Still Lonesome in Eden
The Continuing Challenge of the Academic Vocation
Susan VanZenten

In her characteristically gnomic fashion, Emily Dickinson describes those exiled from Eden as “The lonesome for they know not What—,” and it is precisely this uncanny loneliness that Mark Schwehn identifies in Exiles from Eden. For many in higher education, that lost Eden is the research university, the greenhouse that sends most of her children out to the far fields of the community college, the liberal arts college, or the comprehensive university. Only a few remain in Eden. We academics often mourn that loss, indulging in a conscious or an unconscious R-1 envy that manifests itself in a variety of ways. In his groundbreaking book, Mark identifies our common sense of loneliness but then reveals that the genuine Eden for which we actually long is a community of learners pursuing truth in love, humility, and friendship. The academic vocation, he argues, involves an attempt at cultivating a virtuous character, but the modern academic calling has instead privileged the making of knowledge. And when it comes to pedagogy, the American academy prioritizes transmitting knowledge and skills and assumes a clear distinction between intellectual and personal virtues.

Published in 1993, Mark’s account was one of the first to explore the historical and philosophical origins of this vocational loss. It was followed closely by George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University (1994), Douglas Sloan’s Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (1994), and Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (1996), each of which approached changes in the academy in slightly different ways. Few professors are immune to the disciplinary idolization of the Weberian Wissenschaft discussed in all of these accounts, even those, like me, who first entered the profession with a goal of becoming a teacher at a Christian liberal arts college. When one unexpectedly discovers an affinity for scholarship and one’s graduate mentors urge rejecting an offer of a position at a small Christian college in order to “hold out” for a R-1 position, it is difficult to remain faithful to one’s original vocation or to discern how to process competing demands. Although I took that original small college offer and then moved to a larger church-related teaching institution with greater support for scholarship, I continually struggled to maintain a clear perspective on the relationship of the two loves of my life: teaching and scholarship. I originally read Exiles from Eden in a faculty discussion group during my first year at Seattle Pacific University twenty years ago, and I remember my surge of guilty recognition when I read Mark’s dissection of the familiar academic lament, “I’ve been so busy this semester, I haven’t had enough time to do my own work.” In conversation with my colleagues, I found that many had the same conviction, and it was enlightening to explore why we felt that way and how our graduate education, our professional disciplines, and the rhetoric of American higher education had imperceptibly informed us. Many colleges and universities have used (and continue to use) Exiles from Eden to start similar campus conversations. The book thus has created circles of academic friends affirming vocational goals and sharing vocational challenges, providing a salve for the wound that it diagnoses.

What Mark had identified personally, in terms of his own journey from the University of Chicago to Valparaiso, and theoretically, in his rich consideration of the history of ideas, in Exiles from Eden, he subsequently moved to address pragmatically in his vision for and leadership of programs supporting a concept of the academic vocation that focuses on forming students intellectually and ethically, emphasizing a community of learners, and acknowledging the contributions of spiritual virtues to teaching and scholarship. In 1991 the Lilly Fellows National Network was established under Mark’s watch to explore the relationship of Christianity to the academic vocation and to strengthen the religious character of church-related institutions of higher education. That network has grown to include nearly one hundred schools and provided the intellectual yeast for the Lilly Endowment’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), a $218 million initiative that funded programs at eighty-eight church-related, liberal arts colleges and universities between 2000 and 2007 that gave students opportunities to explore the spiritual resources offered by the Christian tradition and to develop a sense of purpose in life—a vocation. The PTEV subsequently spun off in 2009 yet another undertaking: the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education, a national network sponsored by the Lilly Endowment and the Council of Independent Colleges to enrich the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation among undergraduate students. Currently, 178 institutions—all independent colleges but not necessarily church-related—are members. From the tiny acorn, a mighty oak has grown.

Meanwhile, the twenty-first century has seen a renewed emphasis among both public and private institutions on educating for civic responsibility, character formation, and spirituality. In 2005, the Association of American Colleges and Universities launched a decade-long initiative called “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” (LEAP), which includes an emphasis on teaching “the Big Questions,” instilling personal and social responsibility, and encouraging ethical reasoning and action. In 2010, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) published Cultivating the Spirit, a book that draws on a seven-year study of the role that spirituality plays in student learning and development and that encourages institutions to give greater priority to students’ spiritual development. Despite such vocal naysayers as Stanley Fish (Save the World on Your Own Time, 2008), American college faculty have become increasingly committed to educating the whole person, cultivating wisdom as well as knowledge. According to the 2007–08 HERI Faculty Survey, the majority of college faculty (70.2 percent) now consider it “very important” or “essential” to “develop moral character,” an increase of 13.1 percent since the 2004–05 HERI Faculty Survey. Other increases in faculty support of students’ personal development as important goals for undergraduate education include efforts to “help students develop personal values” (66.1 percent, up 15.3 percent), “enhance students’ self-understanding” (71.8 percent, a 13.4 increase), and “provide for students’ emotional development” (48.1 percent, a 12.9 increase). So there are hopeful signs that the academic vocation is being reconsidered in ways that might lead us closer to the true Eden.

On the other hand, history cautions against millenarian expectations, and the intellectual work of Exiles from Eden remains sadly pertinent. While there are more national conversations connecting the religious and the academic vocation, along with a greater number of faculty committed to teaching and character formation, the ­structural and rhetorical forces identified in Exiles from Eden remain powerful influences. Efforts to reform graduate education have had minimal success, and the continuing subliminal effects of the socialization process of the Weberian academy are still evident. While the Pew Foundation’s national Preparing Future Faculty program (1993–2003) attempted to transform graduate education to better prepare academics to work at a teaching institution rather than a research university, its results were mixed. To the extent that in some graduate programs more attention is paid to the role of teaching, the PFF had a limited success, but even that focus was narrowed to disciplinary pedagogical expertise. Most graduate schools today continue to turn out candidates for the Research University rather than the Reality University.

 During the past three years in the Lilly Graduate Student Fellows Program, I have worked with sixteen graduate students pursuing advanced degrees at major research institutions across the country, and the majority attest to a continuing emphasis on scholarship and publication to the neglect of teaching in their graduate programs, while the idea of character formation is not even on the table. There is a strong disconnect (or “internal contradiction,” as Mark describes it in Exiles) between what college faculty identify as their goals and the training they receive. No wonder so many, even at church-related, teaching-focused institutions, try their best to get out of teaching, mentoring, and advising. At one ­student-centered institution that I know, efforts to implement individualized contracts failed when so many faculty wanted research-based contracts that there would not have been enough faculty left to teach the curriculum.

 A second pernicious force identified in Exiles from Eden that continues to poison the academic vocation is the definition of excellence. We give lip-service to the idea of the unique niche of a teaching- or student-focused college or university, but we privately still idolize research. The following statement from Exiles is as true today as it was twenty years ago: “aspirations to higher levels of excellence among the vast majority of colleges and universities of all types are invariably linked to publication and research, that is, to becoming more like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Chicago.... [W]e might have a variety of conceptions of the academic vocation both in theory and in practice, but one conception—that of the academic as one who makes knowledge—has long since attained hegemony over all the others” (6). The opening of Exiles from Eden describes former Harvard President Derek Bok’s 1986–87 report on the failure of colleges to help students live ethical, fulfilling lives, and Bok’s most recent book, Higher Education in America (2013), continues to highlight problems with undergraduate education. He notes that universities are often more interested in projects that promote prestige rather than have pedagogical value and that too many adopt a research profile pursuing the conventional notion of what makes a university great. He laments students’ lack of progress in acquiring the intellectual skills of critical thinking, writing, problem analysis, and moral reasoning. He comments, “One looks in vain for serious faculty discussion of how to achieve such widely supported goals as increasing a capacity for self-directed learning, developing moral character or fostering creativity” (174).

While the rhetoric of most universities, colleges, professional organizations, and individual faculty avows that undergraduate education should prepare students to be morally responsible citizens, most are at a complete loss when it comes to knowing how to go about such ­education. Vague talk of spirituality, vocation, moral reasoning, or values clarification, combined with perhaps one course in ethics, is not enough. Mark’s call to re-appropriate certain religious values and traditional virtues, such as humility, faith, self-denial, charity, and friendship, is still apposite today. And these virtues, as he notes, float into the ether without communal anchoring in religious traditions. My experience as a LFP graduate mentor has revealed how the bond of friendship moored in the Christian religious tradition can facilitate profound consideration of the ways in which humility, faith, and charity can sustain and enrich our teaching and our scholarship. Through readings and discussions, our community of graduate students and mentors has wrestled with the paradox of cultivating intellectual humility and a willingness to listen to others while meeting the professional expectation of assertive competence and the practice of stressing one’s own unique discoveries and interpretations. We have talked about how to exercise charity to texts and theories, not automatically resorting to a hermeneutic of suspicion, but also how to extend such charity to the students in our classrooms without lessening our expectations for their learning. We have considered how our responsibility to our students includes their ethical and moral growth and how we might tactfully and gently promote such growth. We have become a community “where the pleasures of friendship and the rigors of work are united” (Exiles, 61).

However, the combination of such pleasures and rigors will be hard to sustain as these graduate students eventually take academic positions. In my own experience in church-related higher education at four institutions, I have found what I believe to be the best setting for such efforts, but I have also wrestled with the continuing challenges to attaining these goals. The need for faculty and administration to work together to pursue a religiously informed academic vocation is constantly tested by the deep-seated individualism instilled by our professional disciplinary training and our national cultural ethos. Within today’s conversations about MOOCs, the increasing cost of college education, and the new federal scorecard system, Mark’s prophetic voice continues to need to be heard.


Susan VanZanten is Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. She is author of Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa (Baker, 2014) and Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty (Eerdmans, 2011).


Works Cited

Astin, Alexander W., Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Bok, Derek. Higher Education in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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

Sloan, Douglas. Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

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