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Exiles' Return
Mel Piehl

Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden is a slender book. When I went to check it out from the library’s shelves, its thin spine and 143 pages made it seem positively undernourished amidst the thick tomes of academic history and college studies surrounding it. Yet as anyone who has read and pondered Exiles knows, this little volume is packed with richer intellectual nutrients than most of those weightier books. Its account of “religion and the academic vocation in America” has already had an outsized impact on the ways that many Christian academics and intellectuals think about their own callings, university life, and the institutions where they work. And its longer term impact may be only beginning.

When Exiles from Eden was first published in 1993, no one could have imagined the vast flood of criticism that has since overtaken American higher education. Especially in recent years, that “tsunami” has challenged many of the core underpinnings of the contemporary university itself, leading even sober analysts, as well as legions of alarmists and naysayers, to predict doom for the entire enterprise.

While some of the current conditions afflicting American colleges, especially the economic ones, are felt more urgently now than two decades ago when Exiles was published, serious critiques of the American university are hardly new. In fact, Exiles from Eden appeared as part of the first major wave of sharply critical accounts that earned substantial public and academic attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The book that heralded this tide of often truculent commentary was Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), one of the most unlikely bestsellers in American history. The University of Chicago mandarin Bloom’s sweeping jeremiad purported to show “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students” (its subtitle).While the book outraged many in the academy because it accused faculty of pandering to students, and was partly memorable for its rant against rock music, it did signal a growing unease among a wider public that not all was well with the once-celebrated institutions of American higher learning.

Numerous other critical studies followed. Some, like Charles Sykes’s Profscam (1988) and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990),were muckraking polemics that fed public and political discontents. At the same time, a different strand of analysis and criticism began emerging from within religious academic circles. By far the most influential of these was George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University (1994), which traced the history of American higher education’s increasingly secular trajectory “from Protestant establishment to established unbelief,” and called for a revival of Christian perspectives within elite universities. While Marsden claimed that his was not a “declensionist” narrative simply mourning the loss of religious (actually Protestant) hegemony over the American university, it was widely viewed that way, and many secular academics reacted strongly. Other religiously committed academics, especially in Evangelical and Catholic circles, lamented that even the remaining church-related colleges and universities were well on their way to selling their religious birthright for the pottage of academic prestige. This line of attack reached a kind of pinnacle in former Notre Dame Provost James Burtchaell’s detailed and fiercely polemical The Dying of the Light (1998),which took a kind of perverse glee in showing how Christian college presidents and others had regularly deployed a vacuous, pious rhetoric to disguise their de facto institutional retreat from their earlier connections to their churches and from any serious engagement of faith and learning.

While Exiles from Eden thus appeared on the scene as part of this wider intellectual and publishing tide, itis strikingly different. It is, for starters, far more calm and irenic in tone and content than almost anything else in the higher-ed criticism genre, then or since. (A notable exception is Andrew Delbanco’s recent College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be [2012].) While Schwehn begins Exiles by stating that it is “a critical study of contemporary conceptions of the academic vocation,” he simultaneously declares that its aim is to “try to advance our thinking about college and university education in the United States” (emphasis mine). In this opening sentence, then, and throughout the book, Schwehn speaks not as some righteously alienated polemicist, but as a committed and embedded participant in the whole academic enterprise and invites “us,” the readers, into a conversation about how to challenge and reform it. Exiles reflects the spirit of a critic who loves the university and academic inquiry, and who seeks to improve both through a communal endeavor.

The same is true a fortiori of Exiles’ religious stance. While Schwehn writes plainly from a religious (specifically Christian) perspective and seeks, like Marsden, to enhance the role and confidence of serious believers within the academy, his book is consistently careful to refrain from claiming any privileged spiritual or intellectual ground for religion, and to underscore the virtues and good will of those with whom it disagrees. This is most striking in his treatment of such nonreligious thinkers as Max Weber, David Hume, and Jeffrey Stout. Weber, Schwehn argues, provided the most sophisticated rationale for the modern secular university’s governing raison d’être of research or “making knowledge.” But while he sharply criticizes Weber’s limitation of the university’s purposes to Wissenschaft and points out flaws in the human character types this conception of academic life produces, Schwehn constantly honors the heroic stoicism of Weber’s ideal and notes that “most of us lack Weber’s discipline and courage.”

Similarly, Schwehn plainly indicts David Hume and Enlightenment secular rationalism for banishing what Hume called the “monkish” virtues of humility and self-sacrifice from the academic enterprise, leading to some of the deformities in the academic character that Exiles criticizes. But in the same discussion Exiles blames religious people for fostering the superstition and dogmatism—“reading Genesis as a geology text, for example”—that made enlightened criticism both possible and necessary. When religious people fail to practice the spiritual virtues they profess, like the humility to follow true inquiry and evidence wherever it leads, Schwehn implies they are justly shoved to the margins of the academic enterprise. So it is not just the secular academy but religious communities that need to be reformed. If the link between spirituality and learning can be authentically recovered, Schwehn contends, “we might expect that the religious will discover the ethical dimensions of their spirituality at the same time that some academicians rediscover the spiritual dimensions of their ethos” (47).

The contemporary philosopher Jeffrey Stout is also treated with exquisite fairness even as he receives pointed criticism. Stout represents the numerous modern academics who strongly resist any public expressions of religious commitment in the academy’s intellectual activity because it raises the specter of the early modern wars of r­eligion in the West, or of fanatical, conflict-inducing religious ideologies today. Again, Schwehn recognizes the force of Stout’s critiques, while praising the “secular piety” that enables him to acknowledge the necessity of spiritually informed virtues to sustained academic inquiry. Yet Schwehn makes use of Stout’s own premises regarding the necessary grounding of ethics in “feelings, attitudes, inclinations, and character” to advance the argument that religious communities provide a more “robust” foundation than any individual or set of individuals can for the spiritual virtues that make thoroughgoing academic truth-seeking possible. Stout’s fears of public religion leading to unrelenting strife can be mitigated by religious traditions that exhibit internal rational dialogue along with faith commitments.

In consistently striking this tone of careful, rational dialogue with those who hold contrary stances—indeed in taking great care to be fair and generous toward the pervasive academic ideology he is taking on—Schwehn both exemplifies and reinforces the very virtues that Exiles argues should be reinstated at the heart of the modern university. This approach absolutely eschews any trace of the “special pleading” or claims for a privileged religious stance that have been so tempting for many Christian critics of secular learning. There are no special appeals to revelation in Exiles, and no reliance on Scripture or ecclesiastical authority (though individual Christian thinkers and Jewish and Christian communities of learning are cited). We might thus say that Exiles from Eden provides a thoroughly secular argument for the centrality of spiritual virtues to the academic enterprise—a far harder case to make, but one less easily dismissed by the most rigorous secular academics.

 

Given this judicious and understated tone compared to other works in the same genre, why has Exiles been so influential, and why does it still have truly revolutionary implications for the character of higher education in the United States? First, despite its deceptively modest size and tone, Exiles provides a devastating critique of the fundamental assumptions that have undergirded the great American research and PhD-granting universities since their founding (or, in case of older colleges like the Ivies, de facto re-construction) in the late nineteenth century. These include research or “making knowledge” as the dominant and by far the most prestigious activity of the university, the epistemological separation of objective knowledge from the character of the persons and communities that generate it, and the close link between particular forms of academically generated knowledge (or “science”) and institutional and social power (what Weber calls “mastery of the world through calculation”).

Schwehn’s penetrating critique of this regnant academic enterprise is most concentrated in the first chapter of Exiles, but constitutes a recurrent theme throughout the book. The almost unrecognized core ideas and assumptions that research universities promulgate about what it means to be an academic and how scholarly status and power are to be hierarchically distributed on the American academic landscape—assumptions internalized by most Christian academics no less than secular ones—rely on certain specific limitations and renunciations that, Schwehn convincingly shows, sharply depart from the greatest traditions of inquiry from the time of Plato and the ancient Hebrews down to the eighteenth century. These assumptions, which typically “trickle down” from the major research universities and academic guilds to teaching institutions via the PhD production and certification process, produce a certain kind of academic character or personality that Schwehn says is characterized by “clarity, but not charity; honesty, but not friendliness; devotion to the calling, but not loyalty to local or particular communities of learning” (18).

Exiles is radical, then, in the sense of going to the roots of the matter it addresses, and because it does not simply bemoan these historical developments, either from the standpoint of Christian commitment or out of nostalgia for some pre-modern collegiate “world we have lost.” Rather, it undertakes to make the challenging argument that traditional communities of learning, which linked spiritual and moral virtues and practices to the intellectual search for truth, were not simply nicer or more pious places than our modern universities. Rather, Schwehn contends that such virtues actually foster better thinking. Inculcating such virtues as charity, humility, and friendship, Schwehn argues (especially in Chapter Three on “Spirited Inquiry”), is thus not simply a matter of collegiality or interpersonal courtesy or personal piety, but rather an essential prerequisite to deeper forms of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. He persuasively argues that what the philosopher Leon Kass calls “education for thoughtfulness” requires the integration of the two meanings of “thoughtfulness”: clear thinking and constant attention to the well-being and needs of others.

In other words, Exiles advocates restoring the centrality of teaching to the academic enterprise, not out of nostalgia for some pre-modern or medieval or nineteenth-century American Christian world of learning, or because of the need to serve undergraduates, but because the spiritual and ethical discipline required for authentic teaching and learning will create better scholars and wiser human beings. Only such a deep reconfiguration of the academic vocation, Exiles asserts, can restore the value and morale of the university and its academic inhabitants. This is an ambitious and sweeping agenda, easily overlooked amidst the book’s generous and careful tone.

What also makes Exiles both revolutionary and practical for Christian colleges and Christian scholars is that it offers them a way “forward” in a world where they are inevitably and increasingly engaged with widely diverse ideas, faiths, and traditions, even on their own campuses. The age when Christian colleges could pursue subcultural “sheltering” strategies is largely over, and Exiles effectively embraces this new multicultural era. There is no sense in Exiles that Christians (or for that matter Jews or Muslims) should in any sense “circle the wagons” to perpetuate parochial academic traditions or communities. Rather, it implies that they ought to bring into the public, academic arena the virtues that, Schwehn argues, are often best (though not exclusively) fostered in particular religious communities. While church-related institutions and academics may be sorely tempted to operate as apologetic defenders of the faith, a close reading of Exiles suggests that Christian scholars and teachers can best witness not by appeals to revelation, authority, or tradition, but rather by practicing the virtues their faith teaches them and by demonstrating their ability and willingness to engage with all relevant ideas and actors of all perspectives. Schwehn is not seeking to inject a minority Christian or religious perspective into the academic mainstream, but rather to redirect that mainstream itself. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or intellectually lazy. The kind of “teacher” that Exiles seeks to elevate as the model academic would be not a narrow pedagogue or a less rigorous scholar, but rather something akin to a sage whose teaching, writing, and public service would be all of a piece.

 

How did Schwehn arrive at these sharply counter-cultural perspectives? Exiles itself provides no account of the genealogy of its argument, but it may be useful to cite three contexts relative to understanding where the book came from and how it has been practically received.

The first context is Lutheran Christianity. While much “Christian higher ed” literature has appeared from self-consciously Calvinist or Catholic perspectives, relatively little on the subject has been written by Lutheran scholars. Though the word “Lutheran” never appears in Exiles (although Martin Luther is referenced a couple of times), it is a thoroughly Lutheran book. This is especially so because it embodies one foundational Lutheran perspective on all forms of human cultural achievement: that they are means by which God upholds the world with His “left hand,” but can never become themselves instruments of the “right-hand” order of grace and salvation. Christians can thus bring all their gifts into the world—including spiritually informed gifts of learning and teaching—but should not seek to remake that world to conform with the church, or vice versa. This dual and paradoxical vision means that the Christian academic’s vocation is to do his or her best possible work in the world, not to do average work and add a dollop of piety. As Schwehn also makes clear in his essay, “Lutheranism and the Future of the University,” originally published in The Cresset (Advent-Christmas 2009), his is a thoroughly “catholic” Lutheranism—not a denominational or confessional version—that draws on the widest array of Christian intellectual traditions as well as particular Lutheran insights.

A second relevant context for the book is Valparaiso University. At the beginning of Exiles from Eden, Schwehn references his decision to move from the University of Chicago, a great research university, to Valparaiso, a “relatively small university in northwest Indiana’s snow belt” that was “far from perfect by Chicago’s exacting standards of excellence.” Nevertheless, he found the move attractive because Valparaiso is a church-related university that “strives to keep certain questions alive, such as questions about the relationship between religious faith and the pursuit of truth” (viii–ix).

While these questions are equally alive at many other church-related colleges as well, it is no accident that it was the particular context of Valparaiso University that formed Schwehn’s personal and intellectual interests in these questions and shaped his responses to them. Valparaiso was an unusual institution that emerged from the context of the highly “conservative” Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Designed to “furnish an educated laity for the church,” as distinct from seminaries or teaching-training institutions, it was formed entirely independent of church control, so that its connection to the faith was always generated from within rather than determined from without. This was especially the case under the university’s longtime president, O. P. Kretzmann, who fostered an atmosphere that combined deep commitment to the Lutheran and Christian tradition with an enthusiastic engagement with contemporary concerns. Kretzmann and his collaborators were traditional confessional Lutherans, but possessed such a great confidence in their religious tradition that they could approach the most difficult cultural and public questions with openness and willingness to learn.

 This essential posture—a religious grounding robust enough not to melt in the face of sophisticated learning and critique, yet willing to engage with the best of what secular culture has to offer on its own terms—is what gives Exiles from Eden its rare force. Schwehn nowhere says or implies that church-related colleges like Valparaiso have some privileged access to knowledge or insight. But it is evident throughout Exiles that such settings can encourage attention to matters of faith and learning that most modern universities have long since dismissed as archaic. Valparaiso’s capacity to sustain this dialogue is clearly what made it a formative setting for Schwehn, and his own penetrating advancement of that conversation represents a mature flowering of Valparaiso’s founding vision and spirit.

Another product of Valparaiso’s original vision, and the third context considered here, is Christ College, Valparaiso’s honors college, where Schwehn has spent much of his career and served as an influential dean. Christ College was another of Kretzmann’s attempts to marry a religiously grounded sensibility with academic rigor and intellectual openness. Several of Christ College’s features reflect the kind of distinctly “counter-cultural” vision for the academy that Exiles advocates. First, it aimed to combat the increasing fragmentation and specialization of the university by creating a small interdisciplinary faculty who would raise questions according to their innate importance rather than the disciplinary guilds’ agendas. Second, it has challenged the divorce of character and values from academic inquiry by creating a strong community of teachers and students who work to place “love of learning” at the heart of their work. And third, it links faith and learning by bringing the Christian intellectual tradition into open, lively conversation with the best of secular culture, including the arts. In Christ College, Schwehn had an unconventional institutional setting where his own alternative vision of the academy could be nurtured, and which he could in turn use to promote the practices and character that Exiles from Eden upholds.

This vision has been especially realized on a larger stage through Schwehn’s founding of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Christ College. The program’s aim was to “strengthen the quality and shape the character of church-related institutions of higher learning in the twenty-first century” by bringing fresh PhDs to Valparaiso for two years to renew their sense of the academic vocation in a church-related context and by creating a network of church-related colleges and universities seeking to deepen their commitment and enliven their conversations about the relationship of faith and learning. The Lilly Fellows Program was, in effect, a discrete attempt to implement practically some of the ideas proposed in Exiles from Eden. While numerous other critiques of higher education have pointed to deep flaws in the current university, Exiles is perhaps the only one to test its ideas by creating an actual institutional reform. The Lilly Fellows Program has succeeded remarkably in its aims, even as it has undergone change and expansion in its activities. At its core it has worked to uphold Schwehn’s vision that faith, and the virtues nurtured by faith, can bring something fresh and invigorating to academic life.

That renewing energy has most tangibly touched the now nearly one hundred church-related colleges and universities that comprise the Lilly Fellows Network, as well as the growing number of Lilly Postdoctoral and Graduate Fellows sprinkled across American higher education. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the LFP may serve as a leaven within the wider American university in the decades to come, with long-term effects we cannot even imagine.  When I attended a reunion of former Lilly Fellows several years ago, I was struck by the extraordinary spirit and incredible warmth that they generated. Their papers and conversations combined penetrating intellectual insights, personal reflection, friendship, humor, faith, and sincere devotion to the common good in a way that no other academic gathering I have ever attended has.

Many former Lilly Fellows work in church-related institutions of all kinds, where they are often innovators and leaders in advancing their colleges’ church-related missions. Others work in secular public and private institutions, where they bring their experiences and ideas into settings that may not be as congenial to them. All of these fine teachers and scholars are carrying on the task that Mark Schwehn outlined so persuasively in Exiles from Eden. It is a slim book, but embodied in such lives, and in the hearts of its many readers, it still packs a powerful punch.

 

Mel Piehl is Professor of Humanities and History and former Dean of Christ College, Valparaiso University.

 

Works Cited

Bloom, Allen. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Burtchaell, James. The Dying of the Light. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,1998.

Delbanco, Andrew. College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Marsden, George. The Soul of the American University. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schwehn, Mark R. “Lutheranism and the Future of the University.” The Cresset, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Advent-Christmas 2009): 6–14.

Sykes, Charles. Profscam. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1988.

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