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.

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