Intellectualism and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

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Richard Hofstadter still looms large in any discussion of anti-intellectualism in America

Here is a taste of Adam Water‘s and E.J. Dionne‘s recent piece at Dissent: “Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Intellectuals are not entitled to special privileges, and “intellectualism” should not be seen as a superior way of life. But the intellectual project, involving the search for truth and understanding with some independence from the pressures of both the state and the market, must be defended. And it is a project that citizens who do not have any formal status in the academy or think tanks can join.

Intellectuals are integral to the battle against falsehood, but they need to work as part of a broad democratic enterprise involving citizens of every background who are concerned about what Trump and his cronies’ systematic denigration of facts means for the vitality of our democracy. There is no magical political strategy for building this coalition, and in the range of priorities for progressives, this would not rank as a central cause.

Read the entire piece here.

The Civil Rights Movement as an Intellectual Movement

drum+&+spear+spear+5+store+signWe usually think of the civil rights movement in political, moral, and even religious terms, but we seldom think about it in terms of what historian Joshua Clark Davis calls a “movement for intellectual change.”  Here is a taste of his piece at Black Perspectives:

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, is widely recalled as an unimpeachable moral authority, as a master orator, and as a fierce proponent of democracy. But how many Americans today recall him as the powerful intellectual that he was–the inveterate reader and theoretician that many of his contemporaries knew him as?

The same can be asked of the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization’s members are recalled for the remarkable bravery and resolute moral clarity they displayed on the Freedom Rides, during Freedom Summer, and in Selma. SNCC members created a movement for social change, for moral change, and for political change. But how many of us acknowledge that SNCC also forged a movement for intellectual change? A short SNCC memo I recently came across forced me to reconsider this question.

“Dear Brothers and Sisters,” begins the undated letter from SNCC’s national office in Atlanta. “This is a copy of SNCC’s suggested readings …It is essential that every black person become aware of his/her history and become proud of that history. Let us hope that his pride will build a basis for the coming together of black people on an international as well as national level.”

The memo is followed by a four-page document listing nearly one hundred books divided into eight categories: History of Blacks in the United States; Contemporary Black Thought; Biographies of Famous Black People; Black Fiction; Books on Black Arts; African History; Contemporary African Thought; and Books of International Revolution.

Read the entire piece here.

Help Bring John Wilson to *Englewood Review of Books*

Portrait of John Wilson

John Wilson

I am really glad to hear that Englewood Review of Books is growing and making a concerted effort to bring John Wilson aboard full-time.  Here is a letter from editor Christopher Smith and several other scholars, including historian Mark Noll:

As you might be aware, John has been employed with us at The Englewood Review of Books as Contributing Editor for the last six months. We have been delighted to have John on staff, and his work is already bearing fruit: He has identified excellent books to feature that would not otherwise have been on our radar; he found new reviewers to write for us (including Philip Jenkins); and he has thoughtfully written columns for our recent issues. John’s role with us is minimal at the present, but we would like to employ him in a greater capacity (ideally full-time) beginning as soon as possible in the coming year.

As friends and co-workers of The Englewood Review, we are delighted to announce that we are entering an exciting season of building capacity, extending our readership, and moving toward fiscal sustainability. The strategy we are developing will unfold over the next five years, and will include a new and more mobile-friendly website, publicity efforts to broaden our readership in churches and in academic settings, and partnerships with institutions that share our mission of cultivating the timely habits of reading and conversation.

Given that these plans will take some time to develop, and given that we don’t want to wait until they come fully to fruition to expand the scope of John’s work with us, we are initiating a fundraising effort to cover the interim cost of John Wilson’s employment. We plan to raise $250,000, which would cover the cost of about three years of John’s employment with us. We have set up a restricted fund devoted solely to compensating John for his work with us. These funds will not be used for any other initiatives of The Englewood Review of Books.
 
We know that you share our deep gratitude for the important work that John did over his two decades as editor of Books & Culture, and for his significant contributions to cultivating the breadth and depth of the Christian mind in recent years. And so, we invite you to celebrate John with us by contributing to this fund that will support his work over the next few years. This fund is hosted by Englewood Community Development Corporation, the parent organization of The Englewood Review of Books, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and any donations will be documented as tax deductible. (Specifically, any donations dated on or before December 31, 2018 can be claimed as deductions on your 2018 taxes.)  Contributions are welcome from individuals and institutions who desire to honor John’s work and help advance the mission of The Englewood Review of Books.

Please join us in celebrating John Wilson in this way.

What’s the Most Influential Book of the Past 20 Years?

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The Chronicle of Higher Education asked scholars to answer this question.  Here are some of the titles they chose:

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Robert Putnam: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Jo Guildi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto

Jonathan Levy: Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in Modern America

Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

David Harvey,  A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement

Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness

Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture

Read the entire list here.

2 Questions:

  1. How many have you read?
  2. What books would you add to the list?

Have Conservative Intellectuals Gone Lowbrow?

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Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson thinks so.  He argues that conservative intellectuals are now in the business of attacking “educated elites.”  He calls this behavior “a grave danger to our democratic discourse.”

Here is a taste of his piece at Democracy:

Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think. They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron. Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in. Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns. Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians.

But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our general public culture, and dare we say—as would the Kimball of old—“civilization.” Our public dialogue is threatened by the likes of Twitter thinking—more short spasms than developed reasoning. Conservative intellectuals have always struggled with their own tendency to instinctively distrust their own kind— i.e. other intellectuals, what the historian Christopher Lasch once labeled the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.” Yet right now, they seem they seem to have moved beyond self-hate and toward willful self-sabotage. Their ideas have lost all intellectual rigor and warrant no respect. In killing off their own thinking, they kill off the possibility of democratic discourse, where thinkers with different principles can debate but engage in a productive conversation about our contemporary political situation. By turning the exchange of ideas into warfare and angry brawls, conservative “thought leaders” are killing off the very principle of democratic debate.

Read the entire piece here.

Rod Dreher Interviews Alan Jacobs on *How to Think*

ThinkHere is a taste from Dreher’s blog:

I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Think here.

 

“The Closing of the American Mind” at 30

ClosingAllan Bloom‘s bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, turns thirty this year.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, cultural critic and New Left activist Todd Gitlin reflects:

“You can slam its young people into universities with their classrooms and laboratories, and when they come out all they can talk about is Babe Ruth. America is a hopeless country for intellectuals and thinking people.” Babe Ruth is the giveaway. These words were spoken in 1923, and the speaker was Theodore Dreiser, who had dropped out of Indiana University after one year.

So it is not a new thought that American universities are nests of self-betrayal and triviality where inquiring minds trade the nobility of their tradition for cheap trinkets and the promise of pieces of silver to come. Indeed, five years before Dreiser popped off, Thorstein Veblen was denouncing “the higher learning in America” for having surrendered to business domination, ditched the pure pursuit of knowledge, cultivated “conspicuous conformity to the popular taste,” and pandered to undergraduates by teaching them “ways and means of dissipation.” “The conduct of universities by business men,” to borrow from Veblen’s subtitle, had rendered university life “mechanistic.” Veblen anticipated that the academy would wallow in futility when it was not prostrating itself at the feet of the captains of finance. His original subtitle was A Study in Total Depravity. Veblen having dropped it, Allan Bloom should have picked it up.

Veblen thought the university had been seized by “pecuniary values.” To Bloom, whose bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, something much worse had happened: The university had been seized by the absence of values. “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines. … This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.”

A horde of bêtes noires had stampeded through the gates, and the resulting noise had drowned out the proper study of both nature and humanity. Nihilism had conquered. Its chief forms were cultural relativism, historicism, and shopping-mall indifference, the humanities’ lame attempts at a holding action that “flatters popular democratic tastes.” Openness was the new closure; elitism had become the worst of all isms.

Read the rest here.

“Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement”

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Last week we wrote about Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber’s criticism of the religious questions posed to federal judge nominee Amy Coney Barrett by Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today we call your attention to Eisgruber’s speech at Princeton’s opening exercises entitled “Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement.”  It is a clear statement of the purpose of a university.

Here is a taste:

Some people have suggested that the University should issue an official statement about Charlottesville, or that I should use this occasion to pass judgment upon President Trump’s comments.  The events and the president’s response troubled me profoundly, and it is tempting to share my thoughts with you in detail.  It is, however, neither my role nor that of the University to prescribe how you should react to this controversy or others.  It is rather my role and the role of the University to encourage you to think deeply about what these events mean for this country and its core values, and to encourage you to find ways to participate constructively in the national dialogue they have generated.

You will find plenty of professors on this campus whose scholarship and erudition will provide you with insight about Charlottesville.  As journalists worldwide have sought to illuminate these events and their aftermath, they have turned to professors here, including Eddie Glaude and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in African American Studies, Lucia Allais in Architecture, David Bell and Kevin Kruse in History, Julian Zelizer in History and Public and International Affairs, Robert George and Keith Whittington in Politics, and Peter Singer in the University Center for Human Values.

I urge you to seek out these and other faculty members, hear what they have to say, and learn from them.  Keep in mind, however, that what they offer are not authoritative pronouncements but arguments backed up by reasons.  It is your responsibility to assess their views for yourself.

This University, like any great university, encourages, and indeed demands, independence of mind.  We expect you to develop the ability to articulate your views clearly and cogently, to contend with and learn from competing viewpoints, and to modify your opinions in light of new knowledge and understanding.  Your Princeton education will culminate in a senior thesis that must both present original research and also contend respectfully with counter-arguments to your position.

This emphasis on independent thinking is at the heart of liberal arts education.  It is a profoundly valuable form of education, and it can be exhilarating.  It can also at times be uncomfortable or upsetting because it requires careful and respectful engagement with views very different from your own.  I have already emphasized that we value pluralism at Princeton; we value it partly because of the vigorous disagreements that it generates.  You will meet people here who think differently than you do about politics, history, justice, race, religion, and a host of other sensitive topics.  To take full advantage of a Princeton education, you must learn and benefit from these disagreements, and to do that you must cultivate and practice the art of constructive disagreement.

Read the entire speech here.

Solitude and the Christian Historian

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Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz riffs on my piece on intellectual loneliness by suggesting that loneliness, and even solitude, may be a good thing for Christians.

Here are a few snippets from his post “The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian“:

To varying degrees, I’ve felt several of these lonelinesses myself at various points. And this might not be unique to historians, academics, or evangelical Christians. I wonder if fear of loneliness isn’t helping to produce polarization in American society, as people seem so desperate to belong to ever-smaller groups that they’d rather conform to ever-longer lists of intersecting membership criteria than risk one of John’s lonelinesses….

What if disciplined study of the past enabled us to do like Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and many contemplatives since and, in Dallas Willard’s terms, “[choose] to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.” In the process, he argues, we interrupt “patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God” and start to develop a “freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 160)…. (Here Chris copies an extended quote from Foster on the difference between “loneliness” and “solitude.”)

I need to think more on this notion, but it seems possible that the discipline of history can foster a spiritually healthy isolation. By temporarily stranding ourselves outside of our own time and entering what A. G. Sertillanges (another recent topic of John’s) called a “laboratory of the spirit,” Foster thinks that we not only cultivate a “deeper, fuller exposure to [God’s] Presence” but gain “increased sensitivity and compassion for others… a new freedom to be with people… new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (pp. 108-109).

Read the entire post here.

“Education and Culture” Is Here!

Wilson Ed and Culture

John Wilson‘s new venture, “Education & Culture: A Critical Review,” is now up and running at bestschools.org.

Bookmark it and visit often.

Many of you know John Wilson as the founder and only editor of the now defunct Books & Culture (1995-2016).

With John at the helm, I have no doubt that “Education and Culture” will deliver some of the best book reviewing and cultural criticism on the Internet.

Here is a taste of what you will find:

Joseph Bottum’s review of Pierre Brant’s The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire.

Wilson’s interview with Chip Colwell, curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and author of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.

Catherine Brekus’s review of Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheewright. (Check out our interview with Ann in Episode 11 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).

 

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

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I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.

 

I Could Be Wrong

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Over at the Inside Higher Ed blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” Matt Reed writes about the relationship between leadership and intellectual humility.  It’s a nice reflection on an important virtue:

In a sense, intellectual humility strikes me as the everyday equivalent of the scientific method. You make the best call you can at a given moment, knowing full well that new information may come along later that will change your view. Keeping an eye open for that kind of information makes it likelier that you’ll avoid barreling headfirst into an iceberg.

But intellectual humility is often an awkward fit, at best, with the styles of leadership to which many people respond.

They respond to tub-thumping certainty. They like clear, simple, confident rallying cries. They perceive changing positions — if they notice — as a sign of corruption, hypocrisy, or weakness. They want answers, and they identify people with the answers they give.  

In other words, a certain kind of follower rewards either dishonesty or shallowness in a leader. The very trait likely to lead to better decisions can carry a direct political cost.

Some leaders lack intellectual humility altogether, so for them, the conflict is external. They keep wondering why the world frustrates them. You can spot them by their remarkable lack of self-awareness.

Some, like the younger George Wallace, consciously choose closed-mindedness specifically because of its political payoff. When the political math changes, you can always declare that you suddenly see the light.

Others resolve the tension through charisma and/or patronage. If you’re likeable enough, you may be able to charm your way through some strategic pivots. I think of that as the Reagan strategy, named after its master practitioner. (If you prefer, you could say something similar of Bill Clinton.) If you can charm or buy your way out of the political downsides of shifting positions, then you can respond to the world as it changes. Nixon can go to China.

Read the entire post here.

 

Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

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William Deresiewicz‘s recent article at The American Scholar is especially pertinent in light of what recently happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College. Deresiewicz writes “political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideas.”

Here is a taste:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude….

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.

Read the entire piece here.  It is definitely worth your time.  At one point in the piece he challenges the notion of “civility” on college campuses, calling it a “management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and pureeing them into a pablum of mush.”

As I read this I could not help but wonder if a similar kind of “religiosity” permeates evangelical or so-called “Christian” colleges.  A few additional thoughts:

  • For some Christian colleges the “religiosity” that Deresiewicz describes is defined as a commitment to a conservative political agenda that forbids any kind of dissent among its faculty and students.  Those with more moderate or progressive political viewpoints, articulated from within the Christian tradition, are ostracized.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog knows that I have been very critical of this approach.
  • For other Christian colleges this “religiosity” is defined by a commitment to a progressive political agenda that is often articulated in terms of “following Jesus” or “fighting for social justice.”  Those who see liberal arts education as primarily the pursuit of an “examined life” or as a pursuit of “truth,” rather than as a means of primarily fighting for justice, are often viewed as outside the mainstream or perhaps even less Christian.
  • In both of the aforementioned models, liberal arts education is subordinated to either conservative politics or a progressive Christian mission to change the world.  While I hope that a Christian liberal arts education will challenge students to be politically active, change the world, and fight for justice, I don’t think that this is the way the questions raised by the liberal arts and the humanities–both in terms of the classroom and outside classroom (guest lecturers, etc…)–should be framed.  (This, by the way, is why I have been critical of both Howard Zinn and David Barton).  Back in the early 1990s I went to seminary. I could have chosen a path in the ministry, but I chose to pursue a life teaching history.  I see these things as two different callings.

Quote of the Day

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.  An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

-Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 3.

The Intellectual Life–Part 9

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.199: You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life

p.201: I have said that the art of writing requires lone and early application and that this gradually becomes a mental habit and constitutes what is called style.

p.208: Strive to write in the form that is inevitable, given the precise thought or the exact feeling that you have to express.  Aim at being understood by all…

p.209: …all creative work requires detachment. Our obsessing personality must be put aside, the world must be forgotten.  When one is thinking of truth, can one allow one’s attention to be turned from it by self.

p.213: We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by fear of what people will say; we must beware of yielding to the pressure of a spirit of cowardly conformity which proclaims itself everybody’s friend in the hope that everybody will obligingly return the compliment.

p.214-15: Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks.

p.219: Sometimes it is good to stop for a while, when  one does not see the right succession of ideals and is exposed to the grave danger of making artificial transitions.

p. 220: But you most normal stimulant is courage.  Courage is sustained, not only be prayer, but by calling up anew a vision of the goal….Keep you eyes on its completion and that vision will give you fresh courage.

p.220: You must not yield to the first sense of fatigue; you must push on; you must force the inner energy to reveal itself.

p.228: You who have a sacred call, make up your mind to be faithful.  There is a law within you, let it be obeyed.  You have said: “I will do this.”

The Intellectual Life–Part 8

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.145: Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production. We never think entirely alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.

p.151: …have no superstitious respect for novelty; love the eternal books that express eternal truths.

p.158: The communion of saints is the support of the mystical life; the banquet of the sages, perpetuated by our assiduous cult, is the invigoration of our intellectual life.

p.158: Contact with writers of genius procures us the immediate advantage of lifting us to a higher plane; by their superiority alone they confer a benefit on us even before teaching us anything.

p.160: The society of intelligent minds is always an exclusive society; reading gives us easier entrance to it.  We cast on the inspired page an imploring glance that is not in vain; we are helped, paths are opened up to us; we are reassured, initiated; the work of God in rare minds is put to our account as well as to theirs; we grow through them; we are enriched through them.

p.164: An essential condition for profiting by our reading, whether of ordinary books or those of writers of genius, is to tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another.

p.166: There is a great revelation in discovering the hidden links that exist between ideas and systems the most dissimilar.

p.170: To develop wisdom was the first object of our education; it is still that of the education that we essay to provide for ourselves.  Without wisdom, what we take in would be worthless, it would be as useless as was the first when it was on the library shelf.

Obama: The President as Professor

obama-prof

Rand Richards Cooper nails it:

From the moment he appeared in the national spotlight, Obama seemed less presidential than professorial. To me he suggested that familiar figure, the Coolest Professor on Campus—articulate and witty; friendly but a little bit detached, with a self-regard nicely tempered by irony; a superb performer in class who might be hard to get hold of in office hours. It’s an attractive character type—but fundamentally an outsider, an observer and commenter, in love with ambiguity and prone to sardonic views and comments. A writer, in other words.

How does the Cool Professor become president in the first place? One answer is the triumph of mass media over the political machine; one thing Obama and Trump have in common is that both reached over the heads of their parties to voters themselves via a media-delivered appeal: Obama with his soaring oratory, and Trump with his TV and social-media ubiquity. This end-run around traditional political structures makes it likely that we’ll continue to see Presidents with unconventional skillsets. In the space of half a century we have moved from a President like LBJ, a crude bumpkin in his public image but a monster powerbroker behind the scenes, to Presidents whose rise is based largely on their media appeal.

Check out the entire piece at dotCommonweal.  It is a reflection on Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times article about Obama’s reading and writing habits.   Cooper wonders if reading books makes one a better POTUS.  One more taste:

Unsurprisingly, as a book person, I’m already missing Obama. After all, how often can a critic hope to take literary recommendations from the White House? The obvious fact is that those of us who find life impossible to imagine without books know we are losing a soulmate in the White House—in exchange for someone whose ghost writer insists he has never read a book cover to cover. And in the end, I have to believe in the power of books to inform and enlighten power; to improve a president in his capacity not as president, but as human being. Is this merely my own obvious professional preference? Some years back I was on a committee tasked with coming up with a questionnaire for my twenty-fifth college reunion. We were brainstorming on a whole range of things involving professions, lifestyles, hobbies, and priorities, and I suggested including the question, “How many books have you read in the last year?” Another guy on the panel, who had spent his career in finance, bristled and turned to me. “Why don’t we ask, ‘How many business deals have you closed in the last year?’” he said. Sputtering a bit, I attempted to explain what I took to be the special function of books, especially to what was, after all, an institution of higher learning, not a business school.

In retrospect that exchange between the two of us—“How many books have you read?” brusquely rebuked by “How many deals have you closed?”—seems a harbinger of the particular deal that will be sealed in Washington DC on Friday, when the poet-president steps off the stage, and the plutocrat-president steps onto it. I can’t help but be deeply glum about it, and anxious. Another chapter closes in our nation’s history, but I’d rather not turn the page, for fear of what happens next. 

The Intellectual Life–Part 7

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.123: …the spirit should animate the worker; and we need first of all, before any special mode of its application, a spirit of earnestness.

p.124: The mind is like the airplane which can only keep aloft by going forward with all the power of its propeller.  To stop is to crash.  On the other hand, earnestness and tenacity can carry us beyond all forseen limits into regions undreamed of.

p.125: To know, to seek, to know more and to start afresh to seek more, is the life of a person devoted to truth, just as to make more money, whatever his or her fortune, is the aim of the miser.  The intellectual who is sincere says every day to the God of truth: “The zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up.”

p.127: …let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.  Make an orderly series of your different studies, so as to throw yourself into them completely.  Let each task take entire hold of you, as if it were the only one.

p.127-28: We must allow each thing its separate place, do it in its own time, provide all the conditions necessary for the work, devote to it the fullest resources at our disposal, and once it has been brought to a successful issue, pass on quietly to something else.

p.131: Study might be defined by saying that it is God becoming conscious in us of His work

p.141: …a sense of mystery must remain, even after our maximum effort and even after truth has seemed to smile on us.  Those who think that they understand everything prove by that alone that they have grasped nothing.

The Intellectual Life–Part 5

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.82: But sleep itself is a worker, a partner of the daily toil; we can make its forces serve us, utilize its laws, profit by that filtering process, that clarification which takes place during the self-surrender of the night…When you wake, you find the collaboration of sleep all performed and recorded. The work of the previous day appears to you in a clearer light; a new path a virgin region lies before you; some relationship of ideas, of facts, of expressions, some happy comparison or illuminating image, a whole passage perhaps or a plan ready to be realized, will have surged into your consciousness.

p. 83: Have at hand a notebook or a box of slips.  Make a note without waking up too fully, without turning on the light, if possible, then fall back into the shadows.

p. 84: At other times, it is in the morning on first awaking, that the flashes comes…Take a good look at this utterly new spectacle, and do not lose a moment before fixing its broad outlines; note down its leading features, its turning points, enough to determine all the details when you have time to come back to it.  Every thinker has experienced instances of early morning lucidity that are sometimes surprising, almost miraculous.

p.86: Call to your mind as you fall asleep–entrust to God and to your own soul–the question that is preoccupying you, the idea that is slow in developing its virualities, or that eludes your grasp.  Do not make any effort that will delay sleep; nature keeps watch; God keeps watch, and tomorrow I shall gather a little of the fruit of their work.

p.89: Whatever prayer he chooses, that of the intellectual should empathize for a moment what is especially appropriate to himself….In these forms of words and in others, the intellectual finds his needs expressed, reminds himself of his or her task; and he can, without isolating his or her specialty from Christian life as a whole, profit by what is providentially deposited for him in the common treasure.

p.99: The time of the thinker, when he really uses it, is in reality charity to all; only thus do we appreciate it properly.

The Intellectual Habits of Barack Obama

book-obamaMichiko Kaktutani of The New York Times has published an amazing article about Barack Obama’s habits of reading and writing during his days in the White House.  Obama is, at heart, a humanist–a man of ideas and a student of the human condition.  I am struck by Obama’s commitment to this kind of thinking, reading and writing amidst the daily rigors of running the United States.  He is a President who refused to be intellectual stagnant. He was constantly replenishing his mind with new ways of thinking about the world. He regularly used books to cultivate empathy in his life–to “get in somebody else’s shoes.”

I love what Obama says about history:

The writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Obama found, were “particularly helpful” when “what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating.” “So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.” There is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and sometimes, in the evening, Mr. Obama says, he would wander over from his home office to read it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  If Obama could sustain this kind of intellectual life in the White House then we have no excuse when it comes to sustaining it in our own busy lives.