Rethinking Grad School

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryThis month students in our capstone course, Senior Seminar, are reading chapters in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, eds. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (University of Notre Dame Press). In his introduction, Miller contends that a new generation of Christian historians is uncomfortable with George Marsden’s famous suggestion that religious historians agree to “play by the rules” of the secular academy (while still reflecting intently on how their faith shapes their scholarship). Miller and colleagues edit a collection of essays that, to various degrees, suggest alternative ways of thinking about what it means for Christians to do history.

One theme that’s already struck me is that several of the contributors look back on their experiences in graduate school with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, they appreciate the rigor of the training, the way it broadened their view of the world, and the relationships they formed with peers and mentors. On the other hand… Well, let’s let two of the authors speak for themselves:

First, Beth Barton Schweiger (Univ. of Arkansas, an expert on the social history of religion in the U.S. South) closes her chapter — on what it means for Christian historians to “love” the people they study — by contemplating the difference between vocation and profession, and the ambiguous formation offered by graduate schools:

The temptation to practice any vocation as a profession, particularly when one’s vocation is a profession, is difficult to avoid. The rigors of professional formation in long years of graduate school can deeply imprint young scholars with many traits that do not set well with a Christian calling: ambition, a harshly critical spirit, cynicism, competition, and arrogance. Others are more valuable, among them: intellectual curiosity, critical inquiry, a wide familiarity with a body of work in a specific discipline, the skills to write strongly and well, and the clarity of thought required to do so. All of the qualities one learns in graduate school shape both the history that one writes and the relationship that one develops with colleagues in the discipline. Yet many of these habits should be set aside in favor of the deeper purpose of historical knowledge—one not found on any seminar syllabus—which is to serve the ends of love. (p. 73)

She goes on to warn that the professionalization of historical study (the process of “winnowing out, of narrowing allegiances and priorities in order to conform to the rigid standards of the guild”) can form in Christian historians the temptations to think ourselves more intelligent than the people we study, to wield knowledge as an instrument of power, and to scorn charity, wisdom, and mercy.

Meanwhile, Bradley Gundlach (an American intellectual and religious historian, at Trinity International University) starts his chapter by describing the process by which he’s been “reconciled to [his] graduate school past” as a doctoral student at the University of Rochester:

Those years were the most difficult of my life, and for a good while I seriously doubted the value of my training. Some of my doubts sprang from “program envy”: a worry that others got a better Ph.D. than I did. Did they have a more congenial cohort of fellow students, closer relationships with their mentors, better books assigned them, better research and job opportunities? A good number of my worries were matters of self-doubt: perhaps I hadn’t taken in as much as I should have, hadn’t worked hard enough. And beyond these personal issues were systemic concerns. I worried that graduate training had alienated me from something I used to love, as history became a duty and a burden in the daily “Grad Grind” (the psychologically unhelpful title of our graduate student rag). Friends outside the university—thankfully I made a point of finding such—observed that historical study was making me incapable of decision, as I instinctively treated every question as an open one requiring more thought. Was graduate school making me value scholarly prowess more than goodness, kindness, faithfulness? And particularly, was the pose of cultural critic making me incapable of living and enjoying life as it is in my time and place, cultivating in me a pervasive sourness about society in general and people in particular? Coming to the Ph.D. program from a seminary M.A., I assumed that these two phases of my training were fundamentally antagonistic. It didn’t help that the director of graduate studies had an enormous portrait of Karl Marx on the wall behind his desk, frowning down on me over his shoulder. (pp. 153-54)

These are all issues that Bethel students and alumni considering doctoral study in history or related fields ought to consider: How sensitive would you be to the reputation of your program, or to that of Bethel when it gets compared to the educational backgrounds of your peers? Can your lifelong love for history survive the rigors of historical study? (We don’t call it a “discipline” for nothing!) Can you find balance between your studies and the other areas of your life? Should you expect tension between your faith and your scholarly training?

At the same time, Gundlach does feel that he reconciled these problems, and devotes his chapter to making the case for evangelicals and other Christians to assimilate the insights of the secular thinkers one encounters in graduate school. First, as outsiders, they help people of faith see their own blind spots (e.g., he discusses how cultural and intellectual historians like Robert Bellah and Jackson Lears helped him realize the ways in which American evangelicals unthinkingly adopted the surrounding culture’s emphases on individualism, corporate expansion, and even “imperialistic violence”). At the same time, they might also offer a “promising moral vision” that resonates with Christian concerns (e.g., Gundlach praises Christopher Lasch, a secular historian who  concluded that modern ideas of progress are ultimately empty, counterfeits or even perversions of Christian hope). But ultimately, Gundlach affirms the limits of these insights: because the critiques of Bellah, Lears, and Lasch ultimately demonstrate the inability of secularism to solve its own problems, they helped point Gundlach back towards “a distinctively Christian moral vision of the good life, one that benefits from secular insights but rises above them” (p. 161).

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