The last holdouts?

Stanley Fish writes today about the dire effects of the corporate ethos of the modern university, something that has been thoroughly documented by Marc Bousquet among others.

Fish focuses on the almost certain decline of humanistic learning, which leads me to ask a question: might schools of theology wind up being one of the last holdouts? Their advantage is that they are in some sense professional schools, designed to train ministers, yet that very training requires a broad, if selective, education — to understand the Bible, you need to understand ancient cultures and languages; to understand theology, you need to understand philosophy; to preach effectively, you need to understand contemporary culture, and many of the kind of ministers who go to seminary would agree that this includes its “high art” manifestations.

Clearly there are blindspots, but the traditional disciplines within the divinity school curriculum seem to me to be among the most “inherently” interdisciplinary — meaning in practice that in many schools of theology, the entire university, at least the humanities side, is reproduced on a small scale.

Now sadly the mainline Protestant churches that support traditional seminary education are in a decline that does not seem reversible. The endowments of established churches and other factors will likely allow them to survive past the point where most people would expect them simply to fold, and trends like the rising number of young people who seek seminary education to prepare them for non-religious social work may help to prop up the schools themselves to a degree. That’s why I ask whether such institutions may be the last “holdouts,” rather than the eternal home of the humanities.

Now I do think that corporatization is not inevitable. Indeed, you’d think that an increasingly prosperous society would have more, not less, ability to support a body of accomplished scholars as opposed to a cadre of exhausted adjuncts. The decreased public support for universities that led to cost-cutting measures was not inevitable, for instance, but the result of a conscious ideologically-driven choice.

For this problem to be solved, then, requires changes not just within the university, but within society at large — something that will take time, if it turns out to be possible at all. In the meantime, it seems to me that schools of theology can at least keep the candle burning longer than it otherwise would have.

7 thoughts on “The last holdouts?

  1. Speaking from near-ignorance on the matter, was the state of the humanities ever any different than it is now? Stanley Fish’s argument and others like it pine for halcyon days when humanities departments were plentiful, well-provided-for, and long-lasting. Has this ever actually been the case, for more than a decade or two?

    I just don’t believe that a life dedicated to genuine reflection has ever been that popular of an idea. Before the globalization of information networks, scholars were probably every bit a relative minority as they are becoming today, but their minority status was obscured by the lack of communication technology. A non-digital world is a much smaller, more manageable world. Craftsmanship, in all fields, was best when alternatives were fewest. But throw on the digital switchboards and suddenly a scholar becomes aware of the throngs of other people who are at once his potential comrades in a life of reflection, and also his chiefest disappointments as they all pass up an opportunity to join him.

    In other words, I wonder how much of our perceived loss of the humanities is an inevitable result of the unsustainability of widespread reflection in the Information Age. This is not a failure of the discipline, but an end to an impossible dream.

  2. Jared, You’re bringing up some good and interesting points, but what you’re missing is the systemic shift away from secure tenured positions and toward part-time work — part-time adjunct instructors now do the majority of teaching in universities. That’s my main concern here, and I probably should’ve made that more clear.

  3. I’ve always seen myself as an arancino, or maybe a sausage and peppers sandwich. More interesting and generally better than the overpriced offerings on the established menu.

  4. In my book The Grass Roots Church written in 1966 I said that mainline seminaries suffered from the failure to take the structural malaise of the churches seriously. The argument was somewhat involved and I will not bore you. But essentially I believe the seminaries such as my alma mater Union in NYC have failed both structurally and theologically, reflecting the society more than a coherent understanding of what the gospel is and what forms, structures and understandings should animate the church. Not to mention how the ecumenical mission of the church can be implemented in the face of persistent denominationalism.

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