Why do narratives of decline have such perennial appeal in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities? Why is it, year after year, meeting after meeting, we hear laments about the good old days and predictions of ever worse days to come? Why is such talk especially common in elite institutions where, by many indicators, liberal education is doing quite well, thank you very much. I think I know why. The opportunity is just too ripe for the prophets of doom and gloom to pass up.
There is a certain warmth and comfort in being inside the “last bastion of the liberal arts,” as B.A. Scott characterized prestigious colleges and research universities in his collection of essays The Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis (NY Praeger, 1990). The weather outside may be frightful, but inside the elite institutions, if not “delightful,” it’s perfectly tolerable, and likely to remain so until retirement time.
Narratives of decline have also been very useful to philanthropy, but in a negative way. As Tyler Cowen recently noted in The New York Times, “many donors … wish to be a part of large and successful organizations -- the ‘winning team’ so to speak.” They are not eager to pour out their funds in order to fill a moat or build a wall protecting some isolated “last bastion.” Narratives of decline provide a powerful reason not to reach for the checkbook. Most of us in the foundation world, like most other people, prefer to back winners than losers. Since there are plenty of potential winners out there, in areas of pressing need, foundation dollars have tended to flow away from higher education in general, and from liberal education in particular.
But at the campus level there’s another reason for the appeal of the narrative of decline, a genuinely insidious one. If something goes wrong the narrative of decline of the liberal arts always provides an excuse. If course enrollments decline, well, it’s just part of the trend. If students don’t like the course, well, the younger generation just doesn’t appreciate such material. If the department loses majors, again, how can it hope to swim upstream when the cultural currents are so strong? Believe in a narrative of decline and you’re home free; you never have to take responsibility, individual or collective, for anything having to do with liberal education.
There’s just one problem. The narrative of decline is about one generation out of date and applies now only in very limited circumstances. It’s true that in 1890, degrees in the liberal arts and sciences accounted for about 75 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded; today the number is about 39 percent, as Patricia J. Gumport and John D. Jennings noted in “Toward the Development of Liberal Arts Indicators” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005). But most of that decline had taken place by 1956, when the liberal arts and sciences had 40 percent of the degrees.
Since then the numbers have gone up and down, rising to 50 percent by 1970, falling to 33 percent by 1990, and then rising close to the 1956 levels by 2001, the last year for which the data have been analyzed. Anecdotal evidence, and some statistics, suggest that the numbers continue to rise, especially in Research I universities.
For example, in the same AAA&S report ("Tracking Changes in the Humanities) from which these figures have been derived, Donald Summer examines the University of Washington (“Prospects for the Humanities as Public Research Universities Privatize their Finances”) and finds that majors in the humanities have been increasing over the last few years and course demand is strong.
The stability of liberal education over the past half century seems to me an amazing story, far more compelling than a narrative of decline, especially when one recognizes the astonishing changes that have taken place over that time: the vast increase in numbers of students enrolled in colleges and universities, major demographic changes, the establishment of new institutions, the proliferation of knowledge, the emergence of important new disciplines, often in the applied sciences and engineering, and, especially in recent years, the financial pressures that have pushed many institutions into offering majors designed to prepare students for entry level jobs in parks and recreation, criminal justice, and now homeland security studies. And, underlying many of these changes, transformations of the American economy.
The Other, Untold Story
How, given all these changes, and many others too, have the traditional disciplines of the arts and sciences done as well as they have? That would be an interesting chapter in the history of American higher education. More pressing, however, is the consideration of one important consequence of narratives of decline of the liberal arts.
This is the “last bastion” mentality, signs of which are constantly in evidence when liberal education is under discussion. If liberal education can survive only within the protective walls of elite institutions, it doesn’t really make sense to worry about other places. Graduate programs, then, will send the message that success means teaching at a well-heeled college or university, without any hint that with some creativity and determination liberal education can flourish in less prestigious places, and that teaching there can be as satisfying as it is demanding.
Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2000, as part of a larger initiative to strengthen undergraduate liberal education, Grand Valley State University, a growing regional public institution in western Michigan, decided to establish a classics department. Through committed teaching, imaginative curriculum design, and with strong support from the administration, the department has grown to six tenured and tenure track positions with about 50 majors on the books at any given moment. Most of these are first-generation college students from blue-collar backgrounds who had no intention of majoring in classics when they arrived at Grand Valley State, but many have an interest in mythology or in ancient history that has filtered down through popular culture and high school curricula. The department taps into this interest through entry-level service courses, which are taught by regular faculty members, not part timers or graduate students.
That’s a very American story, but the story of liberal education is increasingly a global one as well. New colleges and universities in the liberal arts are springing up in many countries, especially those of the former Soviet Union.
I don’t mean that the spread of liberal education comes easily, in the United States or elsewhere. It’s swimming upstream. Cultural values, economic anxieties, and all too often institutional practices (staffing levels, salaries, leave policies and research facilities) all exert their downward pressure. It takes determination and devotion to press ahead. And those who do rarely get the recognition or credit they deserve.
But breaking out of the protective bastion of the elite institutions is vital for the continued flourishing of liberal education. One doesn’t have to read a lot of military history to know what happens to last bastions. They get surrounded; they eventually capitulate, often because those inside the walls squabble among themselves rather than devising an effective breakout strategy. We can see that squabbling at work every time humanists treat with contempt the quantitative methods of their scientific colleagues and when scientists contend that the reason we are producing so few scientists is that too many students are majoring in other fields of the liberal arts.
The last bastion mentality discourages breakout strategies. Even talking to colleagues in business or environmental studies can be seen as collaborating with the enemy rather than as a step toward broadening and enriching the education of students majoring in these fields. The last bastion mentality, like the widespread narratives of decline, injects the insidious language of purity into our thinking about student learning, hinting that any move beyond the cordon sanitaire is somehow foul or polluting and likely to result in the corruption of high academic standards.
All right, what if one takes this professed concern for high standards seriously? What standards, exactly, do we really care about and wish to see maintained? If it’s a high level of student engagement and learning, then let’s say so, and be forthright in the claim that liberal education is reaching that standard, or at least can reach that standard if given half a chance. That entails, of course, backing up the claim with some systematic form of assessment.
That provides one way to break out of the last bastion mentality. One reason that liberal education remains so vital is that when properly presented it contributes so much to personal and cognitive growth. The subject matter of the liberal arts and sciences provides some of the best ways of helping students achieve goals such as analytical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression, problem solving, and alertness to moral complexity, unexpected consequences and cultural difference. These goals command wide assent outside academia, not least among employers concerned about the quality of their work forces. They are, moreover, readily attainable through liberal education provided proper attention is paid to “transference.” “High standards” in liberal education require progress toward these cognitive capacities.
Is it not time, then, for those concerned with the vitality of liberal education to abandon the defensive strategies that derive from the last bastion mentality, and adopt a new and much more forthright stance? Liberal education cares about high standards of student engagement and learning, and it cares about them for all students regardless of their social status or the institution in which they are enrolled.
There is, of course, a corollary. Liberal education can’t just make the claim that it is committed to such standards, still less insist that others demonstrate their effectiveness in reaching them, unless those of us in the various fields of the arts and sciences are willing to put ourselves on the line. In today’s climate we have to be prepared to back up the claim that we are meeting those standards. Ways to make such assessments are now at hand, still incomplete and imperfect, but good enough to provide an opportunity for the liberal arts and sciences to show what they can do.
That story, I am convinced, is far more compelling than any narrative of decline.
In a variety of arenas, from politics to high schools, from colleges to the military, Americans argue as though the proper face-to-face discussion in our society ought to be between religion and science. This is a misunderstanding of the taxonomy of thought. Religion and science are in different families on different tracks: science deals with is vs. isn’t and religion, to the extent that it relates to daily life, deals with should vs. shouldn’t.
These are fundamentally different trains. They may hoot at each other in passing, and many people attempt to switch them onto the same track (mainly in order to damage science), but this is an act of the desperate, not the thoughtful.
It is true that a portion of religious hooting has to do with is vs. isn’t questions, in the arena of creationism and its ancillary arguments. However, this set of arguments, important as it might be for some religious people, is not important to a great many (especially outside certain Protestant variants), while the moral goals and effects of religious belief are a far more common and widespread concern among many faiths. I was raised in Quaker meeting, where we had a saying: Be too busy following the good example of Jesus to argue about his metaphysical nature.
Until recently, most scientists didn’t bother trying to fight with religion; for the most part they ignored it or practiced their own faiths. However, in recent years Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have decided to enter the ring and fight religion face to face. The results have been mixed. I have read books by all of these authors on this subject, as well as the interesting 2007 blog exchange between Harris and Andrew Sullivan, one of the best writers active today and a practicing Catholic, and it is clear that a great deal of energy is being expended firing heavy ordnance into black holes with no likelihood of much effect.
The problem that the scientific horsemen face is that theirs is the language of is/isn’t. Their opponents (mostly Christians but by implication observant Jews and Muslims as well) don’t use the word “is” to mean the same thing. To a religious person, God is and that’s where the discussion begins. To a nonreligious scientist, God may or may not be, and that is where the discussion begins.
The two sides, postulating only two for the moment, are each on spiral staircases, but the stairs wind around each other and never connect: this is the DNA of unmeeting thoughts. Only shouting across the gap happens, and the filters of meaning are not aligned. That is why I don’t put much faith, you’ll pardon the expression, in this flying wedge of scientific lancers to change very many minds.
Dennett’s approach is quite different from the others at a basic level; he views religious people as lab rats and wants to study why they squeak the way they do. That way of looking at the issue seems insulting at first but is more honest and practical in that it doesn’t really try to change minds that are not likely to change.
But these arguments are the wrong ones at a very basic level, especially for our schools and the colleges that train our teachers. The contrapuntal force to religion, that force which is in the same family, if a different genus, speaks the same language in different patterns regarding the same issues. It is not science, it is philosophy. That is what our teachers need to understand, and this distinction is the one in which education colleges should train them.
Those of us who acknowledge the factual world of science as genuine and reject the idea of basing moral and “should” questions in the teachings of religion are left seeking an alternate source for sound guidance. Our own judgment based in experience is a strong basic source. The most likely source, the ‘respectable’ source with sound academic underpinnings that can refine, inform and burnish our judgment, is philosophy in its more formal sense.
The word “philosophy” conjures in many minds the image of dense, dismal texts written by oil lamp with made-up words in foreign languages, and far beyond mortal ken. In fact, many writers on philosophy are quite capable of writing like human beings; some of their books are noted below.
When we introduce more religious studies into our K-12 schools, as we must if people are ever to understand each other’s lives, the family of learning into which they must go also contains philosophy. It is this conversation, between the varieties of religious outlooks and their moral conclusions, and the same questions discussed by major philosophers, that needs to happen.
Philosophy is not all a dense, opaque slurry of incomprehensible language. Some excellent basic books are available that any reasonably willing reader can comprehend and enjoy. Simon Blackburn’s Think, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins’ A Passion for Wisdom and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe are some recent examples.
An older text providing a readable commentary on related issues is John Jay Chapman’s Religion and Letters, still in print in his Collected Works but hard to find in the original, single volume . Chapman wrote of changes in our school system that:
“It is familiarity with greatness that we need—an early and first-hand acquaintance with the thinkers of the world, whether their mode of thought was music or marble or canvas or language. Their meaning is not easy to come at, but in so far as it reaches us it will transform us. A strange thing has occurred in America. I am not sure that it has ever occurred before. The teachers wish to make learning easy. They desire to prepare and peptonize and sweeten the food. Their little books are soft biscuits for weak teeth, easy reading on great subjects, but these books are filled with a pervading error: they contain a subtle perversion of education. Learning is not easy, but hard: culture is severe.”
This, published in 1910, is remarkably relevant to education at all levels today. The idea that philosophy is too hard for high school students, which I doubt, simply means that we need to expect more of students all through K-12. Many of them would thank us.
Paul Kurtz’s Affirmations and my brother John Contreras’s Gathering Joy are interesting “guidebooks” that in effect apply philosophical themes in an informal way to people’s real lives. There are also somewhat more academic books that integrate what amount to philosophical views into daily life such as Michael Lynch’s True to Life: Why Truth Matters, physicist Alan Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious and the theologian John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.
Some of these are denser than others and not all are suited for public schools, but the ideas they discuss are often the same ideas discussed in the context of religions, and sometimes with similar language. It is this great weave of concepts that our students should be exposed to, the continuum of philosophical thought blended with the best that different religions have to offer.
The shoulds and shouldn’ts that are most important to the future of our society need to be discussed in colleges, schools and homes, and the way to accomplish this is to bring religions and philosophies back to life as the yin and yang of right and wrong. That is the great conversation that we are not having.
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at http://oregonreview.blogspot.com.
The deepening economic crisis has triggered a new wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes at America’s universities. Retrenchment is today’s watchword. For scholars in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the economic downturn will only exacerbate existing funding shortages. Even in more prosperous times, funding for such research has been scaled back and scholars besieged by questions concerning the relevance of their enterprise, whether measured by social impact, economic value or other sometimes misapplied benchmarks of utility.
Public funding gravitates towards scientific and medical research, with its more readily appreciated and easily discerned social benefits. In Britain, the fiscal plight of the arts and humanities is so dire that the Institute of Ideas recently sponsored a debate at King’s College London that directly addressed the question, “Do the arts have to re-brand themselves as useful to justify public money?”
In addition to decrying the rising tide of philistinism, some scholars might also be tempted to agree with Stanley Fish, who infamously asserted that humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” Fish rejected the notion that the humanities can be validated by some standard external to them. He dismissed as wrong-headed “measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perception, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination.”
There is little doubt that the value of the humanities and social sciences far outstrip any simple measurement. As universities and national funding bodies face painful financial decisions and are forced to prioritize the allocation of scarce resources, however, scholars must guard against such complacency. Instead, I argue, scholars in the social sciences, arts, and humanities should consider seriously how the often underestimated value of their teaching and research could be further justified to the wider public through substantive contributions to today’s most pressing policy questions.
This present moment is a propitious one for reconsidering the function of academic scholarship in public life. The election of a new president brings with it an unprecedented opportunity for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The meltdown of the financial markets has focused public attention on additional challenges of massive proportions, including the fading of American primacy and the swift rise of a polycentric world.
Confronting the palpable prospect of American decline will demand contributions from all sectors of society, including the universities, the nation’s greatest untapped resource. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s recently released rankings, the U.S. boasts 13 of the world’s top 20 universities, and 36 U.S. institutions figure in the global top 100. How can scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences make a difference at this crucial historical juncture? How can they demonstrate the public benefits of their specialist research and accumulated learning?
A report published by the British Academy in September contains some valuable guidance. It argues that the collaboration between government and university researchers in the social sciences and humanities must be bolstered. The report, “Punching Our Weight: the Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making” emphasizes how expanded contact between government and humanities and social science researchers could improve the effectiveness of public programs. It recommends “incentivizing high quality public policy engagement.” It suggests that universities and public funding bodies should “encourage, assess and reward” scholars who interact with government. The British Academy study further hints that university promotion criteria, funding priorities, and even research agendas should be driven, at least in part, by the major challenges facing government.
The British Academy report acknowledges that “there is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of research,” but contends that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
The report mentions several specific areas where researchers in the social sciences and humanities can improve policy design, implementation, and assessment. These include the social and economic challenges posed by globalization; innovative comprehensive measurements of human well-being; understanding and predicting human behavior; overcoming barriers to cross-cultural communication; and historical perspectives on contemporary policy problems.
The British Academy report offers insights that the U.S. government and American scholars could appropriate. It is not farfetched to imagine government-university collaboration on a wide range of crucial issues, including public transport infrastructure, early childhood education, green design, civil war mediation, food security, ethnic strife, poverty alleviation, city planning, and immigration reform. A broader national conversation to address the underlying causes of the present crisis is sorely needed. By putting their well-honed powers of perception and analysis in the public interest, scholars can demonstrate that learning and research deserve the public funding and esteem which has been waning in recent decades.
The active collaboration of scholars with government will be anathema to those who conceive of the university as a bulwark against the ever encroaching, nefarious influence of the state. The call for expanded university-government collaboration may provoke distasteful memories of the enlistment of academe in the service of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, a relationship which produced unedifying intellectual output and dreadfully compromised scholarship.
To some degree, then, skepticism toward the sort of government-university collaboration advocated here is fully warranted by the specter of the past. Moreover, the few recent efforts by the federal government to engage with researchers in the social sciences and humanities have not exactly inspired confidence.
The Pentagon’s newly launched Minerva Initiative, to say nothing of the Army’s much-criticized Human Terrain System, has generated a storm of controversy, mainly from those researchers who fear that scholarship will be placed in the service of war and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and produce ideologically distorted scholarship.
Certainly, the Minerva Initiative’s areas of funded research -- “Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and Terrorist perspective projects, religious and ideological studies," according to its Web site -- raise red flags for many university-based researchers. Yet I would argue that frustration with the Bush administration and its policies must not preclude a dispassionate analysis of the Minerva Initiative and block recognition of its enormous potential for fostering and deepening links between university research and public policy communities. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The Minerva Initiative, in a much-reformed form, represents a model upon which future university-government interaction might be built.
Cooperation between scholars in the social sciences and humanities and all of the government’s departments should be enhanced by expanding the channels of communication among them. The challenge is to establish a framework for engagement that poses a reduced threat to research ethics, eliminates selection bias in the applicant pool for funding, and maintains high scholarly standards. Were these barriers to effective collaboration overcome, it would be exhilarating to contemplate the proliferation of a series of “Minerva Initiatives” in various departments of the executive branch. Wouldn’t government policies and services -- in areas as different as the environmental degradation, foreign aid effectiveness, health care delivery, math and science achievement in secondary schools, and drug policy -- improve dramatically were they able to harness the sharpest minds and cutting-edge research that America’s universities have to offer?
What concrete forms could such university-government collaboration take? There are several immediate steps that could be taken. First, it is important to build on existing robust linkages. The State Department and DoD already have policy planning teams that engage with scholars and academic scholarship. Expanding the budgets as well as scope of these offices could produce immediate benefits.
Second, the departments of the executive branch of the federal government, especially Health and Human Services, Education, Interior, Homeland Security, and Labor, should devise ways of harnessing academic research on the Minerva Initiative model. There must be a clear assessment of where research can lead to the production of more effective policies. Special care must be taken to ensure that the scholarly standards are not adversely compromised.
Third, universities, especially public universities, should incentivize academic engagement with pressing federal initiatives. It is reasonable to envision promotion criteria modified to reward such interaction, whether it takes the form of placements in federal agencies or the production of policy relevant, though still rigorous, scholarship. Fourth, university presidents of all institutions need to renew the perennial debate concerning the purpose of higher education in American public life. Curricula and institutional missions may need to align more closely with national priorities than they do today.
The public’s commitment to scholarship, with its robust tradition of analysis and investigation, must extend well beyond the short-term needs of the economy or exigencies imposed by military entanglements. Academic research and teaching in the humanities, arts and social sciences plays a crucial role in sustaining a culture of open, informed debate that buttresses American democracy. The many-stranded national crisis, however, offers a golden opportunity for broad, meaningful civic engagement by America’s scholars and university teachers. The public benefits of engaging in the policy-making process are, potentially, vast.
Greater university-government cooperation could reaffirm and make visible the public importance of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
Not all academic disciplines lend themselves to such public engagement. It is hard to imagine scholars in comparative literature or art history participating with great frequency in such initiatives.
But for those scholars whose work can shed light on and contribute to the solution of massive public conundrums that the nation faces, the opportunity afforded by the election of a new president should not be squandered. Standing aloof is an unaffordable luxury for universities at the moment. The present conjuncture requires enhanced public engagement; the stakes are too high to stand aside.
Gabriel Paquette is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University.
OK, so, into a bar walk an Anglican priest, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like a ramp to punch line, right? No. That was my panel last month at the 20th anniversary of the Oxford Round Table, at the University of Oxford, England.
Apparently, a peek behind the veil of ORT is needed. Recent posts in the academic blogosphere about this invitation-only academic symposium feature adulation for the intelligencia it attracts and castigation of Oxford for trading on its name for summer business, like some sort of pedagogical Judas.
Fact is, they’re both right. Mind, matter and merger summarize why the event both enchanted and irritated me.
Mind Over Matter
Firstly, pundits need not dismiss its scholarly girth. Formidable participants do darken the doors. My symposium, “Religion and Science After Darwin -- Effects on Christians and Muslims” -- featured sessions with distinguished thinkers in physics, biology, religion and law from all the intellicrat schools you might imagine: Oxford, Harvard, Boston U., UNC-Chapel Hill, Rutgers, etc. It’s not every day you spend time with David Browning (icon for Christian-Islamic comity), Robert Neville (23 books and counting), Amedee Turner (European Parliament while the Euro was established), or the ardent atheist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).
Further stamps of legitimacy on the program include ORT Trustee Charles Mould, former secretary of Oxford’s 400-year-old, 11 million volume Bodleian Library, and a 16-member advisory committee of university presidents and rectors from eight countries. Also, the manuscripts in its blind reviewed journal, Forum on Public Policy, bear characteristics of quality.
However, since the program began in 1989 with ministers of education from 20 countries, an internalized invitation system eroded to include mid-level researchers or engaged academics like me from teaching institutions -- from ministers of education to an educator with ministerial credentials (and a few relevant publications). Try to tame the jokes for Darwinian devolution.
The intellectual temperature was warm, not hot. This is where I’m supposed to say, “but all were meaningful contributors.” Truth is, some members of our panel were alien to the work, sending more than one head scratching. The good news is that neither title, institution type, or academic discipline were the indicators. Candid confrontation carried the day, based on the quality of ideas. I’m the better for hearing it all. (I’m supposed to say that, too).
As for how aliens gather, one candid comment by an event organizer confessed that the University of Oxford bills the ORT organization heavily for use, and like most universities in modern economy Oxford depends on summer conference “hotel” business to get by.
The ORT itself is, of course, a business (albeit nonprofit), which explains why they folded two smaller symposia into one fumbling theme. That irked me. It was like bringing a fruitcake to a wine and cheese party. I was dressed for interfaith democracy since 9/11. Others came with erudite philosophies of science.
Most organizations can’t get away with last minute theme mergers, but the collective transfixion over a week at the world’s first English speaking university seems to place otherwise central concerns, like the event purpose (!), out of mind for most participants.
Matter Over Mind: Pub and Pulpit
Oh, but the place is intoxicating, and place matters. If space inspires thought or ambition, the ORT venue should produce the most luminous luminaries on the planet. I’ll spare you predictable fawning over this medieval city, where every castle and cathedral issues such artisan care the place is fabled “the city of dreaming spires.” The point: ORT wouldn’t work in Albuquerque.
It’s not intention that the American Southwest lacks, but history, deep academic history, and the continuity one feels holding forth at an ancient lectern presided over by 800 years of political, scientific and religious savants.
Both pubs and pulpits nurtured greatness here for centuries. Their understated, six-inch plaques tagged across the city commemorate landmarks in a prevalence of meaning only Oxford could afford.
To the pub: on one side of town is a tiny booth in The Eagle and Child tavern where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met every Tuesday for 25 years -- “the conversations that have taken place here," its plaque reads, "have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century literature,” from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings.
And to the pulpit: across town is an unassuming though well-crafted podium in a Gothic cathedral from which John Wesley preached his conversion story and launched the Methodist Movement that, in part, propelled my own institution into being. There brother Charles penned hymns now sung in every Christian church on the planet. In a word, cool.
The significance of location fits ORT, as described by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: Certain places reduce us to silence. They contain more than their objectivity. Sometimes you feel “inside an essential impression seeking expression.” And recall of such spaces, as I perform for you now, become not history -- “I was there” -- but a kind of poetry that memorializes moments. Bachelard says, “The great function of poetry is to shelter dreams.”
For too many academics, the dreams of significance are extinguished in a chemical bath of routine responsibilities (e.g. recommendation letters, grading, meetings). But such dreams require opportunities to perform. The University of Oxford’s space holds sufficient cachet to revive academic dreams, requiting love for elevated and sublime learning.
Mind and Matter Merger: Leaving in Tension
Alas, learning without tension is entertainment. Mind and matter merged for me during one session in the centuries-old Victorian Oxford Union Debate Chamber -- affectionately called “the last bastion of free speech in the world.” Recently, the Holocaust-denier David Irving and “sex-positive” community builder Joani Blank spun yarns. The likes of Yasser Arafat, Desmond Tutu, and a Kennedy or two are tossed in here and there. In that space all the tensions of the Oxford Round Table, real and symbolic, came together for me.
Standing at the podium was Dawkins. I’ve never been insulted with such kindness. He artfully delivered wink-and-smile sarcasm against bald jabs of theist stupidity, and appeared to relish the provocation. Had I not read some of his work, I would’ve thought it mere gamesmanship, superficial wordplay for positions not fully held.
Yet there’s a likability in him somehow, a most unexpected thing for me to feel as an evangelical Christian. I wished I had more time with him, but not in the way that morphed middle-aged scientists into giddy children after the Q & A, lining up hurriedly with the front flaps of their Dawkins books in one hand and autograph pen in another. Here was an orgy of secularism, loud and proud, baby.
Seated next to him in poetic paradox was the head-in-hand, the veteran Vicar Brian Mountford of millennia-aged University Church of St. Mary’s, original site for Oxford coursework, and the physical and spiritual hub of a city and campus with 40 chaplains. Twice per term, in fact, the “university sermon” is delivered here, dignitaries in tow.
Not only does this priest share the platform with Dawkins, shepherding souls in a landscape of logical positivism, but imagine this: He’s also Dawkins’s neighbor. What a delicious irony! That’s better than McDonalds and Burger King on the same corner.
Mountford reconciles this tension, in part, through self-described liberal theology. Our talk, his Spring sermons, and his book, Perfect Freedom: Why Liberal Christianity Might Be The Faith You’re Looking For, express: a “low view of the church” (it institutionalizes discipleship, stripping salvation of its freedoms); an “embrace of the secular” (the Church should not assume society is ethically less sophisticated than itself); soft judgment (“God would not condemn his creatures to eternal torment”); and the “championing of doubting Thomases on the fringe.” He sees this as being “more evangelical than the evangelicals” -- courting scoffers almost Socratically while provoking believers (“sermons send us to sleep because they are totally uncontroversial”).
But for me, a theological conservative, here strikes another strand of tension, beyond the ridiculing atheist “neighbor” we’re charged to love. Here is faith diverging between two likable people -- a theological gap Mountford once described as “chalk and cheese,” things that just don’t go well together.
Such was ORT for me: enchantment and irritation, the merger of chalk and cheese.
En route to the airport were two books under wing, Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
Agitations get me thinking. I’m the better for it, remember?
Gregg Chenoweth is vice president for academic affairs at Olivet Nazarene University, and practicing journalist for a variety of magazines and newspapers.