We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

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From ‘The Seven Liberal Arts.’ Francesco Pesellino. 1422-1457 Florence, Italy. 

Here is a taste of my recent piece at Sojourners:

A nurse can learn how to insert an IV tube in a patient’s arm, but how will he develop the fortitude to enter a room filled with people suffering from infectious diseases? A medical doctor may know how to operate on a patient or prescribe medicine, but how does she decide who dies and who lives when ventilators and other essential equipment are at a minimum? A politician may know how to win elections, but where does he find the inner strength to offer hope in anxious and uncertain times? A successful businessman understands how to make money, but where does she learn to serve the common good during a pandemic? Engineers build things, but what motivates them to volunteer their expertise in the construction of a make-shift hospital? How do we sift through the array of COVID-19 information that endlessly crosses our screens? How do we know who to trust?

Some might say that the study of American history, sociology, religion, literature, ethics, statistics, physics, or musicology is irrelevant when people are dying from this terrible virus. This is one of those subjects where Christians and unbelievers share common ground. They tell us that this is a time for practical skills, not abstract theories, or academic luxuries. But such a view is wrong. We need the liberal arts now more than ever. Those who study these subjects, and wrestle with the questions they raise, are pursuing a high and useful calling. If the United States is going to get through this pandemic, and if the church is going to lead the way in a responsible fashion, we need more Christians who can remind us what is good, what is beautiful, what is heroic, what is just, and what is true.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”

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University College, Dublin

Yesterday in Created and Called for Community we read an excerpt from John Henry Newman‘s “What is a University,” a chapter in his 1852 book The Idea of a University.  Newman wrote this book while serving as rector of Catholic University of Ireland. (today it is known as University College Dublin), a school that he helped found.

We started our conversation, as we always do, by sourcing the document. Who was Newman? Several students found it interesting that Newman was not welcomed to teach at Oxford University, an Anglican institution of higher learning, after he converted to Catholicism.  This was a great opportunity to think about previous course readings.  As we learned from Randy Basinger’s recorded lecture last week, Christian colleges and universities often place boundaries on faculty and students. These boundaries are usually defined by belief and behavior rooted in the particular school’s mission and understanding of Christian faith. In 19th-century England, Oxford was a Protestant institution. I pointed out that Oxford was not as inclusive as present-day Messiah College, a Christian college that hires Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers.  As we noted last week, other Christian colleges such as Wheaton College, Gordon College, or Calvin University do not hire Catholic professors.  If Newman were teaching at one of these colleges at the time he converted to Catholicism, he would need to leave.

We also thought together about Newman’s “What is a University?” in its 19th-century context. Students quickly noted that Newman was writing in a world where only men attended university.  His understanding of “diversity” was limited when compared to our modern understanding of “diversity.” For Newman, diversity meant different kinds of white men.

At this point I paused and explained how I might teach this document differently in a history course.  I imagined teaching Newman’s ideas in a course on 19th-century British history.  In such a course my primary goal would be to get students to think about what Newman’s essay teaches us about his world.  But in CCC, my primary goal is less about getting my students to understand the “foreign country” of 19th-century Great Britain and more about trying to get them to think about whether Newman has anything to offer our understanding of Christian higher education today.

This discussion allowed me to reinforce an important lesson about studying at a college (like Messiah College) with a robust general education program informed by the liberal arts.  Each discipline in the curriculum offers students a different way of thinking about the world.  I used global poverty to illustrate my point. In a political science class, for example, students might address global poverty by thinking about ways of alleviating it through public policy.  In a history class, students might reflect on the roots of global poverty or the kind of choices humans have made in the past that have resulted in global poverty. In a psychology class, students might reflect on the relationship between global poverty and mental health.  In a literature class, students might read stories of global poverty–fiction and non-fiction–that trigger their moral imaginations.  In an environmental studies class students might think about the links between climate change and global poverty.  And so on….  This is the kind of “connectedness” that Ernest L. Boyer described in his essay on Messiah College.

It was now time to dive into the text.  I started the conversation by asking the question in Newman’s title: “What is a University?” Some students were drawn to Newman’s claim that a university is “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse….” I asked them to suggest some ways in which “thought” is communicated and circulated at a university.  Students, of course, mentioned their professors imparting knowledge in formal class settings.  But I wanted them to think beyond the classroom.  We talked about the word “circulate.”  How do ideas circulate on a college campus? Like bees released from the hive, ideas should be buzzing constantly around the campus.  They should fly out of the classroom door and fill the sidewalks, cafeteria, and dorms–constantly circulating through conversation and discussion.

We also discussed Newman’s idea that the university is a place–a real, flesh and blood, place.  Newman writes: “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life, which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”  In an age of online learning, virtual reality, and the internet I wondered if my students thought Newman’s call for face-to-face learning was still relevant?  I was surprised that so many students, struggling to keep their phones out of sight as they consulted an essay published on paper, seemed to agree with him here.

Several students wanted to talk about Newman’s idea of the university as a place focused on character building. We had a good discussion here about gender.  Newman often thinks of character in masculine terms.  He wants his university to produce good 19th-century “gentlemen” with proper “carriage,” “gait,” and “gestures.” But my students also agreed that some of the character traits Newman hoped students would learn in college were still relevant today.  My students wanted an education that helped them be more courteous and conversant.  They wanted a university to help them develop “the talent of not offending,” “delicacy of thought,” “happiness of expression,” “taste and propriety,” “generosity,” “forbearance,” and “candour.” These character traits, they argued, transcend time (the 19th-century) and gender.  The students universally agreed with my claim that the modern pluralistic university is no longer very concerned about character building.

We closed class by discussing liberal arts education as a form of “catechising.” Newman writes:

Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason: it is poured into this mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressive and then recurring to first principles, by all those ways which are implied in the word “catechising .” In the first ages, it was a work of a long time; months, sometimes years, were devoted to the arduous task of disabusing the mind of the incipient Christian of its pagan errors, and of moulding it upon the Christian faith.

For most of my students, “catechism” is a foreign word.  They attend evangelical churches that do not offer formal programs of catechism designed to shape the mind, heart, and soul of young women and men in the congregation.  Catechism is an invitation to spiritual formation.  Spiritual growth seldom comes through the mountain-top experience at a weekend youth retreat.  It comes instead through the daily grind of practicing the spiritual disciplines–scripture reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, and other practices that take our focus off self and put it on God and others.

This is how Newman understands the catechizing nature of a liberal arts education.  Intellectual formation comes through repetition, discipline, questioning, requestioning, correcting, explaining, and the regular appeal to “first principles.” Yes, students may get temporary intellectual “highs” as they encounter an inspiring professor or attend an undergraduate conference, but the”arduous task” of “disabusing the mind” of errors and “moudling” it in truth takes time.  It takes a lifetime.

On Monday we start the “Creation” unit.  We will begin in a very familiar place.

Should You Support Your Child’s Decision to Attend a Christian College?

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Christian liberal arts colleges came under attack recently by a Southern Baptist theologian named Denny Burk.  I was going to blog about his recent tweets, but I did not want to call attention to them. The tweets mischaracterize the work we do at such colleges and universities.  But I am glad that Chris Gerhz, a professor at Bethel University, an evangelical college in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, did respond.

Here is a taste of his Anxious Bench post, “A Letter to Christian Parents about Christian Colleges“:

…no single person or tweet created such doubts. Rumors of “liberal drift” have simmered throughout my seventeen years at Bethel, and occasionally reached a boil. And that’s nothing new. One of Tal’s books quotes an 18th century student saying about the German university that is one of Bethel’s educational and spiritual ancestors: “So you’re going to Halle? You’ll return either a pietist or an atheist.”

I don’t know anyone at Bethel who doesn’t want our students to follow Christ as he is attested in Scripture. But one legacy of Halle’s Pietism is the evangelical conviction that authentic Christianity cannot result from coercion or conformity, only choice. So at Bethel, we believe that our students must encounter multiple points of view and be as free to reject faith as to affirm it.

Inevitably, a Christian university of that type will seem “Christian” to some other believers and a “university” to some other educators. But it’s the kind of institution to which I’ve dedicated my career.

So how do you know that a Christian university like Bethel is the right option for your child? How do you assuage concerns like Burk’s?

First, don’t just listen to what someone on the Internet says. (Myself included.) Don’t put credence in whispered rumors about something as amorphous as “drift.” Do your due diligence and talk in concrete terms to someone who can actually address the concerns: not an alumnus or even an admissions counselor, but someone who currently teaches at the college or university your child is considering. Better yet, talk to two professors — one who teaches in your child’s likely major field of study, then another who teaches in the general education curriculum that all students share — and perhaps also to someone who works on the co-curricular side, like a coach, campus pastor, or resident director. They’ll all give you different perspectives on the experiences that will do most to define your child’s education.

Again, I’m several years away from going through this process myself. But there are two questions I would make sure to ask. 

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

David I. Smith on Christian Teaching

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What role does spiritual formation play in teaching at Christian colleges?  Calvin College pedagogy expert David I. Smith discusses this topic in a recent interview at Faith & Leadership.  Here is a taste:

Q: So how do Christian beliefs and values and commitments shape one’s approach to teaching?

When I started teaching, I taught German, French and Russian in secular secondary schools. Early on, I was struck that the language textbooks I’d been given were pretty much based around consumerism. We spent a lot of time practicing dialogues in French and German where we were buying food in cafes and supermarkets and buying train tickets and theater tickets and going on vacation and talking about our vacation and talking about what clothes we bought.

I gradually thought, “Wait a minute. The picture I’m giving of why you learn other people’s languages is so you can buy stuff from them.”

Then I reflected on the biblical theme of hospitality to strangers. Leviticus 19 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), and then a few verses later, “Love the foreigner as yourself” (19:34). I thought, “If, as a Christian, I think we learn other people’s languages because of the call to love our neighbor and because most of our neighbors don’t speak English, then how would that reshape the examples that I choose, the pictures that I show, the dialogues that we practice, the way I shape a language curriculum?”

When you work at it from that end and you question the underlying values that shape the curriculum you’re delivering, it starts to be possible to come up with alternatives that other people find attractive.

Q: Doesn’t any good teacher think about these kinds of questions, about how they want to shape their students?

In a perfect world, yes. But a lot of things stymie that. Teachers are under enormous time pressure. It’s a very demanding task. They’re under increasing pressure to standardize and meet various external benchmarks and tests, and in the worst cases, it can become a massive exercise in checking boxes and keeping records.

It becomes an exercise in bureaucracy more than an exercise in teaching and learning. It’s like the professionalism of the profession has been downgraded, and teachers are treated as folks who should just make sure that all the bits get covered, and not as people who should be thinking deeply about what they’re doing.

The way we think [most] effectively about our deepest values and how they shape what we do is through engaging in constructive dialogue with colleagues.

It creates more space for self-critique when you can bounce it off colleagues, but in schools, we often end up just teaching in our classrooms and maybe see other people over lunchtime briefly. It’s difficult to carve out time and space for deep collaboration.

Read the entire interview here.

Alan Jacobs: “Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move”

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Baylor University scholar Alan Jacobs reflects on Mike Pence and the journalists who cover him:

VP Mike Pence says, “Criticism of Christian education in America must stop.” No it musn’t. Nobody and nothing is above criticism. Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move. It would simply be a good thing if the critics made some effort to understand what they’re criticizing, though of course that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine a cohort less likely to inform itself about conservative Christianity than the cohort of American journalists.

My caveat: There is a growing number of excellent journalists covering the religion beat who do try to understand conservative Christianity.

Christian College President Compares LGBT Students to Members of ISIS

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Oklahoma Wesleyan University left the CCCU a few years ago.  Read all about it here.

In a recent op-ed at The Washington Times, Oklahoma Wesleyan president Everett Piper is up to his old tricks.  Here is a taste:

As a college president, I’d argue there are some things that should be confronted, some that should be confessed and some about which we can have a conversation. As a teacher, it is my goal to produce students who are able to distinguish between these three categories.

Let’s consider the anecdote of abortion as an example. Simply put, why would anyone be open to a “conversation” about murdering young children? Surely, we don’t believe we can “converse” about genocide rather than confront it, do we?

And, if I am wrong, are we ready to have a “conversation” about the relative merits of Pol Pot’s killing fields? How about the pros and cons of Robespierre’s guillotine? Maybe we should start a “conversation” about Mao’s cultural revolution and its 70 million dead?

All moral people draw moral distinctions between behaviors that are worthy of “conversation” and those that are not. There are some things we simply condemn, and rightfully so.

Now, if we can agree that there is definitely a category of immorality (i.e. sin) which should be repudiated rather than debated, then why have we decided that sexual immorality is somehow in a different class, a class that should be measured by “conversation” rather than conviction?

Ours has become a culture of expression and choice. We now believe ourselves to be an amoral people where right and wrong are not determined by consistency and objective resolve, but rather by “fluidity,” “conversation” and subjective social constructs. In other words, when it comes to sex, everything is a moving target.

Here’s the question: If we have decided the self-evident truths that condemn genocide and the killing fields of Pol Pot do not likewise exist in matters of human sexuality, shouldn’t we be asking what’s next?

For example, if there is no moral compass other than “conversation” to give us direction concerning the morality of same-sex intercourse then why not have a “conversation” about consensual pederasty? Why not discuss the merits of adultery? Why not have dialogue about how those who identify as incestuous need “safe spaces” where they can be affirmed, and loved for who they are?

Any rational people understanding the basic principles of cause and effect must at least be willing to ask where this logic will end.

If you’re still not feeling a bit unstable on this slippery slope, I recommend this simple exercise: Go to any article in any magazine or website that argues for “conversations” about sexual morality and simply replace the acronym of the day with another set of letters.

For example, every time you see LGBTQ in an article, simply replace those letters with ISIS. Change nothing else. Do this throughout the entire column in question.

In doing this, something will quickly become quite obvious. Sentences will emerge such as these: “Love is love and ISIS has the right to love who they want to love.” “The ISIS community simply wants to be accepted and affirmed.” “What right does anyone have to refuse to bake a cake for an ISIS wedding?”

Read the rest here.  I would hate to be an LGBT student at Oklahoma Wesleyan.  Christian colleges are perfectly within their rights (I hope) to affirm traditional views on morality, but there is a difference between affirming such views and treating those who disagree as members of ISIS.

And yes, I do want to have a “conversation” about Pol Pot, Robespierre, and Mao in my classes.  I want my students to understand why they did what they did.

And yes, I do want to have a “conversation” about abortion.  Even if everyone in the room thinks abortion is a moral problem, there should still be a robust debate about how to curb the practice.

Piper does not seem to grasp the difference between a college and a church.  He is afraid of certain questions.  Fear should never be the spirit that defines a college or university, even a Christian one.

What does the Wesleyan Church have to say about this?

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

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Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

New in the Mail: "The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education"

I just received my copy today.  Here is my blurb on the back of the book: 

I have been reading Chris Gehrz’s blog, “The Pietist Schoolman” for several years and have been cheering him on as he makes a compelling and humble case for the compatibility of Pietism, the intellectual life and Christian higher education.  Now Chris has gathered his academic brothers and sisters in the faith to continue the conversation.  If you thought that “pietist higher education” was an oxymoron, these essays will force you to think again.

John Fea, Messiah College, author of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past


Ernie Boyer on Messiah College

Some of you may have heard of Ernest L. Boyer. He was the Chancellor of the State University of New York, United States Commissioner of Education under Jimmy Carter (this was before Secretary of Education was a cabinet position), and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He also graduated from Messiah College.

Over at The Search for Piety and Obedience, Devin Manzullo-Thomas reminds us what Boyer thought about Messiah College.

In the piece, Boyer claims that Messiah has always been characterized by four “virtues”:
  • It has “sought to broaden education, not restrict it”;
  • It has “been not just a campus but a community as well” — meaning that its students, faculty, and staff have been united by a shared purpose and mission;
  • It has “been a place where dedicated teachers are also good and trusted friends”; and
  • It has “helped students seek connections between what they learn and how they live” — in other words, translating academic knowledge into an orientation toward service and reconciliation beyond the Ivory Tower.

Boyer’s thoughts come from a speech he gave in 1984 entitled “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College.”  

Sorry Rick. They Do Teach American History at California Colleges

From the Daily Kos:

Yeah, we know it’s all the rage to demonize California in right-wing circles. But you’d think they’d at least make a mild attempt at shading their falsehoods a bit.

Not if you’re Rick Santorum:

I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And that the California universities – I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught.

How wrong is he? Not only does every University of California that offers a BA offer American history … inconveniently for Santorum it’s an actual requirement for graduation: 

In the University of California system:

The American History and Institutions requirements are based on the principle that a U.S. resident graduated from an American university should have an understanding of the history and governmental institutions of the United States.

The California State University system:

The CSU requires each student receiving a baccalaureate degree to be knowledgeable about the Constitution of the United States, American history, and state and local government. This U.S. History, Constitution, and American Ideals Requirement is generally known as the American Institutions Requirement. You can complete this requirement either by completing the required courses (generally two) or, at some campuses, passing a comprehensive examination or a combination of coursework and examination.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Education for a Democracy"

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made news recently when he called Barack Obama a “snob” for saying that all Americans should get a college education. He supported his attack on the president with the now popular refrain, “college is not for everyone.” Some Americans, he said, might be better suited for vocational training, community college, or apprenticeships.

It took only a few hours for pundits to figure out that Obama had basically said the same thing in a recent State of the Union Address, but in the world of presidential politics Santorum’s remarks probably scored some points among the conservative faithful.

But let’s consider the position taken by Santorum and Obama on this issue. Are the President and the former Senator correct in asserting that a liberal arts education is not for everyone? Maybe another lesson from the founding fathers is in order.

Read the rest here.

Gustafson Resigns as Stony Brook School Headmaster

After months of complaints from disgruntled alumni, Rob Gustafson has resigned as the headmaster of The Stony Brook School.  Here is the official announcement:

The Board of Trustees writes to inform you that Rob Gustafson, Headmaster of The Stony Brook School, has resigned effective June 30, 2012.

Rob’s relationship with Stony Brook began in 1975, when he taught Bible-English, coached football and served as Chaplain from 1980-1981. Rob returned to Stony Brook in 1997 beginning his tenure as only the fifth headmaster in the ninety year history of the School.

During the last 15 years, Rob has reaffirmed and cultivated the School’s spiritual and academic footings, bringing the School into the current century with a Christ-centered, vibrant student body. Under Rob’s leadership the School has had balanced budgets, strong enrollment in the face of economic uncertainty, and outstanding student academic achievement. 

In addition, Rob has prioritized and overseen significant capital improvements. These have included the building of Simons and Alexander residence halls, the expansion and renovation of Swanson Gymnasium, and the construction of Buyers’ Park. During his tenure the School has also renovated Johnston, Hegeman and Monro residences, Kinney Fieldhouse, Carson Auditorium, and many areas of the School’s scenic campus. Most recently, Rob was instrumental in obtaining the largest gift ever made to the School – the lead gift for Kanas Commons and a significant gift for financial aid.

The Board of Trustees thanks Rob for his years of effective leadership and service to The Stony Brook School. The Board anticipates appointing an interim head of school for the 2012-2013 school year while conducting a national search for the next permanent headmaster.

The (Economic) Value of a Teacher

Scholars at Harvard and Columbia have concluded that students who are taught by a good teacher will have MAJOR social and economic advantages when they reach adulthood when compared with students who are taught by poor teachers.

Here are some summary points:

  • The best teachers are “value added” teachers (VA).  “A teacher’s value-added is defined as the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.
  • The study followed one million school children in a large urban school district.
  • When a VA teacher joins a school, test scores rise immediately in the grade taught by that teacher.  When a VA teacher leaves, test scores fall.  And the change happens only in the subject taught by that teacher.
  • Students assigned to high VA teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, save more for retirement, and are less likely to have children as teenagers.
  • Replacing a low VA teacher with a high VA teacher results in cumulative gains of $52,000 per student or more than 1.4 million for the average classroom.

Very interesting.  But what does this mean for teacher’s salaries?

For more see Nicholas Kristof’s most recent column.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Have You Started a Junto Yet?" (Original Title)

There has been much discussion over the last two decades about the state of the evangelical mind. Books such as Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and, more recently, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens’s The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, have pointed to a latent anti-intellectualism in modern American evangelicalism.

There are many places evangelicals can turn to strengthen Christian thinking. Recently, in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll has pointed to the Christology of the ancient Christian creeds as a source for a robust intellectual life. Others have suggested that evangelicals should rely on the theological resources of Dutch Calvinism or Roman Catholicism for their intellectual heft.

While all of these streams of Christianity offer solid theological grounding for loving God with our minds, let me suggest an unlikely source for helping us think about how to practice this kind of intellectual discipleship: Benjamin Franklin.

Read the rest here.

What’s Going on at the Stony Brook School?

The Stony Brook School is a private Christian school that brings together the best of pre-collegiate academic rigor with a deep commitment to Christian faith.  Such a combination is rare for a Christian high school with evangelical roots, but the Stony Brook School (SBS), founded by evangelical leader Frank Gaebelein in 1922, has managed to pull it off.  The boarding and day students who have attended the school since its founding have gone on to attend some of the best colleges in the country.

Full disclosure:  My wife was the assistant dean of students and director of residential life at SBS from 1995-2000.  During that time we lived in a girls dorm on campus. I taught AP US History there during the 1999-2000 school year and a few years ago returned to deliver a Staley Lecture on the roots of American individualism.

It appears that many SBS alums are not satisfied with the direction that the headmaster and board of trustees are taking the school.  In the last few years several faculty have converted to Catholicism, leading the school administration to reaffirm the school’s Protestant evangelical roots.  There has also been an attempt to limit student leadership positions to boarding students, a policy that has alienated many bright young day students who live in the Stony Brook area and have chosen SBS over the local public school district.  In the last few years several key faculty and administrators have resigned their posts over these issues.

A group of alums are protesting these changes through a Facebook page called “Restore the Stony Brook School” and have written a petition expressing their concerns.  They are asking all concerned alumni to sign it.

Frankly, I am not privy to what is happening at SBS.  I have a few connections remaining at the school, but most of the educators who I knew have left the school to pursue their teaching vocations at other institutions.

For what it’s worth, here is the official statement of the “Restore the Stony Brook School” page:

After 90 years of existence, The Stony Brook School finds itself at an important crossroad.  In the last few years we have seen some of the bedrock that defines the School and its long held tenets shaken by the very leaders who were appointed to guard it.  The leadership of the School, the headmaster and the board of trustees, has failed the collective stakeholders––the alumni, faculty, students, parents, and friends of the School––by systematically setting out to change some of the most important aspects of what has made the School, in both theory and in practice, a Christ-centered educational community that has served and nurtured thousands of students over decades.

In short, The Stony Brook School has been reshaped by a headmaster whose religious convictions clash with the intent of the School’s Founders, and whose agenda has been upheld by an ineffectual and passive board who are at best ignorant, and at worst complicit, with the deception.  The policies and changes in philosophy––both attempted and enacted––reflect an attempt by the current leaders to reshape the School to reflect their own personal ideologies. The most grievous of these is the replacement of non-denominational openness with an exclusionary religious fundamentalism that promotes divisiveness and sectarianism.  This has all been carried out behind a veil of doctrinal justification and has been purposefully hidden from the larger School community. 

The charge of the headmaster and the board of trustees is to hold true to the School’s founding principles, to ensure that faculty and administrators are held to the highest standards of excellence, and to guide the School to long-term financial and reputational health.  Unfortunately, our current leaders have failed in these endeavors.

The policy changes recently pursued by the School’s leadership have no basis in the School’s founding principles or precedent in its history. They include:

Attempted Change to the School’s Platform of Principles

Had this change been successful, it would have permanently prohibited Christians of certain denominations (e.g., Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox) from serving the School as faculty members or trustees. This effort was unsuccessful only because the original founding documents of the School deemed that any change to the Platform of Principles would legally effectively nullify the School’s existence. This unprecedented and careless attempt to change one of the School’s foundational pillars merits serious repercussions.  

The Disenfranchisement of the Day Student Population
In 2009, a revision of the Prefect system to its current policy now requires day students to become boarders if they wish to serve as student leaders. This has created a classist system in which advantages and preferences, in the form of leadership opportunities, are given only to boarders. (http://www.stonybrookschool.org/student-life/leadership-opportunities) 

Lack of Institutional Transparency
The flow of information to the larger School community––and the world outside of the School––from the headmaster and the board of trustees, has become non-existent, especially in terms of financial matters and the philosophical underpinnings of important decisions. Dissenting opinion is dismissed or ignored, and no attempt is made to gauge the School’s reputation from either the perspective of the School Community or the private secondary school or higher educational community. 

Substantial Faculty Turnover
In the last few years, nearly one-third of the School’s faculty members have left, many in response to the leadership’s paradigm shift; some due to sectarian differences with the headmaster. Several have been removed for perceived insubordination.

Rewriting of the Statement of Educational Philosophy
The statement was re-written to de-emphasize the educational and college preparatory aspect of the School’s mission, and to stress instead the importance of the new conservative religious orientation of the School. The School’s standing in relation to our former peer institutions and concomitant college placements bear out that this philosophy has been put into practice.

How You Can Help Restore The Stony Brook School:
• Sign the petition to Restore The Stony Brook School at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/restoresbs/
• Do your own research: read the posts here; ask your Stony Brook friends.
• Contact members of the SBS Board of Trustees: ask questions and demand answers.
• Spread the word: let your SBS friends know and ask them to help too.

A United SBS Community CAN Restore The Stony Brook School!