Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A few more thoughts on doom & revolution in the academy

My recent post, Prophets of doom and peddlers of revolution, discussed the difficult facts of structural problems in the humanities and how some people are proposing to respond to them. I didn't really offer much of substance, except to call certain discussions to peoples' attention and suggest that it is valuable to formulate some constructive intentions in response to hiring, funding, and other problems. Responses went in a number of directions, and I have not really responded to them, so I thought I'd bring together a few points here.

The Very Legitimacy of the Humanities
Although I hadn't really focused on questions of legitimacy that have been raised for the humanities, John brings up this particular aspect of the discussion. This has been a running theme at Vita Brevis, and John continues to educate me. His recent post links CHE and NYT articles on the matter, and also links to an extended post from Samuel of Lector et Auditor (more on that below). Also be sure to check out John's "On Pursuing a Career in the Humanities" from his series on religion/theology doctoral programs and his "Whither the Humanities?" on another recent NYT article.

Call off the revolution? (Or take it elsewhere, at least?)
Samuel has a very long post in response to these issues, and I'll say up front that I can't do it justice or respond to all of it here. In it he criticizes some of the assumptions and goals that have animated Adam Kotsko and my own passing-on of Adam's thoughts. The viability of fixing the system is questioned, and alternatives to the current values harbored by graduated students and young scholars are presented. A major suggestion that Samuel offers is that more PhD's should be considering teaching in a secondary school environment, and that this course shouldn't be shunned but rather embraced as an important contribution to the future of liberal education.

I think that Samuel offers a good counter to more drastic calls for change in the academy, and I agree with a lot of his points. I think that PhD's who go on to teach in high schools are a tremendous blessing to the system, and are making important use of their education that shouldn't be dismissed by the prestige complex that plagues academia. I strongly agree that people need to come to grips with the fact that there are too many doctoral students in many disciplines, and I think that the doctoral programs currently constricting their student intake will benefit from that policy in the long-run: doing so will release some pressure on the bottleneck and contribute to the quality of students that do end up going through doctoral studies. I also agree that a good deal of academia's problems have more to do with the constructed value system of scholars rather than with the institutions themselves.

That said...

With regard to the alternative possibility of secondary education, it is also important to remember that this system has problems of its own-- indeed, may be in more need of reform in the U.S. than higher education itself. That's not to say that it isn't a good idea to teach in these environments, but simply that structural problems will not go away with a shift to younger students, and that someone will have to write a similar blog post about peddling revolution in the younger grades.

Also, we shouldn't assume that callings to teach are necessarily the same for everyone. Elitism in the academy should not blind us to the fact that there are people who sincerely seek higher education as their vocation. For them, questions of the future structural viability of the academy are not simply self-justifications of a disordered value system, but rather responsible reflections on their vocational context. Some scholars have no wish to be high school teachers, and presumably those who teach high school should be there out of some vocational intentionality rather than simply as an alternative to university teaching.

An analogous situation is ministerial training and youth ministry... often (though this has changed as youth ministry programs in seminaries and colleges have sprouted up), parish youth ministry has been treated as a stepping stone-- as a place to sharpen the skills of the newly ordained before moving on to bigger and better things. This damages both the youth of a church and seminarians, because particular vocational callings are not being considered. In the same way, I would not want to see secondary schools as "the place that needs teachers and could benefit from products of the ivory tower who don't have anywhere else to go."

Returning to the university... for some scholars higher education is not merely a twister of personal values, but rather a place of learning that we do genuinely care about, and do wish to call our vocational home. These people should be concerned about reforming structural problems within the university, and should not be apologetic about their commitment to the institution or fall into the trap of believing that the Horowitzes of the world are the only... or even are!... viable challengers to the problems facing academia simply because they are external to it. There is an extent to which pitting a Socrates or a Kierkegaard (or some other lone vessel of the ideal of liberal thought) against the Academy is instructive and edifying for scholars. But at a certain point we either need to come to terms with the value of institutional scholarship and not feel sheepish about being passionate for its reform, or we should get on with it and work alone (which Samuel thinks is not an option... here I agree with him a good bit of the way, although I do think there are some options for independent scholars and that these options should also be nurtured. But that's another post).

Church and University
Finally, I'd like to address the issue of ministry and scholarship, and my personal intentions with regard to this dilemma. Samuel brings up the importance of teaching in the context of one's church in the same way that he brings up secondary education as an alternative to higher education. Tony Hunt has also responded rather pointedly to my original post that care for the education of clergy should take precedence over the university system. Finally, A.D. Ployd has joined us in these conversations and has also just started his own blog, devoted primarily to issues of "bridging the gap between the academic study of theology and the life of the Church".

I hope that I am sensitive to these concerns, and I don't wish to dismiss the centrality of the life of the Church for the work of theologians. But I do want to say here, as a matter of clarification, that on clavi non defixi my primary concern has been matters of academic theology and therefore of the academy. This is not because I think the academy is more important than the Church, any more than the hypothetical blog of a Christian devoted to antique cars would signal that antique cars are more important than the Church for that person. There are many other people who blog about theological matters with an emphasis on their ministry, or on the life of the Church. There are others, like A.D. Ployd, whose blogging concerns sit rather squarely in the middle of Church and Academy (or Between Athens and Jerusalem, as he so aptly titles it). And there are places like clavi non defixi that lean heavily towards academic matters.

This isn't to say that I don't welcome comments about matters of Church life here on the blog- I do! Further, I think these thoughts are important for challenging academic theologians and defining the scope of their work! But my niche as I write at clavi non defixi is decidedly and unapologetically within the academy- that's what I feel I can best contribute. That's why I've raised questions about the woes of academic institutions rather than the woes of church institutions.

...but back to the problem...

Genres of blogging aside, it may still be worth arguing, of course, that clergy should take priority in our minds over faculty. My response to that would probably be 1) there still needs to be a healthy system of institutional learning for clergy to attend, bringing us back to the original problem, and 2) like Samuel's appeal to high school teaching, we need to keep in mind the vocational integrity of professors... some are called to higher education rather than ministry in the same way that some are called there rather than to secondary education. The concerns of these people should not be deemed illegitimate or less legitimate simply because we can posit a competition between them and some other vocation. If there are problems with the academy it's probably worth asking how to fix them, regardless of the fact that there are problems in other places as well.

Thanks to all those who have offered their thoughts-- I look forward to future conversation and action on this.


  1. Good post, Evan. You've helped me think more deeply about these issues as I personally entertain future possibilities revolving around ministry and the academy.

  2. Great points all around. I certainly didn't mean to impugne the "Academy" per se. Though I do tend to agree with what Hauerwas said in the most recent edition of Modern Theology, and with James K.A. Smith questioning current Christian education and with the Roman Catholic belief that theology should come "from the heart of the Church."

    Graham Ward has some thoughts on being a professional theologian in a "secular" academic setting in an interview in "The Other Journal" -

  3. I'm looking forward to reading Ward's piece. I think that I used to stand more in the ecclesial position that you mention, but have gradually moved towards more secular notions of the academy... or better, I've become more pluralist about the matter. Because it's not as if I've rejected the importance of an ecclesial heart to academic discourse... I just don't think that proper academic work (and specifically theology) always needs to be housed in such a way.

  4. I think that's balanced Evan, as it maintains a very important distinction.

    For my part, I've swallowed the pill—whatever academic pursuits I undertake, I have to put them to use for the sake of Christ's church, if even in small way (e.g., teaching "Sunday school," etc.). This is a matter of duty in my mind as much, if not more so, than delight.

    I still must wonder, what if all the professional theologians out there did truly embrace the "importance of an ecclesial heart to academic discourse"? Surely it wouldn't eradicate critical work; but maybe it would lessen the amount of "heresy" floating about?

    Is "heresy" a word in modern academic discourse?