Mark Noll on teaching (as a sort of withdrawal) or research (as attending to all reality)

I see this “avoiding the political infighting” as a sort of “Benedict option” for Christian intellectuals. The pull between “teaching-centered higher education” (Mark Schwehn) and what Mark Noll seems to be recommending here is a quite strong internal conflict for me. Truth be told, I’m inclined to teaching for “the virtues of attending to students as people.” However, I find Noll’s appeal persuasive: “the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit.”

“An even more substantial objection grows from a consideration of the modern academy. Surely evangelicals are better off avoiding the political in-fighting, manifest secularization, power mongering, and ideological warfare that so often characterize modern academic life and that have been the subject of sharp public criticism in recent years. 26 If evangelicals inhabit a brackish intellectual backwater, they are still spared the perils of a tumultuous sea upon which ships are going nowhere. A great modern university might keep the sort of inscription that still adorns Kinsey Hall on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles — “Psalm 119: 18. Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” But the reality of what occurs in the research universities often mocks the pieties of earlier generations. When this argument is made with Christian subtlety — as it has been made, for instance, in a recent apology for teaching-centered higher education by Mark Schwehn of Valparaiso University — the argument carries weight. 27 Schwehn’s case for the virtues of attending to students as people as opposed to the pursuit of research as an end in itself, for historically anchored religious conviction over ultra-chic ideological posturing, is compelling. The weight of such an argument means that an appeal for intellectual effort must be precise. In appealing for Christian scholarship, the point is not primarily academic respectability, and certainly not the mindless pursuit of publication for its own sake that bedevils the modern university. The point is rather that the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit, whether that consideration is of social theory, the history of science, other historical changes, the body, the arts, literature, or more. Christian appeals for learning should not ask for a downgrading of teaching, an elitist rejection of insights from ordinary people, or an aestheticism that excludes all but the cognoscenti. They should ask rather that explorations into the broader and deeper reaches of the intellect be considered a complement to, rather than competition against, person-oriented, teaching-focused, and democratically inspired intellectual life.”

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 29-31.

Quotable: Aristotle, on education

This is one of my favorites. I thought of this quote about every week when I was teaching.

“We ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right eduction.” Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1104b11-13

This should be added to the picture.

“Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds–passions, faculties, states–excellence must be one of these. By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e.g. of becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states the things we of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e.g. with reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly with reference to the other passions.

“Now neither the excellences nor the vices are passions, because we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so called on the ground of our excellences and our vices, and because we are neither praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who feels fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who simply feels anger blamed, but the man who feels it in a certain way), but for our excellences and our vices we are praised or blamed.

“Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the excellences are choices or involve choice. Further, in respect of the passions we are said to be moved, but in respect of the excellences and the vices we are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a particular way.” (1105b19-1106a6)

Aristotle goes on to say that virtues or excellences are states, the things by which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions. So, I suppose the question now is what sort of “thing” is a state? These “things” are clearly related to the passions, but how? Are they the regulatory conditions? And if so, what constitutes these conditions for Aristotle? What constitutes these conditions for us? Or are we prepared to dismiss his categories entirely? Finally, how are choices “involved”? All of this is fertile ground for further ethical reflection. But, at least for me, this muddles up the flash card version of Aristotle on emotion.

Patrick Deneen on “Critical Thinking”


In spite of the praise for and embrace of “diversity” on nearly every campus in the nation, there is one orthodoxy upon which all campuses now largely and uniformly agree: the aim of a university education is to inculcate among students the skill of “critical thinking.” As various requirements in humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences are eliminated, reduced, or replaced by a set of “distribution requirements,” colleges and universities increasingly signal that it is less any particular content or specific knowledge that matters than the ability to think critically about any and all issues. The skills that one learns in any given course – whether geology, philosophy, literature, sociology, physics, theology or political science, and so on – are fungible and transportable, a set of tools that can be used to analyze any topic or idea that falls within the general family of inquiry that is learned in a given course. “Critical thinking” is now effectively the core curriculum, or its functional equivalent, at most of our colleges and universities.

This is a striking fact given that there is almost no discussion about what “critical thinking” is. There is a general low-level and largely underarticulated agreement that it is a good and desirable thing, and a shared sense that both “criticism” and “thinking” are praiseworthy, by themselves and especially in combination. In contrast to the curricular “culture wars” of the 1980s – during which debates over the content of curriculum were vehement and heated, stoked in part by protests against “Western Civ” and Allan Bloom’s broadside The Closing of the American Mind – there is today almost no discussion – whether national or local – about what is meant by “critical thinking.” This absence of discussion gives rise to the suspicion that what mattered for many participants in the “culture wars” was not so much the content of the curriculum per se than its ultimate evisceration.

The article certainly raises the question, is “critical thinking” a (content neutral) method of reasoning or is there specific content to thinking well? It would be interesting (with more time) to tease out an answer to this question, or even if the question is meaningfully put. My recent reading in Charles Taylor and G.K. Chesterton makes this article particularly interesting to me.

“Learning Virtues,” David Brooks

This is a fascinating article from David Brooks about a Chinese and a Western approach to learning. He says, “The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally.” Note especially this,

You can look at the slogans on university crests to get a glimpse of the difference. Western mottos emphasize knowledge acquisition. Harvard’s motto is “Truth.” Yale’s is “Light and truth.” The University of Chicago’s is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.” Nanjing’s motto is “Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly.”

Another way of stating this is that American universities seem oriented toward a modern western epistemology, while the Chinese universities seem to represent an approach more oriented toward virtue epistemology. Perhaps Brooks is generalizing a bit too much, but if he is even mostly correct, the American universities could learn from their Chinese counterparts.

In Defense of Criticism

I’m a subscriber to too many email lists and blog updates. For this reason, I often archive emails where the titles do not seem to be interesting. However, one caught my eye today: Finding Calcutta: Find yourself in doing, not criticizing. I really don’t mean to criticize this particular article, especially any article that has to do with Mother Teresa. But I must say, there is a defense for criticism. In fact, I think criticism plays a crucial role. Criticism helps us not just to do things, but to do the right things in an effective way and with good motivations. Criticism, rightly applied, maintains humility and promotes reliance on God. Criticism reveals the sorts of blindness the noetic affect of sin causes. Certainly, criticism can be smug and self-satisified; what’s more, it can be an idolatrous substitute for obedience. But I wonder if well directed and intended criticism does not sometimes need to be defended.

The Shadow Scholar

A discouraging article: The Shadow Scholar

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

Making Connections

Alan Jacobs is right on here.

This from Tim Burke:

My colleague suggested to me that I had to be responsible first (and last) to my discipline and my specialization in my teaching, that there was something unseemly about the heavy admixture of literature and popular culture and journalistic reportage and anthropology that populates some of my syllabi. I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed as an overall view of higher education in some recent meetings. At a small liberal-arts college and maybe even at a large research university, this strikes me as substantially off the mark. Or at least we need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge.

Jacobs’s response:

Let me repeat that for you: We need some faculty who are irresponsible to their disciplines and responsible first to integrating and connecting knowledge. This is a precise and concise summation of what I’ve tried to do for many years now. There’s a price to be paid for this kind of thing, of course: expanded interests do not yield expanded time. The day’s number of hours remain constant, and then there’s the matter of sleep. So the more I explore topics, themes, books, films — whatever — outside the usual boundaries of my official specialization, the less likely it is that I will read every new article, or even every new book, in “my field.” But, to rephrase Tim’s point as a series of questions, Is the unswerving focus on a specifically bounded area of specialization the sine qua non of scholarship? Is it even intrinsic to scholarship? Is there not another model of scholarship whose primary activity is “integrating and connecting knowledge”?