Andrea Turpin is Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on her new book, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837–1917 (Cornell University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write A New Moral Vision?
AT: During my PhD program at Notre Dame I was reading up on the changing role of religion in American higher education when I noticed something quite striking: the leading books on that topic hardly mentioned women at all. This widespread omission in an otherwise excellent body of scholarship was stunning because American women first entered higher education in large numbers during the exact decades when more and more leading colleges and universities abolished required religious instruction and worship: the 1870s through the 1910s. I wanted to find out how these concurrent trends interacted, and what effects that interaction had on the education of both sexes and the subsequent ways male and female graduates shaped American society.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A New Moral Vision?
AT: A New Moral Vision argues that a group of reformers I call “evangelical pragmatists” led the initial push for women to enter American higher education in the decades before the Civil War, but that in the changed intellectual environment after the war leaders of trendsetting men’s, women’s, and coeducational colleges and universities all drew on women’s new presence in higher education to articulate a compelling alternative to previous evangelical approaches to student moral formation. In place of fostering conversion, these religiously liberal educators sought to foster in students of both sexes a surprisingly more gendered ideal of character and service than had earlier evangelical educators of either men or women, and this new moral vision expanded graduates’ opportunities in some ways but restricted them in others, which contributed significantly to the changing shape of American public life.
JF: Why do we need to read A New Moral Vision?
AT: If you’re an American historian, you need to read it because it makes the case for the centrality of higher education to the development of American culture, hopefully in a way that will be useful for teaching and research in a wide variety of fields within American history. For example, it explains how the contours of separate male and female cultures of public service during the Progressive Era trace back in part to leading participants’ undergraduate experiences. For historians of religion, the book also posits a new way of thinking about what we normally call the “secularization” of American higher education—and to some extent American culture—that I believe to be fairer to the religious liberals who oversaw this transition. For women’s and gender historians, its narrative is a striking example of the difference it makes to our understanding of the history of both sexes when we recover the role of women in aspects of American history where they have still been overlooked. The book explains how the entrance of women into higher education changed men’s higher education too and why this new reality meant that educating both sexes did not translate into as egalitarian a society as might have been expected.
Finally, I’d like to think the book will also be of interest to educated Christian laypeople for two reasons: First, it tells the story of a time and place when conservative Protestants were surprisingly more egalitarian in their gender ideals than liberal Protestants, and this fact calls into question some of our contemporary assumptions about the connections between theology and gender. Second, it provides a fuller backstory to contemporary Christian higher education by exploring the effects different approaches to that project have had in the past.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AT: Little-known fact: I started college as an astrophysics major! A couple months in I had a vocational de-conversion experience while staring at the board in a basement laboratory as the professor explained standard deviation. Suddenly I just saw Greek letters. I realized I didn’t want to spend my life doing that type of work, and that I preferred writing papers to doing problem sets. I loved the ideas of science, but not the practice. Fortunately, that semester I was also taking a wonderful history of western civilization class taught by Princeton professor Anthony Grafton and excellent preceptor Erika Hermanowicz (now at the University of Georgia). That experience convinced me to switch my major to history of science, which I loved. I particularly enjoyed investigating the interplay between science and religion. For my graduate work, I built on my initial interest in the history of scientific ideas by broadening out to intellectual history. Meanwhile, I chose to concentrate on American history to combat the ease with which we can take our culture for granted and assume that’s just the way things are. I wanted to help my students and readers realize that the culture we see around us is the product of a long trajectory of historical change—and that it is therefore changeable, by us. As American citizens, we have the great responsibility to discern what is good and fight to keep it and discern what is bad and fight to change it.
JF: What is your next project?
AT: My second book project is a history of women’s participation in the Protestant fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, a debate whose ramifications extend into the present culture wars. My working title is A Debate of Their Own: Women in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Even recent scholarship on this controversy has continued to focus on the beliefs and actions of men because men dominated the pulpits, periodicals, and even businesses that shaped much of the public conversation surrounding the debate. Meanwhile, historians interested in how gender played into these disputes have primarily focused on the theology of gender roles that these men articulated. Thus, even scholars concerned with the debate’s impact on women have focused on male sources. My book project examines the voices of the women themselves who entered into the religious tousle between the two parties. I ask what these women actually cared about—to what extent their concerns mirrored men’s and to what extent they voiced different priorities and took different approaches to conflict, especially as women often worked together in separate women’s organizations or auxiliaries.
JF: Thanks, Andrea.