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Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America
by mark r. schwehn
oxford university press, 143 pages, $19.95

I am a teacher of undergraduates at a major research university. I am also the mother of two recent college graduates. From both inside and out, I am keenly aware of the troubled state of higher education in America: incoherent curricula, lowered standards, growing politicization, negligent teaching, indifference to the genuine intellectual needs and vital concerns of students. The popular reception accorded recent books and articles critical of the academy makes clear that my concerns are widely shared, at least by those outside our colleges and universities. But few commentators have noticed the tensions and dissatisfactions experienced by the professoriate itself, and no one has in recent years attempted seriously to reexamine the meaning of the academic vocation in modern American life.

Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden admirably makes up for these omissions. By means of a fresh, penetrating, and exceedingly lucid account of the intellectual and cultural roots of the modern academy, Schwehn sheds light on the cause of the current contradictions experienced by professors who, strangely, have come to regard teaching the young and searching for truth and wisdom as no part of their academic calling. By pointing to the neglected but indispensable communal and spiritual dimensions of the life of learning, Schwehn moves from diagnosis to remedy, offering his own prescription for reorienting and reinspiriting the academic vocation.

By training an intellectual historian, Schwehn critically reviews a wide range of thinkers, past and present, who have addressed his topic. Carefully researched and informed by considerable learning, published by Oxford, the book will pass muster with the guild. But it is not simply an academic’s book, for Schwehn is himself no ordinary academic, and he has long known it.

In 1982, Schwehn, then a junior faculty member at the University of Chicago, attended a meeting convened by his senior colleagues in the social sciences. Shortly before the meeting began, one of his colleagues made the following proposal: “We’ve just recently filed our income tax forms; let’s move around the circle from left to right and indicate what each of us wrote under the heading ‘occupation.’“Each in turn identified himself in terms of his own professional guild—sociologist, anthropologist, psychologist, and so on. Schwehn, the last to speak, “admitted” (“it certainly felt like an admission,” he recalls) that he had written “college teacher.” He felt, he says, like “an informant from another culture.”

Later that year, Schwehn—a Stanford Ph.D., with a national prize-winning dissertation—resigned his position at the University of Chicago to accept an appointment teaching in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University, a relatively small, and lesser known, church-related university. (He is now Dean of Christ College.) Soon afterwards, he came upon an essay by Clifford Geertz in which Geertz “remarked upon a career pattern peculiar to academics, ‘namely that one starts at the center of things and then moves toward the edges.’ Most academics, [Geertz] noted, begin their careers at one or another of the great research universities and then proceed directly to schools that are ‘lower down or further out—whatever the image should be.’“Schwehn was especially struck by Geertz’s image for the psychic attitude that accompanies this peripheral movement: the “exile from Eden syndrome.” Schwehn, a serious Christian and a devoted teacher, had moved to Valparaiso University in order more freely to pursue the sorts of intellectual and human questions and concerns he deemed most important. He had never regarded Stanford or the University of Chicago as Eden. Indeed, quite the contrary. He was well aware, and on higher authority, that “all academics are exiles from Eden; indeed all human beings are in this condition.” He thus began to ponder the academic calling. What does it mean to regard the great research university as paradise? What is the implicit “religion” that calls the modern academic? How is it related to Judeo-Christian religious teachings, and to the original Eden?

Schwehn’s inquiry begins from the following troubling fact: although the work of university faculty is operationally defined by three activities—making or advancing knowledge (research and publishing), transmitting knowledge and skills (teaching), and helping students to lead ethical, fulfilling lives (advising and counseling)—faculty members themselves do not see these activities as interrelated parts of a single vocation. On the contrary, they see them as inherently competing, even contradictory, activities. Most see no relation between what or how they teach and the moral and personal growth of their students. Indeed, they regard their real work as having nothing to do with students. Their true calling, they believe, is rather their own productivity—their own writing, composing, experimenting. “How else could we explain,” Schwehn asks, “the familiar academic lament, ‘Because this is a terribly busy semester for me, I do not have any time to do my own work’?” In what other vocation do terribly busy people regard their predominant activities as no part of “their own work”? Here, indeed, is a vocation in crisis.

In exploring the origins of the academician’s vocational dissonance, Schwehn begins with the obvious socializing influences of our graduate schools, in which future academics are prepared to think that publication is the vocational aspiration. The triumph of this view over earlier views that stressed transmission of knowledge and cultivation of character ( Bildung ) Schwehn traces to the ways of inquiring and knowing of the nineteenth-century German universities, given clearest expression by Max Weber in his famous 1918 address, “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (“Science as a Vocation”). As Schwehn shows, Weber saw academic life as both result and cause of the ever-increasing rationalization, intellectualization, and disenchantment of the world, tied also to the idea and cause of progress. Knowledge, sought as part of the quest for power, was to be gained by increasingly specialized inquiry, using formal reasoning and strictly value-neutral concepts. To be a respectable academician required foregoing all large questions of meaning and purpose; it meant narrowing one’s sights, devoting oneself, heart and soul, to solving the particular problems one puts to oneself.

According to Schwehn, Weber recognized that the value-free thinking central to his view of academic life could be self-alienating for the academic; on Weber’s own grounds, there can be no rational knowledge of whether and why to pursue rationalization. Also, the progress of science means that one’s specialized knowledge-creations will have but a brief shelf-life, to be replaced by equally specialized and equally obsolescent products—a potentially dispiriting vision of the life of learning. Addressing the problem of meaning for value-free researchers, Weber deliberately appropriated religious language and categories and attached them to the academic life, transmuting them in the process. One must pursue wissenschaft with a blind faith in the ultimate worthwhileness of the pursuit itself. “Whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak,” Weber argued, “and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of his manuscript may as well stay away from academics.”

Not surprisingly, this content-free, value-neutral, and godlessly religious view of the academic life was not in its effect ethically neutral. As Schwehn observes, epistemology is not morally indifferent but indeed morally directive. The Weberian imperative willy-nilly shapes character, fostering, or at least rewarding, certain characteristics: “clarity, but not charity; honesty, but not friendliness; devotion to the calling, but not loyalty to particular and local communities of learning.” 

Recently the Weberian way of thinking about thinking has been increasingly criticized, on both moral and epistemological grounds, especially by so-called communitarian thinkers. These provide Schwehn with the beginnings of his own critique. He uses the writings of contemporary thinkers as diverse as the humanist philosopher Richard Rorty and the Christian philosopher Parker Palmer, as well as earlier arguments of Charles Peirce and William James, to articulate ways of knowing more bound up with interpersonal and social relations than with personal integrity, more bent on understanding than on mastery, more given to questioning than to problem-solving, more in pursuit of truth than of power. Schwehn locates his own view of the activities and aspirations central to the work of higher education”teaching, learning, and understanding”in this interpersonal epistemology. Thinking about the university as a community of learning, he argues that the individual classroom constitutes its central community and then proceeds to show how certain “spiritual” virtues—that is, virtues originally celebrated by religious thinkers and promoted by religious communities of learning—are required in order to advance disciplined communal conversation, even within the secular academy.

The four virtues that Schwehn discusses are humility, faith, self-denial, and charity. Humility is needed to dispose us to learn from another; faith or belief in ideas we have received from others is necessary to all thought, even thought that criticizes received beliefs; self-denial is required to open our beliefs to critical examination and, more important, our minds to change; and charity, “the greatest of the virtues,” is indispensable to all fair and full consideration of subjects and works that come before us. But Schwehn is keenly aware that these virtues have hitherto been nurtured and sustained mainly by the religious affection of piety; he therefore rightly doubts whether in this secular age “they can be sustained over the course of several more generations absent the affections, practices, and institutions as well as the network of beliefs that gave rise to them originally.” If the virtues are to survive in the academy, the academic vocation must be radically reconceived on spiritual—though not necessarily pietistic—grounds.

Schwehn invites academics to rediscover the implicit spiritual dimension of their ethos by engaging, together with their students, in what he refers to as “spirited inquiry,” inquiry which (once again) seeks truth and understanding, understood not as disembodied, rationalized propositions but as answers to the psychic and spiritual quests of living, engaged human beings. Education must again be “in and for thoughtfulness” in this double sense: encouraging reflection about important human matters, and cultivating the practice of consideration and care for others. Three radical revisions of Weberianism are called for, which Schwehn summarizes as follows:

First, teaching, not Wissenschaft, becomes the activity in terms of which all others—publication, collegiality, research, consultation, advising—are to be understood, interpreted, and appraised. Second, the cultivation of those spiritual virtues that make genuine teaching and learning possible becomes a vitally important aspect of pedagogy. Finally, both charity and philia, the loves that Weber banished from the academy, become once again central to its self-conception and to its overall mission in the world.

If the activity of teaching comes to inform all aspects of what academics do, if teaching itself is self-consciously informed by spiritual virtues, then Schwehn’s academicians would find no disjunction between helping students learn and helping them toward ethical and fulfilling lives. Moreover, what academics think about as scholars—the very questions they will ask and research—will necessarily change. Some professors might well be tempted to write about the large, difficult, and important—even if finally unanswerable—questions of human purpose and meaning.

Schwehn regrettably does not tell us which books or subjects ought to be studied in the spirit of spirited inquiry, but he does suggest what that spirit is. Schwehn’s academics will not only think about thinkers and texts, they will also think with them. They will not be content (as are the Weberians) to “ask only whether what someone says about what a text means is true or false, and what such a saying might imply”; they “will also ask whether what a text says about how we are to live and what we are to do is true or false.” True, they will likely disagree “about the answers to these questions,” but, Schwehn insists, “they can and should agree, against the Weberians, that such questions should be asked and answered truthfully throughout the academy.” When such conversation involves students, spirited academicians are very likely to encourage the ethical development of their students in the fullest and best way: rather than reward only originality or mere technical mastery, they will encourage thoughtful engagement in the world. By their own engaged example, they will encourage students to find (and not only invent) meaning, even in the very traditions in which they were reared.

If so many people are dissatisfied with the Weberian academy, why hasn’t something been done about it? Because, Schwehn argues, it is reinforced by a peculiarly modern and secular spirituality that “gives a deep measure of meaning to the academic vocation as Weber described it and at the same time blinds its practitioners to their own necessary reliance on virtues that are distinctively religious.” To convey this modern spirituality, Schwehn turns to a critical rehearsal of the life and work of Henry Adams, who, himself an academician, “suffered through, worried over, and finally helped to create [this] very situation.” It is especially in Adams’ modernist classic, The Education of Henry Adams , that Schwehn finds the connection he seeks between the modern quest for meaning and the deformities of higher education.

Young Henry Adams, the protagonist of Adams’ Education , like most young people, initially saw the world as divided between truth and error, good and evil. Thanks to his native optimism and, no doubt, also to his own illustrious ancestors, he had every reason to believe that God was provident and that the virtuous would forever prevail in this country, himself most of all. However, the world transformed by science and technology and by the Civil War was inhospitable to his aspiration to lead, and he painfully came to see the inadequacy of his own dualistic view of the universe. Vigorously questing for a substitute worldview comparable in comprehensiveness to the one he abandoned, Adams”like so many of today’s students”observed many things, experienced many ways, and studied many beliefs, finally concluding that all views are equally valid, which is to say no one view is true. Yet, he did not rest easy in his acquired relativism; again, like our students, he wanted his life to have meaning. He finally found meaning only when he created it for himself. Schwehn writes:

The creature Adams [i.e., the protagonist of the Education ] registers the disappearance of his Creator by becoming the author of himself—both creator and authority. His wandering spirit seeks not reunion or reconciliation with the divine, but further estrangement from both the divine and the human—thus he charts the course of modern alienation by presenting one person’s repeatedly futile efforts to discover meaning in the world around him. Yet, the Education represents that very “formula of his own” by which its author made sense of his life to himself and to hundreds of modern readers after him.

Adams explicitly wrote his Education for young people in universities or elsewhere, to help them become “men of the world, fit for any emergency.” But in the end, this came to mean each man his own authority, each man his own creator, each man his own artist. In the increasingly secularized world, the only really meaningful life is that of the “man-made self.” A rootless life freed of tradition, it is a life ripe for adherence to the outlooks of our Weberian academic “fathers.”

Adams’ “spirituality” was achieved by consciously transmuting the religious teachings that had nurtured him, in particular, by subverting the biblical account of creation and man’s dependence on his Creator. In response, Schwehn critically reviews and analyzes Genesis 2–3 in order to assess the adequacy of Adams’ view of our spiritual condition. Returning to the true Eden, before the transgression, Schwehn notices three important things: first, Adam, the human prototype, is moved to speak—to discern and distinguish, to develop his reason—in order to overcome his loneliness, in order to find a partner; second, Adam and the woman are intimately and naturally connected with one another—woman is flesh of man’s flesh, bone of man’s bone; and third, although human life is informed by a prohibition, and hence limited, it is nevertheless harmonious, peaceful, and whole. Reason and knowledge, Schwehn infers, are thus naturally and intimately linked to sociality and community, not to alienation and estrangement; at least at the beginning Eden is paradise.

By the end of Genesis 3, however, the opposite condition prevails. Grasping for knowledge in order to become like gods—that is, in order to gain power—our human forebears become, instead, vulnerable, self-conscious, and powerless. They become, in important respects, more recognizably human beings—independent and autonomous—but they pay an enormous price: alienation from themselves, estrangement from one another, permanently at odds with the world around them. In a word, they become—and still are—exiles.

But, Schwehn argues, “If Genesis 3 diagnoses and describes our present predicament, Genesis 2 remains the horizon of our hopes. It is one thing to say that we are permanently flawed, quite another to suggest that we should act to deepen and maintain those flaws as though they were divinely ordained.” Human beings can and ought to seek knowledge to relieve suffering—they can and ought to pursue wissenschaft—as long as they remain mindful of their natural limits, as long as they are imbued with a sense of piety. Schwehn’s journey back to Eden serves, then, not merely as a corrective to Henry Adams’ assessment of our human condition, but as a support for Schwehn’s whole inquiry. For in this profound story, Schwehn finds both the permanent source of the human dilemma and grounds to support his own positive recommendations. He enables us to see why it is only through spiritual renewal that the groves of academe can again enable human beings to lead meaningful and fruitful lives.

Schwehn writes wisely and with grace; he analyzes and criticizes the writings with which he deeply disagrees as thoughtfully as he does those with which he is in basic sympathy. He exhibits on almost every page the very virtues he would have us cultivate. And he makes a very reasonable case for the importance of reviving spiritual virtues and a concern with meaning in higher education, in church-related and secular universities alike. Yet precisely this very reasonable recommendation gives me pause, notwithstanding Schwehn’s explicit attempt to defend his redescription of the academic calling against such possible criticisms.

Schwehn does not call for any wholesale or structural reform in the academy. He believes that individual teachers in individual classrooms matter most, and it is with these that changes must begin. But where are such teachers to be found and trained, especially absent structural reform of graduate education? How common are intellectual historians as devoted as Schwehn to “spirited inquiry” and the well-being of undergraduate students? If college teachers continue to be qualified by specialized graduate research, studying under people steeped in the Weberian ethos, where, when, and how will other Schwehns be generated? This problem of educating the teachers points, in turn, to a still greater difficulty.

Schwehn does not intend to advance church-related colleges and universities over secular institutions, and he has no patience with nostalgia for the medieval synthesis of reason and faith. He does intend, however, to reinspirit higher education by imbuing it with “secular piety.” But one must still wonder whether so-called piety stripped of its theological moorings can be intellectually and culturally sustained. Can “secular piety” taught by teachers who have not themselves been reared in faith ever really take root?

Most perplexing of all, however, is the alliance of the pursuit of truth and piety that lies at the very core of Schwehn’s recommendation.Schwehn points to Plato’s Socrates (among others) as an exemplar of what he advocates. He sees him as a relentless pursuer of truth, but with a “robust” sense of piety. Wherein, however, lies Socrates’ piety? Most readers of The Apology of Socrates side with Socrates against the city that condemns him to death, but their support seems hardly to be based on Socrates’ piety. Indeed, Schwehn’s own “humble readers” will be led to wonder whether Socrates wasn’t really guilty as charged. What god does Socrates follow? Socrates himself impresses upon us the utter idiosyncratic nature of his daimon. Further, it was not the Delphic Oracle that gave him his philosophic mission; rather, Socrates himself, perplexed about its meaning, set out to prove the oracle false. Moreover, Plato’s Republic, his fullest dialogue on the subject of education, makes abundantly clear that Socratic inquiry is utterly radical in nature. The Socratic “why?” is not limited by anything other than the truth, which the true philosopher pursues relentlessly. True, Socrates like Schwehn believes in the close connection between the growth of intellectual and moral virtue, but the virtues he looks to are courage not self-denial, moderation not humility, wisdom not faith, justice not charity. If education is finally to be in and for thoughtfulness, but if we are spiritedly to pursue the truth after the model of Socrates, will we really come to be genuinely thoughtful in both of Schwehn’s senses? Will we really learn to observe the limit and honor the divine without which there is no piety?

Amy A. Kass is Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Chicago.

Image by mikewiz via Creative Commons. Image cropped.