’s top ten universities now nearly equals that of the US although the “research impact” of US universities is still twice that of China. China has been making an aggressive investment in research funding during this period.

Concurrent with these funding declines are political attacks on science, striking the use of “evidence based research” in government reports, and publicly questioning finding concerning climate change and the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These factors also color global perceptions.

This is regrettable because an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study shows that the majority of Americans strongly support funding for scientific research (71-72 percent), and view research as beneficial (72 percent). It appears that in perceptions of science as in other matters a smaller but energized base skews perceptions held by a broader swath of the American public.

As an American who is a Christ-follower engaged in ministry in higher education, I have deeply mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, I am a witness to the huge advances in medicine, digital technology, transportation safety, development of renewable energy, and many other aspects of human life that comes out of research labs. Our research output has contributed to vast improvements in human flourishing in many areas. I’m also conscious of the double-edged character of so much of our research, that may both heal and kill, and sadly often is utilized for the latter.

Also, as one whose first allegiance is to the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of national borders, I do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the greatness of American research universities, as much as I love my country. Advances in knowledge are to be celebrated whether they occur at Harvard, or Oxford, or at the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, the University of Melbourne, or Universidad National Autonama de Mexico (UNAM). I do regret that it appears we will have fewer opportunities to welcome students from other countries.

What troubles me is seeing good resources squandered. I wonder what is not being researched for lack of funding in American universities. I wonder about the quality and focus of research when more of it is tied to industrial or military clients. What questions of basic research are being ignored? What talent is fleeing our borders for countries more favorable to research? As in so many things, research universities may take decades to develop into greatness, but can decline within a few years. Right now, American universities are trying to keep up by increasing their own funding efforts as state and federal funding declines. It can be asked how long this is sustainable as well as what else suffers along the way. Will funding pressures and the loss of international students, who bring tuition dollars into the university, result in universities becoming more selective in admissions, enrolling the elite at the expense of those requiring scholarships and grants?

What is clear is that what we do in the next years will be decisive. If we start now, perhaps in five years the precipitous declines in these rankings, and the corresponding declines in our universities may be stabilized or reversed. If we don’t begin now, things likely will get worse, even as other universities in China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and other parts of the world get better. The quality and output of our research universities, coupled with the protection of academic freedom in our universities have been one of the marks of American greatness. Both are in jeopardy and it seems the question we must ask is whether we are willing to accept this form of loss of American greatness.

Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.

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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.

Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”

Review: In This World of Wonders

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In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.