Christians and the academic humanities

This post, describing the experience of a friend of my friend Rod Dreher, makes universal judgments about the world of the humanities based on a narrow and particular set of experiences. Take, by contrast, another friend of mine, Chad Wellmon, who commented briefly on the story here. Chad is a straight white Christian man, married with children, who, while not a conservative, has even written for the Weekly Standard — and he’s flourishing in the humanities at an elite public university. He’s not looking over his shoulder; he’s not afraid of persecution. Rod’s friend says that “the academic humanities, as a whole and at their highest levels, just are not interested in what would have been recognizable as quality scholarship even two decades ago”; okay, well, take a look at Chad’s book on the German university in the age of Enlightenment. I’ll wait.

Now: Does that look like something other than quality scholarship to you? It’s a book based heavily on archival research in a language other than English — in short, just the kind of philological scholarship that would have been recognized as such by Erich Auerbach, for heaven’s sake. But according to Rod’s friend, Chad’s kind of career ought to be impossible.

You might reply that that’s just one example of academic tolerance. Indeed — but then, Rod’s friend offers just one example of academic intolerance. Which one is the norm and which the exception? Do you think you know? If you do, does your opinion rest on any evidence?

I’m not exactly a pollyanna about these matters. I have said over and over again that, thanks to my long career at a Christian college and the specifically Christian character of much of my writing, I am almost certainly unemployable in my field (English literature) outside the world of Christian higher education. And there’s bigotry at work there — no doubt about it. On the other hand, I have been able to publish at some of the best university presses in the world, which also shouldn’t be possible if Rod’s friend’s account of the academic humanities is accurate.

What my experience — and that of several of my friends, not just Chad — tells me is that the state of the humanities in the American university is far, far more complex and variable than Rod’s friend thinks. Look at how universal his judgments are, how often he speaks of “all,” “every,” “no one,” “always.” These statements are simply incorrect. I know first-hand many exceptions to his universal judgments.

Generally speaking, Christians in the academy have a pretty tough go of it these days. But there are, occasionally, open doors for people who have the wit and the strategic nous to get through them. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, I think we should redouble our efforts to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are some good examples out there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.


One further comment: after decades of reading screeds about the turgid impenetrability of academic prose, I am somewhat bemused to learn that the real problem with scholarly writing today is that “professors of English and Sociology are able to read it.” One of the interesting thoughts that might occur to someone making a mental survey of the greatest humanistic scholars of the past hundred years or so — A. E. Housman, Karl Barth, Erich Auerbach, J. R. R. Tolkien, Fernand Braudel, Charles Norris Cochrane, Leo Spitzer — is how elegantly many of them wrote, and often in more than one language. So elegantly that even professors of English or sociology might be able to enjoy them. Perhaps they weren’t such great scholars after all.