Mark Schwehn on Mr. Rogers

Rogers Fred

Many readers of this blog will know Mark Schwehn of Valparaiso University from his book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. He is also the co-editor, with Dorothy Bass, of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be.

Here is a taste of his Christian Century piece, “Why there is no quest for the historical Mr. Rogers”:

As with Jesus, accounts of Fred Rogers’s life and work vary widely. Very few among us had access to the real Rogers. We mostly have texts—both visual and verbal. And although the variations among these are worth pondering, not one writer to date has said something like this: Well, we really cannot be moved by Fred Rogers’s life or seek to emulate what he stood for until we can have sure access to the real Fred Rogers behind all of the verbal and visual representations of him.

Read the entire piece here.

Exiles from Eden


The Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass Revise *Leading Lives That Matter*

Leading LivesMark Schwehn writes at NetVue blog:

The anthology Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (LLTM) has been widely used by faculty and students at NetVUE schools as a collection of texts that can be used to guide and stimulate the exploration of vocation. The book, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2006), includes a wide variety of selections — poems, short stories, essays, speeches, obituaries, screenplays, and excerpts from longer works — drawn from both religious and secular sources.

The editors are now developing a second edition, and they seek your advice.

Read how you can help with the second edition by clicking here.

Mark Schwehn Remembers Arlin Meyer, the “Gentle Giant” of Valparaiso University

Arlin and Sharobn

Arlin and Sharon Meyer

Arlin Meyer of Valparaiso University served as the Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts from 1992-2002.  I was a postdoctoral fellow in this program from 2000-2002.  My experience as a Lilly Fellow remains a deeply transformative moment in my professional life.

Everyone has an Arlin Meyer story.  I have many–too many to mention here.  I tell them often.  In fact, I was just talking about him the other day while sitting at the dinner table with my wife and daughter.

Arlin passed away in February 2017.  Here is what I wrote on Facebook in the wake of his death:

I am saddened to learn that Arlin Meyer, longtime Valparaiso University English prof and founding Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Arts and Humanities, passed away today. My kids (one has gone off to Arlin’s alma mater, Calvin College) will always remember Arlin’s candy jar in the Linwood House. I will always remember him as a beloved mentor who taught me most of what I know about the world of church-related higher education. (And recommended me to Messiah College). I will never forget sitting in my Linwood House office with Arlin on the morning of 9-11-01 listening to the radio and trying to make sense of it all. RIP. My prayers are with Sharon and his family.

I was unable to make the funeral, but I am glad that The Cresset has published Mark Schwehn‘s eulogy.

Here is a taste:

This hands-on administrative style extended well beyond his twelve years as dean of Christ College into his equally long tenure as the founding program director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. In addition to having to build a national network of church-related colleges and universities, which now numbers around 100, Arlin selected, supported, and mentored scores of Lilly postdoctoral teaching fellows. Five such fellows were present at the colloquium this past Monday. And the book I mentioned that we were studying together was co-authored by a woman whom Arlin had recruited to serve on the board of the Lilly Fellows Program.

Like some of the undergraduates in Christ College, the postdoctoral teaching fellows were sometimes startled or intimidated by Arlin. More than one new Lilly Fellow suddenly discovered, on the summer day they were moving into their house in Valparaiso, Arlin Meyer standing in their as-yet unfurnished living room. Astonished of course, and expecting the worst—i.e., that Arlin had come over to inform them that their fellowship had been revoked—they soon became relieved and pleased to learn that Arlin had simply dropped in unannounced to help them move into their new home. He probably carried too many couches in his life. And too many other burdens better borne by others, as well.

RIP Arlin.

What is a Liberal Arts Education?: Risk and Wisdom

One of the books on my shelf that I return to regularly is Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Since I first read it during preparation for my interview with the Schwehn-led “Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso, it has become an indispensable guide for thinking about what I am supposed to be doing as an academic in the context of the liberal arts college.

There is a lot I could say about this book, but the most inspiring part of it is Schwehn’s discussion of the role of risk and wisdom in the educational process, especially as it relates to teaching texts. We devoted class today to a discussion of Frederick Douglass’s slave Narrative. Douglass’s quest for learning in the midst of antebellum slavery speaks to the transformative power of a liberal-arts education. I used the opportunity presented by the text to go off on a bit of a tangent about the way ideas can change our lives.

Education, Schwehn argues, requires risk. Real education only occurs when we are prepared to “abandon some of our most cherished beliefs.” Notice that Schwehn is not saying a liberal-arts education requires us to abandon cherished beliefs, but it does require us to be prepared to do so.

As Schwehn puts it:

The quest for knowledge of the truth, if it takes place in a context of communal conversation, involved the testing of our own opinions. And we must, of course, be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true, if genuine learning is to take place. At times, this will be easy, as when we learn that we were mistaken about some geographical detail or another. But much of our self-knowledge as well as our beliefs about what is truly good for us are not simply matters of what we know but matters of who we are. We thus often risk ourselves when we test our ideas.

Unfortunately, too many students today are unwilling to engage in the kind of risk-taking that is essential to education. Many of the students I teach at Messiah, and especially their parents, do not understand what education at a liberal arts institution is all about. They think that college is a place where “cherished beliefs” should be not be challenged, but affirmed. They want to have a four year experience in which they are told that everything they have ever believed about life, God, society, etc… is true. If this is what college is about, then what is the point? Students can participate on championship sports teams, make friends, have meaningful social experiences, find a spouse, play in the band, or learn certain specialized and technical skills, but I wonder: will they really be educated? Why not just send students to vocational schools so they can gain the necessary knowledge needed to do this or that job and live a comfortable middle-class life.

Having said that, I think it is essential that this kind of education–the kind of learning that truly transforms–happen in a safe environment where students can work through this transformative time in their life with caring professors who love them and want to walk alongside of them. This, it seems to me, is the genius of a small, residential, liberal arts college. For the students who come to Messiah College, it is what makes their college experience “Christian.”

Please don’t misread me. The kind of transformative liberal arts education I am talking about here does not mean that students must always abandon their most cherished beliefs in order to be truly educated. This is why wisdom is so important to the process. While education certainly requires a willingness to “surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion,” wisdom, as Schwehn puts it “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

In other words, and I hope I am being true to Schwehn here, real education happens when students are so engaged with a new idea that they lose sleep over it. They lose sleep because they take the idea seriously. They wrestle with whether or not they can incorporate it into their own way of viewing the world. They discuss it with others in Junto-like communities of friends. In the end, sometimes wisdom leads them to embrace this new idea because they conclude that it is true. Sometimes wisdom leads them to reject the idea, because they conclude that it is not true. They should be warned that such a process can, at times, be painful.

Many may think this is a very impractical or even “pie-in-the-sky” approach to college education. And I agree– year by year this kind of education seems more and more difficult. But if I did not believe it was possible I would probably stop teaching.