Liberal Arts on the Farm


The teachers who attend the Gilder-Lehrman Princeton seminar on colonial America read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  One teacher took the assignment very seriously.

Back in 2003 I coined the phrase “rural Enlightenment” in an article in The Journal of American History.  Five years later, I defined this phrase more fully in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (now available at Amazon at 68% off with free shipping). In this article and book I tried to show that “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron in eighteenth-century America.  I traced Fithian’s attempt to pursue an intellectual life amid the rural confines of his southern New Jersey home.  Fithian managed to combine the pursuit of an educated life in the midst of harvesting grain, making apple cider, and building sluices along the Cohansey River.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Samford University history professor Anthony Minnema reflects on the relationship between Christian colleges, the liberal arts, and farm work.  He asks: “If perhaps we’ve too long looked at the liberal arts as coffee shops and quads, what about the farm?”  Here is a taste of his post:

Work colleges and programs come in many shapes and sizes, but all offer discounted or even no tuition in exchange for a commitment of 10-15 hours of work per week. The exchange of work for tuition would go a long way to address the perception of elitism. The need to create work opportunities for these students also led these colleges to create majors in agricultural science and sustainability before these programs became popular, which undermines the accusation that LACs are impractical and divorced from the working world. The more successful work colleges, such as Berea College and College of the Ozarks, emphasize their working environment as a recruitment tool and describe themselves as a place to learn and work. A quick perusal of statistics indicates that work colleges enjoy near-parity of men and women (45-55), likely because the rhetoric of a work program and the majors that sustain it have historically been more appealing to men. More speculatively, I suspect that the work-program creates a sense of ownership for students and alumni that most LACs’ advancement offices would envy, since it changes the narrative of the ask from “Please continue giving to the college on top of your debt” to “How much was this education worth to you?” The donor base of the Christian liberal arts college (to say nothing of the corporate world), which tends more toward conservative values, might donate gladly to an institution that requires some or all of its students to work.

How might a work program interact with the liberal arts and Christian mission of a college? The relationship to both is surprisingly close. All colleges within the Work College Consortium describe themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and many retain a Great Books program. (Indeed, students might be more apt to discuss virtue ethics if they’ve just come in from a morning of work.) All but one of the work colleges I found possess a Christian history or tradition and still use the language of Christian service in their mission statements. Several couch their sustainability efforts in terms of stewardship. Thus, the work program might help Christian LACs make good on their claims to be places that foster faith, learning, and service.

So how to create the Christian liberal arts work college from scratch? What I would like to see exists as a two-year program in California at Deep Springs College. It’s a very small program (20-30 students) that boasts an impressive track record for its graduates according to a 2017 Economist article. It emphasizes rigorous liberal arts with a work college component, and until recently was open only to men, but lacks the faith component.

Read the entire piece here.  Interesting.

One and Done

jmm16In case you haven’t seen the First Round results in the 2016 Junto March Madness tournament, my article “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian’s Rural Enlightenment (JAH 2003lost to Jon Butler’s “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Intepretive Fiction,” (JAH 1982).  Butler received 58% of the vote.  I received 42%.

Here is a taste of the Junto results summary:

It was an interesting first round, everybody. 168 of you voted, which, as you’ll see, was a real problem in one of our brackets. Upsets occurred in every category, and we had our first ever March Madness tie. Read on for your results!In the Atlantic World, Warsh surged at the end to defeat Gould. Things got complicated, as they tend to, in the Gender bracket, where Camp and Hughes Dayton tied (more on how we’re dealing with this, below). In Economic and Social History Rao smoked Hartog, and in the American Revolution Brown beat out Jasanoff. The History of Ideas had two upsets; Junto supporter Fea lost to Butler, despite a strong Twitter game, and Kloppenberg lost to Grasso. In Native American history Barr upset Greer, and in Slavery and Race Formation Waldstreicher just beat out Johnson. Our Historiography and Theory bracket was the only bracket in which the seeds performed as anticipated. It’s shaping up to be an exciting tournament!

I am still not sure how my article received a #1 seed in the “History of Ideas” category.  It is perhaps even stranger that Butler’s article received a #8 seed.  So I guess, technically, the Butler victory was an “upset.”  Although any early American scholar worth his or her salt knows that Butler was the favorite.

Oh well.  We made a nice run.  Thanks to everyone who voted for Philip Vickers Fithian and the “rural Enlightenment.”  I hope that everyone who voted for my article will now throw their support behind Butler in the “History of Ideas” bracket.  His 1982 article really did shape the field.


Did You Vote Today?

The last I checked there are no presidential primaries scheduled for today.

But there is still voting to be done.  Head over to the Junto blog and cast your vote for the best academic journal article published in the field of early American history. And when you are there, help us pull off what just might be the greatest upset in the history of academia!



Not sure what these tweets mean?  Click here.

The “Rural Enlightenment” Lands a Spot in the Junto March Madness Tournament

jmm16My 2003 Journal of American History article “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian’s Rural Enlightenment” landed a spot in the 2016 Junto blog’s March Madness tournament focuses on journal articles.

We landed in the “History of Ideas” bracket as the #1 seed!  We are thrilled with our seed, even though I really don’t understand how it happened since James Kloppenberg, Gordon Wood, Daniel Walker Howe, Trish Loughran, Natalie Caron, and Naomi Wulf are also in this bracket.

Actually, I think the committee at the Junto is playing a cruel trick on me.  Our first round opponent is Jon Butler’s “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” Butler’s 1982 Journal of American History article has to be one of the most cited articles in recent history.  How can I compete?  I feel like Lincoln Chaffee or Jim Gilmore.

And why is Butler’s article an 8th seed?  Also, how can I rally my readers to support my “rural Enlightenment” article as a dark horse candidate when we are a #1 seed?

OK, enough griping.  We have our task before us. It is time to pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of Junto March Madness.  Stay tuned.

The Junto March Madness Tournament is Back

Junto MarchThis year, the good folks at The Junto blog are focusing their annual March Madness tournament on journal articles.  Head over to the Junto and nominate your three favorite early American history articles.

And don’t forget to nominate:

John Fea, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian’s Rural Enlightenment,” Journal of American History 90:2 (September 2003).

Let’s see how far the coining of the phrase “rural Enlightenment” can take us. As I have done in previous Junto tournaments, I am organizing my ground game.  I am hoping the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog will rise up from the grass roots and carry Fithian and the “rural Enlightenment” to 1). A spot in the tournament field and 2). at least a first round upset.  🙂

Here is how it works, from the Junto blog:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year here at The Junto, or the month of March Madness! As faithful readers will know, each year we engage in a spirited tournament of voting in some category related to early American history. Last year, it was primary sources. Find out what this year’s theme will be after the jump.

This time around, we’ve decided that our tournament will focus on journal articles. Here are our two big reasons for this decision: 1) for many of our students, articles are cheaper than books because they’re free. Articles become a way for students to get a taste of an author’s larger contribution and historiographical intervention. 2) Although we recognize that scholarly journals can and do pose access issues to non-academics, many journals are taking important steps to improve access, and we’re hoping that the tournament encourages further sharing of articles (on which, more soon!).

Nominations open today and close on Sunday at 5 p.m. EST. Check out the rules below and then add your nominations and seconds in the Comments section. Then, by the power of The Junto‘s bracketologists, we’ll put together tournament brackets, announce the brackets, and open it up for your votes in the very near future.

The Rules

1) Journal articles can be old or very recent, but should have appeared in a journal rather than an edited collection. If a journal article has been reprinted in an edited collection, however, please mention that in your nomination because it will make it easier for additional people to read it. As with last year, the point of this exercise is to create a giant list of sources–in this case, secondary sources–for research and teaching that encourage us all to think about access issues and how to be good historians.

2) All nominations must be made in the Comments section of this post.

3) If would be helpful if, in your nomination, you included one line about each of the articles you’re nominating. Do you use it for teaching? Did it make you rethink a particular historical moment? Tell us why you care about the article!

4) We ask that you nominate a maximum of three articles that have not yet been nominated. You may also “second” the nomination of three other articles that have already been nominated. If you were going to nominate articles already mentioned you may do so and they will be tallied as seconds.

5) Want to participate in extra nerding out on Twitter? Use the hashtag #JuntoMM16 (because, er, #JMM16 has been taken over by STEM people).

NB: Essentially, each voter can nominate and second up to six articles but only three can be new nominations. Given the number of comments posted last year, please state explicitly which of your articles count as nominations, and which count as seconds. (To see if one of your choices has already been nominated, go to Edit->Find in your browser and type in the name of the primary source.)

The Disclaimer

Like last year’s tournament, this is all meant to be taken in a spirit of fun. This tournament is not meant to bestow any kind of value judgment on individual works. If anything, it may be a reflection of the “favorite” articles of our readers; but that should not be thought of as implying that it reflects what our readers or this blog think is the “best” article. Last year’s competition inspired lots of interesting and entertaining conversations, and this year we’re hoping to hear from even more of you. We’ll be interspersing the tournament, and following it up, with reflections on articles and their place in the historical profession. Please feel free to join in in the comments, or to use the Twitter hashtag.

The Rural Enlightenment Today

It was about ten years ago when I first talked publicly about what I have called the “rural Enlightenment.” I was presenting a paper on the subject at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn when a graduate student remarked how there were a large number of early American history job openings that year located in rural or remote colleges and universities. With the potential of so many intellectuals moving to locations in “fly over country,” this Ivy League Ph.D candidate seemed to find the concept of “rural Enlightenment” a helpful way to think about his future employment.

I was also on the market that year and, fortunately, had several job offers to choose from. Some of the offers were quite good–at least by the standards of the academic guild. In the end, I chose Messiah College. I have yet to regret the choice and I still cannot imagine leading an academic life anywhere else.

I think Thomas Hart Benton, a.k.a. William Pannapacker, understands what I mean by the “rural Enlightenment.” I think he also may understand why I teach at Messiah. I have been reading Benton’s Chronicle of Higher Education columns for several years now and, though we have never met, I find him a kindred spirit. The other day a fellow blogger called my attention to Benton’s recent piece, “Growing Where You Are.” As I read this essay, I really thought that Benton was describing my life and my approach to the academic vocation.

For example, Benton writes:

Of course, academics are not alone in that experience; the push-pull of social and economic change is a longstanding condition of modern life. Like almost everyone, we are torn between our desire for opportunity and the arguably natural human impulse to be connected deeply to places and people.

This, of course, is the thesis of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Benton again:

Many of us in academe live without the basic anchors of existence that have reassured the vast majority of human beings for millennia. How could we not find ourselves, at least for a time, living in a state of emotional and spiritual brokenness, in the aftermath of repeated dislocations?

Benton offers a powerful, but very countercultural, way of thinking about an academic life. Since I have been at Messiah College I have had a few chances to leave for “bigger” or “better” opportunities. But I have always tried to weigh such opportunities against the things that would be lost by leaving the place that is slowly becoming my new “home,” and the only “home” that my children know. I have come to conclude, as a friend of mine once told me, that the burden of proof should be on “leaving” rather than “staying.” My two daughters do not and will not wear New Jersey working class roots as badges of honor. They are the children of a middle-class college professor. Their home is south-central Pennsylvania.

Thanks again, Thomas Hart Benton!