Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?
Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College
John Fea

Recently a thoughtful and influential blogger wrote a post addressing the subject of institutional loyalty among academics. When I first came across this post, I had a pretty good hunch about what to expect. The blogger, an Ivy-league trained American historian, began her post on loyalty with a picture of Buddy, Bill Clinton’s chocolate lab from his White House years. And the rest went downhill from there.

“Do we really owe our institutions loyalty?” she asked. “I feel loyalty to my friends and colleagues in academia because we have to stand together in intellectual and professional solidarity in a world that neither understands nor appreciates what we do… I feel loyalty to my students… because I have been entrusted with a part of their education, and I take the instruction and encouragement of young people very seriously. But I don’t feel particularly loyal to the institutions that have employed me” (Little, “Further Thoughts on Loyalty”).

This professor had good reasons not to be loyal to either of the institutions where she had taught—one a church-related college in the Midwest and the other a large state university in the West.  She had been treated poorly by mid-level administrators at both institutions, and this led her to conclude that, “In short, I have never seen an institution operate as though it were loyal to me. Why should I owe it loyalty?”

This Lockean (as in John Locke) version of institutional loyalty was echoed by those college and university professors who commented on her post. One respondent wrote, “I totally reject institutional loyalty. To my mind, scholars should think of themselves as independent contractors. We agree to provide services to an institution (that includes teaching, service, and scholarship) in exchange for compensation.” The one professor in the mix who did feel loyalty to his or her institution was quickly “shouted down” by the rest of the group. This professor was described as someone whose loyalty must have been “bought” by the administration with certain perks and benefits.

I learned a lot from reading this online conversation, but three things stood out most prominently. First, institutional loyalty, something I am beginning to feel toward the place where I have taught for the last eight years, is rare among academics. Second, academics’ loyalty to an institution of higher learning is conditional—it depends on whether or not they feel that they are being treated well by the administration. And third, loyalty grows weaker the higher one advances on the academic food chain. Faculty members at research universities (R1) who participated in this blog discussion seemed to take “a more entrepreneurial view of their careers” than those who taught at “smaller or regional colleges.”

Now I realize that there is nothing scientific about any of these conclusions. I may be completely wrong. After all, my “study” is based on observations from a group of largely secular academics, many of them disgruntled, who just happen to write things in the comment sections of blogs. (Since most academics I know are Luddites, this is indeed a very small sampling). Yet I still think that some of these issues might be worth exploring. Sometimes the failure of professors to show academic loyalty has nothing to do with the institution itself and everything to do with the quest for career advancement. This is the kind of ambition that we all learned in graduate school and imbibed as products of American culture. Such careerism often finds itself at odds with the understanding of vocation that many of us find in the theology of our Christian traditions.

One does not need to look very far to find commentary about the rootlessness of academics. Back in 1972 Vance Packard called college faculty the “nomads of the twentieth-century” (88). Columbia University historian William Leach, in his provocative little book Country of Exiles (1999), suggested that the quest for advancement and prestige in the academy has “modified the meaning of community for many faculty, detaching university livelihood from specific physical places and shaping it far more than it had ever been into something abstract (the academic community) to which anyone with credentials might belong and which could exist anywhere.” Leach writes about “a whole class of people who hated real places but loved the disembodied freedom of the academy” (125).

And what about our students? For them, loyalty to an institution of higher learning may not be the primary issue. I have found most college students to be fiercely loyal to their alma mater, and they carry this loyalty with them for the rest of their lives. But have you ever thought critically about the kind of education most college students in America are receiving?

Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh (2003) write that today’s colleges and universities promote an “education for homelessness.” The purpose of the university, they argue, has changed in the last fifty years. It is no longer a place committed to training men and women for local citizenship, but instead has become an institution made up of placeless PhDs who train young men and women to leave home, to abandon place, and to pull up roots. As the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry puts it in The Unsettling of America (1982): “It is characteristic of our present society that one does not think to improve oneself by becoming better at what one is doing or by assuming some measure of public responsibility in order to improve local conditions; one thinks to improve oneself by becoming different, by “moving up” to a “place of higher consideration” (159). 

This hit home a few years ago as I was reading some Theodor Geisel—we know him as Dr. Seuss—to my daughters. Consider for example Seuss’s classic Oh the Places You’ll Go. Published shortly before Geisel’s death in 1991, it reads like a Horatio Alger tale of self-improvement. It glorifies the individual right of choice in shaping one’s future: “You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” “You’re on your own / And you know what you know,” says the narrator, “And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” Even when troubles come (and they do), Seuss tells his young readers to expect to face them alone: “All Alone / whether you like it or not / Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.” Self-improvement can be an isolating endeavor.

Oh the Places You’ll Go is an American sermon. It draws upon an older, but still powerful, historiographical tradition that celebrated the making of Americans through the courage of the first colonists, the rugged individualism of westward migration, and the self-determination of immigrants. Like nineteenth-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s provocative and controversial interpretation of the American frontier, Oh the Places You’ll Go preaches that personal happiness comes through leaving home for more liberating spaces. If life does not yield the level of self-satisfaction that we might expect, then the narrator exhorts us to “head straight out of town…. It’s opener there, in the wide open air.” For Seuss (and Turner), “Out there” is where liberated individuals are made.

Midway through Oh the Places You’ll Go, Seuss describes the most dreadful of all places for Americans, “The Waiting Place.” It is here where people on the move get stuck. They stop being mobile and become confined to a specific locale where the pace of life is much slower. Patience, however, is not a virtue for those who are “off to great places.” If, for whatever reason, a “high flyer” is forced to land, he or she should not stay grounded for long. “NO!” the narrator proclaims, waiting is “not for you.” “Somehow you’ll escape / all that waiting and staying / You’ll find the bright places / where Boom Bands are playing.” The sermon closes with the promise of America: “And will you succeed? / Yes, you will indeed! / 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.”

Precisely because of its uplifting message of self-esteem and mobility, Oh the Places You’ll Go has enjoyed much commercial success. It has made annual appearances on best-selling book lists—especially during May and June when it has become a popular graduation gift. A quick look at the customer comments on the web pages of on-line booksellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon reveals its continuing popularity. The praise for the therapeutic philosophy behind the book is astounding. One customer wrote: “Dr. Seuss acknowledges in this book that sometimes when all options are unattractive, we need to head right out of town. And how right he is.” Another reader noted that Oh the Places You’ll Go would help people “escape those unhappy times for good times to come.” Yet another enthusiastic commenter concluded: “Next to the Bible this is my all time favorite book.” And one reviewer reaped the scorn of Amazon customers when he or she dared to call the premise behind the book “flawed” and criticized it for teaching his or her son that “if you don’t like where you are, get up and leave it all behind for great adventure….” Needless to say, only two of fifteen people found her review to be “helpful.”

As Bouma-Prediger and Walsh put it, too often the goal of education—even Christian education—is to “get on top and stay there” (56). Have you ever wondered or asked yourself, “What are Christians doing ‘on top’ of such a pile?” (1990, 26). Or, as Wendell Berry asks, is “up” the wrong direction? We are conditioned from grammar school to believe that our primary loyalty is to ourselves and our future careers and professions, and not to a particular place or community.

Such careerism, however, often co-exists with our quest for a home—academic or otherwise, a place that deserves our loyalty, or an institution in which we can invest our lives. As Scott Russell Sanders, in his book Staying Put (1993), has written: “Loyalty to a place arises from sources deeper than narcissism. It arises from our need to be at home on the earth” (13). In academic terms, Sanders is describing the search for an academic place that might bring meaning and purpose to our lives, a place where we can live out our vocations to love God with our minds, instill a passion for this kind of learning in our students, and contribute to something greater than our ambitions.

We academics—both professors and students—are pretty good at thinking about our “ways of improvement,” as defined by ambition, careerism, infidelity to our institutions, and loyalty to our disciplines and professions. But we do not talk often enough about how these “ways of improvement” might lead us “home.”


Which leads me to my title. I first examined this tension between ambition and local attachments as part of my vocation as a historian. My first book, entitled The Way of Improvement Leads Home (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008), was a biography—written somewhere at the intersection of intellectual, social, and cultural history—of an eighteenth-century, southern New Jersey farmer named Philip Vickers Fithian. Since Philip died a tragic death at the age of twenty-nine during the British invasion of Manhattan in the summer of 1776, very few people would know his story if it were not for the diaries and letters that he kept. These personal writings describe a young man torn between ambition and home, reason and passion, career and calling, and mobility and rootedness.

Indeed, no one was more aware of the tensions between ambition and local attachments than Philip. The need to reconcile the pursuit of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism with a passion for home or a desire for God was perhaps the greatest moral problem facing the newly educated sons of British American farmers. Philip learned quickly that his pursuit of a life of learning, a vocation in the educated ministry, and a call to serve God and his new country would require a degree of detachment from friends, family, and the very soil of his homeland. Yet, Philip’s cosmopolitan turn was incomprehensible apart from these social connections. It was the people, the religious culture, and even the very landscape of his rural New Jersey home that continued to hold Philip’s affection and that shaped—and transformed—all that he learned beyond its bounds. As a child of the American Enlightenment, Philip could rely on intellectual, religious, and social scaffolding that enabled him to live a life worthy of a man of letters and yet benefit from the virtues of his local attachments.

The so-called “theory” that informed this project never fully saw the light of day in my narrative. But I did read extensively in what historical and contemporary thinkers had to say about cosmopolitanism. I also read a host of agrarian writers, including Berry (I even managed to sneak Jayber Crow, Berry’s fictional barber, into the acknowledgements—a move that, as far as I know, went totally undetected at the University of Pennsylvania Press), and other “place” writers such as Walter Brueggemann, Wallace Stegner, and Yi-Fu Tuan. Finally, I read cultural critics of cosmopolitanism such as Christopher Lasch.

As I delved into the project more deeply, I learned that to be rational or educated in the eighteenth century one needed to direct one’s passions away from parochial concerns and toward a universal love of the human race. Educated people embraced cosmopolitanism. They championed ideas that belonged to all people and were not confined to a particular locale, region, or nation. The republic of letters was above all a rational republic with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions. Its best citizens maintained primary loyalty not to family, friends, faith, or land, but to an international commonwealth of humankind. They made choices for their lives that ultimately carried them—sometimes geographically, sometimes in imagination—away from home. As historian Gordon Wood has aptly put it, “local feelings were common to peasants and backwards peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world.” To be too wedded to local attachments was “a symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease” (1992, 221).

Yet in the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical, and I would argue, remains impractical today. Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, understood this when he wrote that cosmopolitanism has always existed “in compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interest, caste feeling, family pride, and even egoism” (quoted in Schlereth 1977, xiii).  As an American historian, I would also add Christian faith to that list. It is precisely these tensions that made Philip’s story, and our stories, so interesting and worthy of study and thought. I learned from my work on Philip Vickers Fithian that our pursuits of cosmopolitanism can be tempered by bouts of homesickness. Our efforts to cultivate reason are often undermined by passions, loves, and things that may appear to be irrational—things that modernity cannot explain. Our ambition, quest for self-improvement, and good old-fashioned American optimism have often been understood in the context of a sovereign God’s providential ordering of Creation and, more specifically, our lives.

The theorist in the ivory tower cannot argue with this. Recent scholarship on contemporary cosmopolitanism has largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called “home” or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Scholars now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism or a truly “placeless” individual does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship—the highest of all moral values—and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually-existing cosmopolitanism.”

Yet what if we understood local attachments or even institutional loyalty—and not world citizenship—as the necessary starting point in the constitution of a modern self? What if we participated in the world from the context of where we are situated, whether that is a geographical place, a religious tradition, or an understanding of ambition rooted in Christian vocation? What if instead of “rooted cosmopolitanism” we talked about “cosmopolitan rootedness?”

It would seem that these kinds of questions might be worth taking up by today’s gurus of higher education. For too long our default position in the so-called “academic community” has been one of independent contractor. While I was in graduate school we never saw future employment—if we could get it—in terms of digging in, participating in a community that over time we would become loyal to, or working toward the greater good of an institution. Instead, we were narcissists. We all believed that we would find jobs that would pay us to impart wisdom to students (but one in which we did not have to be in the classroom imparting wisdom too much) and write books and articles that would enhance our professional profile.  The goal was to be marketable, to be ready to move at any time. So we thought about us, we added line after line to our vitas, thought about the possibility of “publishing out” of a given college that was suppressing our ambition, and kept a constant eye on The Chronicle of Higher Education and H-NET for that bigger and better opportunity. Committee work, institutional service, or any sort of academic labor that contributed to the mission of our place of employment was a necessary burden that we had to grin and endure. I venture to say that this continues to be a major part of the rhetoric spewing forth from behind the doors of our beloved academic mentors.

It is important to note that such a vision of “cosmopolitan rootedness” may be, at first glance, at odds with the very nature of a liberal arts education—particularly a liberal arts education grounded in the arts and humanities.  How do we talk about rootedness, tradition, and “place” in the same discussion of “education,” a word that, in the Latin, literally means to “lead outward”? The defenders of liberal education, most recently Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), has made a compelling case for the cosmopolitan dimensions of a liberal arts education.  For Nussbaum, human development—both for faculty and students—requires that one move beyond local attachments and prejudices to become a “citizen of the world.” The liberal arts teach us virtues such as empathy, hospitality for different ideas, and openness to learning from those who differ from us. Or as Mark Schewhn has put it in Exiles from Eden (1993):

The quest for knowledge of the truth, if it takes place in a context of communal conversation, involves 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. (49)

For students, it is worth remembering that without this kind of risk and the willingness to change our minds, liberal education cannot take place. Without an interest and desire to move beyond our parochial and provincial ideas and cultures and engage the truth wherever it might be, education cannot happen. Sometimes local prejudices—the stuff we learn from living in a particular place—are unjust and must be met face to face with more liberal, more cosmopolitan ideas that only come from educated people.

But this kind of liberal cosmopolitanism does not need to undermine our commitment to our local attachments. Someone who is practicing cosmopolitan rootedness engages the world from the perspective of home, however that might be defined. As Sanders writes:

To become intimate with your home region [or, I might add, one’s home institution], to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places, if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. (1993, 114)

Or to quote the late Christopher Lasch:

Without home culture, as it used to be called—a background of firmly held standards and beliefs—people will encounter the “other” merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure to other will do them very little if they have no mind to risk. (New Republic, 18 February 1991)

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.


So what does this have to do with Christian scholar-teachers and students at church-related institutions? What is it about a church-related college that might lead a professor to remain loyal? Or, to ask a related question, one that transcends the professoriate, what is it about being a Christ-follower that might lead one to want to pursue an intellectual life in a particular place?

Church-related colleges are by nature rooted in a particular Christian tradition. At many of these colleges, the religious tradition is palpable, and this informs the sense of place. It is hard to be at Valparaiso University very long without breathing the Lutheran air. At my own institution, Messiah College, a school rooted in a mix of evangelicalism and Anabaptism, the confessional and liturgical air is not as thick, but a clear sense of place manifests itself in the praise songs emanating from the chapel during Thursday night “Powerhouse” worship or the feeling around campus each Spring when 2,800 students take a day off from classes to perform acts of service in the surrounding community. The absence of an American flag speaks volumes about the kind of place that we are. The prayers and devotional thoughts before class give the college a sense of distinctiveness.

Of course, at many, if not most, church-related colleges the intellectual life of the community is grounded in a particular theological understanding of the world. When at their best, church-related colleges offer a truly Christian education that combines the spiritual, liturgical, and theological commitments of a tradition with the life of the mind. The interaction between deeply held religious conviction and the pursuit of knowledge brings vibrancy to the educational experience of students and the intellectual lives of faculty. Church-related colleges are places where the tensions between particular loyalties to faith and the cosmopolitan pursuits of learning result in much creative energy.

Yet at times, the religious convictions that inform the missions of our institutions can become suffocating, especially for those faculty or students who may not share in the so-called home tradition. Commitment to a place defined by a specific way of thinking about the world can be stultifying.  This is why church-related colleges need people from outside the tradition. For some colleges and universities, this might mean having non-Christians who are good citizens and sympathetic to the school’s mission add their perspectives to the mix. For other church-related colleges or universities, it may mean faculty who come from Christian traditions that are different.

For those rooted in the tradition, these “outsiders” can help the confessional insiders think more deeply about their core convictions. For those who are not from the tradition, there is much to learn from the so-called religious guardians of the place. I have learned a lot from the members of the Brethren-in-Christ Church and other Anabaptists who teach at Messiah College. The Anabaptist flavor of the place has shaped the way I think about and teach American history, a subject that by its very nature raises questions of nationalism, war, and justice. I have become a more thoughtful Christian and scholar by imbibing as much as I can from the religious convictions that inform the place where I teach. There is a level of intellectual engagement that I am not sure I would find at a non-church-related school. Cosmopolitan rootedness can make the church-related college a vibrant and energetic place to work.

The rootedness of the church-related college also has a geographic dimension. Among the ranks of church-related colleges and universities, very few have national reputations. Notre Dame has a national reputation as a flagship Catholic university. Wheaton has a national reputation among evangelicals. But most of these schools—many of them small—have histories of providing Christian education to the religious constituents of a particular place or region. I am not sure how such a sense of place makes these schools fundamentally different from state schools that also have a commitment to a particular locale, but there is something to be said about the way a church-related college or university engages a particular people in a particular place.

Being rooted in a religious tradition on a specific piece of earth can reshape the way one thinks about a career. The culture of academia makes it difficult for us to imagine an academic life devoted to training the evangelicals of New Jersey or Pennsylvania, the Catholics of the rural Midwest, or the Baptists of Tennessee. This kind of career requires local knowledge of both the place and the tradition and a willingness to engage—as a teacher and a scholar—the larger, cosmopolitan world of liberal learning and our disciplines. Though it is a different way of thinking about an academic life, I have found it a deeply fulfilling and rewarding one.

The pursuit of cosmopolitan rootedness has helped me to better understand my sense of vocation as a historian and academic. I have been aided immensely in this process by the recent work of James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010). I am not sure how many of us who work in church-related higher education would say that we got into the business of academia to “change the world,” but I am guessing that most of us do what we do because we want to make an impact on the lives of our students and pursue a vocation that in some way might be pleasing to God. Hunter’s exhortation to Christians has much to say to Christian academics who are interested in this kind of world-changing activity. Two things about his argument in To Change the World seem to be particularly relevant in this regard.

First, Hunter suggests that Christian attempts to change the world are too focused on individual efforts and, as a result, they do not understand that cultures are seldom changed through the actions of “aggregated individuals.” Instead, he argues that cultural change comes from the kinds of “overlapping networks of leaders and resources” that give “articulation, in multiple forms, and critical mass to the ideals and practices and goods of the alternative culture in ways that both defy yet still resonate with the existing social environment” (78). Such a view, when brought into the realm of academia, suggests a fundamental reorientation of the way many of us think about our academic careers. We may think we can be more effective in changing the world by writing the next great book, or landing a chair at a prestigious university, or publishing out of the backwater place where we happened to land our first job. But Hunter suggests that this kind of individual ambition is not as effective as being part of an institution with a specific mission grounded in a specific place.

This leads to Hunter’s second relevant point. In order to change the world, Christians need to practice what he calls “faithful presence.” Such “faithful presence” is incarnational. It is, as Hunter puts it, a “theology of commitment.” It recognizes that the God of the Bible has always worked in particular places. It requires us to work toward human flourishing and to nurture and cultivate the world where God has placed us. (The sorry state of the academic job market makes it a whole lot easier to believe that the places where we end up are indeed providentially orchestrated). As Hunter puts it:

I would suggest that a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly. It is not that believers should be disconnected from, or avoid responsibility for, people and places across the globe. Far from it…. But with that said, the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us—the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, ­concerns, desires, and worries of the people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, coworkers, and community—where we find our authenticity as a body and as believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible within which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context within which shalom is enacted…. Faithful presence… would encourage ambition, but the instrumentalities of ambition are always subservient to the requirements of humility and charity. (253)

In other words, when our careers are rooted in a particular place we grow spiritually. We are able most effectively to be salt and light in the world. As the fourth-century desert monastic Abba Antony put it, “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.” Or as another monastic from the period wrote: “If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is ahead of you.” What might “faithful presence” mean for those of us with heavy teaching loads, a difficult academic dean, or a difficult colleague in the office down the hall? Sometimes our problems are not so easily solved by leaving. Sometimes even academics need to take seriously St. James’s exhortation that the “testing of your faith [in a particular place] produces endurance” (James 1:3). Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, in his book The Wisdom of Stability (2010) writes, “stability invites us to ask” how our co-workers, members of our department, administrators, roommates, classmates, and college acquaintances are “gifts from God to help me grow in love?” (90).

Of course any discussion of academia as it relates to institutional loyalty or a commitment to institutions and places must come with many caveats.  I write as an academic who always has had an interest in teaching at a church-related college.  Through a postdoctoral fellowship from the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, that interest was reinforced to the point that I could not imagine myself working any place else. Eventually, I landed a job at a Lilly Network institution, where I have been for eight years and hope to be for a long time. I realize that others have different stories and that God has led or will lead them to different places to practice their vocations. I am fully aware that there are many reasons why people should or must leave a particular institution or place for another.

But even if your story is not similar to mine, I still hope this way of thinking about your vocations might be useful in some way. Within the academic world, and American society in general, the default position is mobility, usually defined by ambition, self-improvement, the pursuit of individual career goals, or the common quest for something better. What might it take to rid us, to use Stan Katz’s phrase, of the notion that “community loyalty” is an “unnatural act”  (Brainstorm blog, 25 June 2010). I often wonder how much this approach to the academic life really conforms to a historic Christian understanding of vocation that calls us to find our greatest joy in selflessness, sacrifice, charity, and perhaps even suffering.

 At the very least, I hope that we might rethink why our natural inclination is to leave rather than stay. Perhaps a more countercultural way of pursuing our vocations might be worth thinking about and discussing.



John Fea is Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College. This essay was originally presented as an address on 14 October 2010 to the Lilly Postdoctoral Reunion Conference held at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. What are People For? New York: North Point Press, 1990.

_____. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. New York: Random House, 1982.

Bouma-Prediger, Steven and Brian J. Walsh. “Education for Homelessness or Homemaking? The Christian College in a Postmodern Culture,” Christian Scholar’s Review. Vol. 32, No. 3 (Spring 2003): 53–70.

Hunter, James Davidson. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Katz, Stan. “The Usual Suspects,” Brainstorm, website. 25 June 2010. http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/the-usual-suspects/25103.

Lasch, Christopher. “Beyond Sentimentalism,” New Republic, 18 February 1991.

Leach, William. Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Little, Ann M. “Further Thoughts on Loyalty,” Historiann: History and Sexual Politics,1492 to The Present, website. 17 June 2010. http://www.historiann.com/2010/06/17/further-thoughts-on-loyalty.

Nussbaum, Martha. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Packard, Vance Oakley. A Nation of Strangers. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: David McKay Co., 1972. 

Sanders, Scott Russell. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Schlereth, Thomas J. The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694–1790. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

Schwehn, Mark. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. Brewster, Massachusetts. Paraclete Press, 2010.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992.

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