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A Rally Cry for the Humanities (But Only If You Are Christian)?

I recently read Christopher Noble’s article “Sanctuary for the Humanities,” in the Chronicle Review on the place of the humanities in religious colleges and universities.  Noble’s argument is that the humanities, in the face of the portents of their impending doom will survive, but most likely in religious colleges that no one has ever heard of.  Noble weighs in on the ongoing discussion of the role of the humanities, if it should have one at all in higher education, and collapses it with the discussion religious colleges’ place and accreditation (see Peter Conn’s article).

Noble is mostly addressing William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and his questions:

Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities? Is it plausible that Dante’s Inferno could be taught by religious faculty in the middle of the Sierra Nevada woods with anything approaching the effectiveness of scholars in a Harvard lecture hall?

Noble works at the High Sierra Program of Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian institution.  He is definitely one defending his position in the world and provides a wonderful account of how the humanities are not in decline in his institution and others like it, but flourishing.  He even goes so far as to say his students can give those in the Ivy League a run for their money (with some qualifying statements about test scores).  He has a good point. The small religiously affiliated schools often have a theological framework up which to hang their humanities and general education core.   Mark Bauerlein supports Noble’s position at the First Things blog, that humanities professors at secular university have only themselves to blame for the declining interest in the humanities.  According to Bauerlein:

If there is a connection between religious observance and humanities curriculum, then humanities professors who bemoan their lot have to face an irony in their plight. For, they are aggressively secular, hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home.

And in the climate where we are actually concerned about student debt, Noble asserts that

My analysis may appear crass and cynical, but it is nothing of the kind. As a Christian intellectual, I believe that the humanities training I give my students is worth $30,000 of debt—as long as my students also hail from (and are hailed by) a religious tradition of some kind. For Christian students, such debt is merely a temporal down payment on an eternal project of soul-craft.

Noble is correct – Christian students do find a humanities sanctuary in Christian schools.  However, there are students who find a humanities-enriched education in religiously affiliated schools who are not Christian (the students not the schools).  Or they may be nominally something.  They are a part of the growing number of “nones” in America.  And here is where I start to pull away from Noble’s perspective about Christian schools and the humanities.  On the spectrum of higher education – from 100% secular to 100% committed persons of faith – what about the middle ground where one might have a population of faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as students of no particular faith?  There are lots of schools that are affiliated with a particular religious faith, but have a diverse and largely not faithful population.  Beth McMurtrie talks about this in her recent Chronicle article “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation.”  Noble is correct that intentionally Christian schools do inspire young people who are searching for a way to merge their intellectual and faith lives together to attend their institutions.  Some church-related colleges also attract students who are simply searching.  Or students who don’t know they need to search but quickly find out they might.  Or they got good scholarship money.  Or it was close to (or far from) home.

What is it that students want when they choose a private, faith-based institution even if the mission statement and Christian affiliation is buried on a subpage and prospective students are wooed by flashing images of athletic buildings, attractive residential housing, and smiling faces of currently enrolled students with nary a book at hand?    Somewhere between Noble’s intentionally Christian school and the secular college or university, I find McMurtrie’s account of Catholic colleges appealing and hopeful.  (This might be what gives me the most pause with these two polar opposites – the lack of hope for the humanities.)  McMurtrie highlights a handful of mostly Jesuit Catholic schools who have found a way to “[connect] their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.”  While McMurtrie is not discussing the fate the humanities specifically, she does describe places where students are encountering a liberal arts education which include the humanities and that inclusion results in positive experiences for students.  McMurtrie largely looks at Marquette University’s efforts to “try to meet the needs of the unchurched generation while still fulfilling their historic mission.”  Faculty and students who cover the spectrum of faith (or no faith) have found a space to explore what I can only describe as “the big questions” about meaning and purpose all within the context of specific disciplines.  The seemingly diverse theological background of those who occupy this in-between space of exploration stands out in contrast to those at either ends of the spectrum of religious affiliation (the all-or-nothing spaces).

Returning to Noble who asks: “Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities?”  I must agree that this may prove to be the case.  Yet, and here I start to sound naive at worst, nostalgic at best, I hope this is not the case. I hope that the humanities continue to do more than survive in sanctuaries.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

Hearing Augustine’s Question: A Report (of sorts) on “Teaching the Intellectual Tradition: Augustine Across the Curriculum”

Today’s guest post is from Ian Clausen, a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology at Valparaiso University.   Ian’s current book project is The Weight of Love in St. Augustine, which explores themes of moral theology and psychology in the thought of the Bishop of Hippo, giving particular attention to Augustine’s Christian philosophy of education.

Clausen, Ian - smI recently attended a conference at Samford University, Birmingham AL, devoted to the subject of teaching St. Augustine. The conference was part of a series called “Teaching the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” accompanied with the delightfully vague subtitle, “Augustine Across the Curriculum.” By all accounts the conference was a wild success. I had the privilege of presenting a paper, one among several delivered over the weekend (Oct. 2-4), and came away confirmed in my decision to study Augustine as a figure of importance in Western intellectual history. Yet the conference was neither aimed at the Augustinian guild nor intended—at least not consciously—to indulge in hagiography. Scholars from diverse backgrounds, embracing the ethos of that much-hackneyed phrase “interdisciplinarity,” came together to explore, present, and exchange ideas on how to teach Augustine: thus assuming that Augustine has a place in the curriculum. Since I cannot speak to every paper and presentation that was given, let me confine myself to the two plenary addresses and the spirits they invoked, before offering my own reflections on what it means to “teach Augustine.”

Professor Peter Iver Kaufman (University of Richmond) delivered the first plenary paper, “Deposito Diademate: Augustine’s Emperors,” and its content certainly entertained a lively if brief discussion on the Augustinian “posture” (my word) towards worldly institutions. Against the tide of current fashions in Augustinian scholarship, though not without a sense (a welcomed sense?) of his minority interpretation, Professor Kaufman unveiled an Augustine intensely critical of prevailing power structures, and not the least bit expectant of their achieving real justice. His skepticism does not encourage a listless quietism in the face of injustice, but invites us to look for alternatives to the prevailing institutional arrangements—including, I gather, the modern university—that often perpetuate the moral poverty of the societies they inhabit. Curiously, Professor Kaufman gave “tenure” a ringing endorsement: not because it gives faculty the recognition they need or want, but because it ensures that faculty, and not bureaucrats, control the classroom! Professor Kaufman similarly argued that the Augustinian virtue of humility not only serves to call worldly systems of power into question, but also elevates alternative conceptions of the way things really change in a way that profitably expands the teacher’s moral imagination.

Similarly Professor Kristine Deede Johnson (Western Theological Seminary), delivering the second plenary address the next day, “The Justice Game: Augustine, Disordered Loves and the Temptation to Change the World,” questioned the extent to which contemporary concerns for “social justice,” another much-hackneyed phrase, can benefit from deeper exposure to Augustine’s conception of justice. If the impulse to “change the world” has its source in human effort, what to make of Augustine’s critique of human effort before grace? Surely efforts to promote justice in this world are commendable, but practical deliberation does not happen in a theoretical vacuum. It is always already inscribed within thickly layered descriptions, many of which we inherit without thinking much about them. So how do we describe/give an account of what we are doing when we do it? Such is where Augustine, with his rich and varied notion of justice, can help students to contemplate and clarify their beliefsSt. Augustine. Professor Johnson’s upcoming book on the subject of justice, The Justice Calling (co-authored by Bethany Hanke Hoang, Brazos Press: 2015), promises both to shed light on the biblical and theological grounds of justice, and to equip teachers and students to think carefully about their activism.

For both plenary presenters and the conference more generally, Augustine’s legacy still haunts the landscape of contemporary Western thought. To teach Augustine in the university is a potentially subversive act, not only because Augustine punctures the university’s sanctimonious rhetoric—he certainly does that! But also because he underwrites a different set of expectations, a different “ethic of pedagogy,” through a posture not of control but of humility and attentiveness—in a word, through love.

But as for how we teach love or embody love in the classroom, Augustine can do more than just offer us a few pointers. For love is a way of thinking as much as a way of doing, and only love can truly receive the world and teach us how to live through it. But love in response to what or who is precisely the question. Teaching Augustine exposes students a world of competing voices, all of which invite, entice, and call humanity into question. To recognize and name these voices is the work of attention, and learning how to respond to them is the charge of humility. Love, then, is inscribed within the very act of teaching: the “thing” that renders intelligible our professorial vocations. To teach love is to teach; and teaching implies an invitation. So to what are we inviting our students to perceive, acknowledge, and embrace? Augustine’s answers to that question may not be our answers, ultimately. But Augustine certainly helps us to hear the question afresh.

Friendship and Remembering

We just had our annual national conference and much could and should be said about how wonderful it was.  We were at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.  I cannot say enough about how welcome we all were there and what a delightful and stimulating time.  Hopefully we will return soon to write a post about the conference.  For now, I want to say a few words about friendship and remembering.

Clyde Duder’s conference badges, preserved at our national office.

In May, we lost a friend of the LFP – Clyburn “Clyde” Duder.  I did not know him long, nor well.  He had been the faculty representative from his institution, Concordia University Texas and attended all of our national conferences, starting with the first in 1991. I first met Clyde in 2010 at the national conference in October.  This was my first conference as I had started working with the LFP a month earlier.  Clyde presented us with an envelope stuffed full of his various conference badges – not just the national conferences, but also regional and research conferences.  It was an envelope that revealed his dedication to the LFP and the gift further showed his fondness for the friendships he had developed over the years throughout the Network of schools.  As a historian, I immediately was charmed by his desire to save the history of the LFP through this material culture.

When word spread through the network of Clyde’s death and when it was mentioned at the national conference, we observed how much he was loved and how he would be missed.  It also brought to mind that while we are a network of institutions, the friendships that have developed over time through this truly ecumenical conversation about church-related higher education is something to be honored and remembered. It is something that continues to inspire.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

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