I think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people. We live in the world of ideas. We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts. For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.
Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years. At the risk of becoming overly confessional, self-indulgent, or dark, I thought I would mention them here.
I am sure some folks will appreciate my thoughts. Others will deconstruct them in negative ways. These are the risks I take every day when I write at this blog. One day I feel that writing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is an act of courage. The next day I wonder if what I have been doing here for the past eight years has been one big act of foolishness.
So here goes:
I am a first-generation college student and the son of working-class parents. This means that I am constantly trying to live between the worlds of my uneducated extended family and my own advanced education. This has been even harder since the election of Donald Trump. It can get pretty lonely at times.
As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags. I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does. I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach. As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it. This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.
I am an evangelical Christian. That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.
I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas. I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently. I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues. I wonder about my place in the mix.
I am a historian and Christian who is critical of conservative evangelicals and other right-wing attempts to blend Christian faith with political power or promote the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. My critique of the so-called “court evangelicals” makes me a bit of an outcast in my church community (although I feel this changing a bit) and perhaps raises some red flags among conservative colleagues at my institution.
I believe Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training people for our capitalist economy, but they are doing a poor job of investing in the preparation of people for life in a democracy. This means that I am viewed as suspect by most people in society and especially by those champions of pre-professional education who now dominate so many Christian colleges, including my own.
What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas. And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues. This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different. I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.