Memory, Theory, English Departments, and Christian Education

Professing Literature: An Institutional History by Gerald Graff

Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education by Edward Farley

I’m not sure how other folks entered into self-awareness of their places within their professions, but for me, the way into the college English department, then into the seminary, then back through the English department on the other side of the lectern, was something of a recursive process.  I was aware, as an undergraduate student, that Milligan College’s humanities program wasn’t like what my counterparts at state universities were doing, and when I started seminary, I had a notion at least that we were studying more Greek and Hebrew (and reading fewer “social justice” books) than what other seminarians might.  In graduate school in English at the University of Georgia, I did notice that my counterparts in other programs often didn’t have the latitude that we did to explore what questions occurred to us while on-site, that some programs had more of a definite critical “agenda” than ours did.  So on an experiential level, I knew fairly early that there was at least a range of experiences that were possible under the umbrella category called “English major” just as I knew that “Christian college” and “seminary” each had not one connotation but a finite but interestingly broad set of possible meanings.  But I didn’t have much along the lines of a historical account for all of those differences.

I read some books on what a seminary ought to be as a seminarian, but only years later did I start reading cats like Richard M. Weaver and James Berlin and others who gave me a sense of just how brief the English department’s institutional history has been.  In my explorations into my strange hybrid institutional history, Weaver reminded me that there have been professors of rhetoric for some centuries far longer than there have been professors of literary studies, and to be sure, as Berlin notes, many of the questions that are central to the modern university go back at least as far as the Enlightenment.  But the problems that face a professor of English at a Christian college in 2014 are problems with the university department and the specialized school, so I’m going to write a bit about two books that deal specifically with academic-department-era education, namely Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature and Edward Farley’s Theologica.

Formal education for promising preachers goes back a long way, well into the earliest Christian centuries.  By the time Augustine writes his treatise On Christian Teaching, he can assume that rhetorical training for preachers is a live option and opine on an ongoing conversation, not initiate one.  By the time of the early universities, the theology faculty and the philosophy faculty are different people (Farley 34).  And in North America, denominational seminaries start to take off as early as the early nineteenth century (9).  On the other hand, as Gerald Graff notes, “academic literary studies” as an intelligible institution doesn’t go much farther back than the late nineteenth century (1).  Although both kinds of institution face the same intellectual questions once the academic department, an import from Germany, begins to dominate American higher education, theology as an intellectual discipline has a much longer history to contend with.

Before departments, according to Farley, theology only becomes separate from philosophy (which, for instance, Augustine or Boethius would have called the sustained learning which includes both dialectic and trinitarian doctrine) when Aristotle comes to Europe through the Arabs and a mode of disciplined thought, involving dialectical thought as opposed to positive revelation, becomes possible (37).  Even in those early centuries when the faculty of philosophy and the faculty of theology co-existed in the same university, those two words named not sections of the library, first and foremost, but intellectual virtues, disciplines of the mind that a university should cultivate in its students (Farley 31).  Philosophia named the disposition to examine logically and ethically those realities common to humanity, across confessions and non-confessions, and theologia named the qualities of intellect that thought faithfully and rigorously about the content of specifically Christian revelation.  Both were crucial to the education of Christian thinkers, but they were separate enterprises nonetheless.  Thus could universities, before anyone decided to house faculties in departments, distinguish between kinds of learning, and thus could Luther, a few centuries later, disparage philosophy, not because its subject matter had nothing to do with Scripture (far from it) but because it inculcated dispositions of mind that, for Luther, too often make people unfaithful readers.

In the seventeenth century, well into the Protestant era, Calvinist universities begin to draw strong distinctions between Biblical studies and systematic theology, one dedicated largely to the exposition of particular texts, the other to making global assertions based on the findings of those expositions (Farley 39).  Theology as a practice still has the singular goal of developing true knowledge of God (51), but the distinction between sacra pagina (Bible reading) and sacra doctrina (arguments about the nature of God via logical syllogisms) signals a move away from education as a singular practice, with an all-encompassing telos (55).  As Europe turns the corner into the Enlightenment, and as British colonies start to lean towards becoming a distinctively Englightenment-flavored independent political entity, the rise of sciences, in the plural, means a new day for theological education and the possibility of an academic department.

The Birth of the Academic Department

Brevity is the rule when doing histories of the academic department.  The conception of the university as a collection of scholars whose primary job is to produce knowledge that the human species did not know before is really quite new; for the first seven hundred years (roughly speaking) of the university’s existence (and, for that matter, for the thousand years before that, when court tutors and monastic schools and other forms of learning dominated the European scene), the liberal arts (which get codified as such in the late Roman Empire but have roots at least as old as Plato’s Republic) served a fairly limited function, namely to train those in a city whose learned professions (usually listed as philosophy, medicine, and law) required a common base of grammatical, mathematical, rhetorical, and other philosophical learning (Graff 20-21).  Only when the university begins to re-imagine itself first and foremost as a place where faculty produce scholarly texts does it make sense to subdivide said faculty by specialized subject-matter.

When German universities rise in the eighteenth century to become the model for European learning, they do so by specializing (Farley 58).  The prime aim of the departments of the university is no longer the development of virtue, intellectual or otherwise, among its young but rather the aim of encyclopedia, the development of a universal published body of rigorous learning and knowledge (58).  As specialized scholars rather than magisters of the liberal arts become the desired faculty members in the university, lectures, in which specialized scholars frame intellectual concepts by means of oratory, become the corresponding (and dangerous) innovation in education (Graff 32).  The departure from recitation, in which a tutor assesses the language-learning of a room full of pupils, evaluating how well they learned what generations before them had learned (or not), signals the end of education as folks knew it, and in their early moments, the philologists, nineteenth-century professors whose speciality was the historical development of language-systems, were decidedly the revolutionaries in the universities.  Although Yale presented an alternative to the rise of the scholarly department in its focus on belletristic reading as the core of the English program (Graff 42-43), by and large, the study of old texts, mainly Greek and Latin works but also Old English and Middle English poetry, tended to be atomistic, interested far more in the roots, parallels, developments, and anamolies in old texts than in anything that we moderns would recognize as “studying literature” (Graff 38).  Perhaps predictably, professors in those days often complained that their students were ill-prepared, lacking in dedication, and generally bored with the endless lectures about word roots and subjunctive constructions.  Meanwhile, in the theology departments, Schilermacher’s notion that theology prepares servants of the church, which is an extension of the nation-state, becomes the normal way to justify theology as a science among its newer counterparts (Farley 86).

With the institution of Johns Hopkins, the first American university dedicated to research first and teaching secondarily, the American research university was on its way (Graff 57).  Graff takes care to note that such a shift from hiring teachers to hiring researchers meant a radically new way to imagine the univerisity, not primarily as a places that maintains a literary culture that progresses from generation to generation but as a place where knowledge, conceived in terms of the unfolding consciousness of the species, advances (Graff 60).  Although the old-guard teachers, by the late nineteenth century identified disparagingly as “humanists,” continued to find employment at the newly re-imagined universities (someone had to teach the undergraduates, after all), the new professorial “character” was more investigator than magister (Graff 62).  On a similar vein, seminaries hire more and more specialists, distinguished by publication records, and divide their own courses of ministerial training according to the now-familiar fourfold schema of Biblical, systematic, historical, and practical theologies (Farley 113).  At this point in the game, the idea in the seminary is still that learning such a range of intellectual disciplines is character-forming for the potential preacher, that particular practical “applications” of these disciplines to the life of the parish is not necessarily the business of the academic department (105).

In the English department, which arose as a result of old rhetoric professors’ insistence that they were just as much researchers as historians and chemists were, a division of labor arose that remains with American colleges to this day.  Harvard led the way, as it often does, splitting the teaching of written composition (which was suddenly a first-year hurdle to clear before advancing to “major” classes, a strong departure from the rhetorical education that pre-research-university students would have undergone) from the philological scholarship that came along with reduced teaching loads, higher salaries, and greater importance within the institution (Graff 67).  Philology, which was the reigning mode of study, purported to explore “the whole study of the history of cultures” (Graff 69), continued to expand into older forms of northern-European languages as well as continuing its study of the development of Greek and Latin, and the atomism that often characterized literature departments’ lectures persisted into the scholarship produced.

Those future teachers who would revolutionize English studies, and make the turn towards interpretation rather than historical-linguistic studies, by and large got their start not in the classroom but in college literary societies, whose sense of membership identity would lose central place to the fraternities, sororities, and spectator-sports franchises that defined American university life in the 20th and 21st centuries (Graff 44).  And although I wouldn’t want to posit any common point of genesis, an interesting analogy at least is, in this period, several Christian liberal arts schools and early Bible colleges, places founded in response to the new-found prominence of German scholarship and the diminution of old-style ministerial education, start up.  Although such places do not play much of a part in Farley’s account of the seminary (and, understandably, none in Graff’s history of the English department), placing these two histories next to each other makes me notice that the third-history of the American Christian teaching college fits nicely in this historical moment.

Only in this sort of environment did a reaction against philological specialization, and the 1870’s gave the university the “generalist,” the figure whose identity stood as a counterpart to the philologist, someone whose main mission was not to produce scholarly volumes not seen before but to bring the old literary culture, which was falling victim to American preferences for the commercial and industrial to the philosophical, to the young (Graff 81).  In this period, the Ph.D, before a credential usually conferred to reward new research and signifying only the accomplishments of the recipient, became a de facto ticket to the professorship in the big universities.  Such a move to the doctorate as a default was a blow against the generalists, who tended to be educated but not given to the sort of focused research required to complete a doctoral dissertation (Graff 87).  By the last decade of the nineteenth century, even the generalists are singing a new tune, namely that one’s specialized research can be a good thing, so long as it informs a broad liberal education (Graff 93).

In that same decade, as Graff tells the story, a new college ethos and a new sort of literature scholar take the stage: college becomes, first and foremost, a place where the sons of the wealthy, irrespective of professional goals, can meet to form the networks of influence and loyalty upon which the next generation’s business elite will be built (106), and philology finds itself competing with literary history for the soul of the English department (101).  With regards to one development, research faculty, because there’s no incentive to pour their time and energy into learning how to teach a new generation of students, largely wring their hands as cheating runs rampant and hard study becomes decidedly “unfashionable” in Princeton, among other places (Graff 108).  With regards to the rise of the literary historians, English departments quickly learn how to avoid the sorts of civil wars that threaten the peace of their star researchers: rather than confront the debates about what exactly an English department does, and thus run the risk of chasing one’s most prized researchers away to other schools, universities quickly learn that it’s far more expedient simply to add on literary history as another “field” within the department so that it matters naught that there’s “neither agreement nor debate” about what an English department is for in the first place (Graff 111).  Perhaps coincidentally but probably not, this period also sees the rise of German-trained professors of theology in the newly-departmentalized and research-ready American universities (Farley 113).  The subdivision of specialities, and the relegation of rival philosophies as “fields,” had the same effect on the English department as the division of the university into departments had before: by expanding laterally, the institution delayed for a while the question of what, if anything, the elements mean together.  The theology departments (Biblical and systematic) in the same schools naturally followed that lead, shifting their own focus from shaping the character of future ministers to teaching the same candidates for ministry a discrete range of ministry-tasks, those including exegesis of the Bible; the situation of one’s own practice in a long arc of Church history; the systematic philosophical exposition of Christian doctrine; and the practice of ministry, which at this point mainly involved the rhetorical science of homiletics.  Thus the aim of the theological school becomes plural rather than singular, ministerial tasks replacing ministerial character (Farley 62).

World War I and its Fallout

Two great English-department movements became far more significant during and following World War I than before, the Great Books curriculum and American Literature as a field of study.  The rise of American Lit is simpler to understand: as the Germans became America’s great opponent, and as America tried to outdo Germany in all things, Hawthorne became as sensible a counterpart to Goethe as one could imagine, and while wartime patriotism did not give birth to American literature (there were college courses on such things decades before the Great War), by 1925 American Literature was an omnipresent and unquestioned (and often enough dominant) feature of the college-English curriculum (Graff 212).

The Great Books phenomenon, on the other hand, has more to do with reaction and memory than American literature does.  Sensing that specialization in the English department was coinciding with a cultural shift of power away from the literate class and towards the commercial class (a move that was a century in the making, to be sure), John Erskine among others began to field required courses consisting neither in philology nor in literary history but in direct encounters with what they took to be the best books that the human species had produced (134).  The rationale was simple: incoming students in the early twentieth century didn’t bring Homer and Plato and Vergil and Dante to school with them, as cultural background, so what they needed was not historical background to make sense of what they already knew but some encounters that would result in a rich cultural familiarity.  Unfortunately, as Graff notes, the problem with such a strategy is that the historical distance between those texts and the twentieth-century meant that they needed some history along with the literary texts, and since the Great Books approach practically forbade historical instruction, students found these texts as alien as they ever did (136).

But with the new suspicion of everything German, a new group of scholarly journals. whose focus was on the criticism rather than the philological history of literature, were becoming the places to be seen for aspiring professors.  Whether they knew how ironic the name would be by the time I was a graduate student in an English department, the academic circles consisting of those who wrote books and articles based not on philological scholarship but literary criticism soon came to be known as the New Critics (Graff 153).  Not even a hundred years after the great battles between humanists and philologists, the Critics come along and insist that the proper object of study in an English department is not the historical development of vocabularies and syntactical structures across texts but the structure inherent in any given text.  Along with the critical methods of the New Critics came a resurgence of Great Books pedagogy, and the new methodology, with its focus on the text at hand to the exclusion of the historical complexity of which they are a part, leads to a sort of pedagogy that a new professor-class, one without a strong background in the history of letters, could practice.  This General-Education movement, which enjoyed as much or more success in non-university, adult-education contexts as it did in colleges, aspired, like its Great-Books predecessors, to initiate students into “the Great Conversation” of Western literary and philosophical texts, to recreate institutionally what the new, specialist-driven university had largely lost (163).  About this time, according to Farley, the American seminary has largely turned its own educational practices away from shaping the souls of potential church-servants (presumably leaving that to the “general education” they had already undertaken) and instead ordered its own curriculum according to the notion that ministers are “professionals,” not unlike lawyers and physicians, and that every facet of the curriculum that is merely “academic” has little to offer the clergy-in-training (115).

Pausing a moment, I’ll say that the Great Books/General Education philosophy is one with which I can resonate: Euripides and Aristotle and Ovid and Boethius are fine for specialists to study as historical artifacts, subjecting them to the scrutiny of modern methods.  But to spend valuable undergraduate-education time on those endeavors is a grand waste of good questions; of more benefit to the young is to treat these books as conversation partners, as books which, taken on their own terms, open up avenues of inquiry that college students, with their relatively limited background, have not yet encountered (Graff 168-69).  But as I read Graff’s account of how General Education in the post-WWII years actually played out, I agree with one of his large criticisms, namely that such education, without an accompanying historical education, leaves students without the benefit of seeing how those texts were interacting with and shaping their own contingent moments (174).  Or, to put it another way, a superficial introduction to “context” does little justice to the ways in which Plato’s dialogues engage with the particular assumptions of fourth-century Athenian aristocrats and the richness that arises when one pays attention to such engagements.  Graff also notes, wryly, that such context-negligent education, predictably, led to a new wave of “kids these days” polemics that blamed students, not an inadequate way to teach students, for their obvious lack of interest in reading entirely inaccessible old texts (176).

Some of the attacks on literary history, on the parts of the New Critics, are worthy of note both because they’re witty and because they’re fallacious.  Most famously, Cleanth Brooks complained of his literary-historical counterparts that “almost every English professor is diligently devoting himself to discovering ‘what porridge had John Keats.'” (qtd. in Graff 188).  Williams and Beardsley mocked colleagues who paid little attention to the structure of the verse and too much to “how or why the poet wrote the poem–to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother” (qtd. in Graff 188).  Of course, there’s an excluded middle here, one that sees the structure itself informed by the historical moment, but polemics make much of their hay by excluding middles, after all.  As literary history and literary criticism battled for prominence, the English department pulled the same trick as it had before, not making the winner of the conflict, or the conflict itself, the organizing principle of the department as an institution but merely sending the critics and the historians to neutral corners, each to publish in their own journals without often speaking to their departmental colleagues in the other “camp” (Graff 193).  In a similar move, as Farley notes, university religion departments, which largely abandon clergy-training functions in the twentieth century, retain the fourfold division of theological studies, reimagining “practical theology” as a subset of social science rather than training in the practices of parish ministry (134).

The Future of Literature and of Theology

With the rise of New Criticism routinization emerged as a phenomenon within the English department.  Because New Criticism prized ambiguity and a plurality of potential interpretations as marks of great literature, and because English departments prized frequent publications as marks of good professors, critics of the newly-status-quo practice of published literary criticism come under fire for multiplying interpretation without any sense that the interpretation has a purpose beyond perpetuating the journals (Graff 228).  Moreover, the pressures of the guild meant that confirmation bias set in, and suddenly ambiguity and potential for plural interpretations started appearing everywhere, no matter how “great” or otherwise a text was (Graff 233).  Lack of purpose and seemingly infinite “need” for professional literary critics meant that there was no end in sight, in the federally-funded, G.I. Bill universities, of the system as it stood.  In the meantime, professors were finding that incoming students, far from needing their pieties critiqued, actually needed to learn what those pieties were before understanding why they needed critique (Graff 232).  Thus when deconstruction comes to the English department, its position is a problem from the outset: it’s good medicine for multiplying the possibilities of publication, but it’s almost senseless for undergraduates who don’t have much of a “construct” to begin with.  Along similar lines, postwar religion departments increasingly think of themselves as humanities programs writ large, justifying their own activities humanistically rather than theologically (Farley 139) and presumably also dividing their own efforts between general-education matter for the undergraduates and highly specialized inquiry for graduate students and working professors.

Deconstruction has the strange effect of making allies of the literary historians and the literary critics: both agree that whatever Derrida is doing, the English department must fight it (Graff 241).  But, as had happened with philology first and criticism after, deconstruction found itself not leavening the whole batch but merely sequestered into its own courses and its own journals, leaving its predecessors largely untouched and itself becoming yet another routine, another status quo (Graff 243).  Thus literary theory largely becomes the province of graduate students, changing with such speed that Jeremiads about “trendy” criticism become commonplace, and undergrads encounter literature, in many cases, in ways largely indistinguishable from what New Critics were calling for decades before (Graff 248).  Newspaper editorials begin the now-regular cycle of calling for a return to “literature itself” (Graff 254) instead of the rapidly-shifting theory-vocabularies, and so we land where we land.

Gerald Graff ends his book with a call to resist the urge to let the university become a museum of forgotten battles, department divisions bearing the contours of old revolutions without the accompanying conceptual encounters (258).  Instead, he makes a wish at the end of Professing Literature for an English department that brings those controversies into the classroom, teaching students as ask what actually counts as literature and entertaining the possibility that theoretical battles might themselves be useful not only for professors in need of another publication line but also to students trying to figure out what to do with all of these strange books (Graff 260).  In a moment that overlaps with Graff in interesting ways, Farley calls for a return to a kind of virtue ethics, a return to the question of theological paideia that re-imagines theologia not as a catalog of courses to complete but as the aim of the educational process considered broadly (153).  Like Graff, Farley imagines that theologia is most probable, but not guaranteed, in a context that promotes dialectic rather than consensus, open tension rather than masked and forgotten conflict (179).  He also, in a move that does not at all match Graff, call for a move out of the formal educational establishment and into the congregations, extending the goods of theologia-as-intellectual-virtue to the laity (196).

Graff and Farley are interesting conversation partners first because they both attempt to narrate and respond to problems connected to academic departments; and second because ultimately, they point in postmodern, virtue-ethics sorts of directions, suggesting (along with Plato and Aristotle, I should note) that dialectic, whether in the agora or in the English department, might not simply provide a way for folks who disagree to confront one another but might indeed be part of a good education, something that leads students out of their reliance on received assumptions and asks them to learn to ask new questions.  Adding to that, Farley notes that theologia, not unlike rhetorike, serves as a nice dancing partner for dialectic, an intellectual virtue for whose sake we engage in dialectic in the first place.  Beyond that virtue-ethics focus, neither book calls for an abolition of “departments” but a relativizing of the same, a notion that ultimately the “great professors” may or may not have pages-long publication records but certainly remain somewhat aware of their place in the larger network of inquiry.  There might have been a time when I preferred the St. John’s model of things, in which every teacher teaches everything, and I still don’t think I’d turn down an offer from St. John’s if they decided tomorrow to take me on as one of their tutors.  (I don’t anticipate that happening, so I’m really placing a rather empty wager here.)  But I’ve come to think that dialectic is also possible in a more conventional twenty-first-century academic-departments school, provided that folks are willing to let something like theologia govern the big-picture goals of the school and allow for a sort of universal notion of calling, a conviction that every student in every major has a genuine vocation and not just career prospects.

As I continue trying to teach well, serve well, and think well at Emmanuel, this vision of things resonates with the potential that I see in a school like ours.  With a bit of courage, a Christian college stands to be a place in which those previously claimed by the academic guilds talk together because they teach together, allowing a robust vision for their students to be the matrix within they ask questions that their professional conferences, for better or for worse reasons, tend to avoid.  Such is not to say that any human being in 2014 can be a specialist in every field or even in more than a couple, but it is to say that, given a telos that’s something like Farley’s vision of theologia as an intellectual virtue, chemists might actually attempt to be better neighbors to historians and economists to education theorists.  What will come out of those neighborly conversations I couldn’t predict, just as Socrates never knows what will happen when he chats with a rhetorician or a tragedian or a businessman, but knowing what happened, in Plato’s version of things at least, when those folks were in the room together, I do enjoy some hope that such dialectic, a post-specialization dialectic, stands to be fruitful.

I say post-specialized because, like Hegel and like Nietzsche and like MacIntyre and Haerwas and Milbank, I don’t harbor any illusions that academic specialization never happened.  Whatever comes next cannot be and must not try to be identical with the university or the seminary of 1670 or 1870 or 1970, though resources from any of those moments might become new allies as we pick them up, turn them about, and wonder together how we might transform them to renew their careers in our own moment.  Such a post-departmental Christian humanism must, like the allegorical charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus (I do love me some Plato), harness both the horse of departmental loyalty and specialized inquiry and the horse of cross-departmental, general inquiry (I’ll let readers decide which is the dark and which the light horse) and use the energy that both provide to go wherever our destiny as educators lie.  Nobody thinks that we can be rid of one horse, and I suggest that we’d be poorer to proceed as if we didn’t have the other.  Where that leaves us, I think, is holding the reins of an educational vehicle that no era of education before ours could have imagined, one that can, if we’re willing to rein in one of those horses (probably both, let’s be honest), promises to charge forward into genuinely good, true, and beautiful moments as teachers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *