Admissions of Guilt

It’s hard to tell for sure, but it looks like the Justice Department is investigating Harvard’s admissions policies. If Harvard really is cutting out qualified applicants based on their race, it is only continuing the shameful tradition of elite college admissions policies.

Here’s what we know: When pressed for information about its investigation into Harvard’s admissions policies, the Justice Department said that those records can’t be shared. They are part of an ongoing investigation. As Alia Wong describes in The Atlantic, we don’t know for sure, but it certainly looks like the Justice Department is going after Harvard.

The beef is that Harvard allegedly discriminates against Asian and Asian-American students. Would-be students claim that their SAT scores need to be far higher than non-Asian students. They point to schools like MIT and Berkeley that have no racial policies for admission, where there is a far higher proportion of Asian-American students.

Why would Harvard do such a thing? One possibility is that they hope to maintain a balanced student body. They don’t want to admit students solely on the basis of academic track record, but rather on a checklist of desirable qualities. Students from less-represented groups might have a better chance of admission, since the school wants a diverse group of students. For instance, a white girl from a low-income coal-mining family in West Virginia with an impressive academic record and basketball skills might outrank a Korean-American girl from a high-income family in Scarsdale with an even more impressive academic record and even better basketball skills.

It’s not easy to prove but it is easy to believe. Elite colleges have always shaped their admissions policies based on biased and unfair rules.

geiger

Non-WASPs need not apply…

As Professor Roger Geiger describes in his recent history of American higher education, selective admissions policies are a relatively new thing. Only in the 1920s did schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale begin to formalize their admissions processes.

It wasn’t pretty.

Back then, the elite colleges wanted to find some way to exclude talented students from non-elite backgrounds. In particular, they worried that too many smart Jewish students would take over their schools.

What to do?

Schools began to ask potential students to take standardized tests. One goal was to find out students’ true intelligence. Admissions officials back then assumed that WASPs were naturally more intelligent, but ambitious Jewish students—they called them “grinds”—worked too hard and made themselves look smarter than they really were.

At Yale, the first use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 was intended to weed out such non-traditional students. The test was geared toward the existing curriculum at elite prep schools. Students from those schools would be well prepared. Other students wouldn’t. The idea was to give Yale an objective-looking score they could use to exclude Jewish applicants.

At Princeton, the first selective admissions were even more slanted. Every potential student was given a score between one and four, even before the application was looked at. Students from desirable elite backgrounds were grade one—automatic admits. Students from Jewish backgrounds were classed four—automatic denials. Only after those categories were applied did admissions officials open up the applications and make decisions.

So is Harvard discriminating against Asian and Asian-American students? I have no idea, but as long as there have been selective admissions policies, those policies have been used to exclude hard-working, talented students from non-elite backgrounds.

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Blurbed!

I was never much of a baseball player, but there was a brief time in the late 1970s when I would have totally plotzed if Carl Yastrzemski told me I had a good swing.

Carl_Yastrzemski_at_Fenway_Park_2

He’s no Roger Geiger or Joel Carpenter, but Yaz was my hero for a while…

That’s about what I’m feeling like today, reading the blurbs for my upcoming book.

I don’t know how they did it, but the folks at Oxford Press have cajoled some heavy hitters in the fields of higher-educational and evangelical history into writing a few words for the book jacket.

Roger Geiger is the undisputed Grand Pooh-Bah of higher-ed history. His recent book The History of American Higher Education has become the new go-to source on the topic. Joel Carpenter packs a double punch as author and academic organizational wizard. He now works at Calvin College as director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He’s also a prolific author, and his book Revive Us Again defined the parameters of the study of twentieth-century evangelical history in the USA.  Daniel K. Williams is a younger historian, but he has already distinguished himself as a leading scholar of our generation. His two best-known books are God’s Own Party and Defenders of the Unborn. I lean heavily on God’s Own Party in Fundamentalist U and Dan helped me a great deal as I was writing and revising my book.

Here’s what these three larger-than-life nerd heroes had to say about my book:

“Adam Laats’s history of the development of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education reveals a complex interaction between religious and academic values. The colleges, universities, and Bible Institutes that he examines contained deep differences regarding both spheres. As a sympathetic observer and an objective reporter, Laats captures the conflicts and the abiding strengths of faith-based institutions as they wrestle with the challenges of modernity and their own internecine quarrels.” –Roger L. Geiger, author of The History of American Higher Education: Culture and Learning from the Founding to World War II

“Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges face unique tensions. They represent volatile movements plagued by internal struggles and ever-shifting boundaries. They pursue higher learning on behalf of a movement that accused America’s universities of betraying God’s truth and righteousness. And they function as halfway houses for evangelical students who are called to be in the world, but not of it. Adam Laats went deep into the archives of Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Biola University, Liberty University and Gordon College, and he tells their stories with great integrity. The result is a major contribution to the history of Christian higher education and to the understanding of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America.” –Joel Carpenter, Director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College

“Adam Laats’s nuanced, detailed, and exceptionally well researched history of twentieth-century conservative Protestant higher education offers a plethora of fascinating information and perceptive insights. It is essential reading even for those well versed in American evangelical history, because it offers a fresh analysis of the complex ways in which fundamentalist colleges reflected (and shaped) their religious movement’s tenuous balance between the demands of the world and the tenets of faith.” –Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right

Almost makes me want to read it myself!

Required Reading: Gloege on MBI

It’s not just a metaphor, not just a handy way of speaking. According to Timothy Gloege, fundamentalism acts like a business because it was founded like a business. In his terrific new book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, Gloege digs into the history of America’s premier Bible Institute to uncover the reasons for these tight connections. Along the way, he tells us a lot about the history of evangelicalism and of evangelical higher education.Gloege Guaranteed Pure

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my ears in writing my new book about fundamentalist/evangelical higher education. And Guaranteed Pure is the best book on the subject I’ve read in a long time.

For those in the know about evangelicalism and evangelical education, the centrality of MBI doesn’t need explaining. Started in the 1880s by Bible evangelists and their corporate backers, MBI became a juggernaut of publishing, broadcasting, and education. By the mid-twentieth century, MBI loomed large among evangelicals as a brick-and-mortar institution, a solid headquarters for a fundamentalist movement that often ran on shoestrings and prayers. As Gloege puts it near the end of his story (pg. 227), “It is difficult to think of an interwar fundamentalist that did not have or attempt to establish some connection to MBI.”

For those who are unfamiliar with these histories, Gloege’s book would be a great place to start. He offers vivid and fully realized portraits of central personalities such as Reuben Torrey. He fleshes out the complicated relationship between different types of conservative evangelicals around the turn of the twentieth century, from California Pentecostals to Minneapolis Fundamentalists and everything in between.

No matter how well you know these connections, you’re sure to find something enlightening in Guaranteed Pure. For example, Gloege offers the best history I’ve read of the emergence of The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume series of books that is often seen as the first articulation of emerging fundamentalism.

As Gloege recounts, the big-business ethos that emerged in the end of the 1800s did more than just set the tone for the founding of Moody Bible Institute. Rather, leaders such as Henry Crowell of Quaker Oats applied the same emerging modern attitudes toward marketing and profits to MBI as he did to oatmeal. That didn’t mean Crowell was cynical or insincere. Rather, it merely helps us make sense of the sometimes-strange career of early fundamentalism.

For example, every attempt to define early fundamentalism clearly quickly runs up against seemingly insuperable problems. Historian Matthew Sutton, for instance, in his recent book American Apocalypse offered a compelling definition. The thing that set radical evangelicals apart from other religious traditions, Sutton argued, was their overweening concern with the coming apocalypse. In Sutton’s words, it was “fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse [that] made them who they were” (pg. 3).

True enough, but we quickly run into problems. There were leading intellectuals such as J. Gresham Machen who explicitly didn’t fit that label, yet who were considered—even by themselves—to be the brains of the fundamentalist impulse. And there were leading fundamentalist schools such as Bryan University (later Bryan College) that considered and rejected a statement about the coming premillennial apocalypse in their all-important creed.

Professor Sutton knows these things, but by asserting a theological definition on a wide-ranging movement he was forced to trim some edges here and there.

Gloege offers a way out of this pickle. Instead of giving us a rigid definition of fundamentalism, Gloege instead defines it in action. As he puts it (pg. 3),

Fundamentalism is often described in terms of manifestos and theological propositions. Yet at MBI at least, the life force of the movement was its corporate evangelical framework, which operated at a more foundational level. It functioned as a set of unexamined first principles—as common sense. Once developed, these principles became for conservative evangelicalism what the rules of grammar are to a conversation: something used rather than analyzed.

How could Machen be a fundamentalist intellectual if he hemmed and hawed about the fundamentalist movement? How could Bryan University be a fundamentalist school if it eschewed fundamentalist end-of-the-world theology?

Easy. They could be fundamentalists if everyone knew they were. They could be fundamentalists if it seemed like common sense to include them.

Gloege’s priceless contribution in terms of pinning this sort of definitional jello to the wall is not the only major contribution of his book. For those of us interested in evangelical higher ed, Gloege’s business context makes some things clear in new ways.

For example, evangelical colleges are famously anxious about the public image of their students. Depending on the decade, students were not allowed to smoke, drink, dance, or attend plays or movies. Even when they were not at school. Why? Because students were not seen as consumers of evangelical education, they were seen as its product. They were its advertisements, its guarantors of purity.

As Gloege describes, in the 1910s MBI published a painstakingly detailed student guide. Every aspect of student life was regulated, theoretically at least. Why was this so important? In Gloege’s words (pg. 159),

the students and faculty were themselves a form of promotion for the institute. MBI served as a sort of test kitchen demonstrating the effectiveness and purity of its message. No longer conceptualized primarily as workers learning on the job, students were treated as products of the Bible Institute.

Of course, such big-business thinking permeated all sorts of institutions at the time, not just MBI or evangelical colleges. As historian Roger Geiger argues in his new history of American higher education, not only MBI but all institutions of higher education were undergoing a transformative triple revolution during this same period.

Indeed, Gloege could easily have expanded his argument beyond the walls of the MBI. As I’m arguing in my new book, too, there’s no better way to make sense of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in the twentieth century than by uncovering the history of its most important institutions.

Why Do People Go to College?

Do young people go to college to become better people? Or to earn more money? The obvious answer, it seems, is “Yes.” A new poll from Clark University suggests that most young college graduates went to school for both economic and mind-expanding reasons.

What do you wanna do with your life?

What do you wanna do with your life?

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and his colleagues at the storied Clark University polled 1,000 adults between the ages of 21-29. The results confirmed the argument of historian Roger Geiger, who concluded that attending college has always been about “knowledge, careers, and culture.”

Large majorities of respondents wanted a better economic future. But they also wanted to increase their “knowledge of the world.” And, of course, many of the bolder respondents admitted that they were attracted by “the potential to have fun.”

Polls like this provide yet more evidence that the death of the humanities has been greatly exaggerated. As smart people have pointed out, people still go to college for more than pecuniary reasons. Young people still want to have their minds blown. College students certainly hope their degree will help them make more money, but that’s not the only reason they go to college.

College Sex

More bad news: Sexual assault is more than just another crime on college campuses. It is a crime that has been woven into the fabric of college life itself. Will it cause an exodus to conservative colleges?

The Washington Post recently released the findings of its new poll of college life. After surveying 1,053 students and interviewing fifty, the pollsters concluded that a quarter of college women had suffered “unwanted sexual incidents in college” and a fifth had endured “sexual assault.” That is bad news. The worse news is that the cause of these alarmingly high numbers is college itself. Part of what Americans want out of college has long been a licentious student atmosphere. For Frank the Tank and millions of other Americans, the allure of college includes binge drinking, casual sex, and “streaking the quad.”

These numbers have become—like most contentious issues in education—something of a culture-war football. As the Washington Post report points out, different polls have come up with very different results. The Post poll used a broad definition of sexual assault. Victims are those who have experienced

five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object. . . . assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.

It is this last phrase that has caused the statistical battle. Last year, a government Bureau of Justice Statistics claimed that only 6.1 out of 1,000 college students experienced sexual attacks, a lower number than non-college students of the same age. But the BJS poll did not include sex that occurred when people were too drunk to give consent.

These days, there are orthodox positions on campus sexual assault. Progressives generally push for harsher punishments for perpetrators. Conservatives often lament the absence of due process on campuses. Hardening culture-war positions can be tested with high-profile cases: Do you think Emma Sulkowicz is a hero or a kook? Do you think Lee Bollinger is a monster?

All sides agree, however, that today’s student culture contributes to the problem. It is normal for students to binge drink. It is normal for students to engage in casual sexual encounters. In such an environment, it can be devilishly difficult to determine if and when students crossed a line from casual drunken sex to incapacitated sexual victimization.

For college leaders, this situation presents an unsolvable puzzle. As historian Roger Geiger has argued, by 1890 most schools participated in the emergence of the modern student lifestyle. Instead of days packed with required chapel visits and several recitations, modern colleges and universities offered students an array of possible majors and a much freer daily schedule. As a result, now-familiar student organizations such as fraternities and athletic teams became important parts of college experiences.

What Geiger called the “collegiate revolution” soon became an expected part of a full college experience. University leaders these days might huff and puff about fighting binge drinking. They might offer counseling and classes about appropriate sexual behavior. But if school leaders really cracked down on the drunken partying that leads to so much of this sexual assault, they’d quickly find themselves out of a job. Alumni donors insist on it. Potential students look for it. Like it or not, one of the expected parts of a college education these days is irresponsible behavior.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book these days about a dissenting group of colleges and universities. These conservative evangelical schools—schools such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones University in South Carolina—have often participated in many elements of modern academic life. For example, like mainstream schools, fundamentalist colleges divided their work into academic disciplines. They encouraged faculty research. They insisted that students complete high school before entering college. All of these things seem obvious to us, but they all came as revolutionary changes between roughly 1870 and 1920.

But fundamentalist schools resolutely refused to accept some of the revolutionary changes at mainstream colleges. For instance, they did not agree to the emerging concept of academic freedom for faculty. At fundamentalist colleges, professors had to agree every year to various school creeds. For students, fundamentalist college life also looked very different. Though most fundamentalist schools allowed student clubs and athletic teams, most of them banned fraternities. They also banned smoking, drinking, and sex.

Fundamentalist colleges have plenty of problems of their own when it comes to sexual assault. Most egregiously, as we’ve noted in these pages, some schools have accused victims of causing the problem. Others have participated in the kinds of shameful cover-up common among mainstream colleges as well.

Yet students at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges will not likely suffer from the same sort of drunken, incapacitated sexual assault that seems so depressingly common at mainstream schools. I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out in the past.

I still can’t help but wonder, though: If the sort of sexual assault reported in the WP poll really shocks people, will the teetotaling atmosphere on conservative campuses begin to seem more attractive? Will secular or liberal Protestants think about enrolling their children at conservative schools just to avoid drunken hookups and assaults?

Can Fundamentalist Colleges Survive?

We might be on the cusp of another academic revolution. Over the centuries, what people have expected out of college has changed time and time again. Every time it changes, schools have to adapt or die. With the announced closure of Clearwater Christian College, we see another small conservative evangelical liberal-arts college bite the dust. This seems to be more than just bad management or weak organization.  It looks like yet another shift in what people mean when they say “college.” Can small, private liberal-arts schools keep up?

Going the way of the dodo?

Going the way of the dodo?

Clearwater’s students aren’t the only conservative evangelicals scrambling to find a new home. Tennessee Temple also recently announced its closure. Northland has shut its doors. And outside the bounds of fundamentalist higher education, Sweet Briar College in Virginia caused a fuss when it announced its demise, even with a plump $85 million endowment.

Colleges have always opened and closed and these recent happenings might not mark a trend. But it seems likely that the stern financial logic of mainstream higher education is also compelling at conservative religious schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed thinks that small liberal arts colleges in rural areas face an existential threat. Students just don’t want to live thirty miles from a Starbucks. They want to go to schools that prepare them for specific careers such as business, health care, or education. The idea of sequestering oneself for four years to contemplate the big ideas in extended bucolic adolescence seems less and less attractive to young people.

Higher education as a whole is not under siege. Some institutions, after all, are thriving. My beloved Binghamton University sees ever-increasing student applications. We can’t build dorms fast enough. In the realm of fundamentalist colleges, too, big enterprises such as Liberty University and Cedarville University are gobbling up students and dollars by the millions.

Historian Roger Geiger’s terrific new book gives us a big-picture perspective on these seismic changes. The higher-education system as we know it is not very old. Only by about 1940 did the system we know come to dominate. Before that time, a slew of higher-ed institutions competed for students and dollars. “Technical institutes,” “normal schools,” “academies,” “female institutes,” and a mess of other schools attracted students. Between the 1890s (ish) and the 1940s, these institutions offered students an array of educational services. In general, they did not insist on completion of high school as an entrance requirement. Some of them did not offer bachelor’s degrees, but rather some sort of training, perhaps accompanied by a certificate of some sort.

By the end of World War II, however, our modern higher-ed system had jelled into place. Schools that did not adapt simply closed down. Students no longer wanted to attend an “institute” that did not offer a bachelor’s degree. Schools that still offered high-school-level work were not seen as real colleges.

That revolution took place in fits and starts over fifty years. Perhaps the wave of school closings we see today reflects the culmination of another fifty-year revolution. Beginning in the 1960s—the decade, not incidentally, in which Tennessee Temple, Northland, and Clearwater were all founded—many traditional notions of “college” began to break down. The idea that a school would serve an authoritative role in dictating students’ educational and lifestyle experiences experienced a thumping defeat. Students themselves came to expect a greater role in running their own educations and their own personal lives.

The idea of college came to tilt more in the direction of student-directed career preparation and away from the notion of a moral and personal formation imposed by authoritative deans and professors. Of course, as Professor Geiger points out, both things have always been part of higher education, but the balance has often shifted. Starting in the 1960s, the college ideal has begun to shift away from one that would favor a small, controlled, rural setting. Instead, in order to be a successful college, schools had to provide a dizzying array of possible professional training and they had to do so in a bustling environment.

Again, it is not that colleges haven’t always offered professional training, but rather that the primary goal of a lot of students and their families seems to have been shifting over the past fifty years. Not enough people still want to pay for college as an incubatory experience. Schools such as Clearwater, Northland, and Tennessee Temple that started as the educational vision of a specific charismatic religious leader can no longer attract a critical mass of students. Young people and their families just aren’t as interested in imbibing one particular formative idea; they want a buffet of career-training and personality-forming possibilities.

MBI Kind of Town…

What did you do after high school? Did you go to a “college?” Or was it a “university,” “institute,” a “normal school,” or maybe a “professional school?” For generations of ambitious Protestant missionaries, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has been the best-known institution of evangelical higher ed. So much so that MBI has clung to the “BI” name much longer than many other evangelical colleges.

DOWNtown funk...

DOWNtown funk…

I just rolled into Chi-town on the last of my research trips this year. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of evangelical higher ed. This year, I’ve traveled to Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Biola University, Gordon College, and Liberty University.

MBI is last, but certainly not least. I’ve logged my share of time in these archives over the years, especially while working on my PhD dissertation and first book. MBI is not the oldest Bible Institute, but it has remained far and away the most influential.

For those outside of the orbit of evangelical culture, the primary goal of Bible institutes has been to provide quick and affordable education for missionaries. In order to serve effectively on the mission field, many evangelicals have believed, missionaries need a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In order to bring people to true salvation, missionaries need a proper knowledge, too.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Bible institutes popped up in American cities nationwide. Many of them attracted students without a lot of academic preparation. These students, after all, were not heading into the traditional professions, but rather heading out to spread the Gospel in every land. They did not need to know Latin and trigonometry, but rather only the Bible and maybe some basic medicine and language skills.

Over the decades, many of these Bible institutes turned into colleges or universities of one kind or another. This was part of the triple revolution in higher education that Roger Geiger describes in his new book, The History of American Higher Education. By 1940, Professor Geiger argues, the wild diversity of early institutions of higher education had become standardized, a recognizable modern system of American higher education.

In this system, no one went to college without first completing a high-school education. They looked forward to an education that would prepare them for specific professions. Colleges themselves closed their preparatory departments or split them off into stand-along high schools. Universities had shaken out into a relatively stable hierarchy of prestige and social influence. At the top were wealthy old schools such as Harvard and the University of Michigan. At these universities, undergraduate education rollicked along in a cloud of sports, fraternities, and social climbing, while the schools themselves fought viciously to increase their research footprint.

As this modern system regularized itself in the years after World War I, several types of institutions phased out. These evolutionary also-rans included many institutes of technology, proprietary medical or legal schools, “female institutes,” normal schools, and—though Professor Geiger doesn’t mention them—most of the Bible institutes.

These old-fashioned types of higher education did not disappear. Rather, most of them changed to offer the new standard bachelor’s degrees. Many of them built new dormitories and fielded sports teams. And most of them took their place in the competitive hierarchy that arched from Harvard down to Podunk State College & Grill.

A very few exceptions stood out from this winnowing process, at least symbolically. Some of the old-fashioned institutions of higher education had been so successful in the 1800s that they felt no need to change their names, even as they usually adopted some of the features of modern higher education. Most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never changed its name to call itself a “college” or a “university.” MIT began as one of a scramble of “institutes of technology” in the years surrounding the Civil War. Unlike today’s MIT, the early institutes did not focus on recognizably pure modern research. Instead, they mostly provided students with a more practical mechanical education meant for workers in industrial workshops.

As more and more students wanted to spend their tuition dollars at a “college” or “university” that took its place in the ever-more-rigid hierarchy after World War I, most of these “institutes of technology” turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.”

Following a somewhat similar pattern, since 1940 most of the crop of Bible institutes that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.” Biola University, for example, began its life as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—BIOLA, get it? Gordon College, too, had its roots as the Boston Missionary Training School. As early Gordon President Nathan Wood remembered, the first name change—to Gordon College of Theology and Missions—resulted from student pressure.   Three class presidents, Wood recalled, requested

a change of name to one which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

To put it in terms Wood never used, the Gordon students recognized early the congealing patterns of modern American higher education. A “training school” did not convey the same prestige and professional opportunities as did a “college.”

For some stand-out schools, however, these rules did not apply. Moody Bible Institute was so well known among evangelicals its name sufficed to keep students coming. There was no need for it to change its name to acknowledge the changing environment of American higher education. Like MIT, MBI had created such a unique niche in higher education that it kept its old fashioned name and much of its old-fashioned structure. Also like MIT, MBI took on many of the features of modern higher education. Unlike in its early days, MBI now offers college degrees, not just Bible training.

Doubtless, I’ll find some evidence here in the archives about efforts over the years to change MBI’s name. Unlike smaller schools, however, MBI had the size needed to stand out as an island in the new seas of modern higher education.

Fundamentalism and the Modern University

Are evangelical colleges modern? Or, with their insistence that knowledge has its roots in God’s Holy Word, are they somehow trapped in medieval ideas about knowledge and the purposes of higher education? The answer is more complicated than it might seem at first.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are sick of hearing, I’m hard at work on my book about evangelical higher ed. In the twentieth century, Protestant fundamentalists opened or transformed a network of colleges dedicated to protecting fundamentalist faith. If students are led astray at mainstream secular colleges, the thinking went, fundamentalists needed their own schools to teach each new generation of Christians how to be educated and evangelical.

As part of my reading list, I’m deep in Roger Geiger’s new book, The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2015). I’m writing a full review for Teachers College Record and I’ll be sure to post links to that review when it comes out.

Are fundamentalists colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

Are fundamentalist colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

In the meantime, though, Professor Geiger’s survey of the first colleges raises some tricky questions for fundamentalist higher education. As with so many early American institutions, colleges such as Harvard and Yale represented the tail end of medieval traditions, just as they were changing into recognizably modern ways of thinking.

Conservative evangelicals like to point out that America’s leading colleges were often founded as religious schools. It’s true. Harvard and Yale were both intended, first and foremost, to defend orthodox Puritanism. Not only were they ferociously religious, but they envisioned their role in a radically non-modern way. Instead of serving as an institution that encouraged new thinking, Harvard and Yale in the 1600s and early 1700s both saw their role as passing along established truth. As Prof. Geiger puts it, in the early decades, “The corpus of knowledge transmitted at Harvard College was considered fixed, and inquiry after new knowledge was beyond imagining.”

Orthodoxy at these early schools was defended with a rigor that would make twentieth-century fundamentalists proud. Harvard’s first president, for example, was ousted for theological reasons. President Henry Dunster came to believe that infant baptism was not a scriptural practice. As a result, the General Court summarily got rid of him. In their words, no one could lead a college if they “manifested themselves unsound in the faith.”

Both Harvard and Yale made explicit their goals. In early years, Yale explained its primary religious mission:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life.

It was not much different at Harvard:

the main end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, Joh. 17.3

In all these aspects, life at Harvard and Yale between the 1630s and 1720s seems remarkably similar to life at fundamentalist colleges in the early twentieth century. For schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones College, Bible Institute of Los Angeles, or Gordon College, these Puritan echoes resounded loudly. At all these fundamentalist schools, leaders insisted that the first goal was to help students understand themselves as Christians. The first intellectual challenge was to study seemingly distinct bodies of knowledge to see the hidden connections put in place by God.

In this way, then, it seems as if fundamentalist colleges—even those more liberal schools that eventually abandoned the “fundamentalist” label—hearken back to a pre-modern vision of higher education.

We have to be careful, though, before we assume too much. In other important ways, twentieth century dissenting religious colleges participated fully in the central intellectual tradition of modern higher education.

According to Professor Geiger, colonial higher education went through a revolutionary change in the 1720s-1740s. During that period, endowed professorships at Harvard gave some faculty members the independence to pursue new forms of knowledge. These professors began to incorporate the ideas of new thinkers such as Isaac Newton and John Locke.

The radical change came not only from the newness of the ideas, but from the notion that the college or university should be the place to explore such new ideas. As Professor Geiger puts it,

The significance and prestige of Newtonian science altered college teaching by introducing the experimental lecture employing apparatus, creating a demand for specialized professors and establishing the expectation that the curriculum should incorporate new knowledge.

A fundamental characteristic of the modern university emerged in the decades before the American Revolution. College, more than any other institution, came to be seen as the province of cutting-edge thinking. As Professor Geiger points out, even before Ben Franklin made his famous experiments with lightning, John Winthrop at Harvard used his endowed Hollis Chair funding to purchase equipment that would allow him to demonstrate the properties of electricity.

Just as the fundamentalist colleges of the twentieth century clung to the pre-modern notion that universities ought to pass along established truths, those same fundamentalist schools fully participated in the modern notion that universities ought to explore new truths.

An evangelical scientist, for example, such as Russell Mixter at Wheaton College in the 1950s, believed that no amount of human investigating could overturn the truths of Scripture. But Mixter (and others like him) also saw himself as an intellectual specialist, a scientist exploring the outer boundaries of biology to discover new things about God’s creation.

Are fundamentalist and evangelical colleges modern? In this sense, they certainly are. The faculty at twentieth- and twenty-first century conservative colleges are divided into academic disciplines. Each of them is expected to carry out research in his or her field. The definition of those fields may be different from the ones at secular institutions, but the fundamentally modern notion of research remains central.

At the same time, though, by envisioning themselves as the guardians of students’ faiths, fundamentalist colleges hearken back to the pre-modern roots of the Ivy League. As Professor Geiger argues about 17th century Puritan higher education, “the deeper purpose of the college course and the overriding preoccupation of the institutions were to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.”

Today’s evangelical colleges would agree.

On the Reviewing Block

How do you decide what to read?  For nerds, academic journals provide page after page of book reviews.  I love to read and write these sorts of academic reviews.  But are they really worth the time?

Right now, for instance, I’m reviewing four books for a variety of journals.

For History of Education Quarterly, I’m writing a review of Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman

For the journal Church History and Religious Culture, I’m reviewing Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial (Fordham University Press, 2014).rios

For Teachers College Record, I’m working on a review of Roger Geiger’s new book The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2014).geiger

Last but not least, I just agreed to write a review of Bradley J. Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929 (Eerdman’s, 2013), for History: Reviews of New Books.gundlach

For those outside of the academic realm, here’s how the process works: Publishers send out review copies to a variety of journals and magazines.  Book review editors hunt down an appropriate reviewer, usually through word of mouth and academic reputation.  If the first person they ask can’t or won’t write a review, the editor asks for suggestions of other possible reviewers.

I love to write reviews for academic journals.  In each case, putting together a coherent review forces me to do more than simply absorb a book’s argument.  It forces me to take a sharper look at the sources, the implications, and the book’s strengths and weaknesses.  In all of the reviews I’m currently writing, I had planned to read each book already.  Writing the review simply forbids me to read any of them lazily.

But beyond the benefits for the writer, do these reviews matter?  After all, very few people read academic journals.  These days, the long peer-review process means that reviews in academic journals sometimes come out long after the books are published.  We might be tempted to conclude that these kinds of academic book reviews are merely an exercise in higher-education navel gazing.

I think there’s more to it than that.  After all, these reviews are not intended solely for individual readers or book buyers.  This is not just a “rotten-tomatoes” kind of review, in which readers might check out what has been said before choosing one book over another.  This is not simply “like”-ing something on Facebook or scrawling out an angry smear job on Amazon.  Those things may boost or crush sales and reach, but they don’t provide readers with careful descriptions of a book’s structure.

Book reviews in academic journals are different.  The audience for these book reviews is mostly university types, the professors who are choosing books to use with their classes and their students.  No one has time to read every book that comes out, but these short reviews allow academics to remain broadly aware of new trends in their fields.  A “good” review in this context does not mean glowing praise, but rather careful description of the book’s argument and significance.  A professor can choose which books to use in his or her classes.  Professors can also recommend certain titles to graduate students for further study.

Some things that are old fashioned deserve to wither away.  Cassette tapes, large lecture hall classes, and phones with cords come to mind.  This tradition of slow and careful review, on the other hand, may have its roots in a very different technological time.  Nevertheless, it remains a vital part of academic life.