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Creating Communities of Learning
Exiles from Eden and The Revival of Christian Higher Education
Michael Beaty

Mark Schwehn deserves our admiration and praise because of his many accomplishments for Christian higher education and his superlative service at Valparaiso University. He has profoundly influenced not only a significant network of Christian colleges and universities, but also so many of “us,” Christian academics, because we were drawn by his good will into “communities of learning” that bore the imprint of his ideas. My task is to focus our attention on the significance of his book, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (1993). My thesis is succinct. Christian higher education has experienced a major and somewhat surprising recovery and renewal. Exiles from Eden made very important contributions to this renaissance of Christian higher education.

When Exiles from Eden was published, many assumed that religion generally, and Christianity particularly, was antithetical or peripheral to the primary purposes and practices of universities. But this is odd because once upon a time in the United States, higher education had been largely the project of Christians and Christian churches (Ringenberg 2006). In contrast to the now prevailing secular conception of the university, the sponsorship of higher education by Christians assumed that the intellectual commitments and practices of Christians are not only compatible with the intellectual life and practices of the academy, but also mutually enhancing. But now, this once easy and natural alliance was questionable (Cuninggim 1994). Indeed, in a number of scholarly articles and books, some published prior to Exiles from Eden and some after, the decline and possible demise of Christian higher education as the result of secularization is the principle theme (see: Jenks and Riesman 1968; Burtchaell 1992; Sloan 1994; Marsden 1994; Gleason 1995). That this decline was perceived to be a function of a possible intellectual incompatibility between the aims and self-understanding of the modern university and the aims and aspirations of ­religiously-grounded higher education provides the intellectual and social context for Exiles from Eden.

Schwehn begins with two stories that point to deep tensions in the practices and conception of the modern university. One is the apocryphal and familiar lament by some faculty member about how the demands of teaching or service to the university “make it difficult to get my work done.” The second references former Harvard President Derek Bok’s 1986–87 report to the Harvard Board of Overseers in which Bok both insists that universities have an obligation to help their students live ethically fulfilling lives and laments that university professors are ill-equipped to help achieve this end (Schwehn, 3). To these stories, let me add another. A colleague of mine recently returned from a meeting at a sister Christian university where he discussed the importance of “great texts” in a Christian liberal arts education. He underscored the familiar theme that liberal arts education is not about “making a living” but “making a life”—in short, that it is about the moral formation of students. A faculty member of this university challenged the claim, arguing that aiming at moral formation is unprofessional because it is not one of the competencies that faculty develop during their graduate education.

According to Schwehn, what these familiar stories share are certain pervasive and widely shared assumptions about the nature and ends of a university and about the academic vocation. What are they?

The mission statements of most universities identify three fundamental goals as essential ends of their institutions: (1) discovering or making knowledge (research and publication); (2) preserving and transmitting knowledge (teaching and learning); (3) helping students to lead ethically fulfilling lives (moral education and education for citizenship). The common lament of faculty members that they are getting very little of their own work done when teaching or advising is coherent only if (1) is the sole constituent of the academic vocation. The third story confirms Bok’s worry that most faculty are ill-disposed and ill-prepared to help students learn to live ethically fulfilling lives, and these unsavory faculty responses are a function of how faculty members now understand “being a professional academic.” It is equally clear that if these stories are representative of most faculty members in the academy, then the three goals are not envisioned as parts of a unified mission, but as competing aims, with (1) having hegemony over the other two.

Schwehn turns to Max Weber’s well-known essay, “Science as Vocation.” Weber claims that the sole purpose of the university is the production of new knowledge, which is achieved by free, unconstrained pursuit and is best done via scholars organized into academic disciplines, whose subject matter grounds their distinctiveness and whose expertise includes initiation into specialized modes of inquiry. Weber insisted that the academic calling has nothing to do with character formation, questions about the meaning of life, or how one ought to live. The academic calling is entirely value-free or value-neutral.

Ironically, in order to present his new understanding of the academic vocation, Weber uses a religious vocabulary, but subverts the Protestant understandings of Christian vocation in so doing. The Protestant Christian regards her particular work as a vocation fitted by God’s providence to cohere with the good work of other men and women in a variety of “secular” vocations. Jointly, the various kinds of work promote human flourishing, the common good, or the realization of God’s Kingdom here and now. This is because the Protestant understanding of vocation is finally a communal enterprise that embraces charity, friendship, and life enhancing practices for the sake of God and one’s neighbor. In contrast, in Weber’s Godless world, the end the academic vocation serves is merely and only the production of new knowledge merely for the sake of new knowledge. Equally chilling, Weber’s ascetic hero of the academic calling is a solitary, alienated, and friendless martyr to this essentially nihilistic understanding of the academic vocation.

If, as Weber proposed, universities serve the public good by being the kind of place in which the scholar engages in value-neutral inquiries, in which character formation is eschewed, and in which the larger questions of meaning and purpose are off limits, then Christian colleges and universities have four logical options. First, they can divest themselves of any thick religious identity and, over time, become secular institutions. Second, they can identify with a particular religious community, seeking primarily to serve its good, and not seek to serve the public good by serving “everyone.” Third, they can embrace the view that faith is primarily a private matter and education is a public matter and attempt to serve both at the same time. On this view, faith will be an “add on” to the primary educational practices of the university. Finally, they can reject the Weberian conception of the university.

Schwehn does just that; he rejects the Weberian conception of the academic vocation. In doing so, he provides both a diagnosis of the modern university’s deep difficulties and a robust remedy. And, ironically, given the narrative of the modern university, the robust remedy includes a deepened and more self-conscious exercise of “spiritual” resources, resources that many contemporary practices in the university need in order to be successful, yet which, because of the prevailing Weberian ethos, are obscured from view (Schwehn, 128). Thus, Schwehn provides a blueprint for a renewal of higher education in general, and of Christian higher education in particular.

Schwehn’s remedy includes the following elements. First, rather than elevating and isolating research and publication from teaching and the moral formation of students, Schwehn emphasizes the unified character of these three aims. If one of the three has a priority of place, it is teaching, but neither at the expense of research nor the moral formation of students, for both may grow naturally out of the practices of good teaching. Second, rather than regarding the university as a collection of individuals, each sovereign but isolated and bearing no essential relation to another, Schwehn insists that we regard the university as a community of learning, not merely a collection of individuals. Third, given its educational aims, such a community will require of its participants the possession of certain fundamental virtues, insofar as they labor to achieve common academic goods. Among them are humility, faith, self-denial, and charity. Schwehn refers to them as “spiritual virtues” to underscore their religious significance. Indeed, as he notes, religious communities are their “original” home. Yet, they have both meaning and significance independent of their original communities of origin. To illustrate, participants in a community of learning must, in order to achieve the aims of learning communities, be humble (willing to learn from others), engage in acts of self-denial (postpone short-term self-interest for long-term gains), exercise both faith (accept the testimony of others) and charity (will the good of others for their sake).

If Schwehn is correct that these virtues are essential for successful participation in good learning communities, Christian colleges and universities will be especially well-suited to nurture and sustain communities of learning, since such virtues are natural constituents of their shared life. As a community of learning, the Christian university has an antidote to some of the malaises of the modern university. Indeed, Schwehn is in a position not only to reject the Weberian conception of academic vocation and offer in its place “education in and for thoughtfulness” (136) as a more suitable end for higher education, but is also in a position to advocate for a more distinctively Christian understanding of the academic vocation. Just as one cannot be religious in general, says Schwehn, but only in particular by virtue of one’s engagement in a particular religious tradition, so there is little value in speaking of academic vocation in general. Much more is to be gained by speaking about academic vocation from the perspective of participation in a “particular religious tradition” (136). Within the perspective of Christians, for whom a call requires a caller and for whom the Caller is both the Creator and the Savior of humankind, the spiritual virtues of humility, self-denial, faith, and charity are given deeper meanings because they are embedded in the large and compelling narrative about God’s calling and cultivation of His people via Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. Jesus’ story and the stories of saints and martyrs and of ordinary people who have followed Him give vivid liveliness to our understanding of humility, self-denial, faith, and charity. Moreover, it will be no surprise that emboldened by these narratives and enlivened by Christian virtues, genuine Christian communities of learning are likely to flourish. In these, charity and friendship, virtues that Weber banished from the university, will be recovered and within such universities, helping students live ethically fulfilling lives will be a natural aim of its pedagogical aspirations, as natural as making knowledge.

The Important Effects of Exiles from Eden

Exiles from Eden gave Baylor University the conceptual resources to diagnose weaknesses in its institutional self-understanding and embrace strategies for renewal. For example, after Baylor severed its historic ties with the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1990, concerns surfaced about this dramatic change leading to Baylor’s becoming a secular university, given the well-known historic pattern of secularization in higher education. The reigning way of speaking about Baylor’s Christian identity was that Baylor provided “an excellent education in a Christian, caring environment,” a two-sphere view (Sloan 1994; Beaty, Buras, and Lyon 1997). Baylor is a university because it serves the public good by research and teaching. Baylor is Christian because it provides students a caring environment in which private religious faith is acknowledged and encouraged. Given that the Weberian conception of academic vocation is the pervasive understanding of the academic profession, and that Baptists tend to be Pietists in their theological orientation, it is hardly surprising that a two-sphere view was the dominant way of speaking about Baylor’s Christian identity (Beaty and Buras 1998).

Exiles from Eden did three things, in light of the pervasive two-sphere view at Baylor:

  • It provided a stark articulation of the Weberian conception of academic vocation.

  • It showed that the Weberian understanding of the academic vocation was a recent development that self-consciously rejected an orientation toward God.

  • It showed that Weber’s conception of the academic vocation was dependent on a religious vocabulary, one whose full richness as an intellectual and spiritual tradition provided an alternative conception of academic vocation.

Exiles from Eden provided Baylor with an academic justification for the recovery of a Christian conception of the academic vocation. And Schwehn’s suggestion that “being generically religious” is a non-starter further encouraged key Baylor leaders to work toward renewing and deepening Baylor’s identity as a Christian university, a renewal rooted in robust, ecumenically-Christian orthodoxy.

In 1991, under the leadership of Provost Don Schmeltekopf, the task of revitalizing Baylor’s self-understanding as a Christian university began. The fruits of this two-decade process are many. Two key documents of recent origin, Baylor 2012 and Pro Futuris, are among them (and within them other fruits are expressed). In contrast to some previous mission statements which expressed Baylor’s Christian identity as a kind of add-on to its central mission as a university, Pro Futuris expresses teaching and learning, moral formation and service, and research and publication as a unity grounded fundamentally in Baylor’s pervasive Christian identity. One place this is visible is in a section called Baylor’s Distinctive Mission:

Baylor University remains a place where the Lordship of Jesus Christ is embraced, studied, and celebrated. We love God with our heart, so we are compelled to care for one another and to address the challenges of our hurting world. We love God with our soul, so we are called to worship Him and to serve Him in building His church. We love God with our mind, so we are called to instruction, research, scholarship, and creative endeavors that truth may be discovered and disseminated, beauty revealed, and goodness honored. (http://www.baylor.edu/profuturis/index.php?id=91098)

Serious reflection on the main themes from Exiles from Eden prompted Baylor to embrace a number of new initiatives and practices whose aim is to nurture and sustain a sense of academic vocation at Baylor (and beyond) that is grounded in, and an expression of, the Christian faith. I mention only three of the couple of dozen new initiatives Baylor developed as expressions of its revitalized self-understanding.

The most important new initiative was the founding of the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning in 1997 “to assist Baylor in achieving its mission of integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment, and its goal of becoming a university of the first rank committed to its Baptist and Christian heritage” (http://www.baylor.edu/ifl/index.php?id=70010). One primary means for achieving this aim is Communio: A Retreat for Faculty. The retreat has three goals: (1) to acquaint faculty members with a theological understanding of vocation; (2) to explore the implications of Christian understanding of the academic vocation for teaching and scholarship; (3) to enhance a faculty member’s ability to mentor students, especially with respect to helping them discover their Christian vocation. The retreat is held annually at beautiful Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of central Texas (http://www.baylor.edu/ifl/index.php?id=70496).

Two other programs sponsored by the Institute for Faith and Learning aim at students. The Conyers Graduate Scholars Program, co-sponsored with the Graduate School, “invites a small cohort of current graduate students in the humanities to reflect upon the intersection of knowledge, learning, and Christian faith as they begin their journey as members of the academy.... the Conyers Graduate Scholars are encouraged to explore what it means to understand their work as scholars in their various disciplines as a form of Christian service or a vocatio, a religious vocation” (http://www.baylor.edu/ifl/idex.php?id=77361). A central practice is the Friday Symposium. Several times a semester, graduate students gather for dinner at a faculty or pastoral mentor’s home for dinner and a discussion of an important text (http://www.baylor.edu/graduate/index.php?id=77079).

The Crane Scholars is a program that identifies academically ambitious undergraduate students who are considering the academic life as a profession. It invites some to join a cohort of fellow students who will read and discuss challenging texts led by two faculty members who serve as mentors. Entering the program as sophomores, students have a different pair of mentors each of the three years. Its primary aim is to enable “students to think of an academic or professional career as a form of Christian service or a vocatio, a religious vocation” (http://www.baylor.edu/ifl/index.php?id=70499). Dinners, retreats, seminars, and other events help sustain an intellectual community whose goods include rich discussions about faith and “the life of the mind.”

Both programs intend to nourish the next generation of Christian scholars and teachers. In them, new friendships are made or deepened. Faculty members are included, becoming mentors and examples of Christian scholars and teachers. Both are examples of “communities of learning,” grounded in Christian friendship and charity. These two programs for students and the Communio for faculty have been enormously successful.

 Exiles from Eden also prompted a desire at Baylor to seek additional institutional friends who share a Christian identity, but whose Christian or geographical identity were more diverse than previous relationships. Prior to its charter change in 1990, Baylor’s primary sources of public identity were: (1) being a Texas Baptist university and “owned and operated by the General Baptist Convention of Texas” and (2) being a Southern Baptist university because of its membership in the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Universities (now the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities). Founded in 1991, the Lilly Fellows Program for the Arts and Humanities and one of its primary initiatives, the Lilly Fellows National Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities provided an opportunity for a broader, more diverse set of institutional friends.

In 1991, Baylor was invited to be one of the founding members of the Lilly Fellows Program. Provost Donald Schmeltekopf eagerly responded to Lilly’s invitation and Baylor joined twenty-six institutions in the network. The network’s membership included Catholic, Reformed/Presbyterian, Lutheran, Churches of Christ, Mennonite, and Evangelical but non-denominational schools. Three traditionally black institutions joined. And two institutions were Baptist (Furman and Baylor).

Today, the Lilly Fellows Network includes nearly one hundred church-related universities, representing an impressive array of Mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical institutions of various sizes, geographical regions, and educational aims (research universities, comprehensive universities, small liberal arts colleges). The Lilly National Network of Church-Related Colleges both confirmed and inspired Baylor’s efforts toward renewal, opening Baylor up to exceedingly good influences from far beyond our familiar Baptist and largely Southern network of institutional friends. Indeed, former Provost Schmeltekopf recently said, “I can’t imagine the enhanced academic aspirations and revitalization of Christian character at Baylor without the inspiration of the Lilly Fellows Program for the Arts and Humanities” (phone conversation, September 2013).

The significant contributions of Exiles from Eden to Baylor University surely support Don Schmeltekopf’s assertion that no single person outside the Baylor community made such an important impact on Baylor than Mark Schwehn. And I contend that it is a safe generalization to claim no single person made a more significant impact on Christian higher education in the last three decades than the very same—Mark Schwehn.

Michael Beaty is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University.

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