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.