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.

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.


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!

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.

11 Responses for my 1 Colleague at Dartmouth College

More than a month ago, Joshua Kim asked eleven questions of his colleagues at ACRL 2017 (Association of College and Research Libraries, Baltimore, March 22-25).  I simply cannot keep up the pace of writing and work that apparently characterizes Dr. Kim (I ask, as does Barbara Fister: "how does he do it?").  I don't have answers — but at an embarrassing long delay, here are my responses to his eleven questions:

Question 1: What is keeping academic librarians up at night?

Allergy to book mold?  Seriously: the mis-match between 1) the transformations of libraries and librarians now in process, 2) unrealistic expectations, both within and outside academe, about the transformation of higher education by digital technology, and 3) available financial resources.  There is barely enough money to fund our members' needs day-to-day, much less the future needs of members who will bring very high, very different expectations to their education and research.  Training and re-training librarians, even younger, newer ones, will also be not only a significant expense, but an unavoidable one if they are to remain relevant and aligned with their institutional mission.

Question 2: What will the academic library look like in 2025?

Libraries will still living in a both-and world: some members will continue to want printed books, but will use them differently than the recent past (2015).  Some printed books will explicitly engage digital resources as supplements and complements.  Some members will never want to see or open a printed book.  Some members will be working far more with data sets and non-textual (or ostensibly non-textual) information visualizations.  Libraries will have fewer printed books on site, more workspaces (and more different kinds), less reader or member privacy, and more commercialization by monetized information organizations.  Members will still want a physical library space to be a place to get and stay "on task."  Some members will never interact physically with a library, or personally with librarians, but will use library services every day through the information configurations that librarians will tend and troubleshoot.

Question 3: How is the academic librarian profession changing?

Already there is far more emphasis upon communication, instructional, and design skills than ten years ago (even than five years ago).   Technical, back-office skills are rapidly changing from the provision and editing of information to aligning interactive and interoperable information systems.  Library leadership is especially challenged to visualize what could be, might be, or will be, to our stakeholders, and figure out how to achieve all that, and yet negotiate present-day campus political, financial, and legal arrangements that often reflect patterns and processes that are already obsolete.

Question 4: What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional transformation?

Preface: If universities are like the proverbial elephant as regarded by the visually impaired, libraries are very well-positioned (almost uniquely) to see a great deal of the elephant. The daily life of a library interacts with faculty who are teaching and doing research right now, academic leadership, policy and planning, campus operations of all kinds, public safety and security, university financial offices, alumni/ae relationships, enrollment retention, student recruitment, faculty recruitment, information technology, instructional design, construction and facilities management, and sometimes even the food service.  As a library director, I have almost all of those people on speed-dial.

To answer this question: libraries are almost uniquely well-positioned to act as change agents by partnering with a wide variety of interests to achieve a cumulative social, educational, intellectual impact on campus beyond the abilities or purview of any one campus organization.  This requires vision, street smarts, and an ability to listen.  It requires seeing that library priorities are not always the institution's priorities, but when different they need to come into some kind of symbiosis.

Question 5: How do academic librarians think about learning innovation?

It's a broad term.  Librarians would love to collaborate with instructional designers, faculty members, and others to create pathways for learning that transcend previous classroom, lab, and practice settings.   Organizations, consultants, and academic specialists will all be part of that –but many academic librarians I know are increasingly suspicious of the corporate interests in the phrase "learning innovation."  The innovations to learning in higher education that will be most productive are those that will not be packaged and sold by corporate interests, but will be far more local, ad-hoc, and malleable by teachers and learners themselves.  When I view a video purporting to be about Learning Innovation, and the head of Thomas Friedman talks, then I begin to wonder whose interests are really going to be served.

Question 6:  What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional efforts [that will] drive progress in the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality?

Academic librarians have a lot of experience with the trade-offs of costs, access limitations, and quality (both of information per se, and of presentation and interface).  Part of my daily life is putting budget numbers and academic ways-and-means together.  I believe the academic library's role can be incubator, initiator, and assessor of costs for access and quality of outcomes but that role is not guaranteed.  I believe that academic librarians will also want to challenge the oft-encountered (perhaps dominant) idea that instructional quality is simply a cost that limits institutional net income.  The recent ACE paper Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes, and Institutional Finances (.pdf) points at research that needs to be done, and assumptions that should be interrogated.

Question 7: What does the academic library leadership pipeline look like?

I heard some real concerns at ACRL about how the field will mentor future leaders who will need the financial, political, academic, and social skills necessary to lead a complicated organization on a complicated campus (physical or digital).  The relative slow-down in professional movement, promotion, and retirements in the years after 2009, coupled with either outright downsizing or less (immediately) drastic holds on hiring, have produced a situation where there is not a sufficient number of opportunities for rising leaders to learn their craft.  The profession is greying, and I cannot blame recent college graduates who bypass library and information science programs in favor of fields in which they will be able to pay off their substantial student debts more readily.  Yet we really need those people, and we need creative, competent new professionals of every age who will contribute their perspectives and learn how business actually gets done in many institutions.

Question 8:  How is the academic library addressing challenges around diversity and inclusion?

This was also a major theme of the ACRL conference, and built up to the simply fabulous closing keynote by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.  These challenges play differently in contexts: large academic library systems can pursue strategies and mentorships that may not be practical for much smaller libraries –where challenges and real needs for diversity of perspectives, persons, and inclusions of all kinds of persons are still very much present and felt.  I think this is a real opportunity for ACRL: to lead a multi-sided approach with library and information schools, foundations and grantors, large and small academic libraries, national, state, and regional library associations (in particular with library technology, and leadership & management divisions), and academic administrative organizations (AAC&U, ACAD, and HERC), for a cumulative impact on the profession, the libraries, and the universities.  I think that the professional leadership education offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is also a vital and viable venue to put together the efforts of many organizations.

Question 9:  What are the big arguments and debates within the academic library discipline?

I find so many that I will inevitably leave some out of even a very long list.  But here's my short list:

  • Privacy, user security, and trust: maintaining the academic library digital and physical space as a non-commercial zone of exception, as much as possible; and the way that user's searches and downloads can become monetized data points for commercial services that offer a false equivalent to a real library–and whether librarians can really do anything about that, or respond to it usefully;
  • Evolving understandings or interpretations of the Information Literacy Framework: what it brings in, leaves out, interrogates, and strengthens, and the sometimes yawning gap between the aspirations of the Framework and the sometimes frightening realities of many young students' lack of curiosity and joy;
  • The persistent tensions between "resilience" as a good term for a kind of creative flexibility in the face of adversity, and "resilience" as a substitution of a personal response for a solution to a structural problem.  I heard one speaker use the work and then immediately apologize for it after a standing-room-only presentation called Resilience, Grit and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Risiliency (.pdf)

Other attendees are welcome to point out all the good fights I missed.

Question 10:  How is the relationship between academic libraries and centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) evolving?

I'm not sure there is a consensus, since there are so many variables in academic contexts. I know of one case where a beautifully renovated CTL in fact combined about 10 other services formerly located elsewhere in a large university.  That set of new partnerships has required so much team-building and re-negotiation that librarians in the same building have not had as much contact as they previously anticipated (this may be changing recently).  Where the CTL and librarian partners have sufficient contact and are not completely frustrated by funding limitations (or non-existence), I have heard that enormously fruitful partnerships evolving.  Open Educational Resources, Open Textbooks, and so many other hot topics really call for multi-sided collaborations.  My favorite anecdote is of an information technologist with a strong secondary background in instructional design who exclaimed, "Wow, there's a lot of information technology in the library!"  I believe that many libraries, especially on undergraduate-oriented campuses, were attempting to be centers for teaching and learning before the phrase was invented, and in those places where turf is not a source of conflict, creative partnerships are forming.

The recent Ithaka S+R survey of library directors found that "while [many] library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of the faculty members for the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2015 recognized these contributions." (pages 3-4) I suspect that both Centers for Teaching and Learning and academic libraries face a common challenge to communicate what they can (and do) contribute to faculty who are genuinely skeptical or worried about maintaining their turf.

Question 11:  What questions should I be asking about the changing academic library?

The fact that you are asking any questions is remarkable for many academic librarians, who have so often felt marginalized (for reasons good and bad) by campus technology and technologists in the past couple of decades.  You don't take anything for granted.

I can only really respond by suggesting the question that I'm asking as I lead my organization through a process of listening, thinking and planning together: what is our core mission in plain language?  What is our value proposition for our institution?  How do we show that we are doing that?  How does our mission and value proposition align with our institution's proclaimed commitments and priorities?

In this process I have spoken with many people on my campus, and (following advice from a mentor) I asked each of them simply:  "What is your job?  What difference does your office make here?  What's your biggest challenge?"  Their responses were amazing, and almost all of them pointed in one direction: "how do we communicate to a skeptical world what an amazing difference real learning can make in a student's life?"  To the extent that our library can respond to that question with grace and authenticity, we can also state our value proposition and our mission, and our alignment with our university.

Even with all the challenges, controversies, and constraints, this is the best time ever to be an academic librarian.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The View from Below [Die Perspective von Unten]


There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. The important thing is neither that bitterness nor envy should have gnawed at the heart during this time, that we should have come to look with new eyes at matters great and small, sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy should have become clearer, freer, less corruptible. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune. This perspective from below must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above’. This is the way in which we may affirm it.


Es bleibt ein Erlebnis von unvergleichlichem Wert, da wir die großen Ereignisse der Weltgeschichte einmal von unten, aus der Perspektive der Ausgeschalteten, Beargwöhnten, Schlechtbehandelten, Machtlosen, Unterdrückten und Verhöhnten, kurz der Leidenden, sehen gelernt haben. Wenn nur in dieser Zeit nicht Bitterkeit oder Neid das Herz zerfressen hat, daß wir Großes und Kleines, Glück und Unglück, Stärke und Schwäche mit neuen Augen ansehen, daß unser Blick für Größe, Menschlichkeit, Recht und Barmherzigkeit klarer, freier, unbestechlicher geworden ist, ja, daß das persönliche Leiden ein tauglicherer Schlüssel, ein fruchtbareres Prinzip zur betrachtenden und tätigen Erschließung der Welt ist als persönliches Glück. Es kommt nur darauf an, daß diese Perspektive von unten nicht zur Parteinahme für die ewig Un-zufriedenen wird, sondern daß wir aus einer höheren Zufriedenheit, die eigentlich jenseits von unten und oben begründet ist, dem Leben in allen seinen Dimensionen gerecht werden, und es so bejahen. 

Tragedy, Farce, and a Bungled Re-Make: American, Kakania, and Language

After more than forty years, Janik's and Toulmin's demanding Wittgenstein's Vienna (1972) holds up remarkably well. Their argument situates Wittgenstein's first major thoughts in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the milieu of the generalized crisis of communication, and the problem of the limits of language and expression that was felt across many disciplines, from architecture, design, music, literature, and drama (including opera).  

They move from the broad (a description and analysis of culture and politics in Hapsburg [or Habsburg] Vienna) to very fine-grained analyses of philosophical positions and projects undertaken by inheritors of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard –especially Ernst Mach, Heinrich Hertz, Ludwig Boltzman, and Fritz Mauthner.  Janik and Toulmin see the Tractatus as fundamentally an ethical deed. The famous aphorisms found late in the text (especially Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen = Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent) were significantly misinterpreted by the positivists in the subsequent Vienna Circle (1920s) as meaning that such statements or expressions cannot be important: they "had equated the "important" with the the "verifiable" and dismissed all unverifiable propositionas "unimportant because unsayable" whereas the concluding section of the Tractatus insisted "though to deaf ears–that the unsayable alone has genuine value." (p. 220, the authors' emphases).

Janik and Toulmin then move outward from these fine-grained considerations back to the wider cultural impact –and in some cases mis-appropriation– of Wittgenstein's first and second thoughts.  (His second thoughts being his return to philosophy from the late 1920s to his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations.)  Throughout his work, Wittgenstein maintained a strong ethical interest in mapping what can be said, and what can be considered truthful under which circumstances.  His fundamentally polemical tone and strong ethical interest –highly individualistic, and tending to disregard historical change and development– were quite possibly his only effective way to communicate.  The professionalization of culture, which Viennese cultural originators (such as Wittgenstein, Loos, and Schoenberg) ironically and inadvertently set loose, created a new "orthodoxy" which in turn was susceptible of overthrow by cultural movements and developments which remain –despite discord– also the legitimate heirs of fin de siècle revisionist critiques.

The conditions of Austria "illustrate the ways in which famiiar processes of communal life manifest themselves, so to say, under conditions of abnormal pressure and temperature," and those conditions were provided –and amped up– by the reactionary assumptions and policies of the Hapsburgs from Francis I, Metternich, and Francis Joseph (Franz Josef).  The double-talk, avoidance, and utter fallacies of Austro-Hungarian politics and culture have an eerie ring in the contemporary world, especially in America, and the rising of a strong man to sweep all that aside is uncomfortably close to the Austrian politics of the 1920s and 1930s.  Janik and Toulman write,

If the experience of our own times gives us a new feeling for the Habsburg situation, so too –conversely– a greater familiarity with the life and times of men like [Karl] Kraus and Wittgenstein can help us see our own situation more clearly.  Nowadays as much as in the years before 1914, political dishonesty and deviousness quickly find expression in debased language, which blunts the sensitivity of the political agent himself [sic] to the character of his own actions and politics.  So the intention to deceive others ends by generating self-deceit. (p. 269)

Is there any better description of American politics of the 21st century?  Janik and Toulmin go on:

In other respects, too the Krausian problems about communication have counterparts in contemporary America.  However much the United States sets out to b a melting pot in which the children of former Europeans –and, to a lesser extent Asians and Africans–would learn to live together as a single American nation, this idealistic hope has been relaized in practice only in part.  The ethnic rivalries of Central Europe . . . [and] the prejudices of the Europeans toward [others] . . . all of these have been muted rather than forgotten, and every economic setback has the power to revive ethnic bitterness and racial feeling.  So, in the United States today, we often seem to be watching, while only half understanding, a bungled remake of some political drama originally played out in the last days of the Habsburg Empire. (p. 270)

This was published in 1972! –during the political dishonesty of the Nixon years.  How little seems to have changed –and the prejudices now are not even muted.  If there are any general lessons, the first the Janik and Toulmin find is: "a culture which erects insuperable barriers to meaningful discussion and real and urgent problems becomes, in a certain sense, pathological.  The pretense that things are other than they are cannot be kept up indefinitely. . . . Wherever constitutional theory and political practice part company for long enough from the realities of an actual situation, similar pathological syndromes can be expected." (pp. 272-273)  Further comment is hardly necessary: global climate change.

Karl Marx' famous observation that "all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce" must be extended in 2017.  Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers in France in 1851, a farce of the original Napoleon, the tragic.  We might add that tragedy of Hapsburg Europe, re-enacted as tragical farce by Richard Nixon in the United States, now returns . . . as a bungled re-make.  A bungled re-make that is comprised of equal parts of stupidity, incompetence, and malevolence: in a word, pathological.  Perhaps the only way forward now –while fully conscious of the a-historical, too-individualistic tendencies of the original –is to subject language and language games to vigorous and sharp critique, so that "language games "might have genuine force and application, only to the extent that they are themselves rooted in authentic forms of life." (p. 273)

What authentic forms of life are possible now?  How can we avoid a reactive revolution that will merely install a new false consciousness? How can language games rooted in authentic forms of life avoid deception –and self-deception, the kind of self-deception at the root of the pathological American politics of the present time?

Why Does Library Privacy Matter?

In 2009 Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was asked whether users should be willing to share information with Google as if it were a trusted friend –and Schmidt famously replied, "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."  The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that this is very close to the famous phrase, "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about" –beloved of those who are seeking greater law-enforcement powers or processes.  It implies that people who seek to preserve privacy are doing something to worry about, not those who place them under surveillance.

That was then.  In the aftermath of Edward Snowdon's revelations –in particular those that detail the very cozy relationships between the NSA, major firms such as Google, and telecommunications giants such as Verizon– privacy has returned as a positive right, not merely a historical left-over.

A library is probably one of the last places where one can pursue interests and information unobserved.  A mere few years ago this was a sign of obsolescence rather than currency.  Libraries made data surveillance difficult because they weren't high-tech enough.  That has changed too.  Suddenly that obsolescence has become a feature (as in, "that's not a bug, it's a feature!").

Why does it matter?  If there is one thing that Pew survey after Pew survey has found –as well as OCLC and other survey producers– that thing surely has to be: people feel positive about the library "brand."  They want a vibrant, useful library in their academic, residential, or business community whether or not they intend to use it (or have used it).  A library is a "good thing."  People trust libraries, and trust librarians.

Trust is a huge asset, not to be thrown away or discounted casually.  Just ask General Motors, or for that matter, the NSA itself.

In general, libraries do a fairly accurate job of maintaining trust, but could do a lot better.  Circulation records of tangible items are not easily available for public discovery, depending on the laws of state and local jurisdictions.  (Connecticut has alarming little provision of the privacy of library records, for example.)  In any case, circulation records are hard to locate digitally because they are held in highly particular formats in integrated library systems, formats that don't translate readily to standards and common practices outside.  That's wasn't a bug, and now it's a feature.

Library use of external databases is a different matter.  In many systems, all traffic routed through a library proxy will be seen by parties outside the proxy as coming from one machine, one Internet Protocol address.  Separating the sessions would be far harder.  That doesn't cover all library database transactions, however, or even a large portion of them.  Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon —in French, GAFA— can monitor a great deal of transactions on library workstations unless those are properly protected.

Eric Hellman has written persuasively (to my mind, at least) about the Library Digital Privacy Pledge here and here.  It's an interesting concept, whether or not the pledge ever receives wide adoption.  Eric's primary focus at this point is to get libraries to use the secure HTTP protocol –HTTPS– as much as possible.  Library digital privacy has, of course, many other aspects that will need to be addressed.

Recently the small New Hampshire public library in West Lebanon (near Dartmouth College) was for the most part bullied away from using the secure browser system TOR by the NSA –although now they have recovered their courage.  TOR has been targeted in the past as the province of drug-dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists –what lovely company– and who would want to be associated with them?  The topic invariably circles back to law enforcement: if you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to hide (even when grammatically challenged!).

In the library no one ever used to track your reading, and no one should now: 3rd article of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics.  Trust is easily lost.  Privacy is easily lost.  A library is a great place to think, write, and read privately.  It's not a bug, it's a feature.