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The time was the mid-1980s, and the scene was a relaxed departmental social occasion, where lowly graduate students like myself had a chance to wolf down hors d'oeuvres, guzzle some decent white wine, and mingle with the faculty. After a while, I found myself drawing apart from the chattering crowd, settling into easy conversation with one of the senior members of the department. A man of considerable scholarly distinction, he also was known, despite his warmly congenial manner, as an exceptionally frustrating and arbitrary taskmaster with his own graduate students. But it was said that he occasionally let down his guard with students who were not his own.
What, I asked, was the hardest part of his job? I was just awkwardly trying to make conversation. But he took the question seriously and pondered it for a while, much longer than I had expected, his gaze sinking toward the floor. Then he gave a surprising answer, the words emerging with the emphatic certainty that one reserves for convictions tested by experience. He had been pondering not what to say, but whether he should actually say it. "You know what is really terrible?" he asked, slowly raising his eyes to face mine intently. "It's watching what happens to young people when they come to graduate school. They arrive bright-eyed, eager, charming people of wide interests, who are so happy to find themselves in a place where ideas are talked about, and where they can meet people who have written the books they read in college."
He paused for a moment, then continued, his voice tightening. "It is our job to break down that enthusiasm, to narrow them, to socialize them into an academic profession. To turn them into drudges." He reflected on what he had said, and gave a resigned shrug. "Sometimes it's the best ones that leave in the first or second years. Sometimes the ones who finish, and go into the profession, are the least interesting." Another pause, and then an ironic smile which tacitly said "end of discussion." And then we were quickly on to another subject. In the twinkling of an eye, his guard had gone back up, and I never again heard him say such things. But I never forgot what he said—and the fact that he, of all people, had said it. He was a true-believing, by-the-book graduate professor, at the pinnacle of his profession. But he knew something was wrong with the whole arrangement. And strangely enough, I took heart from hearing the truth spoken, however fatalistically.
No area of American higher education is more in need of reform, and less likely to receive it, than graduate education. True, we probably do it better here than it is done anyplace else. But it is cold comfort to know that we are the world's best at the routinization of intellectual inquiry and the fragmentation of knowledge. As our chief means of forming college teachers, graduate training could hardly be more dysfunctional if we had set out to make it that way. It is miraculous that there are so many thoughtful teachers and independent-minded scholars in our colleges, when they have been run through a dismal regimen that is as hostile to human nurture as it is to critical thinking.
There is good reason to be concerned about the intellectual orthodoxies that have taken over the academy in recent years. Christians in particular are justified in complaining of the secularization of the academy, a related though slightly different pathology. But it may be that the expanding reach of professionalization itself represents the greatest barrier to the existence of a vital and vibrant intellectual culture in America. This is not a new observation. It is one that William James made exactly a century ago, in his 1903 essay on "the Ph.D. octopus," an essay still widely admired—and honored entirely in breach rather than observance.
The politicization of scholarship is usually regrettable and almost always damaging. But the impulse behind it at least reflects a desire to find integration and unity and moral significance in the world. The same can't be said of our professionalized disciplines, whose narrow and jargon-laden discourse sets out to divide the world into incommensurable pieces. No wonder even the best graduate professors sometimes feel a twinge of conscience about their role in perpetuating it all.
Here, I would argue, is a place that the Christian faith could make a real difference—if we are willing to do a little rethinking. There are those who believe that Christian scholarship will finally gain ground when Christian scholars strive, above all else, to be top-drawer players at the academy's game, playing entirely within the disciplinary rules and the bureaucratic system, targeting only the most prestigious institutions, journals, and venues.
But it may be that the more valuable and important opportunity presenting itself today is that of fostering spaces within the academy, and within our intellectual life, where the intellectual passions that draw our best young people into the intellectual vocation can be affirmed and sustained, rather than bureaucratically crushed. This journal is one such place, and there can be many more.
At the very least, Christian scholars who work within the strange regime of graduate education can be, and often are, signs of contradiction, a reminder that narrow, mechanistic, positivistic, and value-neutral modes of explanation cannot suffice. They will not be able to change the system any time soon. But they do well in encouraging their students, secular and religious alike, not to be conformed to it. Such encouragement will not go unnoticed.
Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His most recent book is Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Woodrow Wilson Center/ Johns Hopkins University Press).
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Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 5, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)