Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hofstadter blogging: Higher ed is in a Great Awakening

As soon as I finished blogging about how I can't put this book down I fell asleep, and then spent most of the next day on other things.  But I did manage to finish chapter 2 and much of chapter 3 yesterday.  I want to focus here on chapter 3 and the religious roots of American anti-intellectualism.

Hofstadter was, at least at an early stage in his life, quite the Communist. However, he does not let that ideological sympathy diminish his admiration for the devoutly religious Puritans.  Of all the early American cultural strains, the Puritans were without a doubt the ones most amenable to learning and intellectual discourse.  I will point the reader to Albion's Seed* for a full run-down on literacy rates and other educational achievements in the Puritan settlements, and simply note, as Hofstadter does, that the Puritans established schools from the elementary level up through Harvard college, that they had a great many clergy with college degrees from Oxbridge schools, and that they had a tradition of publishing sermons for public study and debate.  They were also, by the admittedly lamentable standards of their time, egalitarian in matters of gender, and they had a thrifty and industrious culture with a remarkably flat income and wealth distribution that modern-day critics of inequality ought to celebrate.  Moreover, while slavery was at one time legal in New England, the Puritans and their descendants had a very low rate of slave ownership (relative to most of the other colonies that became the US) and gave America some of its most fervent white** Abolitionist activists, up to and including zealous holy warriors with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.  (If one translates "jihad" as "holy war" then America's first jihadists were not Muslims, but rather were Christians fighting against slavery.)

In spite of this intellectual, egalitarian, and liberal spirit, in the mainstream cultural narrative we remember the Puritans for little except Thanksgiving (the modern gluttonous celebration of which would have appalled the thrifty Puritans), the Salem Witch Trials, and an allegedly dour and anti-fun culture.  One would think that the more politically correct elements in modern leftist culture, the sorts who can point out how problematic your favorite entertainments and notions really are, would have some sympathy for dour, anti-fun Puritans.  As for the witch trials, such an ugly and unconscionable episode really ought to serve as a cautionary note on how even the most progressive and enlightened cultures can get caught up in a frenzy and commit atrocities.  Instead, our mainstream narrative treats the Witch Trials as the signature moment of the Puritans, and ascribes every conservative element in modern American culture to them.  This is particularly strange when people ascribe the more "southern fried" evangelical religious aspects of our political scene to New England Puritan roots.  Hofstadter takes it as a sign of American anti-intellectualism that the colonists who are arguably the most pilloried in our mainstream cultural narrative are the ones who were in fact the most intellectual.  (One might also take it as a sign of racism that we have negative narratives about a cultural strain that gave rise to fervent Abolitionism but few narratives concerning waves of Southern colonists, just as one might take it as a sign of classism that when we do hear narratives about white Southern colonists they mostly concern the backwardness of the impoverished Scots-Irish rather than the sins of the more affluent Cavaliers who actually owned plantations.)

Anyway, the Puritans were busy reading the Bible and writing essays, but over time they were getting less inspiring in their preaching, and so there was a religious vacuum to be filled.  In the 1720's a wave of evangelical preaching started to sweep the US, a wave that crossed regions and generally featured less learned preachers encouraging the masses to testify to their own Biblical interpretations and faith experiences.  This wave of preaching and reignited religious fervor is now called The Great Awakening, it was a major challenge to the authority of the learned clergy, and we see its effects to this day in the American religious scene.  It is not necessarily a negative thing, whether from a viewpoint that emphasizes democratic equality or from a viewpoint that prizes religious devotion.  It is, however, something that clearly has analogues in other parts of American culture. It also resonates with my own observations on academia.  When I went to the AAPT New Faculty Workshop in 2007, an event focused on getting new faculty into the spirit of reformed pedagogy, I noted to somebody on the shuttle bus from the hotel one morning that I couldn't figure out whether the organizers wanted me to teach physics or find Jesus.  I'm not from a Puritan or Congregationalist background, but as a Catholic and a graduate of a Catholic school I am certainly steeped in a culture of sages on stages, and the preachy aspects of the workshop reminded me of campus evangelical groups whose meetings I had tried out (and quickly abandoned) in my freshman year of college.  "Campus Crusade for Clickers" is how I sometimes describe pedagogy workshops.  Some people hear that as a denunciation of reformed pedagogy for alleged irrationality, but I do not offer religious analogies as critiques of irrationality.  Rather, I offered it as a critique of the cultural elements, the narratives of transformation and conversion, and the preachy spirit.

Anyway, reading of the wave of evangelical meetings that swept the US in the 18th century, challenging the status of the learned clergy who gave us our oldest university, I feel like I am starting to grope toward the cultural roots of some of the crazes sweeping the modern academy.

I'll close with a note on how history repeats itself with ironic twists:  On page 72 Hofstadter notes that revivalist Jonathan Edwards criticized Yale for failing to do its part to uphold and promote Christian teaching.  It is funny that two hundred years later no less of a traditionalist than William F. Buckley offered a similar critique, though from a somewhat different set of sympathies.

*A good friend is a historian who has pointed out to me some of the limitations of the analysis in that book, but the compilation of data on the early Americans is impressive irrespective of the validity of Fischer's extrapolations to the present day.
**It is only fair to put that qualifier here; surely the most fervent supporters of Abolition were the African Americans who suffered under slavery.  However, among the white supporters of Abolition, New England gave us some of the most fervent.

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