Exiles from Eden

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The Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University

Due to a few things going on in my life right now, I have been thinking again about Mark Schwehn‘s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  This book has been very influential in the way I have understood my academic life.  I return to it often.

When I read the preface of Exiles from Eden in 1999 I was hooked.  Here is Schwehn:

On a spring evening in 1982, I sat in a circle of my colleagues from the University of Chicago and from other institutions of higher learning in the Chicago area.  We were meeting together  as the Chicago Group on the History of the Social Sciences, convened by Professor George Stocking of the Anthropology Department.  We had all read a paper prepared by one of the members of the group, and roughly eight of the twelve or so of us had arrived to discuss it.  The paper, like most of those presented to the group, examined some aspect of the professionalization of the social sciences.  I remember little else about the setting that evening, except that I was was sitting directly to the right of Professor Stocking.

While we were waiting for the remainder of the expected participants  to straggle into our midst, someone (I think it was Peter Novick, but I cannot be sure) made the following proposal: “We’ve just recently filed our income tax forms; let’s move around the circle from left to right and indicate what each of us wrote under the heading ‘occupation'”  This simple exercise was thought to have potentially profound and self-revealing implications.  And so it proved.

The first person spoke up at once with a kind of brisk confidence.  “Sociologists,” he said.  And so it continued–“anthropologist,” “historian,” “psychologist,” “historian.”  At about this point (though I have sometimes been slow to catch the drift of things, I did discern this time a clear pattern emerging), I began to  wonder whether or not I had the courage to be honest in the company of so many of my senior colleagues.

Though trained as an intellectual historian, I had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on my tax form.  When I finally spoke up, I admitted (it certainly felt like an admission) that I had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading.  This disclosure was greeted with what I can only describe (thought it was doubtless a projection even then) as a combination of mild alarm and studied astonishment.  I felt as thought I had suddenly become, however briefly, an informant from another culture.exiles

The present book accordingly begins by unpacking one commonplace of academic life–the mysterious  complaint, “I don’t have enough time to do my own work“–and by engaging one of the most closely argued and most culturally influential accounts of the academic calling ever written, Max Weber “Academics as a Vocation.”  My study of Weber’s account of the academic calling led me to investigate  the larger subject of this book, the relationship between religion and higher education.  The logic of the problem of vocation impelled me in this direction, because Weber, in the course of his statement of the academic calling, self-consciously transmuted a number of terms and ideas that were religion in origin and implication.  Even so, my interest in the relationship  between religion and higher learning was and remains really more of a chronological matter than a strictly logical one.  Indeed, the title of this book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, is, as they say, another story.

Later in 1982 I resigned my position at the University of Chicago, after eight years of teaching there, and I accepted an appointment in the honors college of Valparaiso University.  I did this for several reasons, but perhaps the main one of them was that I found that I could pursue my own sense of the academic vocation more fully and responsibly at Valparaiso than I could at Chicago.  Valparaiso is a church-related university, and Chicago is not.  Valparaiso therefore strives to keep certain questions alive, such as questions about the relationship between religious faith and the pursuit of truth, that were then and still are close to the center of my understanding of the meaning of academic life.  In brief, I sought to think through the problem of the academic vocation in part by living through it. 

This story is the stuff of legend at Valparaiso University and, more specifically, in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts housed on its campus.  Schwehn, whose 1978 Stanford dissertation on Henry Adams and William James won the Allen Nevins Prize, spent the rest of his career at Valparaiso and Exiles from Eden became the unofficial mission statement of the Lilly Fellows Program.

The questions Schwehn raised in this book are still alive and continue to shape the careers of young scholars in the humanities and the arts.  Seventeen years after my  Valparaiso sojourn (2000-2002), I continue to try to think through academic vocation “in part by living through it.”

3 thoughts on “Exiles from Eden

  1. Interesting. Thanks for this story. I was unaware of it until now. During my 18 years of teaching at Calvin College, I always filled in the “occupation” space with “college teacher.” Was I naive? When I finally left Calvin, it was largely because I felt that the administration, and some members of my department, were making it increasingly difficult for me to continue as the teacher I had always been.

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  2. Interesting. For many years I, too, put down “college teacher” as my Form 1040 occupation; for the first time this year I put “retired.” I never thought that my Vanderbilt colleagues would have thought that strange.

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