On Being a Scholar of Religion in the Historical Guild at the Public University Amidst a Charged Atmosphere of Religion, Politics, and War


We've had several entries on the "Why I Teach" history meme posted here (scroll down for three different responses so far), on this blog revised to "Why I Teach Religious History." I've promised (or threatened) readers my own contribution, and yet whenever I come up with something, my co-contributors trump me with something better. I've already lost the loathe-off. So here's my self-cannibalized contribution.

Last summer I was privileged to attend a "reunion" of folks in various disciplines who had passed through the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities in the Arts (perhaps more accurately named "Prozac Fellows," or nowadays "Zyprexa Fellows") at Valparaiso University, for me two years astounding both for frustrations (including the famous Valpo salad -- one piece iceberg lettuce, one slice frozen red tomato, nothing else), but more importantly for its emotional and intellectual richness.

At the reunion conference I gave a presentation on our relationship with our respective professional disciplines and ancillary academic societies, thinking aloud in ways that may respond to this meme. I've posted the full contribution here (note: Word document); for those (presumably everybody on the planet) with better ways to spend their time, I'm posting below an excerpt as my scattershot (denuded and perhaps less than penetrating) thoughts on the meme "Why I Teach." Sometime later I'll respond to the meme "Why I'd Like Not to Be Teaching Just Right Now Since I Can't Make Any Significant Progress on My Book That I Keep Trying to Get Back To," but first I have some papers to grade.

Exile from Valpo: On Being a Scholar of Religion in the Historical Guild at the Public University Amidst a Charged Atmosphere of Religion, Politics, Market Culture, and War

During my tenure as a Lilly Fellow, I never quite thought of Athens, Jerusalem, and Colorado Springs in the same breath, or as in some kind of intellectual triad. Now I do, and I’d like to use this talk to explore a little bit about why. And I want to think about how Athens and Jerusalem intersect in the public square of a university in the midst of a highly charged atmosphere of religion, politics, and war.

. . . Whatever else I had envisioned for my academic life before, it generally had not included teaching classes at a university established only during the 1960s, mostly at the behest of Hewlett-Packard executives who were demanding an engineering training school in exchange for establishing a plant in town; and it had not included teaching classes now full of students ranging from 18 to 65 years of age, many of whom come in full fatigue gear straight from counter-insurgency training exercises at Fort Carson or one of the other local military outposts; and it had not included classes full of forty-something women who may come or not depending on whether the babysitter shows up, or whether the kid throws a tantrum because the mother has to miss yet another T-ball game; and it had not included teaching my Civil War class to students who easily compared their own post-Iraq PTSD experiences with those of the soldiers from Chancellorsville or Cold Harbor or Antietam that they were reading about. . . .

And while at Valparaiso, it did not occur to me that a great number of my students for a substantial portion of my career so far would be thinking not of Athens, or of Jerusalem, or even of Aspen or the Sigma Chi party, but rather of Belgrade, Baghdad, and Fallujah; and not of the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterian Church of the United States, or of Missouri Synod Luthernaism, but instead of Focus on the Family and New Life Church (lately of Ted Haggard infamy).

By contrast, my training at Valparaiso had compelled me to think about the meaning of my interest and my faith within the context of a largely secularist academy; and perhaps even to prepare for battle to defend my chosen course of academic study, and my faith. As it turns out, those have been the least of my worries, for reasons I’ll discuss below. More troubling to me has been the devaluing of our guilds, and of higher education generally, in public discourse, and of the increasing implication that scholarship is just so much spin that can be put on par with any other subject. Thus, I rise today not to bury my guild, or point out its shortcomings, but mostly to defend it, and to suggest (perhaps heretically) that the discipline of history has been has been reasonably non-hostile terrain for scholars who study faith.

. . . the revolution of taking religion seriously in the guild of history did not start with this generation; Perry Miller had done it much earlier with the Puritans. And, to be sure, the revolution has a long ways to go before the former monarch—secularization theory—has been fully overthrown. Catherine Brekus’s new volume The Religious History of American Women, for example, begins with a bracingly critical essay pointing out how inadequately American religious historians have incorporated women into their stories in a way that fundamentally alters the very questions we ask about the past, as opposed to the “add women and stir” method which leaves the prevailing assumptions and simply adds a token paragraph about women actually existing.

That being said, it bears repeating that the guild of history has been in the business of “getting” religion, and scholars from church-related schools have had a lot to do with that. I would even argue, against the position of many of my colleagues who feel more beleaguered or embattled, that the historical guild is a relatively amenable place for scholars of faith, and for scholars who study faith. Those who do military history or economic history, I might suggest, probably have a greater reason to feel slighted; their fields have been out of fashion (not in the world of public history of popular history, where military history is all too popular, but specifically within groups such as the American Historical Association) and more neglected than is the case with religious history. In a recent debate in a historical journal, in fact, the intellectual historian David Hollinger actually complained that religion had been getting “too much” attention in recent discussions of American history. He may or may not be right, but the fact that he could make that assertion plausibly shows how far we have come, as well perhaps of a certain sense of resentment that it has engendered.

There could scarcely be a better place than Colorado Springs for someone who seeks students genuinely interested in engaging with America’s religious past, and who know in their own souls why it must be taken seriously and studied respectfully. I don’t have to deal with the “so what” question. And honestly, I don’t feel that I’ve had to deal, at least very much, with that in the larger guild. So I feel fortunate that a social history revolution designed for very different purposes has, however accidentally, given religion a place at the intellectual table of American history; and that I have such ongoing and vital contact with students who do not dismiss religion (as might be common in other state schools) or who take it for granted as the common language of their culture. . . . Instead, my teaching situation allows me to think fruitfully and nearly daily about the relationship of religion to the public square, and to hash out all the complicated questions that comes out of that. . . .

Where I think the true danger lies is in the larger sense of the disconnection from academia to public life and purpose. Academia bears its share of fault for this, and that share of fault seems to be scrutinized and agonized about constantly, not least by historians who are always wondering why no one reads their books unless it happens to be about a Founding Father, a Great Civil War Battle, or a Famous Sexual Scandal from the past (I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by all that much). I’ve had some experience with this side of things in Colorado, too, and I’d like to conclude with that story. In my years here, I guess, I’ve become religiously committed to the survival and further development of public higher education . . .

A few years ago, the gadfly David Horowitz came through town, looking for a few professors to egg on in debate. Foolishly, I took him up on it, forgetting a basic historical principle that debate with a fundamentally dishonest polemicist is always stupid . . . . Not to bore with details, but an exchange posted on the internet, led to a response by the host of the largest AM talk radio show in the state of Colorado, in the form of a newspaper editorial. This produced from me a brief letter published in response, which then produced an entire hour-long episode ofthe radio show devoted to moi. I didn’t hear it and didn’t even know it was on, as I happened to be teaching that hour (one of the contentions made, I should add, was that professors at Colorado’s public universities never taught, since they hated students and teaching, in addition of course to hating America, and forced their graduate students to do all their teaching for them). However, somebody later sent me a tape of the episode, where I heard the following: “perhaps someone could call in and report on [add sinister voice here] Professor Harvey’s ideological inclinations.” Following the program, and before I had heard it or even know that such a thing had transpired, I was deluged with hate email from all over the state. Apparently they objected to highly controversial statements I had made, such as that historians of all stripes and inclinations do their best to weigh the evidence carefully and present as rich and nuanced a view of historical events as they can in the classroom. . . .

This incident blew over quickly . . . Nonetheless, it made me think of the basic values of historians, and what we bring into our research and into our teaching. It also made me think hard about a comment a number of students have made in recent years during various religious history classes that I have taught – that they could not tell what I “believed in,” so they had to ask. My consistent response has been to refuse to answer, telling them that my job is to help them explore religious beliefs in a historical context, and that these issues are sensitive and divisive enough, especially in our very politicized town, that I feel it best in the context of a state-supported university to keep my convictions to myself for the purpose of these classes.

My immediate colleagues surrounding me – a devout atheist who teaches medieval history as well as the history of Christianity on the one side, and a devout Episcopalian who teaches German and Jewish history on the other side – take very different stances, making their own convictions clear upfront and at the beginning of the semester. I don’t claim that one stance is better than another; indeed, I value the diversity and variety just in the first 3 doors of my hallway. We have very different religious convictions; we think about and teach history very differently; and we learn from each other and relish each other’s intellectual company. Most importantly here, I think, is the feeling that Christian scholars (or atheist scholars, for that matter, or whoever) who take up oppositional stances against their guilds risk losing some very important protections and freedoms which those guilds provide them. Moreover, while the guilds promote scholarly objectivity and neutrality, those values depend on deeper moralities of fairness, justice, and (for the historian) empathy. The episode recounted above was more amusing than frightening to me, in part because I knew my state-supported university and my historical associations had supported and valued my forays into research and teaching in American religious history.

I don’t know yet how best to communicate how I value this to a larger public. My sense is that the larger public, at least in my state, believes that scholars who aren’t in the sciences, and maybe even those who are, produce what amounts to propaganda which has no more value in the larger marketplace of ideas than any other bloviating talking head. This is why, I think, our students have such difficulty distinguishing between “opinion” and “argument.” Haven’t we all heard it – “you just mean you want my opinion, right,” after I have just told them “I’m looking for you to make a solid argument based on a clear thesis supported by concrete evidence drawn from your research.” The culture of opinion, and for that matter market culture, threaten the pursuit of scholarly excellence, and this is a trend which I hope our scholarly guilds will resist with firm religious conviction.


As I continue to find out as we track all of these responses--the ones that start off with lots of caveats end up being great posts--thanks for this Paul. We added it to the long list over at Free Exchange.

Hope you good folks down in CS are also watching what is happening in your legislature again--hearing this week on a new "intellectual diversity" bill.