Liberal Arts and the Art of Looking: Striking the Flint

“There was something deeply anti-authoritarian about just looking and observing and telling the truth as you saw it.”  Swoon (Caledonia Dance Curry)

Sometimes I am utterly depressed by the state of higher education and disdain now shown for what used to be called the liberal arts.  This kind of education has come to be seen as either élitist, or old fashioned (analog), or simply useless –and higher education now has to be all about usefulness: return on investment, financial incentives, and serving the customer. Arts, humanities, history, and philosophy are all banished either to irrelevance or dismissed by accruing some number of credits in a core curriculum. Questions, beauty, and nuance are for boring people.

At dark moments I love to return to a persistent source of wonder and thoughtfulness: the Metropolitan Museum’s Artist Project.  At first sight it seems to be an advertisement for a book –a worthwhile book, but still an ad.  Scroll down the page further and one simply sees an array of six “seasons” each with twenty artists names.  The real treasure is hidden and has to be discovered, a little at a time.  Some of the artists names are famous, and some less so.

Each three-minute video presents an artist looking at a place, piece, or genre at the Museum and then speaking what she or he sees.  Sometimes the pairing of an artist with an object is an extension of the artist’s own work; other times it is a purposeful contrast.

For example, the photographer Thomas Struth, known for his Museum Photographs of visitors to famous art museum (Art Institute of Chicago, Accademia in Venice) which he expanded to include visitors to churches, and powerfully significant site such as Times Square or Yosemite National Park.  Struth makes viewers aware of their own active participation in the completion of the work’s meaning, not as passive consumers but as re-interpreters of the past for the needs of the present” (Metropolitan Museum exhibition press release, 2003) . By contrast, Struth responds to the Chinese Buddhist sculpture (Room 208), a silent place “not so easy” to find.  Struth finds these sculptures humble, “can we afford humblesness these days?”  He asks, “Can it change my life? Can it transform my opinion or my existence in some small or larger way?”

Martha Rosler is a multi-media artist who uses photography, video, performance, and space, to examine womens’ experience in everyday life in the public sphere, such as Secrets from the Street: No Disclosure (1980) or her current Irrespective at the Jewish Museum (open until March 3, 2019).  Contrary to expectation, she goes to The Cloisters, the Museum’s special medieval building and collection at the northern tip of Manhattan located at the northern tip of Manhattan, “like another world floating in the clouds.”  Early in the 1960s this art interacted with her work with abstract expressionism, but also opened the way for narrativity; “As a first-generation Brooklyn Jew I was trying to see where I fit in that story.”

One of the most powerful moments in this anthology of videos is Swoon’s account of Honore Daumier’s The Third Class Carriage, ca. 1862.  Swoon sees a rough painting with almost cartoonish strokes, and yet “some people have said that this painting sentimentalizes poverty –and I disagree I think he’s getting the complexity of life here.”  She sees “something warm and rough and something beautiful and difficult; there’s a compassion in this piece.” Daumer is “a relentless social observer –he’s always expressing his point of view. . . . You feel the love is contained within looking.”  Swoon asks, “how do I make something relevant?  Daumier’s position as seen through this work is just: look at people, observe what’s going on, record that, give it fidelity in its simplest truth.  One of the highest functions of art I have identified within my own work is to be the vessel for empathy.  When I see this painting it just strikes the flint. I try to walk in those footsteps.”

Humbleness, narrativity, telling the truth as you see it, fidelity, empathy –all solid concepts and self-awareness that, if learned well, makes a liberal arts education actually liberating.  No wonder the present STEM masters of the universe want to banish that liberating, inconvenient and subversive in their brave new world.  Resist: strike the flint.

The End of White Christian America, Three Years On

End of White Christian AmericaThe End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 309 pages. [With a new afterword covering the 2016 election.]  ISBN 9781501122323, available at Sacred Heart University Library.

Jones’ book garnered considerable attention in the religious media in 2016. Reading it three years later, one cannot help but ask frequently, “What about?” some event since 2016, because the book preparation and publication date precluded any coverage of the interminably long, bitter 2015-2016 election cycle. Since November 2016, so many “what abouts?” arise, even over Jones’ basic contention that a carefully-defined “White Christian America” (WCA) is dying or has died.  The “new afterword covering the 2016 election” is identical with the article, “T—— Can’t Reverse the Decline of White Christian America,” The Atlantic, July 4, 2017.  (I em-dash the name to try to discourage trolls from spamming this post.)

Jones’ sticks consistently to a concept of white protestant Christian America, its churches, web of associations, and cultural agenda (abbreviated WCA). He is clear when this infrastructure of influence extends to cover Eastern Orthodox (which he glibly labels “Greek Orthodox” although assorted Greek, Russian and other derivations and jurisdictions are a huge question in those communities). Jones maintains a boundary between Christians of white, European descent, and African American Christians, because of the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow entwined with the churches, but he gives little attention to the growing Asian presence in the mainline WCA churches, or growth of other ethnically-based Christian churches (Afro-Caribbean, for example).

Jones efficiently traces the distinctions between the two historical descendants of pre-1920 WCA: mainline, ecumenically-oriented churches, and evangelical churches. I believe he fails to consider fully, however, just how porous those distinctions can be, or the significant differences between what has been called “soft-core” versus “hard-core” evangelicalism –the latter more doctrinally oriented and fundamentalist, the former more experiential and open to individuals who move in and out of a community (seen in the rise of name-brand groups such as The Vineyard). Particular communities, in fact have changed position within WCA with some difficulty, yet irreversibly. Why and how?

For example, Hope College in Michigan was a mainline college with a Reformed  with a heritage in the  Reformed Church in America (the less-enclosed of the Dutch Protestant denominations) through the 1970s. It liked to remember its association with Robert Schuller ’47 (his son was a class mate there, ’76), and the Science Center (!) was named after Norman Vincent Peale. But it went more evangelical in the 1980s-1990s, under the leadership of Gordon van Wylen; by the 1990s the College had moved clearly and definitely in an evangelical direction under the direction of Chaplain Ben Patterson and a milquetoast senior college leadership.  (See James Kennedy’s Can Hope Endure, 2005.) To this day it is contrary college policy to “by statement, practice, or intimation . . .  to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this [fundamentalist] understanding of biblical teaching.” Jones identifies opposition to gay and lesbian rights as one of the binding commitments that evangelical Christians must maintain without compromise in order to show their bona fides –and the problems this will bring with a younger generation of Americans. Numerous alumni/ae have repudiated this position, or simply dropped any sense of allegiance or support, while support has increased from evangelicals. The cost of changing official policy for the college, given its choices, would probably be prohibitive.

By contrast, Princeton Theological Seminary moved in the opposite direction. Beginning from an incohate, majority position in the 1970s, the Seminary fully mirrored the protracted and heated conversations and conflicts that coursed through the Presbyterian General Assembly, especially after the union of the (northern) UPCUSA and the (southern) PCUS in 1983. Under the long presidency of Thomas Gillespie (1983-2004) the Seminary maintained the (PCUSA) Presbyterian Church’s official line of “acceptance or members but without ordination” despite the evident hypocrisy of this decision with in its own community. Any discussion or criticism of these policies was resisted and tamped down upon (as I discovered 1992-1996 during the course work and examinations for Ph.D.) These hypocrisies culminated with the death of the community’s beloved and celebrated musician David Weadon in 1996, from HIV-related causes, who died afraid to reveal his illness for fear of his job and health coverage. Thomas Gillespie did express remorse and a change of heart, too late for David, of course. In 2011 the PCUSA finally voted to allow the ordinations of gay and lesbian persons. The Seminary now hosts a chapter of BGLASS (Bisexual, Lesbian, and Straight Supporters) and formally hosts discussions of gay and lesbian issues in an affirming manner in its Center for Theology, Women, and Gender. From a position squarely in the evangelical opposition to gay and lesbian rights, the Seminary has moved to the center in tandem with its historic denominational alliance.

Jones’ book suggests that such institutional shifts are rare, but I believe that they are more common than he realizes, because they reflect the changing concerns of individual white protestant Christians as well. Evangelical churches have (historically) surely seen their share of former or lapsed members of mainline churches who have undergone some kind of conversion or new-life experience and join an evangelical congregation. The traffic certainly moves in the other direction as well: numerous evangelical Christians have moved out of Evangelical churches in response to changing understandings of scripture, history, cultural and religious political connections, and geographies. Very little work has been done on cross-overs. In 1993 Benton Johnson, Dean Hoge, and Donald Luidens tried to examine the famous claim by Dean Kelley (1972) that conservative churches were growing (and liberal churches declining) because the more liberalizing denominations were weak: low commitment, and moral and theological commitments too fuzzy to mobilize members’ energies. In their 1989 study of 500 Presbyterian baby-boomer confirmands (in other words, confirmed around age 14 between roughly 1960 and 1980) found that they did not, in general leave the Presbyterian church because they sought doctrinal and moral orthodoxy in conservative churches. Some remained in mainline churches, and many left, but not for Dean Kelley’s supposed reasons.

Jones’ book examines WCA responses to three general topics: political involvement, gay and lesbian rights, and racial tensions and histories. Since his preparation (late 2015) and publication in 2016, much has happened that actually confirms his historical narratives of change, decline, and acceptance. As he wrote in The Atlantic in July 2017, the emphases and apparent desires of the present Presidential administration will not reverse WCA decline –indeed, the present leadership may be the death-rattle of WCA rather than its rejuvenation. One of the benefits of reading Jones’ book now (2019) is that it contextualizes numerous deeply divisive conflicts of the past 26 months in what went before: the world did not begin anew in November 2016. The politics of nostalgia and fear have proven very powerful, and the traditional evangelical narrative of persecution has found a weird new life in the face of public anti-Semitism. Ironically some of the mainline churches have found a new voice for social inclusion in an era marked by rising hate speech, acts of violence, anti-semitism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions.

John Fea’s book Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to D—T— develops the narrative of persecution, nostalgia, and fear, which will wind up at the dead end that looms for the “court evangelicals” and possibly for evangelicalism as a whole. The signs of coming trouble and a profound day of reckoning are unmistakable. Young evangelicals problematize or flee the label: the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, continuing from 1931, changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship because of the narrow and overly partisan meanings that have gathered around the term “evangelical.” (The Princeton Fellowship pre-dated the use of the term “evangelical” by the National Association of Evangelicals by a decade.) David Gushee, formerly an evangelical (still very much a professor at Mercer University) has written Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism (2017) in a similar spirit.

Three years later, Jones’ book still resonates broadly with the continuing decline of WCA. The mainline denominations still struggle with the realities of decline, some rather badly. Many do nothing meaningful whatsoever about preparing or adapting present and future clergy to the reality of ministry as a part-time job. The evangelical wing of WCA has in large part completely mortgaged its moral and cultural standing to the current incumbent of the White House. One shudders to think of the court evangelicals’ fall when that person is either impeached, not re-elected, or even retires after eight years. Currently 72 years old, in any case he won’t be around forever. What then? Who will write this story then, and what will the next social form of evangelicalism look like?

Three years later, Jones’ book could also benefit from some examination of the end of white, Catholic America as well. The changing composition of Catholicism can mask for a while the dramatic departure of white Catholics, many deeply angry and hurt by the continuing pedophile scandals and insider infighting regarding positions associated with the current Pontiff. White Catholic America (the other WCA?) replicated white, protestant, Christian America’s web of institutions in the earlier 20th century to a remarkable degree. Those are also coming apart, for somewhat different but related reasons. In some states, the cultural power of the Catholic Church, once palpable, has dissipated almost completely. This would be a fascinating companion study that could probe much deeper the realities described by David Masci and Gregory A. Smith in October 2018. Personally speaking, I sometimes feel that I work on a campus filled with pissed-off Catholics.  They are not happy, and for that Church the day of reckoning approaches, as well.

Jones’ final chapter, a “eulogy,” organizes a lot of material on the frame of Kübler-Ross’ theory of the stages of grief, from denial and anger to acceptance.  This is a dubious scheme insofar as many pastoral and health practitioners have abandoned this scheme as unhelpful and overly schematic, but it serves Jones acceptably as a prism with which to examine topics as diverse as the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), essentially a destructive and disruptive distraction, to Russell Moore’s various activities in the Southern Baptist Convention, to the panentheistic wanderings of some mainline denominational leaders (such as John Dorhauer of the United Church of Christ).  As a sociologist (and not particularly a theologian), Jones tends to locate the initiative in the churches with people, and unintentionally commit the theological mistake that doomed WCA: that this is entirely under human control. If the past decade has shown anything, it is how little is under effective human control.  Many preachers like to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous line in Morte d’Arthur:  “The old order changeth, yielding place to new” –but few go on to the next lines:

And God fulfils Himself in many ways, 
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Did whatever was good in the WCA wind up corrupting the world, or vice-versa (and what does “world” mean here, anyway)?  Jones is a sociologist of religion and sticks to his domain.  Inside (or emerging from) the dying or dead WCA, churches might see their situation differently. How now will God fulfil God’s intentions for the church and for all creation?  Karl Barth’s famous rebuke of religion in the church resonates broadly.

Hope College, Dutch Heritage, and I

To West Michigan, Dutch American culture, I am an outsider with one foot inside that small tent. As a child I was always aware that to my mother there was a qualitative difference between “here” (meaning Saginaw, Michigan) and “there” (meaning Grand Rapids). She spent most of her growing years in a house on Calvin Street in eastern Grand Rapids, just down the street from the site of Calvin College (then). Her Dutch American relatives, six aunts and numerous others, lived around the area; in the summers we drove to Newaygo to attend a summer church camp run by her home church, Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids (where her ashes are now interred).

This Dutch American background (such as it was) became more vivid to me in the two years I spent at Hope College, 1974-1976. I earned my degree there after three years at Michigan State (one year in a music program there that gave me practically no transferrable credits). I came to Hope as an outsider with some sense of how things worked in that community, but I had been formed by highly negative experiences in a mediocre public high school, and then three years (1971-1974) at completely secular Michigan State. I studied in an “alternative” residential liberal arts college, Justin Morrill College, which was closed in 1979. I liked Hope’s far greater structure, but I never took it as the definition of a liberal arts college.  I knew there were other options, some of them very good.

I was completely unprepared for what Hope meant by Christian college at that time, since I was really interested in Classics (Greek, Latin, history, philosophy), and German, and kept a low profile in almost everything else except organ performance. My academic experience there was intense, demanding (I had was the only Classics major and had an Oxford-like experience of demanding, fast-paced tutorials), and formed in me the habits that Princeton would nurture to maturity. It prepared for me for the intensity of graduate studies in a major program of the history of Christianity (Princeton Theological Seminary), without which I would have been lost. That Calvin wrote in Latin (complex, literate, humanistic Latin) was no news to me.  (My dissertation work was on the Carolingians, thankfully, far removed from the obsessions of the Reformed.) The Christian emphasis, however, was at first an puzzling add on, even as I was nurturing a desire to study the history of Christianity very deeply.

Hope’s cultural pendulum at that point swung “liberal” (thanks to then-recently-departed President Calvin Vander Werf), so I largely ignored the cultural evangelicalism of many of the students around me. It was a comfortable, even snug world, but it was never really my world; I would not have stayed there had that been possible. My academic work was done. I freely admit that I was in Hope, but not really of it. I joined the German Club, otherwise I was what in Princeton they called “a grind.”

After Hope I spent a year as a Fulbright Commission English teaching assistant in Vienna (arranged by a powerful Hope professor with many ties there, Paul Fried), and then took up M.Div. studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton in turn left me with an enduring respect for serious, top-flight scholarship, tough writers such as Kierkegaard, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and a far more global sense that both “Reformed” and “Anglican” worlds that were much broader and more diverse than my experience in Holland, Michigan had suggested. Eventually I became a librarian (another story), and ten years later returned to Princeton for doctoral study. The encounters I had with Evangelical doctoral students in the Ph.D. seminars were frustrating (with one exception), because their preparation was often so superficial, even glib. (Even that one exception previously had left the Assemblies of God for the Lutherans, ELCA.)  While at Hope I had become involved in an Episcopal Church, and that involvement left me with enduring liturgical preferences that eventually made my sojourn in the Presbyterian Church untenable.

During all this time I grew up in the cultural orbit (neighboring township) of Frankenmuth, Michigan, which offers a curious contrasting parallel to Dutch Americans in West Michigan. Frankenmuth (“courage of the Franks”) was settled (1845) by immigrants from Rosstal, Franconia (Bavaria) sent by Pastor Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe just two years before A.J. van Raalte led his group to the shores of Lake Macatawa in West Michigan. The settlers of Frankenmuth in time wound up in the very conservative Missouri Synod and worshiped in German well into the 20th century, later than most equally conservative Christian Reformed churches worshiped in Dutch. The doctrinal rigidity of both groups is formally similar and each has regarded itself as “the true church,” to the obvious exclusion of the other tradition (never mind everyone else). Growing up I was a heathen Congregationalist, so was (or would have been) beyond the pale of respectability in both groups: an outsider, with one foot inside the tent.

These German-American Lutheran families were emotionally convinced, I am sure, that Jesus spoke Martin Luther’s German via God’s true Bible, just as many Dutch in West Michigan would have assumed that Calvin spoke and wrote in Dutch, and correctly conveyed Jesus’ teachings in Dutch (of course! –he could not have been French!). To this day when I am confronted by passionate attachment to the 1611 Authorized English Bible, or the 1662 (or 1928) Book of Common Prayer, I can only smile: I have been here with others in other languages. Linguistic fundamentalists are everywhere, I suppose. Both groups used theology and language as shields against encroaching “American” ideas in rising generations –a losing fight, to be sure.

PiperHolland

Douma’s book (How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch) delineated the manner in which Dutch Americans created and marketed new traditions through the development of Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan. Tulip Time marked not how much they remembered about the Netherlands, but how much they had forgotten. He specifically refers to Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition,” that cultural practices or traditions may not be genuinely historic but are adapted or invented to serve ideological ends. In turn, Werner Sollors (The Invention of Ethnicity) extended this to ethnic traditions; and in turn Douma extends it to Tulip Time in particular. It established a new channel of Dutch American ethnic identity that was a modern re-interpretation of actual 19th century Dutch identity which by the 1930s was passing or had passed away. By 1975 (my only direct experience of Tulip Time), it had become an unintentional but devastating caricature of Dutch Americans themselves, quite apart from anything really related to the Netherlands. It was very precious. It re-interpreted ethnicity in service to an ideology of the market.

I watched (though unawares as a child) this same invention unfold in Frankenmuth, mutatis mutandis. In 1959 William (Jr.) “Tiny” Zehnder Jr.,and Dorothy Zehnder organized a Bavarian Folk Festival to inaugurate major additions and renovations to the old Fischer’s Hotel on Main Street. (I remember it!) The Bavarian Inn sat opposite Zehnder’s restaurant (another repurposed former hotel), which had been operated since 1927 by William Zehnder, Sr., and then by Tiny’s brothers. The original festival (1959) was a success and the community organized a Civic Events Council to oversee it annual continuation. From its beginning, the Bavarian Festival was an invented tradition, one marked by usually polite sibling and community rivalries.  For many years the Festival was a major “all hands” event in a small town, and a major source of social and financial capital. As the residents’ ability to volunteer decreased due to homemakers’ return to the work force and employment that did not allow so much time off, the Festival gently downsized and its now four days rather than a week, and under the control more of commercial entities more than of volunteer community organizations.

Other than commerce, why did the Festival endure? Its continuation was possible because of the unusual, cohesive character of the town, where civil, business, church, and school authorities all knew each other their whole lives. It expressed a positive way forward with a German American identity in a town that still felt it. German Americans, unlike Dutch Americans, had to negotiate the realities of being related to the enemy in two world wars, an enemy who committed the Holocaust, and in defeat endured a bitterly divided homeland (1949-1989). German Americans sought to be a model all-American minority because earlier generations (especially 1914-1918) were none too sure about them.  In the 19th century, earlier German American celebrations originated in the overlapping circles of workplace, Arbeiterverein (workers clubs), churches, and civic organizations.  That network largely passed by the turn of the 20th century (the Arbeiterverein were sometimes suspected of socialism!). With well-known German American celebrations in Wisconsin and Chicago as both example and warning, Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Festival –entirely unrelated to any of those earlier– allowed ethnic reclamation by using the word Bavarian rather than German. In the 1960s and 1970s hardly a (West) German flag was to be found: all the flags were the lozenge-patterned blue and white Bavarian flag. I worked as a waiter in the Bavarian Inn in the summers of 1972-1974 and 1976, putting on the slight lilt of Frankenmuth English to complement the hokey costume.

“Historic Frankenmuth” is made-up history at its finest, an imagined narrative in service to an ideology of the market. The town looks like a theme park mashed up with a wedding venue and a fudge shop. Holland, by contrast, is a larger small city with more to do than just tourism; the Dutch kitsch is comparatively restricted to Windmill Island and a few other locations. They are, each in their way, sui generis appropriations of fading ethnic consciousness.

When I lived in Europe, I immediately sensed the profound difference between the invented traditions of Tulip Time and Bavarian Festival and the national experiences and characters of the Netherlands, Bavaria, and Austria.  The gap left me scornful of those invented American ethnicities for a long time. To be sure, each community remembered the largely rural, pre-industrial 19th-century Netherlands or Franconia, with a great deal left out that was present even then.  For example, each neglected to mention that in both the Netherlands and much of Bavarian a significant amount of the population was Catholic! (Franconia was historically mixed). Subsequent to their departures, indutrialization and the experiences of the wars and the then-very-present Cold War assured a general atmosphere of willful social amnesia and fear of the past that contrasted very oddly with the happy-go-lucky invented pasts in Frankenmuth or Holland. I suspect that imagined history has returned over there as well, in the form of ultra-right or neo-Nazi movements.

Since I had very little background in evangelicalism, scholarly examination of the Bible was nothing new to me: the textual methods were very similar to those employed by Classicists on “difficult” texts. Early on in Princeton (1977) I just could not fathom the passionate objections to documentary hypotheses about the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) and the Gospels. I had little appreciation for the anxiety of many classmates and their habits of proof-texting or the assumption that Jesus’ place and time was just like ours. Hence I had little idea how passionately many would cling to their belief that God could bless only procreating, married heterosexuals.  It turned out, over a decade or so, that many alumni/ae of Hope were gay or lesbian –so many that once I asked one, “Was I really so socially out of touch that was completely oblivious to your identity?”  He responded, “How could I have expected you to know something that even I did not know or acknowledge about myself at that time?”

During the 1980s and 1990s the horrific experiences of illness and deaths of numerous gay friends, and those who survived, meant that ahead of the curve I grew away from the homophobic culture in which I was raised. I was also living in the East, and in much more cosmopolitan, pluralistic environments. I grew impatient with the endless Presbyterian fights over the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. I was so done with that. When a person I knew in seminary and truly respected was essentially run out of his parish in California (by vengeful elders of a neighboring Presbytery, not by his own congregation), I called B.S. –I had had enough. In 1992 I joined the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York City (Episcopal) and embraced my identity as a high-church Episcopalian, but one who likes good preaching, competent theological reflection, and tenacious, progressive social outreach.   My “elective affinity” ethnicity had long since become Scottish (in large part because of my name), and my Dutch heritage became less important. My understanding of Calvin was completely revised by reading William Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (1989) in my Ph.D. residency.  Bouwsma restored Calvin to a context of other 16th-century writers and humanists such as Eramus and Montaigne.  I found that my previous understanding of Calvin had been just as invented as Tulip Time. When I visited Hope once for an alumni/ae event, I realized that I grown away from what I never really embraced anyway.

In the same years, Hope’s pendulum swung in an extremely conservative direction during the campus pastorate of a certain Ben Patterson (1993-2000), an evangelical hired by Gordon van Wylen and tolerated by John Jacobsen (presidents). Patterson instituted or encouraged practices –such as public confession, confrontations with faculty members, praying outside the residential rooms of gay students for their conversion and correction–which I regarded as beyond the pale, divisive, and unfaithful. James Kennedy’s Can Hope Endure? A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education (2005) confirmed my worst fears. Patterson’s departure in 2000 did not usher in much change, however. In 2005 the highly respected Miguel de la Torre (since at Iliff School of Theology, Denver) was forced out of the faculty (how many Hispanics did they have then or since?). De la Torre’s offense: he wrote a newspaper column satirically condemning James “Focus on the Family” Dobson’s “outing” of the animated character Sponge Bob Square Pants as gay. (I’m not making this up! –can sponges be gay? Who knew?) Plainly the College could not tolerate any challenge to televangelists and their ilk lest its stream of money from evangelical supporters dry up.  (I’m looking at you, DeVos and Van Andel families!) Apparently if Dobson said it, then College President James Bultman believed it, and that settled it. (Always beware of making the former baseball coach your College president!)

Nothing changed. In 2009 Dustin Lance Black was insultingly treated by the same College president, and (still) Dean of Students Richard Frost, treatment that warranted national press attention.  Opponents of this rude nonsense organized a group Hope Is Ready, but unfortunately it was not.  The College’s current policy (2011) is riddled with inconsistencies and hypocrisy: “Hope College will not recognize or support campus groups whose aim by statement, practice, or intimation is to promote a vision of human sexuality that is contrary to this understanding of biblical teaching.”  Further down: “Hope College promotes the indispensable value of intellectual freedom . . . . Hope College affirms the dignity of every person.” Obviously this is untrue and a bold-faced lie: you can talk about “it” (non-heteronormative sexualities) but do nothing more than talk.  Your talk better not “promote a vision.” (What does that even mean?0 As though the College says: We talk the talk of intellectual freedom and personal dignity, but we will not walk the walk.  If you talk about this particular subject that is “contrary to . . . biblical teaching,” we will shut you up.  Apparently being gay is, according to Hope College, contagious. This kind of policy relegates the College to the evangelical reservation: only those who agree need apply, and are wanted; the rest are second-rate. It affirms superficiality and mediocrity as a consequence of narrow-minded, misguided Christian faith.  It is unfortunately consistent with Richard Frost referring to “you people” in a semi-clandestine conversation with Dustin Lance Black.

In 2013 James and Deborah Fallows visited Holland as part of their journey through America that they called “American Futures” and resulted in their book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America (2018). Holland was one of the first towns they visited, and they saw much to like: a vibrant, highly functional community with a both financial and social capital and sense of the future quite at odds with our paralyzed and dysfunctional national discourse. They wrote about the many positive aspects of Holland, but about its negative aspects, too. In his final post about Holland, James included a number of ‘I won’t live there’ messages, the first of which came from me:

I’m a graduate of Hope College, magna cum laude in [XX subject in the late 1970s]. I know the area well. I have some Dutch ancestry. My sister is [an official] about 30 miles north. I know Holland and western Michigan and Dutch-American culture from the inside.

I grant all the excellent qualities you have written about –hard work, ingenuity, social cohesion, and a sense of an America very different from DC or NYC.

I won’t live in Holland, and when my own children [three ages 15-19] have looked at colleges (or will), I never suggested my alma mater. My reason: the social narrowness of smug Dutch-American culture. Although there is a very significant Latino population in Holland, it has not successfully challenged Dutch-American Christian Reformed hegemony. That hegemony will allow no compromises.

You alluded to this smugness when you mentioned the failure of the gay rights initiative(s) there. I wouldn’t want to raise my children in this atmosphere, and I don’t want my children going to college in it. The hateful things that were said during that discussion give evidence of the smugness of that culture.

I live in Connecticut now (outside New Haven), and there’s a lot wrong with CT. But we experience far more cultural, religious, and racial diversity here. It’s not perfect, but we’re working on it.

Holland has many fine qualities. But it’s suffocating for many people, including me. Do mention the numerous people from Holland, and Western Michigan, who have fled the cultural suffocation.

Later in the same post James Fallows summed up Hope College pretty accurately (and with more than a touch of snark):

Hope College, once considered a “Harvard of the Midwest,” now aspires to be a middlebrow Christian college. Babbit lives! A pharisaical pedagogy prevails (“Thank, God, we are not as others!”)

James Bultman, Richard Frost, and Hope College trustees: I’m looking at you.  In 2017 Bultman’s successor, John C. Knapp, resigned a year after nearly being forced out, by most accounts because he wanted to move the College to a more mainstream, inclusive position, again warranting negative national attention.

In 2016, the 40th anniversary of my graduation from Hope College came without my even remembering it. I received an unsolicited note subsequently from a Hope development officer, and I responded:

The dust-up about Lance Black was truly the end of me and Hope College, then. Living in CT, a state where the legislature passed marriage equality, a judgement that was sustained by popular referendum in 2008, the whole “gay” controversy is just so over, and marriage equality is an established fact on the ground here, and was in 2009. Amazing to say, the sky has not fallen in, western civilization did not come to an end here (necessarily more than it has anywhere else in the age of Trump); I don’t notice that personal morality has improved (or declined) since 2008. But candor has improved, and that can’t be a bad thing. Good friends who have been partners for decades —longer than many so-called “straight” couples— have become legally equal to my own marriage relationship, and I can’t see what’s wrong here.

Perhaps this is an overly confessional letter, because you wrote to me at the end of Lent, a good time to attempt greater self-awareness. I just don’t think about Hope College or my past relationship with it very much; it doesn’t feel relevant to much in my day. Our three children have each found their way through the college application process, and I never considered recommending Hope College to them — I just think they would find it too “other.” My younger son is a finalist for a  merit scholarship at DePauw University School of Music (vocal performance), but living in Greencastle may be a stretch for him. [In May 2018 he finished his sophomore year there, and is commited to staying to complete his degree.] He calls it the middle of nowhere, but I’ve let him know that nowhere is somewhere other than central Indiana —I’ve seen the middle of nowhere, and it’s called Houghton, Michigan. DePauw’s “look and feel” is much more emotionally and religiously accessible than is Hope’s, and since he has both profound faith questions as well as long-time gay friends (though he is straight), I just didn’t see him at Hope.

Since I’m not wealthy —I’m director of an academic library— and not the profile of the usual Hope alumnus, I really don’t think I have very much to offer your College. I do wish Hope College well. My own acquaintance with the Reformed tradition at Princeton Seminary led me to understand it as very open to the world, to the new findings of the humanities and sciences, and not afraid of the truth. I suspect that colleges of any theological stripe which regard themselves as the Fortresses of Faith will have a very tough go of it in the coming decades. If Hope College were a good deal more open, and more willing to defy previously-articulated evangelical orthodoxies, it could really have something very positive to offer American higher education. Lord knows that higher education (and especially private higher education) as a sector is in deep trouble.

That note, and this blog post, says what I have to say.

Michael Douma’s book was really helpful to me. I can now see, in the course of my own family background, how genuine Dutch identity in the Netherlands changed as it did from the 19th century to the modern, very liberal state. I can see how Dutch Americans evolved their own historical tradition that is almost a caricature of the Dutch and really has nothing to do with them. Just as Frankenmuth Bavarian identity has almost nothing to do with contemporary Bavaria and Franconia. That Hope College chose to double-down previous mistakes and became a defensive denizen of the shrinking evangelical academic reservation is a consequence of the “invented narrative” of Dutch American culture, shop-worn and sad. The accelerating withdrawal by younger “New Millennials” from organized religion of every stripe bodes ill for a College that values a defensive orthodoxy over liberating pedagogies.

It’s almost July, and I remember how amazingly beautiful West Michigan can be this time of year, especially near the Lake. Shelly and I will visit my sister in Muskegon, and our younger son at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Grand Rapids has changed profoundly: for example, the town LGTBQ adopted anti-discrimination ordinances in 1994, East Grand Rapids in 2015; Holland has yet to do so. The Grand Rapids arts community thrives, as do numerous ethnic communities. There is much to like and much more ahead than behind.

I regret that Hope College chose the path that it has (Babbit lives!). I havelittle to do with it or about it. My own life has gone on elsewhere, and for that Deo gratias!

‘How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch’ as an example of teaching

I am indebted to John Fea for pointing out Michael J. Douma’s How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch: An Historical Perspective on Ethnic Minorities (Amsterdam University Press, 2014, 978-90-8964-645-3). Douma’s book has been a delight, enlightening and useful to my continuing question “how can I teach about evangelicalism to students who have almost no awareness of it?” without becoming either divine or pedantic. Americans of Dutch heritage are no more uniformly evangelical than any other group, but Douma’s insights provide clues to the challenge of teaching about other people’s arguments to those who don’t already know or care about them.

Fea pointed out Douma’s book and Douma’s response to a misleading article in the Economist that sets out a complex reality in simplistic, bite-sized terms appropriate to The Economist’s readers. The pretext was a remarks by U.S. Ambassador Pete Hoekstra, and the sagas of Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince, all recognizably Dutch-American conservatives of a certain positivist stripe. Like many Americans academics, in past months I have winced at the antics, pratfalls, and utter cluelessness of Betsy DeVos, incumbent Secretary of Education. Anyone who knows West Michigan (and Holland, Michigan in particular) will know name well, such as the DeVos Field House at Hope College, and the endless genuflection towards the Amway Corporation, alleged to be a barely legalized, cult-like pyramid scheme. A member of the Van Andel family (DeVos’ relations) has established rules for restricted access to Holland State Park’s Big Red Lighthouse appropriate to a medieval lord of the manor (photo above); Erik Prince (Betsy’s brother) remains a person of interest to Robert Mueller’s investigation. Any long familiar with the Dutch American pale of settlement in West Michigan might role their eyes.

To West Michigan, Dutch American culture, I am an outsider with one foot inside that small tent. One quarter of my personal ancestry is Dutch (maternal grandmother, and Fries to be exact) and may mother lived decades as a Dutch American expatriate in distant, foreign parts –those of industrial eastern Michigan. (Her ashes are fittingly interred in Grand Rapids.) I earned my bachelor’s degree at Hope College, but only after three years at Michigan State in heathen East Lansing. So I could have been an insider, but chose otherwise. (I will say more in a subsequent post.)

Douma’s eminently readable book, accessible public history well-informed by theoretical, scholarly insights, presents Dutch American ethnicity as an evolving set of internal disagreements about how to cope with an external human and natural environment very different from the particular, original locations in the small country from which the ancestors emigrated. He limits his investigation to the 19th and 20th-century Dutch immigration to the Middle West, which was only tangentially related to 17th- and 18th-century Dutch American immigration to New York and New Jersey; he also leaves aside Dutch “Indos” from Indonesia.

Location, location: the emigrants came from pre-industrial villages and small cities in Gronigen, Friesland, Utrecht, and Overijssel that were transformed by industrialization and modern transportation shortly after their departure in the 19th century. They arrived in differing areas of the Middle West: West Michigan, the plains of Iowa (Pella, Orange City), burgeoning Chicago (South Holland), and were dispersed throughout Wisconsin.

The emigrants’ descendants experienced varying personal and community outcomes in urban, small city, and rural locations. Dutch-American immigrant identity largely evaporated by the 1920s in many locations except two areas with a critical mass of shared ancestry: the West Michigan axis of Holland and Grand Rapids, and the the neighborhoods of Pella, Iowa (southeast of Des Moines) and Orange City (northwest Iowa). Three of those areas were anchored by colleges associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA): Hope College (Holland, Michigan), Central College (Pella, Iowa), and Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa). Grand Rapids became the Mecca of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and home of Calvin College and Theological Seminary (to become Calvin University in 2020).

The educational institutions are an important hook: Dutch Americans were justly famous for their work ethic and religious commitment. As my mother said, “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland,” referring to the dikes, sea-walls, and canals of the Netherlands, an intending the remark to mean, “therefore, get to work.” Dutch Protestant Christianity of the Reformed tradition carried all the marks of Calvin’s humanist character: based on texts (the Bible above all), theological reflection, and leaning towards pietism in a rather learned, cerebral manner. The revivalist enthusiasms of late 19th-century America were alien to Dutch temperaments and Dutch Americans became evangelical only as those immigrant tendencies passed. Originally birthed in the afschieding (secession) of orthodox, traditional Dutch Calvinists from the Netherlands State protestant church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) in 1834, the secessionists in America fell out amongst themselves in 1857 over the Dutch immigrant’s incorporation into the American Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (now RCA), which some considered to be entirely too worldly, lax, and American.

Consequently: the Dutch colleges became involved in Reformed disputes (Hope, founded 1851 and 1866 to the RCA; Calvin founded 1876 to the CRC; the RCA founded Northwestern College in 1882, and took control of Central College, founded 1853, in 1916). Consequently (also), Dutch Protestant religion took on an disputatious character that both nurtured and was fed by intellectual argument. Consequently (also), Dutch Americans became over-represented in skilled trades, the professions, and the sciences. West Michigan, which lacked major extractable natural resources, and depended upon manufacturing and trade (with its access to the Great Lakes), owed much of its economic development to skilled labor, and the manufacture of furniture, building materials (such as bricks), and pharmaceuticals.

Douma’s book lends some weight to a view that Dutch American cultural and economic impact was not hindered but furthered by intra-Dutch immigrant debates and rivalries. In West Michigan cities the narcissism of small differences between the RCA and CRC correlated with a range of economic and cultural positions and produced varying responses to and acceptance of mainstream Anglo-American culture (regarding organizations such as the Freemasons, for example). Southern Michigan, originally part (with northern Ohio and Indiana) of the Midwestern “third New England” by the mid-19th was long habituated to Yankee habits of thrift and cultural positions such as Abolitionism; the Dutch immigrants were both similar and different to the Yankees as well as to the numerous other ethnic minorities present (especially Eastern European). Dutch Americans were at first outsiders to the fraught American conflicts that foreshadowed the Civil War, and a number of young Dutch American men absorbed a “American” habits and dispositions through war-time military service. Dutch American rivalries extended a discourse that unintentionally preserved or prolonged Dutch American identity in those areas of Michigan and Iowa that held a critical mass of Dutch descendants. In time these descendants remembered not Dutch culture so much as the culture of their grandparents or great-grandparents: “Tulip Time” in Holland Michigan (an ethnic festival in May) harks back not so much to the Netherlands as to memories of an idealized Netherlands in the minds of the early immigrants.  Dutch American identity has by now evaporated or turned into genealogical interests with a barely religious overlay.  The institutions of the CRC, RCA and the colleges have moved on to other identities and evolving missions.

What does this tell me about teaching American evangelicalism to secular or minimally Catholic undergraduates who don’t have (or sometimes want) a clue? It reminds me that cultural identities are always a work in time, evolving in changing circumstances, and apt to idealize their own pasts. Their disputes, far from weakening them (unless they become too divisive), in fact strengthen them by giving the participants something to really care about. Whether many Evangelicals’ current nearly cultic for the Chief Executive will in fact divide them from their recent compatriots (those Evangelicals who did not support him) remains to be seen: how divisive will that dispute become? Douma’s book also reminds me of the way that religious commitment can be felt as nearly an ethnic identity, and thoroughly entangled with multiple, sometimes conflicting other commitments.

Sometimes it can also really help when a professor includes a sufficient (but not overpowering) testimony: “here’s why this subject really matters to me.” I find that students often respond to genuine commitment: this is important because it expresses something close to my heart. (I have seen, believe it or not, the teaching of accounting standards enlivened in this manner.) My subsequent post will tell a bit more of my own story.

 

The Challenge of Teaching about Evangelicalsm

Part of my work since 2009 has been teaching topics in American religion to undergraduates. Since my scholarly training focused on Christianity, most of the class concerned Protestants and Catholics in American history and culture. Most of the students lacked any real working knowledge of any religious community, even if they were graduates of Catholic schools (a small minority). The course will meet a distribution requirement, and with vanishingly few religion majors, I kept a broad focus. Given my students’ effective religious illiteracy things went reasonably well.  (I do not intend to exclude any American religion, but I do want to stick to my competencies.)

In teaching about evangelicalism, I hit a concrete wall. My students have assumed that Evangelicals by definition have been always and only conservative Republicans. They might feel some sympathy, I have learned, with a few conservative Evangelical viewpoints, especially amongst the males (immigration; economics; and the racial subtexts). But for the vast majority of my New England small-c and Capital-C c/Catholic students, Evangelicals are a strange tribe: inexplicable in all their ways, potentially hostile to Catholics and Northeasterners in general, and motivated by ineluctable commitments. Neither conservative Republicans nor high-profile Evangelicals are highly visible on the regional Tri-State, southern New England cultural spectrum. As one student wrote, “Evangelicalism: not for me.” I am hardly trying to turn them into Evangelicals (I made that abundantly clear, and they heard me), but I had hoped to shed a little light on Evangelical history and culture in hopes of building some respect for this particular “other.” I needed help.

I ran across John Fea’s blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home after reading several chapters of his book by the same title; Fea’s blog is genuine assistance to those few who would like to understand Evangelicals better, but have no interest in becoming Evangelicals ourselves. His new book Believe Me: The Evangelicals Road To Donald Trump (please order from Eerdmans, not Amazon) tells a story from inside Evangelicalism to those Evangelicals who did not vote for Trump, and to the rest of us.  Fea attended Trinity International University and teaches at Messiah College (Pa.); he earned his Ph.D. from SUNY/Stony Brook, so he also has commitments to scholarship off the Evangelical academic reservation. Thanks to John, I also began to read Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America. I returned to Mark Noll’s landmark The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) as well as George Marsden’s landmark Fundamentalism and American Culture (2nd edition, 2006).

In 2017 Mathew Mayhew (Education, Ohio State) et al. wrote “Expanding Perspectives on Evangelicalism: How Non-evangelical Students Appreciate Evangelical Christianity,” (Rev Relig Res (2017) 59:207–230 DOI 10.1007/s13644-017-0283-8), a survey-based social science project. The investigation revealed distinct differences in students’ attitudes towards their evangelical peers related to demographics, institution type, and academic major. Students who self-identified as having religious experience (or identity) were apt to be somewhat more sympathetic to Evangelical students, who might well feel ostracized or devalued in more secular academia. “How do we encourage appreciation of a worldview as polarizing as the one the evangelical narrative represents?” (p. 225) When does a challenging or provocative Evangelical viewpoint become perceived as divisive or hostile? This is an eye of a needle hard to pass through.

This challenge is particularly trying where no Evangelical students are present. I have found an analogy when trying to teach about the fervor of 19th-century Prohibitionists: most students will recognize the problems of alcohol abuse and alcoholism but advocates for Prohibition simply no longer exist. Students might well respond to the challenges (or provocations) of “hot-button” issues such as abortion rights, LGBTQ rights (and cake-bakers, florists, et al.), and immigrants with or without documents –but lack any awareness of Evangelical resonance. I have had one earnest student say, “I don’t believe in evolution because I’m Catholic,” and had to point out to her that she may have unawares absorbed an oft-held Evangelical viewpoint, but that her refusal cannot be based upon specifically Catholic bases, at least according to the Pope (then Benedict XVI). I must also reflect that my African American and Hispanic students often will reveal greater awareness of Evangelicalism than whites.

I return to the question: how does one teach about those who regard their faith as primary to those who are unaware of why any faith might be primary? (Granted the former category can include a great deal of wishful thinking, rationalization, and even fear and hypocrisy when things go wrong: read Believe Me.) Years ago I encountered a similar wall when trying to teach about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and why he chose to participate, however tangentially, in the July 1944 plot against Hitler. One Muhlenberg College student candidly observed, “We don’t understand anything about sacrifice because we have never been asked to sacrifice anything.” The gulf is more imagination than thinking, or the ability to think. (I am by no means assuming that Bonhoeffer was or would be Evangelical in contemporary North American usages of the word; Eric Metaxas’ book has been justly condemned as poorly sourced and even more poorly written, and I decline to link to it.)

In response, I have to cast back to my own limited experience of something bordering Evangelical America both at Princeton Theological Seminary and at Hope College (in my next post.) Personal experience may be a last resort –I am at my last resort.

The Strange Persistence of Printed Books: Mouse Books

Brothers_K_grande_246097a1-d3d3-4008-856a-487204748363_540xThe digital era was supposed to make books and lengthy reading obsolete: Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia, originator of citizendium.org and WatchKnowLearn.org) memorably critiqued faulty assumptions in 2010, Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (here as .pdf; see also my posts here and here). "Boring old books" played a part. Clay Shirky of NYU wrote, "the literary world is now losing its normative hold" on our culture," "–no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. . . This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true." Ah, the satisfying thunk of a smashed idol. Goodbye, long, boring not so interesting books.

Except that a funny thing has happened on the way to the book burning. (Danke schoen, Herr Goebbels) Printed books have somehow held on: unit sales of print books were up 1.9% in 2016, at 687.2 million world-wide, the fourth straight year of print growth. Rumors of demise now seem premature. What gives?

The print book is far more subtly crafted than many digital soothsayers realize. Printed books have evolved continuously since Gutenberg: just take a look at scholarly monographs from 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990, and 2010. The current printed book, whether popular, trade, high-concept, or scholarly monograph, is a highly-designed and highly-evolved object.  Publishers are very alert to readers' desires and what seems to work best.  It was hubris to think that a lazily conceived and hastily devised digital book format could simply replace a printed book with an object equally useful: look at the evolution of the epub format (for example).

Designers will always refer to what has been designed previously, as well as new and present needs and uses when designing an object: consider the humble door. Poorly done e-books were a product of the "move fast and break things" culture that doomed many ideas that appealed to thinking deeper than the one-sided imaginations of bro-grammer digital denizens.

Enter Mouse Books. Some months ago David Dewane was riding the bus in Chicago. "[I] happened to be reading a physical book that was a piece of classic literature. I wondered what all the other people on the bus were reading." He wondered, why don't those people read those authors on their smart phones? "I wondered if you made the book small enough—like a passport or a smart notebook—if you could carry it around with you anywhere."

David and close friends began to experiment, and eventually designed printed books the size and thickness of a mobile phone. They chose classic works available in the public domain, either complete essays (Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) or chapters (Chapters 4 and 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, "The Grand Inquisitor," in Constance Garnett's translation. These are simply, legibly printed in Bookman Old Style 11-point font. Each book or booklet is staple bound ("double stitched") with a sturdy paper cover, 40-50 pages, 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches or just about 9 by 14 cm –a very high quality, small product.

David and the Mouse Team (Disney copyright forbids calling them Mouseketeers) aim for ordinary users of mobile phones. They want to provide a serious text that can be worn each day "on your body" in a pocket, purse, or bag, and gives a choice between pulling out the phone or something more intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Mouse Books give easy access to classic texts in a new format –especially essays or stories that often are not commercially viable on their own (such as Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, or Thoreau's essay, which are invariably packaged with other texts in a binding that will bring sufficient volume and profit to market.) The Mouse Books project wants to offer readers more ideas, insight, and connections for readers' lives.

As a business, Mouse Books is still experimental, and has sought "early adopters:" willing co-experimentalists and subjects. This means experimenting with the practice of reading, with classics texts of proven high quality, and complementing the texts with audio content, podcasts, and a social media presence. These supplements are also intended to be mobile –handy nearly anywhere you could wear ear buds.

As a start-up or experiment, Mouse Books has stumbled from time to time in making clear what a subscriber would get for funding the project on Kickstarter, what the level of subscriptions are, and differences in US and outside-the-US subscriptions. The subscriptions levels on the Mouse Books drip (or d.rip) site do not match the subscription option offered directly on the Mouse Books Club web site. As a small "virtual company," this kind of confusion goes with the territory –part of what "early adaptors" come to expect. That said, Mouse Books is also approaching sufficient scale that marketing clarity will be important for the project to prosper.

This is a charming start-up that deserves support, and is highly consonant with the mission of librarians: to connect with others both living and dead, to build insight, to generate ideas. The printed book and those associated with it–bookstores, libraries, editors, writers, readers, thinkers–are stronger with innovative experiments such as Mouse Books. The printed book continues to evolve, and remains a surprisingly resilient re-emergent, legacy technology.

More about Mouse books:

Web site: https://mousebookclub.com/collections/mouse-books-catalog

drip site (blog entries): https://d.rip/mouse-books?

Video:

 

The Strange and Unexpected Re-emergence of Printed Books


Printed book imageTypewriters, mechanical watches, vinyl recordings, newspapers, printed books –obsolete technologies, right? Get with the program: countless incumbent industries and professions have been rendered pointless: disrupt or be disrupted –right? This has been the dominant cultural narrative –right?

I first heard about the obsolescence of librarians 35 years ago at the start of my career. Columbia University soon after accepted dominant cultural narratives and closed their graduate library school, college of pharmacy, and departments of geography and linguistics. Pharmaceuticals? Digital and print librarians? Linguistics and languages? Geographic information systems? –all obsolete (Whoops!). Since those who proclaim their demise have usually been selling some replacement, cynicism follows fast. Another prediction of demise, another day.

Entirely outside of libraries, a counter-narrative has grown. David Sax popularized one in Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why Real Things Matter (PublicAffairs, 2016): we interface with the world in a tactile, communal world.   At Harvard Business School, Prof. Ryan Raffaeli studies organizational behavior, using field research.  He contributes much more sophisticated thinking about re-emergent technologies. He has found that "incumbent" technologies and industries can make a comeback. This story has important implications for libraries.

Some technologies re-emerge from disruption and destruction, especially those that had a long history. Count out VHS tapes and punch cards: those were transitional. Typewriters have had a long enough history, as do fountain or nib pens (extending the dip, quill-type pens since 1827) .

Printed books, like other technologies, brought whole occupations and kinds of work with them: not just printers, but also binders, sellers, retailers, and of course librarians. As a candidate for "innovative disruption" by digital books, the demise of the printed book, so loudly proclaimed ten years ago, mandated the demise of book stores, libraries, librarians, publishers, editors.  Now anyone can write a book (see Amazon); who needs editors? Who needs libraries or bookstores?

Some disruptions are truly innovative –others just disruptions, and others just hype, but shouting as real (see previous post). The disruption narrative is not sufficiently incorrect (although it can be applied poorly), but the consequence corollary of the incumbent industries' necessary inability to adapt –and certainty of their demise– is less well-founded.  Raffaelli's research shows that technologies can re-emerge, a cognitive process in two phases: first largely cultural, temporal, and narrative process; second a competitive process in a re-defined market with distinctive values not strictly established by price. His leading example is the Swiss mechanical watch-making industries; his second is the return and rise of independent book sellers in the USA.

Both the watch-makers and the book sellers lost substantial market shares when disruptive, good-enough technologies moved upmarket and claimed their most profitable customers: watchmakers with the rise of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970s; book sellers with the rise of major chain bookstores in the 1990s, followed by Amazon. They keenly felt their losses: numerous Swiss firms closed or discontinued manufacturing; from 1995 to 2009 around 1,400 bookstores closed. Enough hung on, however, to rebound: how did they do it?

Raffaelli identifies the terms of competition: old terms such as price, availability, and quality change with the entry of disruptive technologies to market. The survivors have re-defined the competition: how they want to compete, and what value proposition they offer to their customers. He traces a complex process of de-coupling product and organizational identity and renegotiation of foundational concepts and business roles. The process is both bottom-up (from the "factory floor" or fundamental, front-line production or service) and top-down: from industry alliances, design thinking, and organizational management.

In the Swiss mechanical watch industry, he has identified entrepreneurs and guardians. Entrepreneurs are alert to market signals, cultural currents, and emerging narratives that suggest that new communities are forming new values. Guardians by contrast preserve older technologies and enduring values and counterbalance the entrepreneurs; both are necessary for the process of cognitive re-emergence. When the industry drew near to complete collapse, collectors began to purchase mechanical watches at high prices at auctions, signaling that their small community found genuine value expressed momentarily in price. Entrepreneurs realized that the market for mechanical watches had not completely disappeared, but changed: the value lay not in keeping time for a price, but in expressing a cultural signal. Guardians, meanwhile, had preserved enough of the technology that recovery was possible; veteran employees preserved crucial tools and skills that enabled a recovery. Each needed the other; the leadership necessary for re-emergence arose not just from the top level of the organization and industry, but from the commitment and wisdom of key skilled workers. Mechanical watches were then marketed as high-end, luxury items that "said something" about their owners. As new customers entered or moved up-market, they adopted such watches as a sign of cultural status and belonging.

Independent booksellers successfully re-framed their market as primarily community, secondarily as inventory. First the chain stores (Borders, Barnes & Noble) out-competed them on price, then Amazon on price and inventory availability. Independent booksellers have focused instead on 3 Cs: Community and local connections, Curation of inventory that enhanced a personal relationship with customers, and Convening events for those with similar interests: readings, lectures, author signings, and other group events. The booksellers' trade association (American Booksellers Association or ABA) facilitates booksellers' connections with local communities with skills, best practices, effective use of media, and outreach to other local business and organizations (–even libraries, once considered the booksellers' competitors). The re-emergent market was defined both by entrepreneurial booksellers, front-line service guardians, a growing social movement committed to localism, and industry-scale cooperation. Between 2009 and 2017 the ABA reported +35% more independent booksellers: from 1,651 to 2,321 nation-wide. A sign of the integration of booksellers with community spaces: for 2017 sales up 2.6% over 2016.

Like independent bookstores, the "library brand" remains strongly bound to printed books –after all, the name derives from "liber" (Latin), confirmed with "biblos" (Greek). The printed book, once thought to be a obsolete technology, shows strong signs of re-emergence as a stable cultural experience not apt to be interrupted by digital distractions or the dopamine kicks of addictive social media.  This brand identity will persist even though libraries offer many kinds of resources in many formats –including millions of digital books.

What does such technology and market re-emergence have to do with libraries? These cases suggest the emerging re-definition of libraries (as both old and new) is analogous to much of Raffaelli's work, and that the narrative frame of "disruptive innovation in higher education" can be –should be– challenged by a this more useful counter-narrative, "new and re-emergent technologies in higher education."

While libraries' role as mere "book providers" has been challenged by disruptive technological service entrants such as the Internet, Amazon, and social media, libraries' role as a channel for trusted, stable information is stronger than ever. The Pew Research Center survey data from Fall 2016 found that 53% of Millennials (those 18 to 35 at that time) say they used a library –a generational cohort (not just college students–the study focused on public libraries). This compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers, and 36% of Silent Generation. In 2016 Pew also reported that libraries help "a lot" in deciding what information they can trust, from 24% in 2015 to 37% in 2016. Women held that opinion more strongly, 41%. Recent anecdotes suggest that such opinions have not changed direction.


Boston-public-library-free-to-allLibraries are regarded as very strong assets to a community: the high values placed on pleasant space, safety, and community events also emerged in the Pew studies. Coupled with bottom-up initiatives from front-line librarians and individual organizations, the American Library Association has devoted substantial attention and resources to initiatives such as the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and the Libraries Transform campaign.  Libraries' free-to-all traditions (supported by tuition, tax dollars, and other sources) do not track community impact as easily as do independent bookstore sales figures. Their value proposition for their communities becomes clear in usage figures (at SHU growth in usage has outpaced growth in enrollment) and the faculties' documented turn towards librarians in helping undergraduate students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.

As a re-emergent technology, printed books sustain a host of skills, occupations, organizations, and cultural signals that do not boil down to a single, simplistic, marketable narrative. Conceived in the late 20th century as "information resources," books gave way to digital representation; conceived as "documented knowledge," the act of reading books in a library context provides a tangible experience of informed learning, cultural absorption, and community participation. Libraries provide many services. Without the "brand" of reading books, and the sustaining services of librarians, the library would turn into derelict, zombie storage spaces. Knowledge is a communal good as well as a private act; it is never simply an individual achievement: free to all. We are all culturally embedded in the minds of our predecessors and communities for weal and woe –and without libraries, bookstores, timekeepers, and printed books, we will not be able to progress from woe to weal.