Thursday, April 30, 2015

Religion and the Academic Vocation in America

Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles From Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. New York: Oxford University, 1993. 143 pages

Mark R. Schwehn is the Provost, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Professor of the Humanities at the honors college of Valparaiso University. He has written widely on Henry Adams and William James. He has edited an excellent anthology with Dorothy Bass, Leading Lives that Matter: What Should We Do and Who Should We Be (2006). In his book, Exiles From Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, he shows how American higher education has been disconnected from its religious. This book is a reexamination of the "meaning and purpose of the academic life." The title "Exiles from Eden" point to the experience of "people from all religious backgrounds" who have chosen "to leave the 'Edens' of academe and to pursue their own sense of academic vocation as exiles 'on the periphery.' (x-xi)"

The author begins the book by describing current assumptions about the academic vocation. He provides a brief history on the thinking of the academic vocation. He points to Max Weber's address in 1918 entitled "Wissenschaft als beruf" as a key event in thinking about the academic vocation. Weber brought forth an enlightenment view of the academic life. Weber emphasized objectivity, value-neutrality, relativism, and increasing specialization. Schwehn writes, "Academics were therefore, true to their own calling when they steadfastly refused to address questions about the meaning of the whole or the purpose of human life" (7). Prior to Weber, the academic calling consisted of three roles: advancing knowledge, transmission of knowledge and skills, and cultivating character. Today, the first role is in conflict with the other two roles of academic vocation. The latter two are even considered less important than the first one. Schwehn argues for the importance of all three functions.

Chapter two emphasizes the lack of community in American higher education. He argues for the need of community to inculcate religious virtues for the purpose of learning. He believes that learning cannot occur without these virtues. He never really says why these are religious virtues. They are associated historically with religious institutions. He dialogues with both Richard Rorty and Parker Palmer upon the importance of community in academic life.

In chapter three Schwehn describes the "spiritual virtues" that are needed for academic inquiry. The virtues described are humility, faith, self-denial, love or charity. The author believes that "some degree of humility is a precondition for learning" (49). Faith is necessary because we are dependent on the work of others. In the search for truth the author notes, "The quest for knowledge of the truth, if it takes place within a context of communal conversation, involves the testing of our own opinions. And we must, of course, be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true, if genuine learning is to take place" (49). In addition, the pursuit of knowledge requires discipline and hard work. Charity is needed in our relations with our companions in learning and the authors of books we study.

The fourth chapter is a question and answer response to objections to his proposal. The last chapter is an original essay on Henry Adams. The author notes, "Perhaps the best way to expose the spiritual dimensions of the problem of the academic calling is through an examination of the lives and works of individuals like Henry Adams who actually suffered through, worried over, and finally helped to create the very situation we now seek to comprehend" (95). In other words, individuals like Henry Adams illustrates the modern problem of the academic vocation.

Schwehn's Religion and the Academic Vocation in America does a good job in describing the academic vocation in Modern America. He might have showed why these spiritual virtues are religious. In addition, he might have provided more information on how to change the social structure of this problem. However, this is an excellent diagnosis of the problem and provides important hints on how to pursue the academic vocation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work

The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work By Lee Hardy. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990. 213 pp. $15.95

Hardy teaches at Calvin College. This book is considered a minor classic because of its excellent history and thinking on the subject of work and calling. We spend at least one-third of our life at work, the other third at sleep and rest, and the rest of the time is devoted to everything else. It seems that we would want to think hard about an area that takes so much of our time. In particular, you would think Christians would want to know what the Bible has to say about work and calling. The last twenty to thirty years there have been an increase in books published on this important topic. Hardy's book remains an important book to guide our thinking.

Hardy wrote this book to correct a faulty view of the "meaning and purpose of work." He outlines the plan of his book: "The Fabric of This World might be read as an attempt to help revitalize the concept of work as vocation--or calling--at least within the professing Christian community, where it should have some force. My primary intent is to flesh out the concept of vocation, to delineate its historical background, to mark out its place in the array of possible attitudes towards the meaning of work in human life, to illuminate its full religious content, and to explore its practical implications, both personal and social" (xv).

The Fabric of This World is divided into two parts: exposition and application. There are two chapters in each part. Chapter one is a history on the thinking of work: Is it a blessing or is it a curse? Chapter two develops a Christian "concept of Vocation." Chapter three applies the earlier chapters to career choice and the last chapter provides different ideas on job design.

In the introduction describes two false views of work which focuses on excessive individualism. One of the views look at work as a quest for personal success. The second view tries to escape work and seek meaning in one's private life. For example, the view that I am living for the weekends or Thank God its Friday. In contrast, Hardy sees work an a vocation or calling. It is a contribution to the good of others and not only my own personal advancement.

Chapter one is a superb history of different thinking on work. The Greeks looked upon work as a curse. The Middle Ages valued contemplation over action. Those who had a calling became a priest or entered a monastery. In the Renaissance a new view of work "emerged." It emphasized action in the world. He also looks at Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud's views of work.

Hardy believes a major change began with Martin Luther's teaching on work. Luther taught that a vocation is a call to love one's neighbor "which comes to us through the duties which attach to our social place or station within the earthly kingdom" This means that providence has put us in a place or position where we have different responsibilities. Luther thought we had several callings: to be a husband or wife, parent or child, citizen, faithful church member, and so on. John Calvin and other Reformed thinkers would add to Luther's ideas on work as a calling. Calvinists thought that even the social order can be changed. All of live must be reformed to be in line with God's truth. Calvinists connected calling more with the talents and gifts each person possesses. We are to use these gifts for our neighbor good.

Hardy's book, The Fabric of this World is an excellent guide on how our work is connected with God's kingdom. In addition, he provides help for discerning God's calling in our life. He shows how our calling is broader than our occupation. How we can follow our calling even when we are not doing paid work, for example retirees, stay-at-home-moms, or unemployed. He provides good insight how we need to balance our callings. We must not emphasize one calling so much, that it undermines other callings. This book is recommended for all readers who are interested in finding their place in God's kingdom.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Read a Book, Part 5

How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

This is my final post on Adler's book. I have enjoyed my third reading of it. I agree with the subtitle that it is a classic guide for intelligent reading. It provides the reader with the tools he needs to be an excellent reader. This post will look at the final two chapters of the book: syntopical reading and reading for life-long education.

Adler lists two reasons for syntopical reading: "knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question" and the second is "knowing which books should be read in a general way" (309). Analytical reading focuses on reading one book critically. Syntopical reading focuses on reading multiple books determined by the topic of research. The author states that both inspectional and analytical reading prepares one for syntopical reading. Inspectional reading seems to be even more important for a syntopical reading than an analytical reading.

Syntopical reading usually is done when writing a research report. You have a topic that must be researched. You develop a preliminary bibliography of twenty or more sources. You do not have the time to do analytical reading for all your sources. You are concentrating only on the sources that address your topic. You know which parts of your source that are relevant to your topic. The first thing to do is to review all the sources on your bibliography. You will give these sources an inspectional reading. Adler notes that the skilled reader "discovers . . . whether the book says something important about his subject or not" (315). If it does not, it is put aside. Once you discover the books that are relevant to your topic, you then read them syntopically.

The author lists five steps to do a syntopical reading:

The first part is to "find the relevant passages" that address your topic. In the second part you "bring the author to terms." Since the authors will be using different terms for the same topic, you must create the terms that will apply to all the authors. In syntopical reading, you are in charge, not the author. Adler states that the reader "forces" the author to use his terms instead of "the other way around." The third part is to "get the questions clear." The reader must create questions that help solve the problem. What are we trying to find out? What questions can help us solve our research problem? In part four the reader "defines the issues." What are the key issues of the research topic? How are these issues addressed by the sources? The last step is to "analyse the discussion." What are the different sources saying? Who agrees with whom? This seems to be similar to a literature review? The last chapter of the book speaks of a growing mind.

Adler states that if we want to grow as a reader, we will need to read books that will stretch us. They must be books that lie slightly beyond our capacity. The authors claim that reading purely for entertainment or information will not stretch you. You must read books that are above you and are read for understanding. The authors notes that these type of books will reward you in two ways. First, your reading skills will improve. Second, "a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself" (340-341). It will help you to grow in wisdom. In addition, the authors states that the mind is a muscle. A muscle requires exercise to grow. The mind can "atrophy if it is not used." The authors end their book with this encouragement: "Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also helps to keep our minds alive and growing" (346). I hope this short survey of this book will motivate you to read it.