Teaching Ernest L. Boyer’s Vision for Messiah College

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Ernest L. Boyer (1928-1995) is the most distinguished graduate of Messiah College and one of the most influential educators of the last century. He was a Brethren in Christ pastor, the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Commissioner of Education, and the president of  the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He also served several terms on the Messiah College Board of Trustees.  My colleague Cynthia Wells, the director of Messiah College’s Ernest L. Boyer Center,  writes:

Across context, Boyer created educational pathways for those disadvantaged by economic disparity and those left out of the education system.  He initiated a nationwide community service program whereby students could could earn credit by participating in hands-on experiences in their communities.  He advocated for a general education program that helped students integrate their educational experiences and make connections between their education and their lives beyond college.  He also developed a concern for Native American education, and worked to improve the Native American school system and to support tribal colleges.  His concern for those on the margins of American society became a hallmark of his educational vision.  Boyer deeply believed that education shaped society.

Throughout his career, he maintained a deep and abiding Christian faith, and there is clear evidence that his Christian faith influenced his commitments.  His convictions to serve those on the margin of society, as one example, reflects his Christian commitment to serve the “least of these.”

Yesterday, my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class read Boyer’s 1984 Messiah College convocation speech, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College.” In this speech, Boyer identified four virtues that have “shaped the quality and character of Messiah College.”  Boyer adds: “In each regard countless colleges and universities across America would be well served by following the model so effectively engaged on this campus.”

First, Boyer calls for a robust liberal arts curriculum.  Colleges must seek “connectedness” across disciplines.  “Unity, not fragmentation,” Boyer writes, “must be the aim of education, and most especially what one calls Christian education.” He adds: “In the Christian world view the so-called secular and sacred are distinctions without meaning since all truth should ultimately be considered sacred.”

In responding to this “virtue,” I asked my students to think about the difference between a professional school and a liberal arts college.  Messiah is not a Bible college or a place where students only focus on a specialized skill.  Rather, they are exposed, through a heavy general education curriculum rooted in the liberal arts, to a breadth of knowledge about the world.  If God is the source of all truth and beauty, then the study of science, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, philosophy, politics, and language are all ways of exploring God’s created order and ultimately worshiping Him.

Boyer delivered this speech 36 years ago.  Has Messiah College retained its legacy on this front?  I asked the students to consider this question from their own experiences at the college.  Most students could give specific examples of how faith was brought to bear on the liberal arts subjects they study at Messiah.  Several students said that their professors introduced faith into the classroom by starting class with a short devotional thought.  This is great, but I warned them that if this was the extent of how faith was integrated in the classroom it was not enough.  Starting class with a reading of the Bible and then teaching the subject matter in a completely secular fashion was only reinforcing the sacred-secular distinction that Boyer warned against.

Second, Boyer argues that community is an essential part of the Messiah College education experience.  Messiah must be a school where students learn how to be dependent on one another.  Relationships on campus should be defined by cordiality and compassion.  Messiah is a place that enables students to find meaning and purpose in conversation with educators, staff, and, of course, their fellow students.

Ernest Boyer attended Messiah College in the 1940s.  His gave this speech in the 1980s.  As a historian, I wanted to know if my students saw continuity or change over time as as it relates to community at Messiah. Did the college–now nearly 3000 students strong–still value community?  The response was generally positive.  Several students said that Messiah students, faculty, and administrators do a good job of talking about community, but they were not sure how consistently they live lives defined by community.  Others admitted that the search for community at Messiah College was difficult, but it could be found for those seeking it.  The strongest defenders of community at Messiah were transfer students–young men and women who had attended other educational institutions.  Several of these transfer students told traditional first-year students about the virtual lack of community at other colleges and universities.  Their message was clear: Messiah College is a special place–don’t take it for granted.

By this point, the hour was coming to an end, but I at least wanted to get Boyer’s third and fourth virtues on the table.

Third, Boyer says that Messiah College is committed to teaching.  I tried to get the students to consider the differences between a teaching college/university and a research university.   Many of them were drawn to Messiah (and smaller teaching colleges in general) because they did not want to take introductory courses from graduate students.  They wanted to have relationships with their professors.  Many were seeking mentors.

Fourth, Boyer extols Messiah College for inviting students to seek “connections between what they learn and how they live.”  Last week I challenged the students to cultivate their minds as spiritual discipline.  But Boyer reminds us that good Christian thinking always leads to service.  I wish we had more time to discuss this point, but there will be plenty of opportunities during semester to revisit it.

John Henry Newman is up next.    Follow along here.

Created and Called for Community: “Making Meaning” on the First Day of Class

College-classroom

I am pretty old school when it comes to the first day of class.  As some of you remember from my post last week, this semester I am teaching Messiah College’s first-year course Created and Called for Community (CCC).  Yesterday I met with all three of my sections  and introduced them to the course.  CCC has a common syllabus.  This means that every first-year student taking this course reads the same texts.  It is the only course of this nature at Messiah College.

The first day is always about logistics–required textbooks, assignments, grading scale, office hours, etc…  But sometimes the syllabus offers opportunities to talk about the importance of such a course.  I tried to do that today.

The syllabus begins this way:

The Created and Called for Community (CCC) course comprises the second half of Messiah College’s curriculum for first-year students, as well as transfer students. Together, First Year Seminar and CCC are designed to equip you with the intellectual skills needed to succeed during the rest of your education at Messiah College. In particular, both “W” courses focus on the ability to write accurately, clearly, and convincingly that will serve you well in your college career (whatever your major), as well as the vocation and profession you enter following your college career.

This is a writing course.  I will be spending a lot of time this semester reading drafts and commenting on papers.  Today, I tried to convince these students–who represent every major at Messiah College, from Engineering and Nursing to History and Sociology–that one does not always fully understand what they believe about a particular issue until they start to write.

The syllabus continues:

CCC also introduces you to the particular kind of community and institution that is Messiah College. Messiah’s history and identity are rooted in three strands of the Christian church known as Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism. We hope that this course helps you become familiar with basic elements of Messiah’s identity, mission, and foundation. The course will encourage you to cultivate a climate in which there can be better, deeper, and richer conversations about important issues precisely because they’re informed by some common understandings and curriculum. Some of the common readings assigned are classic texts which have been read by generations of college students. Others are more recent and speak to various contemporary issues and concerns.

In tell the students that it is important to understand the identity of the college where they have chosen to study.  They do not have to agree with the mission of Messiah College, but they must understand that when the college administration makes decisions about campus life they do so out of a particular understanding of Christian higher education.  If students are unhappy with the way the administration handles a controversial issue on campus, their criticism of the administration should be based on whether or not the leadership is consistently applying the religious principles that inform the identity of the college.

Finally, CCC is an introduction to liberal arts learning at Messiah College:

CCC, then, is an inter-disciplinary and common-learning course, a course in “meaning-making.” It’s hoped that over the course of this semester, you’ll receive helpful resources to address the experiences, questions, and challenges that you’ll face in the future in an informed and thoughtful fashion. And it’s also a discussion-oriented course. One way to become equipped for this task is to meet and engage with people and ideas worthy of shaping you and your thinking. This semester, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your thoughts alongside other people–the authors whose works we read, your instructor, and your classmates.

Again, you can see the reading list here.  Today I told the students that there are 27 voices that show up to class every day.  25 of those voices are the Messiah College undergraduates who are asked to come to class prepared to discuss the daily reading.  As the instructor, I am an additional voice (#26).  My goal is to facilitate conversation and to raise important questions about the texts.  And one of the voices (#27) in the room is the author of the text we are reading on that day.  Those voices include John Henry Newman, Ernest Boyer, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R Tolkien, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Plato, and Dorothy Sayers.  I urged the students to show hospitality to these voices.  I want the students to listen to these voices before critiquing them.  I want my students to approach these texts with humility, assuming that these authors are smarter than them and thus have something to teach them about the world.

The readings for this course fit into three units. They are: Creation, Community, and Calling (Vocation)

Here is how the syllabus describes each unit:

Creation: The first words of Scripture in some translations say that “in the beginning God created…” And so it seems fitting that you’ll begin exploring the theme of creation and creativity by studying the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. You’ll examine both the natural and human creation, including the moral and ethical implications that flow from the understanding that every person is made in God’s image (or, in Latin, the imago Dei) and so possesses dignity and status. You’ll also consider how to be faithful stewards of creation and ways in which you can express the creative impulse God has implanted in you.

Community: All human beings throughout history, each of them made in God’s image, have lived within various types of groups or communities: families, groups of friends, churches, college campuses, neighborhoods, nations, and the worldwide or global community. The process of community-building brings with it both great rewards as well as challenges. Communities are inescapable, yet they place demands on us. In exploring this theme, you’ll examine the factors that strengthen and weaken community, and the challenges of community-building in a variety of settings. Along the way, you’ll consider both inspiring exemplars of community-building, as well as times and places where communities have fallen short and succumbed to the practices of segregation or racism or isolation or violence.

Calling or Vocation: Christian vocation requires us to consider not only what we do but also who we are. We’re called to personal transformation by practicing spiritual disciplines and called to social transformation by addressing injustice in the world. Exploring this theme in CCC, you’ll view some of the ways in which various people have served, look at where and how they’ve found their place in the world, look at vocation in various settings, continue the process of discerning your own vocation and place in the world, and look at some of the characteristics of Christian vocation—especially service, work, leadership, and reconciliation.

Stay tuned.  We are discussing Stanley Hauerwas’s “God With God” on Wednesday.

Follow along here.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

The Collapse of America’s Social Infrastructure

Our roads, bridges, and airports are crumbling, but so is our “social infrastructure”–libraries, schools, playgrounds, athletic fields, gardens, bookstores, diners, and barbershops.  Over at The Atlantic, New York University sociologist Eric Klineberg discusses the collapse of the places that build flourishing communities and a healthy democracy.

Here is a taste of his piece “Worry Less About Crumbling Roads, More About Crumbling Libraries“:

Every four years, the American Society for Civil Engineers issues grades for the nation’s infrastructure. In the most recent evaluation, released in 2017, America’s overall infrastructure score was a D+, the same as in 2013. Although seven systems, including hazardous waste and levees, received modestly better grades than in the previous assessment, transit and solid waste, among others, did worse. Aviation (D), roads (D), drinking water (D), and energy (D+), retained their miserably low scores.

The ASCE does not grade our “social infrastructure.” If it did, the scores would be equally shameful. For decades, we’ve neglected the shared spaces that shape our interactions. The consequences of that neglect may be less visible than crumbling bridges and ports, but they’re no less dire.

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Social infrastructure is not “social capital”— the concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and networks—but the physical places that allow bonds to develop. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. People forge ties in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not necessarily because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships—even across ethnic or political lines—inevitably grow.

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, and athletic fields, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are community gardens and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Nonprofit organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructure when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, clothing, and other consumer goods.

Read the rest here.

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA

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I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

W.H. Auden on Catholicism and Protestantism

Auden

W.H. Auden

Here is another Protestant Reformation post.  This one is stolen from Alan Jacobs’s blog Snakes and Ladders.  What follows is a quote Jacobs posted today from Auden‘s review of Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther:

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

National Endowment for Humanities Funds Courses on “Enduring Questions”

Questions

Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded courses at colleges and universities across the country focused on these “enduring questions.”

What does it mean to be happy?

When should war end?

How do we grieve and mourn?

What is the purpose of art?

What is freedom?

Who is our neighbor?

What is community?

How do we think about morality as it relates to our habits and our health?

What is comedy?

What is discovery?

How should we think morally about the marketplace?

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

How might we think theologically about race?

Is time valuable?

Why does our society incarcerate people?

What is creativity?

Learn more about the NEH’s work on “enduring questions” here.

For other posts in this series click here.

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

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My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

Are You Lonely? Perhaps You Need to Go to a Springsteen Concert

Bruce at PSUEven scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that bastion of limited government and free markets, love the Boss!

Michael Strain, a resident scholar at AEI, puts his passion for Springsteen on display in a great piece at the website of The Washington Post.  Springsteen’s politics may be on the left, but his music appeals to folks of all ideologies!

Here is a taste:

I saw Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band last week, here in Washington, on a night when I needed to feel young. (Who doesn’t need to feel young these days?) And whenever I see a Springsteen show, I feel like I’m hearing music for the first time — music, and all the wonderful things that come with it.

A Springsteen concert is a celebration of community. There’s an intimacy associated with seeing those seated near you in complete abandon, and that intimacy fosters friendliness. Last week’s show offered a new spin on this familiar theme: I happened to meet the guy seated next to me a few days earlier when I sold him a couple of my extra tickets. He arrived during the third song, and we greeted each other as if we were old friends. It’s odd, but there was more warmth between us than I have with any of my neighbors. Springsteen brings people together.

Many different kinds of people. There are the veterans, who share stories of their favorite concerts in anticipation that what will happen on that stage in a few minutes will top what they’ve seen before. There are the skeptical first-timers — five songs in, and they are always mesmerized, stunned, in awe of the fact that all the hype they’ve heard for many years wasn’t hype after all. But my favorite are the kids, often with their parents — a generational handoff. My unborn son has been to two shows already.

We live in a fragmented society. People feel isolated. Many feel invisible. Springsteen is aware of this, and he explicitly tries to combat it with his concerts. For a few hours, any trace of loneliness vanishes. A Springsteen show is a balm.

Read the entire post here.

A Bookstore in Bellefonte

Bellefonte, PA

I have taught a few students from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.  After a conversation with one of those students I came to the tentative conclusion that it must be a nice place to live.  It sounded like a charming Victorian Pennsylvania town.  And it was close to Penn State.

If my memory serves me correctly, I used to stop at a Holiday Inn off of Route 80 near Bellefonte during my seminary years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I usually pulled my 1981 Skylark into the motel when I was too sleepy to finish the drive from Deerfield, IL to Montville, NJ.  I remember being frustrated because my room did not have a remote control for the television set.

If I wasn’t in such a hurry to get home to see my parents and siblings in New Jersey I might have taken the time to drive into downtown Bellefonte.  After reading about Jonathan Eburne‘s failed attempt to open a bookstore in the town, I wish I had been more curious and adventuresome in those days.

Here is a taste of Eburne’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay on the struggle to cultivate intellectual community in Bellefonte.  It’s a great piece about place:

I THOUGHT it would be a good idea to start a bookstore in my town. The print industry is dead, we’ve been told, from the publisher’s nose to the bookseller’s tail. But haven’t books always been at least a little dead? Coffined thoughts, in mummy cases, embalmed in spice of words. Perhaps a bookstore could marshal some of that spice toward happier ends, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. A community bookstore seemed like a small yet viable way to push back at the larger forces encroaching against so many elements of our towns and cities. Universities; museums; downtowns: sometimes everything feels under attack. A plague upon our houses! The attacks are fueled by all sorts of imperatives, a worldly sickness. Most of it, we cannot fathom how to fix. But I could imagine a bookstore, like a small bulwark against the tide. The goal was simple: to found a cooperative; to think small, to build gradually through a cohort of like-minded collaborators. That way, nobody would get hurt.
But something did get hurt. Nobody went bankrupt, mind you, and no money was lost. Yet my town and its cultural prospects are worse off than when we started. Instead of helping to build a new cultural institution, I’ve watched other institutions crumble down around me.
This is a story about that reversal of fortune.

Eric Miller on Wendell Berry’s Fiction

Check out the recent edition of The Cresset for Eric Miller‘s essay, “Technology and Human Renewal in Wendell Berry’s Port William.”  Miller focuses predominantly on Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth to illustrate how “the technical advances of the West” have threatened our “deepest experience of well being.”  Here is a taste:

To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, ­participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose ­contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador’s recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In “Why We Need Small Towns,” Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It’s a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called “stickers.” In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner’s, stickers are people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” America’s first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don’t always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the “boomers.” In Stegner and Wendell Berry’s use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today’s U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.

Does "Staying Put" Cultivate Community?

For the good folks at the Front Porch Republic the answer to this question seems to be an unqualified “yes.”  And anyone who reads this blog carefully knows I am sympathetic to the Front Porcher’s understanding of “place,” especially as espoused by writers like Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch.  (I actually wrote a few things for the Front Porch Republic website a few years ago).

But Ross Douthat’s recent column at The New York Times complicates the relationship between “place” and “community.”

Here is a taste of his argument in “Place is Not Enough.”

It’s easy to assume that America’s current crisis of community — the fragmentation of family life, the retreat from civic and religious engagement — is related to people being too quick to pull up stakes and leave their existing communities behind. But the surprising reality is that the recent weakening of social ties has coincided with a decline in mobility. Here are the relevant Census figures:

The percentage of people who changed residences between 2010 and 2011 ─ 11.6 percent ─ was the lowest recorded rate since the Current Population Survey began collecting statistics on the movement of people in the United States in 1948, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today. The rate, which was 20.2 percent in 1985, declined to a then-record low of 11.9 percent in 2008 before rising to 12.5 percent in 2009. The 2010 rate was not statistically different than the 2009 rate.

Now Americans are still a more mobile people than most. But if you’re looking for a straightforward link between staying in place and the health of America’s communities, this is not the trend you would expect. We are staying put more than we did in earlier eras, and yet outside of the upper class it isn’t translating into the kind of personal and familial stability that communitarians want to cultivate.

I am sure Patrick Deneen is on the case.

Quote of the Day

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.  There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population.  Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.”  When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.  They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.”  Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”  This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

–Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 30.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.